SSEMUJJU IBRAHIM NGANDA can be everything: very serious and extremely playful; seemingly impulsive, but thoughtful; very religious but also very stubborn; extremely strict yet very empathetic. After nearly 15 years as a journalist, Nganda is into politics. RICHARD M KAVUMA spoke to him about his life:
By his own admission, Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda is naturally stubborn. He jokes and argues a lot. He likes to question things no matter who is behind them, to push boundaries to the limit. And according to people who have known him for most of his 37 years, he chases targets with frightening determination.
In a country where the phrase “politics is a dirty game” sounds like an understatement, critics see Ssemujju’s involvement in politics as an act of naivety or idealism for a devout Muslim. But when he talks about redeeming politics, you hear the conviction of a miracle healer.
“If you ask me, I would close all newspapers, all shops, all businesses and we all go and try to change the history of this country,” says Ssemujju, one of the founders of The Observer, where he was political editor until March last year.
“I am trying to raise people’s civic awareness. This is our country; we can’t allow these guys to spoil it as we look on. Because the politics is rotten, we can’t continue sending rotten people to politics; things can only get worse. We must reverse it at one stage. And you can’t just ask others to do it, some of us must start.”
And start he did. Ssemujju, spokesman for the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC), is running for Parliament in Kyadondo East constituency. He hopes to replace retiring FDC legislator Sam Njuba but he faces a stiff challenge from people like NRM’s Sitenda Sebalu.
It is the latest chapter in the story of a boy from Bijaaba village in Kyazanga, then in Masaka district, who was nearly rejected by Masaka Secondary School, only to emerge its best student.
“When I took him there, the headmaster said he would not manage because he did not know English,” recalls Ssemujju’s father, Hajji Ali Nganda Nkwanga.
“I told the headmaster that I had nothing to do about that because I was not a teacher. I told him, ‘just admit the child; he will stop wherever he will. After all, I am going to pay the school fees.’”
Ssemujju had completed Senior 2 at his village school, where the emphasis was on religious education. But he had been the only student ready to start Senior 3: of his 12 classmates, the girls got married, and the boys sought work in towns.
He sold his season’s harvest – one sack of beans – bought a mattress and a few other belongings, and reported at his father’s shop in Masaka town.
Now at his new school in the heart of the town, Ssemujju was handed the fight of his life. Within five years, Ssemujju, already a well-known figure as the school imam, was the toast of both school and family – the first in his family to pass Senior Four, the first to pass Senior Six; the first to win a government scholarship to Makerere University. He scored ABCD, not much these days, but for that school and in 1995, these were top marks.
“That has been one of the happiest moments in my life,” Ssemujju laughs, recalling how his father photocopied and proudly distributed the result slips among family and friends.
His family has a rich and curious history, with Christian grandparents and ancestors and family ties in Kigatto in Butambala, Nabweya in Bugisu, Kitosi in Kyamuliibwa, and Bijaaba. It was at Bijaaba that Ssemujju was born, one of the 16 children of Hajati Sophia Nalwoga, and 48 of Hajji Nganda.
“My father was a driver for a very long time. Then, driving was very lucrative and he had a lot of money. Of course when the family expands, you have no money,” observes Ssemujju, a father of two daughters and two sons.
“So, by the time we were born, although we were not the poorest in the village, we could not, for example, go to good schools because we were too many. I went to Bijaaba Islamic Institute, a few metres from our home. After my primary, they started the secondary school as an extension of the same institute, offering both religious and secular classes. But then after Senior Two, I could not study alone, so I went to my father and said, ‘I have come to study’. It was a struggle because money was scarce. But he had no choice. For my first term at Masaka SS, I lived in the warden’s quarters, until someone was expelled and I took his place in the hostel.”
This shaky beginning would have a glorious ending, as Ssemujju excelled in his A-level exams. He was admitted to Mass Communication, a relatively new and high-rated course. But he preferred teaching to journalism which, to him, meant reading news and death announcements on radio and television. He applied to change course but there was one problem – he was Muslim.
“Kiyimba Abbas [then head of Mass Communication] refused to sign my forms,” Ssemujju raises his voice, as if still surprised at the lecturer’s stance.
“He said there were very few Muslim students getting into journalism and he felt the media was not portraying Islam correctly. So, he wanted me in that class.”
Yet it would appear that journalism was his calling. Makerere being the fertile news ground, it was not long before Ssemujju Ibrahim in Crusader and Shei Buulu Nganda in The Monitor merged to become the regular by-lines of Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda.
“Interestingly, Sunday Monitor published my first article about a Makerere Imam telling Museveni off on the front page. I thought I was on Mars. Having an article on page one?” he shakes his head, laughs and rubs his hands, just like he does after Arsenal football club has defeated some hapless team 5-0.
There was no turning back. By the time he left Makerere, where he was also elected chairman of Makerere University Muslim Students Association, The Monitor had reserved him a job. Soon, he was deployed in Parliament and at one time left to cover the ever-busy institution alone.
“The first challenge I faced was how to get details of those behind-the-curtain meetings. I went to Parliament when two things had happened: the war with Rwanda in Kisangani and the fight over Bujagali power project and AES Nile Power.
“One morning, Museveni summoned the committee on Natural Resources. I did not know the characters on the committee yet The Monitor expected me to get a story from a State House meeting between Museveni and MPs. I said, ‘what do I do?’ I saw MPs entering a vehicle to go to State House and I would ask other journalists, ‘who is that?’ and write their name down. “Eventually one MP, whose name I cannot say, was willing to give me the information. We went to a hotel and he told me everything – how Museveni was behaving; how he entered in military uniform; how he did not greet anybody...
“But the challenge was just beginning because the following day Museveni summoned the committee on Presidential and Foreign Affairs for a briefing about Kisangani and the relationship with Kagame. I did not know anyone on that committee apart from reading the names in the papers, but again I started guessing who might be willing to tell me the story. Eventually I got a story which later caused problems between Museveni and Kagame. That was where Museveni said, ‘how can a small dog bark at a lion?’ or something like that. Museveni now started quarrelling with The Monitor for escalating the conflict.
“Things then became easier because my name was seen by the MPs. The people who were moving Parliament started looking for the boy called Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda because they were also interested parties.”
Over the next five years, Ssemujju established himself as a leading political journalist, breaking several stories and penning fiery commentaries on the issues of the day. Things got more exciting from 2000 when he started appearing on radio stations such as CBS and later Capital. Ssemujju became extremely popular, especially in Buganda because of his views and the eloquence with which he presented them. By the time he left The Monitor to help found The Observer in 2004, he was on top of his game.
In between, Ssemujju had married his sweetheart, Faridah, and started a family.
“I like my family a lot. My wife and I share a history. She went through a very difficult time when her mother died; I too have had my challenges, coming from a polygamous family. It is more than just love. Whenever we talk about the history we share, it brings us closer. We have all battled with life to be what we are.
“I am a family person. Sometimes, before I went into politics, I would go home to roast chicken with Ssemujju II (his son). Recently, he made a statement I will live to remember: There is this advert of some cooking oil where a woman tells another that her husband returns home early because she uses that oil. So the boy tells the mother: ‘Why don’t you cook for daddy with that oil so that he comes back early? We used to roast chicken together….’ He is in P.1 but he notices that I am no longer giving them as much time as I used to.
“From my days at Makerere, I go to bed early because I want to wake up early. For most of my time, it is football and my family.
“I support Express FC in the local league. But the last time I watched an Express game, we defeated the other team 4-0, they were playing like Chelsea, just kicking the ball and it goes in; so I have never gone back. I like beautiful football and that is why I like Arsenal. They may be number seven on the table but as long as they are still playing the way they do, I will continue watching them and I will be happy.”
ROAD TO POLITICS
While starting The Observer from scratch was not like watching Arsenal on a good day, Ssemujju found it interesting. From working and expecting your salary right at the end of the month, he was now sweating as an employee – but also an employer to look after employees’ interests.
“We went without salaries for three or four months, yet we had to look for money to pay employees. Even when we started earning, ours were small salaries. One time I went to do a story in the ministry of Health and I was talking to Jim Muhwezi, with Carol Nakazibwe looking for adverts from the ministry. Muhwezi told me himself that if I did the story, they were not going to [advertise]. We did the story.
“These experiences teach you a lot of things. You stop being reckless and you understand the media beyond writing stories. People speak to you not just as a journalist but as a media owner.
“Of course, I would prefer that the media is owned by journalists, whether for commercial interests or otherwise, because as a journalist, there are things you may not do. If The Observer was owned by businessmen, maybe by now it would have its own printing press because [as a businessman] all you want is money. But then maybe Museveni would have a resident RDC in The Observer who vets stories before they are published. How I wish that it stays like it is now. Yes, even an [entrepreneurial] journalist needs money, but your pride is not in the money.”
Early last year, Ssemujju, informed fellow directors at The Observer that he would be leaving. The passionate political observer was starting a campaign to change politics – by inciting the population to reject ‘fake’ politicians, and encouraging people of good calibre to offer themselves as alternatives. He recounts his departure:
“We had agreed that I would leave in June, but my mind had already left. You see, I am not patient; I am very quick. Even at home, if we lost someone I would be the one to place radio announcements. There was no way I was going to make a decision to join politics and then stick around saying I will go on such a date. So, eventually, I woke up one morning and picked my things and ran away. By the time my colleagues came, I was gone.
“I think part of what drove me into politics was also the radio business. In 2000 I started appearing on CBS and I soon became a panellist. Later, I went to the Capital Gang. When I first appeared on radio, I was invited because I was extremely neutral, attacking everybody who needed to be attacked – the government, opposition, everybody... eventually, however, once you make your position known on key issues, you become more or less an actor because people see you as someone fighting for or against their issues. Eventually, because [politicians] appreciate your views, they invite you to advise them. So, I had started attending some meetings. And when you do that, you are no longer a journalist.
“But I want to believe it is what the Kabaka called the ‘persecution of Buganda’ that ultimately drove me into politics. You begin to ask yourself, ‘what crime did people called Baganda and the region called Buganda commit?’
“When you compare, you have very outspoken and eloquent MPs from Acholi and Lango – while the ones from Buganda are either whistling or clapping. I believe it is deliberate that the kind of politicians from Buganda must be fake. And if they are of high quality, you must compromise them. So, you become [frustrated] about your own existence as a people. You get tired of asking people to do things and you say, ‘let me go and do it myself’.”
It all sounds very convincing, but recent history is littered with articulate campaigners who fell silent once they joined Parliament. Ssemujju says if he gets elected, either things must change, or he will confront whoever undermines Parliament’s capacity to change the country. And if the worst came to the worst, he says, he would still have the option of walking away.
For someone with such lofty ambitions, what will Ssemujju do if he loses the election?
“I have prepared myself mentally. Museveni wanted to [fight] Obote with others in 1966 but he writes that the Enganzi (prime minister) of Ankole stopped him. Idi Amin takes over and Museveni is part of the group fighting Amin. He comes here briefly and things do not go well, he goes to the bush and becomes president.
“The problem with this country is that people think that if you fail, you go home and sleep. For me, either I will die or I will retire fighting. In fact, even if I win, I am going to continue fighting, especially if Museveni is president. And if Besigye becomes president and does not sort out the mess – very quickly I will turn against him. I want to see this country properly organised. Then I can leave politics – even if I am an MP – and come back to reconstruct my career. If I lose, that will be part of the struggle.”
Critics have accused Ssemujju of simply targeting Museveni the man.
“People are not honest. You see, this is personal rule. Museveni treats this country like… The other day I said that he looks at the treasury like a personal wallet but [former minister Amanya] Mushega said ‘no, with a personal wallet you will be very careful. You don’t spend like that’.
“For me, I don’t pretend about it. The problem we have now is actually Museveni. If you are in a school which is not performing, the headmaster will go. I usually give the example of Uganda Martyrs SS Namugongo. When Owek Chrysostom Muyingo went to Namugongo, he found people celebrating 12 first grades. Now if one person fails to get a first grade; that is a problem at Namugongo. That is what it means changing leadership, and that is what it means getting the right leadership.”
What others say about Ssemujju
Even as a child, Ssemujju was clever and resourceful. He loved news and the radio: he would get a piece of a banana leaf and imitate Christopher Ddamulira reading news.
He was well behaved and very popular among people on the village. See, I was quite tough on them. One time in primary school he came on top of the class but then he had committed some offence; I told him that ‘being the first in the class when you are misbehaving is not acceptable. Bring the cane’.
From an early age, he was hardworking. He used to go about everything energetically. Children used to work in the garden, harvesting matooke, coffee, beans, maize and he would start immediately, not dillydally.
He treats people very well and easily makes friends. He acts quickly. He implements things very swiftly. He and his brothers and sisters have a family association and they have done well to look after us. They, for instance, sponsored me to go to Mecca and even bought a car for me, which I use.
He came and told me here in Kawanda that he wanted to run for Parliament and I said: ‘Ok, may Allah guide you.’ You can’t stand in the way of a young person. When someone is young, you never know what he will achieve. Museveni used to herd cattle, now he is president.
–HAJJI ALI NGANDA NKWANGA, father
Ibra is loving, caring, God-fearing and very generous; he wishes people well and really cares about children. And one thing I know is that if Ibra has set out to do something, he really works hard at it and wants to do it very well.
At home, he never quarrels. I can’t remember the last time he threw sharp words at me. If he is so upset, he usually just keeps quiet and when the anger has subsided, he will tell you that this or that annoyed him. Otherwise, when he is at home, he enjoys playing with the children, watching football or cleaning around the compound, for instance, by weeding the flower gardens. And often in the evenings, he roasts chicken/goat-meat on the sigiri while the rest of us sit there and chat and enjoy it as a family.
FARIDAH B. SSEMUJJU, wife
From his childhood, he has always been very friendly and caring both to his parents and his siblings. If you were sick, for instance, he would try so hard to get you something that you could eat. If you did not want this, he would go to the garden, get some gonja, roast it and bring it.
If he realised I was taking a sick child to the health centre – about three miles away - he would offer to help carry the baby on his back to and from the health centre.
And he was loved by people of all ages. You would find him chatting with old men and women and with his age-mates. He knew how to chat with children and with adults.
–HAJATI SOFIA NALWOGA, mother
As a child, Ssemujju loved people very much and was very popular on the village and in our clan. He would not pass someone without greeting them. He was often the first to go to the garden. He loved playing footballs made out of banana fibres. If he was to play football, he would hit the garden while others were still sleeping, do his bit and do other chores quickly so that he would go play football.
What I know about Ssemujju is that once he has set out to do something, it is difficult to abandon it.
–ASIA A N NAKINTU, elder sister