Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of the Uganda Parliament, who is said to have had thoughts of becoming president of Uganda, committed political suicide last week. By doing so, she reminded me of Eriya Tukahiirwa Kategaya who shredded his political legacy by jettisoning a core principle in exchange for short-term survival. What awaits Kadaga is public ridicule and potential dimming of her star, even when she remains in a position of nominal power.
During my visit home in 2006, I dropped in at the Kampala Club, a high-end watering hole for Uganda’s Who-Is-Who, to see Kategaya. I was immediately struck by an oddity that quickly vanished within a few minutes of conversation with him.
On previous visits to Uganda, I had always found Kategaya holding court at the Kampala Club, sharing drinks and banter with several prominent men in the land. To many, he had always been the man to be with, not only because he was supposedly “the second most powerful man in the land”, but because his intellect, sense of humour, easy laughter and humility made him great company.
This time Kategaya was seated alone, nursing a drink at one end of the expansive club. At the other end, where the main bar is located, were numerous men, the din of their conversation reporting their joyful mood. (Of course he may have simply taken a quiet spot to chill and reflect, or to wait for a friend.)
“You are alone,” I stated the obvious. He smiled and, completely ignoring my remark, inquired about my family and our mutual friends in Canada. He then burst out laughing and gently chided me with a jocular protest that I had recently slaughtered him with my pen.
Three years earlier, Kategaya had been a leader in the fight to retain presidential term limits. As a result, President Yoweri Museveni had dropped him from his cabinet, followed by a messy divorce from the National Resistance Movement (NRM).
In his divorce statement, Kategaya had condemned Museveni’s deception, for the latter had previously stated that he would not seek a third term of elected office. “A Munyankore man can turn in bed but cannot turn on his word of honour,” Kategaya had declared, quoting a Runyankore saying that would become his prisoner’s chains for the rest of his life. Following the divorce, Kategaya had told me that the betrayal by Museveni was such that he could never reconcile with him. He had flirted with joining the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), but the relationship had remained unconsummated.
By 2006, out of work, reportedly out of money, politically homeless and completely beaten, Kategaya had turned on his word and was back in the cabinet of the man who had betrayed him.
Like many Ugandans, I had been disappointed by Kategaya’s U-turn and had written in this column that my friend’s action had been a tragic case of political suicide.
It was that statement that he jokingly referred to as slaughter. We enjoyed a drink as he explained to me why he had turned in his political bed.
As a friend, I understood his predicament. However, I suggested that his evident loneliness that evening indicated faded esteem among his colleagues. Not one to take offence at the rumblings of a fool, Kategaya simply stated that it did not matter to him.
However, it must have mattered to him. His long and distinguished career in the struggle for democracy had truly been swallowed up by his U-turn. He spent the remaining seven years of his life a broken man, his star greatly dimmed, pitied more than respected and a poster boy for two-faced politics.
It is a fate that awaits Kadaga. I do not know her current personal view on the idea of lifting the presidential age limit. However, reliable sources told us last year that the folks at Rwakitura believed that Kadaga would not support the removal of Article 102(b) of the Uganda Constitution.
That was why Museveni reportedly encouraged deputy speaker Jacob Oulanyah’s attempt to topple Kadaga from the speaker’s chair in 2016. Museveni, a brilliant Machiavellian, allowed the threat to continue long enough to disabuse Kadaga of any illusions of power.
He then “came in” to mediate a truce between Kadaga and Oulanyah, instructing the ruling party caucus to retain the two in their old positions.
Kadaga recognized that the presidency was ring-fenced for Gen. Museveni and his chosen heirs, and she served as speaker only at his pleasure. It was time to set her sights on other things.
So, last week we had the spectacle of Kadaga allowing the first steps towards lifting the presidential age limit, then allowing (inviting or forced by?) soldiers to desecrate the parliamentary chamber in a bid to silence noisy opponents of the scheme.
Kadaga’s enthusiasm reminded us of Chinua Achebe’s Enoch, the son of the snake-priest in Thing’s Fall Apart, “whose devotion to the new faith had seemed so much greater than Mr. Brown’s that the villagers called him the outsider who wept louder than the bereaved.”
However, Kadaga is not a fool. She knows that when Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi, the speaker of parliament in 2005, ensured that the presidential term limit was removed, he was later rewarded with the vice presidency of Uganda.
When Museveni is declared the winner of the 2021 election, he will need to appoint a vice president. Ssekandi will be 78 years old. Kadaga, a woman from vote-rich Busoga, will be only 65.