Last weekend two Ugandan men, unknown to each other, died in a space of 12 hours. The young one, whose name you and I wouldn’t recognise, was a soldier on sentry duty at a military installation when a terrorist attacked him and stole two guns – his and a colleague’s who had stepped aside for some quick errand. The elder deceased was Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere who, at 90 years, peacefully departed at his home on Lubaga hill in western Kampala on Friday morning.
The passing of Dr Ssemogerere, a two-time presidential candidate, longest serving leader of the good old Democratic Party and former minister, can be seen as the end of an era of moderate politics not only in Uganda but also in the East African region. The sudden death of the young man, whose name you and I don’t know, is one of the growing frequent manifestations of radicalised politics.
Ssemogerere is a long name and older folk preferred to call him by his middle name Kawanga, which implies “brainy” in Luganda, while the young people fondly called him Semo. It was very hard not to love Semo because it was virtually impossible to annoy him. During the horrible campaigns of 1980, which ended in the December elections that he is widely believed to have won and the declaration of another candidate — Milton Obote — as winner plunged the country into a five-year civil war, Semo was intensively insulted and ridiculed by the opponents who held state power, and he simply smiled sadly at them. Voters showered him with ballots, but he could not translate his victory into power because, as his opponent kept taunting him, Semo had no generals — no army.
Ridden with guilt, some who orchestrated the vote rigging reportedly tried to apologise to him privately and Semo is reputed to have responded with what is believed to be the harshest phrase he could ever use when extremely provoked thus: “A mature person doesn’t do what you’ve done!”
A stickler for observance of the law and promotion of justice, Ssemogerere always took the most serious of political disputes to court. For this he was belittled, laughed at until he would score victory after the painfully slow judicial process was done.
The killing of the soldier on sentry duty came after several killings of police officers manning small police posts, which has led to the withdrawal of personnel manning them, in effect closure of the police posts, signifying a temporary retreat by the keepers of the law in the face of violent criminals, pending the replacement of the posts with mobile motorised patrols.
Increasingly in East Africa — including the seemingly more peaceful states like Kenya and Tanzania that are known for peaceful power transfer — moderate national leaders like Ssemogerere have gone out of stock. The charmingly engaging presidencies in Tanzania ended with Jakaya Kikwete in 2015, whose two successors have reigned in less tolerant times. The problem with intolerance is that it invites radical response, which in turn makes those holding power dig in and justify use of force to settle political disagreement.
In Kenya, which now has possibly the world’s most liberal constitution, moderation is still an alien word in politics. Don’t even be tempted to equate Raila Odinga to Ssemogerere for, when “Baba” alleged that he was cheated out of electoral victory in 2007, the immediate outcome wasn’t very peaceful. And when he lost the next election, he went ahead and got openly sworn in as the “people’s president”. Being Baba, he was too big to arrest, but his Uganda counterpart Kizza Besigye was charged with treason for being secretly sworn in.
Kenya, however, seems to be a good place to be radical because of the maturity of its justice system. Kenyans respect court outcomes even if they don’t like them. Even the proposal we are now hearing of removing presidential term limits will be subjected to legal and legislative rigour, if it gets to that stage, and all will accept the official decision.
But what would Tanzania, where challenging presidential election results is a practical impossibility, do should they face blatant rigging? Let’s just take heart, for the young generation will know how to handle their radical things: The Ssemogereres and some of us will, with time, not be around to agonise over such.