By Agnes E. Nantaba
John Ssebaana Kizito was 72-years old and the oldest among the aspirants when he ran for president in 2006. He ran on the Democratic Party (DP) ticket. Nine years later, it is a challenge he recalls with fondness and readily shares tips for today’s presidential candidates, especially Museveni who is 71-years old and the oldest on the campaign trail.
I met Ssebaana Kizito, now 81-years old, at his workstation at Sure House in Kampala. He still has his big smile. And his signature hoarse voice has grown even hoarser. Even his dapper suits, complete with pocket-kerchief, persist. But he walks and talks with difficulty ever since his left side got paralysed a few years ago and he appears to speak and breathe with difficulty. But he is not one to be easily stopped.
“Few people in my condition would make it to work and deliver like I do. But, If I decide to stay home and rest, I would become weaker yet I want to keep strong,” Ssebaana tells me. “There is also a workload that I must handle and missing out means it piles up.”
As a result, every day at 10am Ssebaana will be at his desk at Sure House, one of the bigger and elegant blocks of offices in Kampala, which he owns. He works as the founder member and chairman of Statewide Insurance Company Limited (SWICO). His day is quite busy with the phone ringing often and a long queue of going in and out his office.
When we finally get down to talking about his 2006 presidential campaign, he says there is one incident that stood out for him. He says he can never forget how a man he estimates to have been in his forties confronted him with an unbelievably offensive offer.
“He asked me for Shs5, 000 to buy his vote,” Ssebaana recalls.
“I shut him up, then told him; `then your vote is not mine’.” He says that is when he realised that there was no way he was winning the elections with just the plain persuasion of his manifesto. Politics had become highly commercialised.
He recalls his greatest challenge as struggling to mobilize and convince people with just a plain manifesto yet they were campaigning on a limited budget.
“Your manifesto is good but how do you leave us. Other aspirants bought us beer or local brew and many other goodies,” he recalls several people telling him. As it happens in most political families, his wife supported him. But he says at one time she failed to travels with him because she could not stomach the insults her husband had to endure. “When you decide to join politics, you are open to any form of treatment. People can throw anything at you be it tomatoes or bullets,” he says.
Leadership of DP
Ssebaana was DP president-general from 2005 to 2010. However, his affiliation to Uganda’s oldest party dates back to the early 1960s when he and the man he succeeded at DP top honcho, Paul Kawanga Ssemmogerere were persuaded by Benedicto Kiwanuka to join the party.
Ssebaana says his leadership of the DP meant being the first in many ways; as the first non-Catholic to lead the party, seconding an Acholi – Norbert Mao- to take over presidency from him, and also proving to the electorate that DP’s support was not only in the central region but other parts of the country.
Unlike in some parties in Uganda where being party president does not guarantee being the party’s flag bearer, the DP constitution automated the party president as the presidential flag bearer.
Ssebaana says DP stood for democracy, which meant incorporating ideas of all people including non-members. He says even for the 2016 forthcoming general elections, he was approached for his input in the party’s manifesto.
DP was largely known to have maximum support in the central region but Ssebaana took a different strategy. He chose to start his campaigns in northern Uganda, specifically Gulu, as a tactic to prove that DP was not a Buganda based party.
“During Obote 1 regime, many DP members crossed over to UPC except four people three of whom were Acholi; Atim, Oda and Ongom with Byanyiima from the west. It showed that DP was very strong in the north,” he says.
He recalls that the people of the north were very receptive. He had a uniform message for the entire country, except for some cases where there were specific needs for a region such as Northern Uganda. To this day, he says, the north still needs rehabilitation.
He says the campaigns were not only about addressing rallies. He says, him as the candidate, and his campaign team would traverse the district they were in from morning up to about midday. They would have a quick lunch before launching into focus meetings with groups of leaders. There would also be community group meeting. Addressing rallies was usually in the evening and would be the climax of that that day’s programme.
Nights were spent in hotels which he rates as “good for a country like Uganda”.
“I used to have about 12 soldiers guarding me and so I was well protected.” He would spend between Shs300, 000 – Shs500,000 on personal accommodation and other logistics.
“For the sake of money and logistics, I used a lot of my personal money of course the state gave us Sh20 million but that wasn’t sufficient,” he recalls, “Some of the money was mine while some was contributed by party members. This was not enough except for the party in government which had access to all the money including taxpayer’s money.”
Sometimes, as happened when he campaigned in Western Uganda, they stayed in the homes of party members. He recalls how, together with his team, they were accommodated at the home of the in-law of current presidential candidate Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Mzee Boniface Byanyima’s home. He is the father of Besigye’s wife, Winnie Byanyima. He says the elder Byanyima and his wife were quite excited and fun to have as hosts.
Ssebaana says his greatest experience was in the western region which was a DP stronghold and the branch leader, Imam Makumbi, had heavily mobilised for support.
Ssebaana recalling tells the people there that it was time for change of leadership. “If you eat matooke every day, you want to eat tomorrow as well and the day after but what do you eat. You must change diet to a balanced one which is DP,” he told them.
First loss ever
He says back then it was relatively easy for a candidate to garner support outside Kampala because most aspirants had their efforts concentrated in the central region and all had their party headquarters stationed there.
He recalls how on election day, which he calls “the big day”, he and his granddaughter walked to the polling station near his home in the upscale Muyenga city suburb to cast his vote.
But when the results were released, Ssebaana had lost. He was third of five candidates with 1.58% of the vote. President Yoweri Museveni, was the incumbent and won with 59.26% and Besigye was second with 37.39%.
Although he traversed all the districts in the country, he says failing to win the election remains a blotch on his record. He had never lost any election before. This according to him would be his first and last time to lose an election to a political office.