By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi
It’s almost as if he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth
The year 198 seems to have been a wrong time to start a business in Uganda. Starting in 1966 or earlier, the economy took a plunge. Many Ugandans, especially professionals, had fled Idi Amin’s terror.
Reconstruction efforts after Amin’s ouster in 1979 suffered due to the outbreak of rebellion against Milton Obote, whose second coming as president in 1980 was blighted by allegations of vote-rigging. Thousands had already died in the insurgency, especially in the so-called Luwero Triangle where Yoweri Museveni’s rebel outfit – the National Resistance Army – was active. Things were bad.
But this is the time John Ssebaana Kizito chose to start State-wide Insurance Company (SWICO), now one of the biggest locally-owned insurance firms, with 15 branches countrywide. This decision offers a glimpse into the mind of a man who is a key player among Uganda’s diminishing landed gentry, has managed government corporations, participated in writing the constitution and has been a minister, member of Parliament, mayor of Kampala City and leader of the opposition Democratic Party (DP).
“The best time to do something is when most people think it cannot be done,” Ssebaana says.
Making big decisions was not new to Ssebaana, even then. When Uganda became independent in 1962, Ssebaana turned down an opportunity to pursue a PhD at the University of Oregon in the United States, where he had just completed a masters degree. At Oregon, his only source of solace, with whom he reminisced as Ugandans back home celebrated independence on October 9, 1962, had been his compatriot John Ilukor. Ilukor, who stayed in Oregon and went on to finish a PhD in physics, was the only professor of nuclear physics at Makerere University by the time he died in the late 1990s.
But Ssebaana saw other possibilities. And while by nature he grabs opportunity at an instant, he believes fate has played its part too.
“I was born at the right time, went to the right schools at the right time and started work at the right time,” he says.
Ssebaana went to Ndejje Junior School and Kings College Budo, before joining Makerere College.
On returning home from Oregon in October 1962, he became investment executive at the Uganda Development Corporation, the holding company that managed all government-owned enterprises. Four years later, he joined the National Insurance Corporation (NIC), where he rose to the position of managing director before he left in 1980 to go to Parliament.
The 78 year old is now semi-paralysed in the left side of his body and walks with visible difficulty. He has a limp. His famously hoarse voice has grown even hoarser and he appears to speak with difficulty. As we walk around his spacious double-storied house in Muyenga, I offer to help him out, but he strongly objects. The doctor advised that he walks without support and he is keen to follow the orders.
He hopes he will be able to return to his office at Sure House, a giant block on Bombo Road, itself a product of his labours. There, he works as chairman of SWICO.
The doctor says that Ssebaana should stay home and rest. But, I bear him witness; he cannot rest at home. A long line of people wait to see him every day and he is too kind to send them away. Interviewing for this article was done in three different sessions because we were always interrupted by someone with an emergency.
Every morning, by eleven, Ssebaana is ready for his visitors, something he says doesn’t really bother him.
“I was always in public office and got used to being around people,” he says.
His mobile phone also rings every few minutes and he eagerly picks it up. He says he is less busy while at his Sure House office, where his secretary “red-lights visitors”.
Talking of public office, Ssebaana says the DP presidency was his last job. As DP president, he was the subject of at least two firsts: He was the first non-Catholic to lead the party, breaking the stereotype that DP leadership was the preserve of Catholics. When he controversially handed over the chair in early 2010, it was another first. When he handed over to Norbert Mao, an Acholi, Ssebaana shattered another stereotype, held even by some DP members, that the presidency belonged to Baganda. The decision cost Ssebaana some long-time friends who felt betrayed by his support for Mao, but he insists he rooted for the right candidate. He says he still gives his views to the DP leadership when they visit him.
As DP president, Ssebaana had it rough. When he took over the party in 2005, it was broke. Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) was on the rise. Even within DP, some forces openly supported FDC’s Kizza Besigye, who seemed to stand a better chance of ousting President Yoweri Museveni. But Ssebaana insisted on running for president, in the process registering the lowest ever vote harvest for the party’s presidential candidate (1.6%). He told voters on the campaign trail that he would win because he had never lost an election in his life, but he knew he couldn’t win, as did all forecasters. But when he lost, his response was; “I don’t know how my votes changed because I was leading up to the last minute”.
He was just being a politician.
The politician in Ssebaana was inspired by Eldard Muliira, the late father of Kampala lawyer Peter Muliira. Muliira was “polished and trustworthy,” according to Ssebaana, and after his degree studies in Ghana, one of the first African countries to become independent in 1957, Muliira returned imbued with ideas of independence. Ssebaana joined Muliira’s Progressive Party, for which he served as branch president at Makerere College in 1960.
But on returning from Oregon, things had changed. Muliira had joined Mengo’s party Kabaka Yekka in 1962, which had allied with UPC to form the first government. But Ssebaana wouldn’t join Kabaka Yekka because he preferred a more nationalistic party, ending up in DP. But even then, his involvement in active politics was limited to bouts of activism as he embarked on an 18-year career managing government corporations.
Under Bendicto Kiwanuka, DP had taken a nationalist stance and Kiwanuka had even been accused of disrespecting his Kabaka. Ssebaana says he was convinced DP would unite Uganda under a federal arrangement and feels most Mengo loyals then failed to understand that DP’s position was the most sustainable for Buganda and Uganda. Ssebaana has since served as a member of the Buganda Lukiiko.
Running as a DP candidate, he won the Kampala South parliamentary seat in 1980, with 90% of the votes. Ssebaana was a new entrant in active politics but he had no time to play novice, and right from the outset, he had a serious decision to make.
The popular opinion was DP had won the general election and its leader Paul Ssemogerere – not UPC’s Obote – should have become president. But Obote had the backing of the National Liberation Front (NLF) forces that had played a crucial role in overthrowing Amin, aided by Tanzanian forces. Obote’s ascent to power sent different groups into rebellion, leaving DP in a tricky position. The party’s leadership didn’t believe in violence and as principle couldn’t resort to war. But they had the option of boycotting Parliament.
They didn’t. Ssebaana says the boycott would, in their calculation, have convinced Obote that they backed rebellion, particularly Yoweri Museveni’s bush efforts in Luwero, where Ssebaana himself was born in 1934. DP officials feared that Obote’s forces would kill many of their supporters in reprisal, especially since the so-called Luwero Triangle was predominantly DP. Ssebaana and his colleagues took their seats in parliament under Ssemogerere as Leader of the Opposition.
But even as MP, Ssebaana still missed the business world, which prompted him to partner with two colleagues to start SWICO in 1983. By that time, he had already adopted the values he says are key to success in business – trust, separating company from personal finances and delegating responsibilities while maintaining a rigorous supervision regime.
Ssebaana observes that few Ugandans pay attention to these values, leading to a “high business mortality rate” – with less than 10% of Ugandan-owned enterprises seeing their 20th anniversary.
Indeed, very few businesses belonging to indigenous Ugandans will join SWICO to mark 30 years of existence next year. Ssebaana tells of “a boy” who had dropped out of school in senior six and went to him looking for work. When Ssebaana entrusted him with running his guest house, “the boy started stealing”. He says he has had similar problems with casual labourers who take money and refuse to work for it, and “important people” who refuse to pay their debts.
In handing over the DP presidency to Nobert Mao in 2010, Ssebaana was keeping a promise. The duo had entered a gentleman’s agreement in 2005 for Mao to back Ssebaana’s shot at the national presidency, and Ssebaana to return the favour later when Mao vied for the DP presidency.
A full life
When he was minister in the early years of President Museveni’s rule, they met regularly, but Ssebaana now says he last met Museveni when he was mayor of Kampala in 2006. If he met him today, he would like to renew an old discussion – that is the fragmentation caused by the creation of new districts. Ssebaana wants this policy abandoned in favour of bigger regional groups. He says smaller districts have promoted tribalism and made service provision more difficult. But how do we achieve this? “We need a conference like Lancaster [the one that drew up Uganda’s independence constitution],” Ssebaana says.
In accepting to join Museveni’s government in 1986, Ssebaana believed he and Museveni stood for the same ideals, particularly the restoration of multi-partyism, democracy, respect for cultural leaders and the need to rebuild the country. With the benefit of hindsight, Ssebaana believes Museveni used him to consolidate his hold on power. In his first cabinet posting as minister for Regional Cooperation, Ssebaana says he introduced Museveni’s government to many leaders in the region, especially in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe, many of whom had been his fellow students at Makerere. Once the suspicions that Museveni was a communist, unfit to lead Uganda, were banished and he had consolidated his hold on power, Ssebaana says Museveni seemed to lose interest in his contribution.
By the inauguration of the constitution in 1995, Ssebaana was already convinced Museveni would not deliver on his promises and jumped ship to manage Ssemogerere’s presidential campaign in 1996. After the 1996 election, which DP said was rigged, some of the party’s prominent members, including Ssebaana, refused to stand for election to Parliament.
Ssebaana would return to elective politics in 1998 when former Kampala mayor Nasser Ssebaggala was jailed in the US just months into his first term. Ssebaana, who had been Ssebaggala’s campaign manager, vied for the chair and won it. He won another five years in 2001.
Critics say that during Ssebaana’s term as mayor many public plots in the city were sold off at give-away prices. Also, city markets and the Constitutional Square were controversially leased to businessman Hassan Basajjabalaba, kicking off a scandal that has so far claimed two ministers and is yet to be resolved. But Ssebaana says the decisions were taken by the Kampala City Council, not him as an individual.
Others still hold him responsible for the simmering divisions in DP, especially since he insisted on holding the Mbale delegates conference in early 2010 amidst calls for the party to first pursue internal reconciliation. Ssebaana’s detractors say he proved indecisive when he needed to take firm stands at critical moments during the impasse that preceded the delegates conference.
Critics may have their say, but Ssebaana is satisfied he has lived a full life. His spacious living room is coloured with pictures from the glorious olden days and there is one about which he feels most nostalgic. It’s a picture of him and his wife Christine on their wedding in 1966.
“I was one of the most handsome dudes in town,” he brags with a wide smile. He says they would “dress very smartly” and go to clubs, especially Ekiggunda in Makerere and later Top Life, White Nile and Suzana. In his limited free time, he tells these stories to his orphaned grand children, the offspring of his son who died a few years ago. They are an invaluable source of joy in a homestead where the children are all big and live far away (most of them abroad) and their mother at times has to travel to get treatment.