Many people asked me why I joined politics in seemingly impossible circumstances and I would stare blankly at them trying to understand why they asked. They existed in a different dimension from mine having not been touched by the experiences that touched me or felt with deep conviction, that there are people out there who do not have a voice and many who have it but choose not to use it meaningfully for others. I am the first to admit that I was not cut out for politics and may never have chosen that path if I had not been sucked into it by circumstance. So I try to explain with quotes of other people, since I cannot honestly say that I fully comprehend how I made the move myself.
Edwina Currie was a junior Health Minister in the 1980s during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher when I lived in England as a postgraduate student at LSE and I recall hearing her say in a televised interview that: 'You do not choose politics, politics chooses you.' I have no idea why her words stuck in my mind or why they returned to me later in life. I am not even sure that it was an original thought but you never know when a seed like that is planted that it will germinate and grow into an explanation for your future actions.
So in a moment of unguarded inspiration I decided to run for the Kampala Central parliamentary seat as a Reform Agenda activist who had no networking skills, little knowledge of how the majority in Kampala lived, or rather survived. I remember Kizza Besigye's bemused smile when I walked into his living room brandishing my manifesto ready to take on the world. I had no idea how to fundraise, organize my own campaign, or even find the votes I needed to win. All I had was gall, a gift of the gab and media networks that had been strengthened during the presidential campaign. Otherwise I was completely disconnected from the misery of the crowded slums where the majority of Kampala's voters lived.
A young Chris Kamya, equally naive but many times more energetic than I, agreed to be campaign manager. Perhaps one day I will know why he was willing to suffer the misery I put him through in an election that we had no chance of winning. My campaign team was made up of mostly people like Chris who had worked on the EKBTF. In 2001 the Parliamentary elections were not held at the same time as the presidential elections and the end of the presidential campaign had left us without a platform from which to continue advocating for change. This propelled us to seek other means of continuing our advocacy so the parliamentary contests gave us renewed license and vigor. There were some Reform minded candidates interested in vying after Besigye's loss, but the traditional political parties that had been outlawed with the emergence of the Movement 'no-party' system were busy mobilizing and waiting for their time to re-emerge. Their strategy seemed to have been to leave the two 'Movement' presidential candidates to slug it out and then wait to take the parliamentary seats when the big fight was done. This was the case for Kampala Central where the Democratic Party fielded Sserunjoji, as well as in other constituencies in the central region where DP, Uganda's oldest party; was grooming parliamentary candidates. So when Reform Agenda candidates like Beti Kamya and myself joined the race in Kampala constituencies, we presented an unexpected and unwelcome predicament that caused a rift in the budding opposition. We were not ready to identify with the old parties or to campaign on their platform because we still considered ourselves a part of a group that could bring reform to the Movement. It became ugly as the forces that had united behind Kizza Besigye's presidential candidacy now became political rivals to the glee of our Movement detractors. So no one was surprised that the opposition lost those seats as we were continuously bickering amongst ourselves whilst faced with the monstrous Movement political machinery.
But still many wondered, why I did not walk away from politics after that humiliating defeat. In 2001 after witnessing injustices in both the presidential and parliamentary campaigns, I became radicalized. I wanted ‘change’ so badly that my blood boiled whenever I engaged in a debate with anyone opposed to ‘change.’ How could they all be deaf and blind to injustice? At first, it was high sounding platitudes like respect for human rights, democracy, good governance that rolled off my tongue in any argument for change. I reasoned that corruption was eating away at much needed resources for development and that nepotism had created a public service that cared little for merit. These arguments were reasonable and plausible as I repeated them on radio, television and numerous articles that I churned out week after week in national newspapers. Yet they were not enough to explain the radical decision I took to stop working for a predictable income; and take on a struggle that changed my life to an insecure, unpredictable, unexplainable mess.
When I recalled images and experiences of the 2001 campaign, it was not the few brave men and women that stood out, or the inspiring lyrics of the songs we sung, or the captivating news headlines that took center stage in my mind. Instead it was the woman that I met in Kisenyi, a slum below the imposing gates of Makerere University, Kampala. She was weeping over the body of her eight year old daughter and was so distraught that I could not pass her by to continue with my campaigns that day. I stopped to join her in grieving the little girl whose body was stretched before us on a mat in a tiny, cramped space she called home. She lived in an area of the slum with an open gutter running outside her front door. It stunk to high heaven with all kinds of human and household waste. A child who grew up in that environment was lucky to make it to the age of five.
The bereaved mother, a Muganda woman, whose name I never even asked; wept for her child and as she wailed she also narrated the hardship of raising a child in the slum. Between sobs she wondered where she would get money to transport the small body to her village for a decent funeral. The child, I learnt had died of malaria and it was easy to see the breeding place for mosquitoes that spread the disease right outside her front door. I contributed to the transport fund for moving the child’s body to her ancestral burial grounds and left with a heavy heart. Today am still haunted by the experience. I knew I could never walk away from that woman's cramped household no matter how far I went. From that day on, I no longer cared about winning or losing an election because I felt that I had no right to be walking around in her neighborhood asking for votes when I could never relate to her life. For me she was not a statistic, not just one vote.
Uganda is a beautiful country. It has been appreciated by visitors who have travelled the length and breadth of its lush green countryside. In the 20th Century its potential was immortalized by England’s World War II Prime Minister, Winston Churchill in his book, ‘My African Journey.’ In 1908 he wrote:
‘My journey is at an end, the tale has been told. The reader who has followed so faithfully and so far has a right to ask what message I bring back. It can be stated in three words: concentrate upon Uganda! [Uganda] is alive by itself. It is vital, and in my view, in spite of its insects and diseases, it ought, in the course of time, to become the most prosperous of all our East African possessions, and perhaps the ‘financial driving wheel’ of this part of the world. My counsel plainly is – concentrate upon Uganda! Nowhere else in Africa will little money go so far. Nowhere else will results be more brilliant, more substantial or more rapidly realised. Uganda is from end to end a ‘beautiful garden’ where ‘staple food’ of the people grows almost without labour. Does it not sound like a paradise on earth? It is the Pearl of Africa.’
So perhaps the answer to why I never quit in 2001 is plain, simple and needs no deep, cerebral explanation: I love Uganda. All the shenanigans that are played out on its public stage do not diminish its beauty, its potential but above all its people. Winston Churchill's description of Uganda was so compellingly memorable that many do not realize that it was spoken from a mindset that was exploitative and alien. Nowhere in this much quoted text did he once mention the warm and beautiful people of my motherland except in relation to their food! He focused on what could be done to profit from the country and not what could be done for its people. He saw how easily the country could be exploited.
At 50 I know that I remained an opposition activist after the 2001 elections because a century after Churchill penned his famous text, Uganda's political masters still espoused his exploitative attitude even as its people continued to die from its 'insects and diseases.'
— feeling inspired.