By Onghwens Kisangala
Ms Miria Matembe, a leading woman activist, former minister and MP, spoke to The Independents Ongwens Kisangala about why she fell out with President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) government. Excerpts.
You accuse the NRM of deviating from its original principles. How is NRM different today?
The NRM I served in the 17 years of my political life was a broad-based Movement of everybody. Its ideology was everybody gets on board in this bus and (we all) move together. You criticise, oppose and support from within the bus, as we were all one moving in one direction.
That is the NRM I joined with its 10-point programme: good governance, fighting corruption, building an integrated self- sustaining economy. We were burning with fire to change Uganda. Today we are talking about the NRM party which is totally against the interest of all those who do not support it. This difference is utter deceitfulness of its leadership.
At what point did you start to realise that the NRM is practising deceit?
I can honestly say that by 1994, things started to become unpleasant to some of us. We started debating them but they were not so bad. Things became what I would call really bad after the 1996 elections. President Yoweri Museveni used to call me to State House from 1991 to 94 and we talked at length.
I think he had discovered me as somebody who speaks her mind and I think he would just use me to gauge what was going on. I told him how things are getting different, for example that the political space is narrowing down, and corruption is increasing.
You knew that president Museveni came to power by the gun. Drawing from the history of military leaders the world over, especially the so called African revolutionaries, did you really think that you were speaking to a democrat?
Why not? At this time it all seemed real. And we thought we would help in giving guidance. In fact I remember telling president Museveni, Youre Excellency, I have never gone to exile, I have lived in this country through thick and thin, but one thing I used to hear people say was that Milton Obote (late President) was a good man but those surrounding him are the bad ones, that they make him do bad things.
I told him, â€˜Your Excellency, you know I am also one of those who are around you, near you; the moment I start to hear that you are good and those around you are the bad ones; that is the time I will leave you. Because if you are good, where do those bad people who surround you and donâ€™t speak the truth come from?â€™
So what did the president say to that?
He said â€˜Matembe you mean you are also a coward?â€™ I told him, â€˜Your Excellency I donâ€™t have money abroad. I donâ€™t have houses abroad; I told him â€˜if things turn bad you run back to your bush, for us we shall fear. That is why I would rather leave you.â€™
Then he said, â€˜Eh Matembe, I thought you are â€˜emanziâ€™ (brave person).â€™ I said, â€˜Look here, the Banyankole say in the home of the coward they are rejoicing and dancing and feasting, while at the home of the brave guy they are mourning.â€™ That was in 1994.
What exactly led you to break away from President Museveni?
After the 1996 elections things started to get bad. In fact some of us especially from Ankole had thought that president would not contest in 2001. Prior to 2001 elections, we started to participate in a number of debates and discussions about the deterioration of governance, corruption, exclusion and so on. But anyone who criticised the system became â€˜themâ€™ and the rest remained â€˜weâ€™.
Gagging, domineering and suppressing peopleâ€™s freedoms, things were not good. And by 1998, we in Parliament had started to say no! That is when the young parliamentarians came up and President Museveni started to fight them and the whole Parliament which had become â€˜hostileâ€™ to the system.
Do you think President Museveni understood the concept of separation of powers as provided for in the new constitution?
Museveni loved the constitution. I was a Constitution Commissioner in its drafting process. I used to discuss with him personally. I remember one time when we were not getting money for the process he had called me to State House for briefing on how far we had gone.
I asked him, `Sir, do you think this constitution is important at all?â€™ He told me, â€˜Matembe, a constitution is the biggest gift we can give to this nation.â€™ I said, â€˜If you think like that then your gift is failing because we are not getting money to facilitate the work. Instantly, he went and ordered the minister of Finance to get money for Commissioners.â€™
How come he immediately flouted the constitution he cherished so much?
I think he did not comprehend the difference between a constitution and constitutionalism. I think he did not understand that a constitution is that document that divides the powers between the different organs of the state. I donâ€™t think that he knew that the constitution would bring in different bodies with independent mandates in separation of powers to such an extent that a Parliament would check over his excesses and that he would not have to rule over Parliament. For the ten years he was the chairman of the NRC, NRM and many other institutions so I think he thought even after promulgating the constitution, he would still be in charge of everything.
So, no sooner had the constitution come into force and the Sixth Parliament asserted its authority, than president Museveni became crazy. He said, â€˜This Parliament, what do they think they are?â€™ And soon I heard him say, â€˜What is a constitution? It is a mere paper.â€™ He started to denounce the constitution saying these people did not tell me. It was my duty to brief the President on everything at the drafting process of the constitution. I remember when that constitution was being promulgated, the only problem he had with it was the provision of land. He said when you give land to the people where will the investors get land?
What was your turning point with Museveni?
One of the most important turning points if not the most was Col. Dr. Kizza Besigyeâ€™s declaration of his presidential aspiration and the way he did it. We could not just support him out of the blue but he had raised issues in his memo just before the declaration. Those are the things we had discussed with President Museveni on a number of occasions especially we members from the west, particularly from Ankole.
We would say what about this sectarianism, look at the army, revenue authority lookâ€¦ people are not happy. And he would say, â€˜Oh they are talking of akazu (family rule).â€™ He would say, well we will look at it, but we would never get back to it.
But you either did not believe or understand Besigye. Why?
There was no organisation. There was no way we could just jump on to Besigyeâ€™s wagon. We needed to prepare. So we said, let us go with Museveni and after the elections we will sit down and see how we can change ourselves and move on properly.
But alas! When we went back, did we see Museveni? Instead some of us were fought: John Kazora, Kahinda Otafire, Bernadette Bigirwa, myself, all of us had supported him, we didnâ€™t go with Besigye. Immediately after elections people from State House, the Movement and government security agencies were unleashed into our constituencies and they campaigned against us. In fact they brought candidates against us and that is then when I realised what Besigye had told us.
What had Besigye warned you about?
You remember Besigye wrote his memo which pitted him against President Museveni. He declared his candidacy. So we called him as Banyankole leaders under the chairmanship of Eriya Kategeya and asked him to give Museveni five years of his last term. Besigye told us, â€˜I swear by my throat this man is going to amend the Constitution and he will not retire after five years.â€™ I personally told Besigye in that meeting, â€˜Please donâ€™t read bad motives in people. I know this man loves the constitution, he made it, and he always condemns people who stayed in power for so long. I donâ€™t think he can change the constitution.â€™ My dear, I was wrong.
After the elections in 2001, we went back to Parliament and Museveni even appointed me a minister a second time. But by this time, I had already believed that Besigye was right and lost all the trust in the system. I was just working at my own pace and in my own terms. It was not until 2003 at Kyankwanzi that I got the shock of my life, the man called for the removal of term limits. I said, well, I have been moving with an impostor.
So you believe by seeing?
To us who find ourselves departing from president Museveni, the biggest thing that kills us is the sense of betrayal. You realise that all along you have been fooled and deceived. The person you believed in and followed is not the one. He is two in one if not even three.
But how come so many of you fail (or is it refuse) to see something so glaring and which youâ€™re even warned about?
You know, what is very strange with this President of ours is that individuals come to know exactly what he is at different times. By the time you come to know the type of person you are dealing with, he has dropped you, and mud-slung you and he is calling you names. You are hopeless rubbish, youâ€™re not useful and he abandons you. By this time, he has already identified the next unsuspecting victim. He says Matembe was here she was shouting (he tells women), you see she did nothing. And they feel good. They are going to do what the Matembes have failed to do. By the time they realise the reality about the person they are working with, it is too late.