By Independent Reporter
Until May 23, Prof. Gilbert Balibaseka Bukenya was Uganda’s vice president. He spoke to The Independent about life after leaving the office he held for nine years.
Your Excellency, what is life like outside the corridors of power and the number two guy in the country?
I feel relieved, I feel free. I am free to speak my mind and to do what I want without restriction.
Does that mean you were not a free man and you never spoke your mind all this time?
Yes, because you know when you are in Government you are bound by many rules and the principle of collective responsibility so you cannot speak freely even when you disagree. But as a Vice President there other restrictions like security. You cannot go where you want to go without security clearance, you cannot mix freely with your people. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. It is very restricting.
What do you look back to with satisfaction in your time as Vice President?
I have been at the forefront of promoting education and fighting poverty. I did that for the government, for NRM party and for promoting the president of Uganda. But as you know most people thought, when I was doing that, I was trying to publicise myself and it perhaps caused me some problems that one sees today.
As vice president, was that not within your line of duty?
Absolutely it was and I was very successful. When we started the rice growing scheme, most people called me a fool. They said this is VP rice, thinking that it was a small issue. Today Uganda is celebrated to be one of the bigger rice growing countries in Africa. We got a rice research centre from Japan because of my campaign. We are now a net exporter yet before we were a net importer. We were supporting the people abroad by importing rice worth $90 million annually. Now that rice is now grown by Ugandans and the money diffuses among the poor people. That’s the most successful thing I think we ever did.
What have you met relating with people of different experiences from yours politically?
The biggest problem that I have seen in the politics of today is the lack of understanding of in-depth issues. Most people when they hear an issue want to talk about it by mere imagination instead of researching on the issue; seeing the merits and demerits of it and then coming to discuss it. This leads some people to look for favours that may not be important in making of the decision.
Did you find this problem particularly prevalent in your party, the National Resistance Movement?
Absolutely. I think a good leader is one who avoids telling lies. If a leader especially at national level tells lies that is the biggest problem because if I am a leader and tell lies at national level and the lies accumulate into the system then you are in trouble of making wrong decisions.
At what level of decision making did you find dishonesty within government or the movement as a political party?
I think it was even at the highest level. At this level people connived to tell lies that would make their positions more favourable to themselves. For example they would come and say “you know Bukenya is going around the country trying to promote rice but he is not actually promoting rice. He is going around the country promoting himself for politics because he wants to be the political leader at the highest level. That type of lies reduces the capacity of politicians to go out and help develop our people.
You were the number two in this country and very senior in the NRM, one would think these lies were being told to you. To whom were these lies being told?[Laughs loud] There is the president of Uganda. And there is the chairman of the party. They also tell him lies!
In the course of your leadership, did you feel that at any one time you took actions or decisions that were offensive to your colleagues in cabinet or the party?
Maybe not may be yes. But I avoided decisions taken where I did not have the knowledge to take them. I only took decisions where I had ample knowledge and research into the ideas for that decision. But again in politics it is very difficult to say you are only there to make decisions and those decisions would be offensive to the other. I think in politics nobody wants the other to overperform. Everyone would like you to perform the same way or poorer so that you don’t cause any necessary excessive competition over the other. That is the biggest issue in politics.
You are famously known for saying “there is a mafia within the government”. What did you mean?
Cliquism. Cliques are not only in government but even in the party; people ganging together and formulating what does not exist and trying to smear others. In politics or in a party once you allow cliquism to form, you cause problems. One example that pains me most is in the time when I was moving around the country promoting rice and the Prosperity for all programme. I was genuinely doing it for the president. One group told the President in my face that “Bukenya is going out mobilizing and talking only to religious leaders in the Catholic domain, staying in bishops’ houses and that the purpose of it is overthrow the president”. This was told to the president by a senior leader in this government in my presence. And it was an absolute lie which I even asked the President to investigate; I have never had an answer. I don’t like to see such a clique saying that in order to fight somebody. For me that’s danger number one – telling the president of the country a big lie.
When this accusation was made about you to the President what was his immediate reaction?
Of course if someone came and told you that this person is working for your downfall, you would not be happy and you can make wrong decisions based on that rumour. In fact sometimes I think President Museveni is a superman. If it was (Idi) Amin and someone told him that Bukenya is trying to overthrow you, maybe my head would have been cut off. So I praise the president for his patience and for being able to see through many problems.
And when you met the President with your accusers, what was his mood and reaction like?
We had talked to the president earlier. This was meant to say this one said this, what is your view Bukenya? So he was a very calm man and he continuously remained calm and smiling in spite of the serious accusations. But of course as you know the President is a very strong person.
Did you ever or do you nurture interests of becoming president of this country?
Come what may, whoever will admire my political expeditions, President Museveni is the one person I did admire. He did not co-opt me into politics but educated me once I joined politics and you see I moved very fast from nowhere unknown to become a minister, a senior minister and a vice president because I admired his thinking and I used to tell him `I want to put what you think into practice’. For example I once asked him: “you always talk of prosperity for all; what do you mean? How can you put it into practice?” This is not bootlicking. At one time I said this man is my political mentor. So Bukenya will never stab him in the back. Even if I am a backbencher, even if I am out of politics, I will still support him.
I understand you to mean you will never run against president Museveni. Is that correct?
I will never. If there was an NRM candidate that the party fronted other than President Museveni would you put your name forward against that candidate?
Now that I am a founder member of the NRM party, thank you for asking that question because one little newspaper here said I am quitting NRM which I can never do. If you look at the constitution of the NRM party I can never quit because I am a founder member. So if NRM party picks a candidate, I will support that candidate as our party’s presidential candidate.
But at the point of picking a candidate if President Museveni as the leader of the party is not standing would you put your name to be considered as a party candidate?
Not now because I am still thinking. Not now. I don’t I think I would say for the time being. I would promote other people to stand.
There have been recent media reports that you are quitting politics including your parliamentary seat. Is this a correct position?
Never. I can never quit my parliamentary constituency. Why quit when I beat six candidates in the last election who did not even score even 35% of the vote combined? We were seven candidates, my closest challenger had 4,700 votes and I had 17,350. This is the only time I won in every polling station in my constituency. In fact it has been puzzling me how I will distribute resources to them. How can I abandon such a group of people who overwhelmingly supported me?
What do you miss most about being the vice president of this country?
I don’t actually miss anything. I have been liberated. When you are a vice president you are kept in a tight corner, with a police guard, you cannot do this, you cannot move there, you cannot drive your car, you cannot go the toilet privately. I don’t miss any of that. I am a community based man by nature of my education. When I was vice president there is no way I could sit and understand what people’s problems are but now I do.
You frequently sat in cabinet, did president Museveni chair many cabinet meetings?
Yes, he did. He chaired many but most of those were what we called emergency cabinet meetings. If there was an issue. But I also chaired quite many, several of them in his absence.
What would you say was the level of vibrancy of debate in cabinet?
For me there was a lot. I have this practice of allowing everybody to discuss independently and I don’t predetermine the answers to an issue. So when we came in whoever was presenting his paper would present it because I loved free debate. I would encourage negative free debate so that the minister would respond.
As you chaired these debates did you ever once think that if you were the appointing authority there were some people you would have left out of cabinet?
Absolutely yes; they were many. I like someone who thinks through an idea. I don’t like someone who imagines an answer. And I could see many colleagues who would hear this and immediately start talking imaginary things. That’s very wrong. I would also hear some minister say “chairman can we postpone this matter to next week so that I do some research on this and that. Incredible. I would go for that person because I knew he was going to study and come back with a genuine answer.
Did President Museveni consult you on major issues concerning events and policies in the country?
Yes and no. In the beginning we had a very close working relationship. He would ring me at least once almost every 24 hours to discuss issues. Then he would send me to research on some issues and report back to him. That went on very well. We had times when we would meet face to face and discuss really serious issues affecting this country especially in areas of development. I think he got to understand that my brain was always thinking of development. He has a lot of ideas.
Did that constant and intimate consultation change over time?
Yes, especially towards the last year of my vice presidency. It became distant but I still talked to him on telephone but we didn’t have that ample way of discussing issues. That was the time when there was tainting of my name like “Bukenya has been with the cardinal, with the bishop, with the Kabaka of Buganda; they are always thinking of throwing you out of power”. All this information started coming in and of course as a president I think he became annoyed.
What would you single out as President Museveni’s single biggest weakness in your opinion?
He does not delegate. He wants all decisions to be made by him. We argued at one occasion that if you appoint a minister let him or her speak for the ministry, let him make decisions for the ministry then you judge but he would not. His strongest weakness is failure to delegate power.
You contested against the current Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi in the party primaries for the position Secretary General of the ruling NRM party. Do you think you made a wrong decision in view of the results of the polling?
What I was doing then was genuine. I did not expect people to think otherwise. I was looking at the party needing vibrancy in the communities; being able to recruit more people and being known to be around; that’s why I went for that post of Secretary General. Initially I was doing very well but halfway into the campaigns I started feeling a danger because whoever we were campaigning with would go and say “no, Bukenya does not want to be a Secretary General, he merely wants to pass through the party secretary generalship to take over the chair of the president”. It was sounded everywhere and I sort of realized the danger and almost withdrew but because I had gone all over the country convincing many supporters I had to go through the whole process. But I knew a week before I went to Namboole that the chances of winning were not going to be very good for me and that’s when I withdrew quietly and remained in the process as a formality.
Do you think that the margin of the votes between yourself and Mbabazi, who was the eventual winner, watered down your political fortunes and perceived popularity?
I don’t think so because there were a number of anomalies which I don’t want to go into. But what popularity? In my constituency? That is where my popularity is judged.
Well, nationwide you can do an opinion poll. I don’t think he really dented my popularity throughout the country.
The job of Secretary General is that of the leader of party secretariat responsible for making sure the party functions well. Do you think the holder of that office is doing a great job?
We picked him and accepted him as the Secretary General and it will be the view of NEC (National Executive Committee), CEC (Central Executive Committee) and the National Delegates Conference to judge and comment on that.
This is his second term in office. As a senior member of the party, what is your personal judgment of his first term in office?
A very good lawyer and good at preparing things in an office. His weakness is his incapacity to go into the community to reach out to the people. Under a multiparty dispensation you must reach out to the people and also be with them in times of grief and happiness. Our party tends to be vibrant when there is an election. When the election is over, it dies and I think that is wrong for a great party like NRM.
It is a headquarters party not a grassroots party?
There has been talk in some circles and within the NRM of succession battles within the NRM. Do you think this succession debate should be opened and discussed freely inside your party?[He speaks in a serious tone] I don’t know why people talk about succession because in a political party leaders emerge. Leaders are not appointed, they emerge. It bothers me a lot when people say I am in a succession queue, I am the one to take over. This is not possible in a political party especially in a democracy. I am telling those who think they are in the queue that they will be surprised because in a political party there will be campaigns if there is a new person to succeed the president. The National Conference will sit and vote the most suitable person. And I hope this takes place democratically in order not to spoil the NRM party. There must not be any maneuvering and smear campaigns and one will emerge as the leader.
Leaders emerge within a political atmosphere. Do you think in Uganda and in your NRM party there is the right atmosphere in which leaders are nurtured and they can eventually emerge?
Unfortunately no and I hope this can start being practiced. For example I hear people disturbing this young man, the Member of Parliament for Kampala Central (Hon. Muhammad Nsereko – Editor) because he speaks his mind. Let him talk, let him create debate and they call him a rebel. He is member of NRM party not a rebel. That is how leaders emerge. Leaders do not emerge by being silent. Hon. Banyenzaki now the minister was a very vocal member of parliament and people were calling him a rebel. That’s how leaders emerge. Therefore in my view we should allow open debate. We should create many fora under which leaders can start discussing; not only senior leaders but also junior leaders because in any case 10 years from now this country will be led by today’s youths.
At the time the Constitution was amended to lift the presidential term limits you voted in favour. If a motion was brought today to restore term limits would you support it?
Yes. I voted for lifting term limits then because of the circumstances at that time. But after very deep thinking, term limits are crucial for the stability of the country. If anyone brought a motion back today and said term limits be reinstated in Uganda I would vote for it straight away.
Term limits are essentially meant to avoid leaders overstaying in power, correct?
Well, maybe in one way. But I want to explain one issue; some leaders overstaying power may help a country develop faster but if a country has stabilized and its development roadmap is clear then you can change leaders.
Do you think Uganda is at a stage where we have reached that take off stage? Do you think we are ripe for change of presidential leadership?
Not yet. I am sorry I have to say this, but we are not yet. In fact, I am looking at President Museveni like former Prime Minister of Malaysia Dr Mahathir (Mohammad) my good friend whose leadership over time helped Malaysia stabilize, come out of backwardness, economically became very strong and develop into Malaysia today. When that man left there is instability, the leadership cannot hold; the economy is not as good. Here we still have problems.
You have been a Member of Parliament for the last 15 years, what is your overall assessment of the performance of the three different parliaments that you have sat in, in view of their oversight duties over the executive?
On the oversight duties I think we have not been doing so well until now. When you say oversight duties I am thinking of looking through the affairs of the executive and pointing out where there is something wrong and also going to the communities to see what is happening. That we have not done very well. In the past we used to discuss issues and remain in parliament. I would prefer that parliament after passing the budget, at least six months from now or before, to go out and see how it is performing; if we passed a budget to improve agriculture in sector A; has it taken place? What has failed to take place? I am very glad that now parliament is beginning to look at this oversight duty. That’s why I signed to debate the oil issue because that is our responsibility. We must do more of that in order to put the government on its toes to develop the country.
As a very senior MP what efforts did you make as a member of NRM caucus, NRM party as well as parliament, to enhance parliament’s vibrancy and strengthen it in its oversight role?
In the beginning I did that very well especially when I was chairman of the NRM caucus in parliament but as soon as I was siphoned out for a ministerial job, which took place in first tenure in parliament and politics, my mouth was shut. I could not do anymore of oversight duties.
Continues Next Week