When soldiers from the elite Special Forces Command (SFC) stormed parliament in September to forcefully eject MPs that had been suspended by speaker Rebecca Kadaga, Betty Nambooze Bakireke was one of the ill-fated legislators.
The Democratic Party stalwart and Mukono municipality MP has since spent a month at Bugolobi Medical Center where several tests show her spinal cord and back were damaged in the brutal eviction.
When I visited the MP at Bugolobi, I was welcomed by a visibly stressed, but humble gentleman, whose bed has been made next to Nambooze’s in a private room.
The gentleman is Henry Bakireke, Nambooze’s husband. Many would add the adjective ‘long-suffering’ before ‘husband’, going by how many times he visits his politician wife in hospitals and prison cells, but his is a labour of love.
The couple started dating during their secondary school days at Bishop Secondary School, Mukono. What started as a school compound relationship has since blossomed into a love affair of more than 20 years.
Some say they now even look alike; these two never leave each other’s side – for better, for worse.
“She is my better half. I have to support her at all times,” the soft-spoken Bakireke says with a smile.
Ever since she was hospitalized a month ago, Bakireke has not gone back to do his construction work. He has left her only thrice to check on their Mukono home, which weeks ago was broken into.
He says his worst nightmare is seeing her in pain and he has no kind words for the NRM and its chairman Yoweri Museveni, who he says have persecuted his family.
“For the last 13 years I have seen Museveni’s government persecuting my family. Betty has gone through a lot; she has been arrested, taken to prison, beaten, and harassed to the extent of breaking her back,” Bakireke says.
He says whenever there is an attack on Nambooze, the effects are felt throughout the family.
“Imagine being tortured by your government! These guys are dictators who want to shy away from the truth. They want to intimidate and silence everybody, but God is alive. He will see us through all this.”
In hospital, the civil engineer spends the day flipping through TV channels, responding to calls about Nambooze’s progress and listening to radio.
“I’m now watching even things I have not watched in years. It is very painful being in hospital, yet I have a family to look after. I can’t leave Betty’s side because she needs me more. I have to assist her bathe, dress, even eating. I have put everything on halt,” Bakireke says, turning to look out the window next to his bed.
Turning to God
Nambooze’s run-ins with the government pushed Bakireke into accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. He traces this milestone to 2002 when Nambooze was arrested and allegedly jailed for 11 months in Luzira prison for taking a bribe of Shs 90,000 when she was a law enforcement officer of Mukono town council.
Bakireke says those 11 months were his worst experience, as they came just two months after their wedding. Besides, nine months earlier, Nambooze had given birth to their baby girl, Valeria Tendo Bakireke, now in S3 at Mt St Mary’s College Namagunga.
“I gave my life to Jesus, who saw me through. I prayed and fasted to be able to withstand all the temptations you can think of,” Bakireke says.
Asked about the times his wife has been incarcerated or taken to hospital as a result of an arrest, Bakireke says he has lost count. He, however, points out those that have resulted into her flying out of the country for better management.
“We have been to South Africa thrice, all on suspected poisoning,” Bakireke says.
He talks of a time before Nambooze became an MP, when people evicted by a UPDF officer in Mukono ‘Ew’Antony’, ran to her for rescue.
When she tried to intervene, she was arrested and taken to different police stations in Mukono, Kampala CPS and finally Lugazi, from where she says she was injected with poisonous substances.
“She had just had our last born, Jane Francis Mulungi, so I took the baby to CPS for her to breastfeed, but I was also tortured.”
Bakireke says a few days after her release, she started coughing up substances that Ugandan doctors failed to understand. They went to South Africa for further treatment. She was back again in South Africa in 2009 after another brush with the government.
At the height of the tension between Buganda kingdom and the central government over the Land Amendment Bill, now an Act, Nambooze, who chaired the Central Civic Committee, and Medard Lubega Sseggona – then deputy minister of Information at Mengo, now Busiro South MP – were kidnapped for weeks and taken to different parts of the country from where they were tortured.
Last year, Nambooze was flown back to East Africa after she was allegedly poisoned. If it were not for the support of people such as Dr Kizza Besigye and Buganda loyalists, Bakireke says he would not have managed the huge hospital bills.
Bakireke says despite the trouble and pain politics has rained on his family, he is not about to dissuade Nambooze from doing what she believes in.
“She is a human rights defender who speaks for the helpless. Even when she was still a journalist, she would look for people being persecuted to [highlight] their plight.”
So, if that is the politics she is doing, then it is good politics,” Bakireke says.
Bakireke says it is this passion for speaking out on human rights violations that forced his wife to part ways with motor-mouthed former Museveni spokesman, Joseph Tamale Mirundi, who was her bosom friend.
When Nambooze was imprisoned in 2002, Tamale reportedly tried to broker an agreement between the Bakirekes and government in order for her to be freed.
“He came with a document saying she should sign it for her to be released,” Bakireke says. The document, among others things, wanted Nambooze to desist from critiquing the government.
“Betty is not the type of person you can compromise. It was not good for her because silencing her was like sending her to the gallows.”
She chose to serve out her sentence. While many Ugandans – especially men – probably feel sorry for Bakireke and his ‘unusual’ wife, he says he knew what he was signing up for when he married Nambooze.
“I’m committed to her and it is part of our journey. Some men fear to have such women as Betty, but it’s a contribution to this struggle of having a peaceful country. That’s why we always sell off our property to go to those Western countries, because there are people who [made the sacrifice] for them,” Bakireke says.
Asked whether he would encourage his children to follow in their mother’s footsteps, Bakireke responds with a resounding ‘yes’.
“The biggest problem we have in Africa is that those who are in leadership have made it very difficult for other people to join. They intimidate well-meaning people to stay away from politics; that’s why we have ended up having scoundrels as leaders. So, if my children want to fall into the footsteps of their mother, why would I discourage them? Everyone has to discover themselves,” Bakireke says.
“We wanted to have a peaceful Uganda; we thought maybe Museveni was the one to take us to that path but we have been extremely disappointed.”
Nambooze, who was struggling to speak because of the pain, said if there is anything that hurts her more, it is seeing her husband suffer.
“He does everything for me, but what touches me the most is that he does all this without complaining. He has really suffered with me; I thank him for being there for me. Maybe [without him] I wouldn’t be the Nambooze I am today,” Nambooze said.
A DAUGHTER’S PLEA
It is not only Bakireke that has suffered as a result of Nambooze’s politics; her 24-year-old daughter, Mary Leticia Nalubbo, has many harrowing memories from the last 15 years of her life.
“We have grown up seeing this that it no longer surprises me at all. However, what they did to her this time round is severe,” Nalubbo says.
She says although she sees politics as more than just the government, but a whole way of life of people, she would still want to see her mother scale down on her political engagements.
“I already told her I don’t mind her being in politics but I would like her to pull back a bit. There are many members of parliament on the opposition side who do their politics and don’t get hurt.”
Like her father, she has grievances with the president.
“If these people ruling us really loved their country the way they claim they do, they wouldn’t be doing the things they are doing,” Nalubbo says.
But Nambooze says Nalubbo and her siblings should know there is a price to pay for a better country.
“Certainly her issues are justified, but there must be people willing to pay the price. I would also very much want to get out for the sake of my children, but they will not be safe either. Kaweesi was loyal to the regime, but his children now have no father. It doesn’t necessarily mean that when you are opposing, you are the one who is not safe; in a sinking boat there is no winner,” Nambooze says.
Andrew Felix Kaweesi, a former police spokeman, was killed in March. Nalubbo, a Makerere University finalist of a bachelor’s degree in Ethics and Human Rights, says growing up in such a political family has been a rollercoaster, especially for her and her elder sister.
“Politics has turned us into parents, because we know more about our younger siblings than she does. Even on a typical day when she is not in hospital or prison, she is at a rally, someone’s wedding, burial or lumbe [last funeral rites]. Like she always says, we must get used to her calling.”
And getting used to that “calling” might occasionally involve watching her right in the middle of brutal beatings and ugly scenes, as the country witnessed on September 27, 2017.