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How this Harvard, Oxford-trained lawyer became the toast of the ghetto

DAVID LEWIS RUBONGOYA

DAVID LEWIS RUBONGOYA

Most times that Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, the National Unity Platform (NUP) president, makes a public appearance, it is with a quiet but distinguished man by his side.

DAVID LEWIS RUBONGOYA, by all standards, seems to be from a planet different from the one Kyagulanyi hails. Yet he is closer to Kyagulanyi than most, and has been from the trenches days of the People Power movement. In the first interview of its kind, Rubongoya recently talked candidly to Baker Batte Lule at his home.

Many call him Rubongoya, the name of his late father, but this name does not actually appear on his official documents, because he has not yet officially adopted it. So, call him Mr Lewis. His father had a particular liking for everything English.

All his boys were given only English names; one of his brothers is Charles Edenburg and another who passed on was Wellcome William. Lewis does not know why his father did not want anything to do with African names.

And unfortunately, he did not live long enough to answer the question; he died when Lewis was only 10 years old, leaving the burden of looking after the five children in the hands of his wife. Having only English names has been as advantageous as it has been calamitous, especially in Lewis’ new world of politics and political belonging.

When we met Lewis on a misted Friday morning before he went to his workstation at Kamwokya, he was in the mood of talking about his private life that has largely remained out of the public eye. The soft-but-fast-spoken Lewis said having a local name helps people to place him somewhere. But this too has complications especially in this highly ‘ethnicized’ society.

“If you are applying for a job and someone has a bias based on tribe, they will probably invite you because your English name can’t be used to determine your tribe. If they want to dismiss you, at least you will have been heard,” he says.

He is thinking about officially adopting the name Rubongoya.

GOING TO SCHOOL

Lewis was born in Mbarara district on January 6, 1988 to Goodman Rubongoya James, a veterinary doctor and Medius Natukunda, a teacher. His parents had four other children; two girls and two boys. Before his father passed on, Lewis went to schools in Mbarara but after his passing, he shifted to present-day Kiruhura district.

Here, Lewis went to Kanyaryeru primary school, then to Lake Mburo secondary school for O-level and finally to Nganwa high school in Bushenyi where he sat for his A-level. At Nganwa, he was a head-prefect. He then went to Makerere University for a Bachelor of Laws degree.

From there, he proceeded to Law Development Centre for a diploma in legal practice. In 2014, Lewis got a scholarship to study at Harvard, USA, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He graduated from Harvard with a Master of Laws degree, with a special focus on constitutional law.

He then returned to Uganda and got a job at the Equal Opportunities Commission, an agency of government that aims at ensuring that all Ugandans are treated equally. While at the Commission, he got another scholarship to study at another prestigious university, Oxford, in the United Kingdom, where he got a master’s degree in International Human Rights Law.

He had embarked on his PhD studies but politics interrupted this momentarily.

“I have always been interested in the defense of human rights, good governance and the rule of law. I was president of Makerere University Law Society, then Makerere University Guild speaker and I was also running an organization called the Great Lakes Students Union. I also performed well academically, graduating with a Second Class Upper degree. I believe those are the factors they looked at,” Lewis says of his journey to Harvard.

Unlike many stories flying around on who met his tuition fees at Harvard, Lewis says when he applied, he also applied for a scholarship, part of which was a grant and the other a loan which he is still servicing. For Oxford, it was purely a Commonwealth scholarship given to him as a result of his work at the Equal Opportunities Commission. At 32, Lewis is not yet married, although he has a daughter.

MEETING KYAGULANYI

After completing his degree at Harvard, one of the other jobs that Lewis did, was teach law at both Cavendish University and The International University of East Africa. It was at the former that he met Kyagulanyi in 2016. By then, he was known more by his stage name, Bobi Wine.

He first taught him constitutional law at Cavendish and later when Kyagulanyi changed universities, he still met him at IUEA. In 2017, when there was an opening in Kyadondo East constituency, Kyagulanyi threw his hat into the ring, where he defeated his rivals with almost 80 per cent.

As Kyagulanyi was becoming more politically-conscious, Lewis was one of the people he often talked to about the direction of Uganda. Lewis remembers Kyagulanyi was a very respectful student, despite his brilliance and celebrity aura.

“Here he was in my class, addressing me very respectfully. When he wanted to ask a question, he would put up his hand, and politely address me as sir. His presence in my class contributed so much to the discussion. On one hand as a young lecturer you are speaking from mostly a theoretical point of view, but here was a man who had dealt with several issues of Uganda everyday. Today he is having issues with URA and the corruption in there and tomorrow he is dealing with all other kinds of issues. From these personal experiences, he enriched the discussions in class from a practical point of view,” Lewis says.

Despite his busy schedule, Lewis says Kyagulanyi never missed classes. Eventually what started as a teacher-student relationship grew into something very big and personal. They started having more discussions outside the classroom. All these were aimed at coming up with measures that would see Uganda take another trajectory.

A year after Lewis met Kyagulanyi, something else was boiling in the country. A conversation to amend the Constitution to get rid of age limits to allow President Museveni rule beyond 75 years was gathering steam. Lewis had been a staunch supporter of President Museveni and his NRM government; why not? After all, he grew up in Museveni’s backyard in Kiruhura district.

“When you don’t go outside the world you grew up from, you are not able to see beyond that society. You will find that your perspective is limited. Growing up from Kiruhura, there was no other person spoken about but Museveni. When you are a [Kizza] Besigye agent at a polling station, you are quickly arrested and banished from the area,” Lewis says, referring to the former president of the FDC who stood against Museveni four times.

At Makerere, Lewis hosted Museveni and NRM honchos a couple of times as a students’ leader. He was very close to them, he admits. For a long time, he loved Museveni as a leader and trusted him. He read Museveni’s books, What’s Africa’s Problem and Sowing the Mustard Seed when he was in primary school.

But the chip dropped in 2017, when it became clear that Museveni was behind the move to amend the Constitution to allow him another term that would push his reign to 40 years. When he was voting for Museveni in 2016, Lewis thought it was going to be the last time he was seeing him on a ballot paper.

He thought the NRM would wriggle away from Museveni and get new leaders. Besides, President Museveni had said during an NTV interview that we would not want to be president beyond 75 years. Like many NRM former supporters, Lewis felt betrayed and cheated.

He could not imagine that the person he idolized for so long could go against his word.

“When the [age limit] debate started, it was very heartbreaking. I couldn’t believe that this man I followed and respected so much could even think about it. I must admit that I was very naïve,” Lewis says with heaviness in his voice.

Lewis talking to Kyagulanyi recently

With this betrayal, his conversations with Kyagulanyi intensified. He felt the urge to help Uganda undo part of the mess he had created with the years of supporting Museveni. He thought that the country needed to have a new consensus.

Initially, he had never looked at Kyagulanyi as the ideal leader to replace Museveni. But when one day he attended his music show at One Love Beach, Busabala and saw the frenzy, the love and almost cultic support of Kyagulanyi’s fans, it dawned on him that for the job at stake, it was him to accomplish it.

“I was taken by his connection with common Ugandans from different parts of Uganda. At the end of that show, I heard people calling for passengers who had come all the way from Gulu, Mbarara, Bugiri, etc.” Lewis says leaders should not be perfect, but they should have basic principles that they have to stick to no matter the circumstances.

“When I look back, maybe I should have seen the signs. In this very campaign, there are people who would say we should give Museveni this term and that he will not run in 2026! But from what I know now, if Gen Museveni still has strength in his body, he will run in 2026 and even beyond. That is why we are saying, we shouldn’t wait up to that time. I am now convinced that it will not be upon his goodwill to accord Uganda a peaceful transition. The people of Uganda should exercise their mandate and try to cause change,” Lewis says.

Although Lewis was convinced beyond reasonable doubt that Kyagulanyi possessed the most qualities to unseat Museveni, joining him left many of his colleagues puzzled. Many in the NRM, in the church where he used to preach, in the academia and the legal fraternity all questioned his decision.

But away from his circles, even those he was joining, many were doubting his authenticity. They would ask themselves how a Harvard and Oxford-trained lawyer would run away from air-conditioned offices to go start a life in the lowly Kampala suburb of Kamwokya.

These nuances are not lost on Lewis himself; he says this narrative is coming mostly from two sources which poison the mind of the third source. “

The NRM people will always bring up that narrative to sow distrust amongst the forces of change; to make sure that people don’t trust one another. The other group where these things come from are people within the opposition themselves. Some of them for many reasons, start asking why it is you playing this role, why it is you doing what. Of course, these things can easily soil the perception of the common person in NUP who also starts getting questions: this man, look at how he looks; maybe he is not fully with us,” Lewis says.

Asked whether these narratives bother him at all, Lewis answered in the affirmative.

“There is nothing I gain by being in the opposition except serving a higher goal that our country gets redemption. If it were about money or personal gain, I wouldn’t be in this. When I left Harvard, I had two job offers paying me a lot of money but then my heart was home. That is why I returned to Uganda because I felt I had a contribution to make here. They are a distraction; you can see now we are spending valuable time having to explain that; certainly they have an impact. And that’s what the dictator wants; to distract you, having to start doubting yourself and some of our people have been taken away by such talk,” a visibly exasperated Lewis says in hushed voice.

But he is only reassured by the confidence and trust that Kyagulanyi and the rest of the NUP leadership have in him. He says the team knows the twists, the turns, the thorns and the storms they have had to contain to be where they are now. Those in the know say Lewis is one of the closest people Kyagulanyi will consult before he undertakes to do anything politically.

Although Lewis tries to play at modesty, he finally admits: “But that is what it should be; if you are secretary general of a party and you have a president, you should be working together. So, I don’t think it should surprise anybody that we work closely.”

In the last election NUP won more than 50 MPs seats, but Lewis was among the few senior party leaders who never sought leadership positions. He explains that the party needed to have people running it without being encumbered by their own races.

“We had a very serious campaign to run and it required full time to coordinate it. We had a lot of work to do, so all of us could not run for office. We had to have some people at the center to run things,” Lewis says.

He does not rule out the possibility of running for office in the near future.

APPEAL TO THE ELITE

Lewis says like many other families in Uganda, he grew up in a lot of poverty and hardship. Education helped him to turn his life around. Maybe that is why, despite the heights he has reached, he relates with the ghetto boys quite well.

However, he admits that before he met Kyagulanyi, he kept only in his elite circles and cared less about other people’s lives and the need to improve them. When Kyagulanyi took him to the ghettos, he met people who are real, who mean well, who care for one another and humanity, and that would change his perception about ghetto people.

“Hon Kyagulanyi knows so many of those ghetto people by name. Several times, I would go with him to Kamwokya at night before we transformed it into our headquarters. He would meet those people whom you would call bayaye and interact with them as his brothers and sisters; people whom the guys in Kololo would see and call police on them! But here he was spending a lot of time in the evenings with them. That is why that place is called the barracks; they would be there singing, talking about life and how to make it better,” Lewis says.

But after those interludes with the ghetto, he would go back to his high-class friends with degrees and the discussion would be about how to continue enjoying life the way they knew it. Only a few cared about the direction the country was taking, which frustrated him.

His interaction with Kyagulanyi and the ghetto people opened Lewis to the real situation common Ugandans find themselves in. He resolved to abandon everything else and work to improve the governance of the country.

“I did an analysis one time and there is no single newspaper that comes out without a big corruption scandal. These are funds that should improve the lives of our people but then the elite think it’s okay to have their car, a job and hope things will change. But the Musevenis had these opportunities and they said no, let us go and struggle. It’s a very dangerous venture; I don’t know how many times I have received anonymous threatening calls. You see drones hovering around the places where you stay, and live a life of fear, but I think it’s worth it,” Lewis says.

Lewis thinks the elite must get more involved in the liberation struggle.

“Imagine a person deep in the village who appeared on the January 14 and was told you don’t have to vote for the president, because he has already been voted for. That person may not even know what the Constitution says about the right to vote. But this person who is educated knows better and they should show the way. I firmly believe that at the time when the elites fully come into the struggle for change, Uganda’s liberation will be complete.”

bakerbatte@gmail.com

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd