Until he moved a motion seeking leave to work on a private member's bill to amend the constitution, ROBERT KAFEERO SSEKITOOLEKO, the Member of Parliament for Nakifuma, seemed like one of those ordinary MPs.
Now, Ssekitooleko is the talk of the nation because of the controversy his bill has generated. Still, little is known about him outside the marbled corridors of parliament.
Sulaiman Kakaire explored the life and career of the man in the news.
In June 2011 when members of the 9th Parliament were being inducted, Ssekitooleko was hardly recognizable amongst fellow MPs and the parliamentary staff.
“If you were a stranger you could mistake him for a staff of parliament yet some of us thought he was a personal assistant to one of the MPs,” said an employee of parliament, recollecting his first vivid memory of Ssekitooleko.
This employee, who declined not be named so as to speak freely, told us that it was after the induction that he came to know who Ssekitooleko was.
“He had been appointed as a vice chairperson of the committee on Science and Technology, where I was working as a technical person “but even then he was such a humble and quiet man. You could not imagine him spearhead a cause in the House like it is the case today.”
Ordinarily, it is hard for a first timer in the august House to be appointed as chair of a committee except where they have rare competencies and expertise. And being a mechanical engineer, Ssekitooleko had the requisite qualification as a scientist, to be appointed as a vice chairperson to the committee, whose chairperson then, Ajuri MP Hamson Obua, was not a scientist.
Born 43 years ago, Ssekitooleko attended St Joseph Technical Institute, Kisubi, where he did the motor vehicle technician course part 1. Thereafter, he studied motor vehicle technician course part 11 at Uganda Polytechnic Kyambogo before doing a diploma in production and mechanical engineering at Uganda Technical College, Masaka.
According to the parliamentary directory of the 9th parliament, Ssekitooleko also holds a master of science degree in mechanical engineering from Washington International University as well as a bachelor of science degree in mechanical and manufacturing engineering from Kyambogo University.
Buwekula MP Anthony Ssemuli, who was a member of the committee on science and technology at a time when Ssekitooleko was its vice chairperson, says: He was knowledgeable on matters of science and technology.”
Within a few months in the 9th parliament, Ssekitooleko earned the moniker of “His Excellency” amongst his colleagues. An MP, who declined to be named, told us that the title was given to him, “after a rumour spread around parliament that the he was in a relationship with a female MP who was also being courted by a powerful politician.
After the female MP was appointed minister, Ssekitooleko reportedly severed ties with her. Ssekitooleko told us on Saturday that the “His Excellency” title is a joke.
“My colleagues always call me H.E or commander in chief because maybe they think I can be president,” he said.
He confirmed that the female minister is still a close friend just like other MPs.
Some say the accusations leveled against Ssekitooleko that he has attempted to compromise MPs by giving them “gifts” so that they support his motion have tainted his image. Yet it is not the first time that Ssekitooleko’s integrity has come under question.
In the 9th parliament, he was accused together with some members on the committee of science and technology to have got bribes from some donors to promote the passing of National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill.
The bill, which was sponsored by government, was a response to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of 2000. The protocol commits member countries, including Uganda, to establish measures to ensure the safe transfer, handling and use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
In the end, Ssekitooleko was removed from the leadership of the committee.
“When his term as vice chairperson expired, he applied to the then government chief whip to be made chairperson of the committee on science and technology but his application was rejected for fear that he could propel the support of the bill, something the executive didn’t want,” said a knowledgeable source who followed the controversy.
Eventually, the leadership of the committee was passed on to Ssemuli while Annet Nyakecho, the then Woman MP for Otuke, became vice chairperson. Ssemuli told us in an interview that he could not attest to the fact that the bribery allegations leveled against Ssekitooleko relating to the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill were true.
“There was no evidence that was adduced to prove their validity,” he said.
Eventually, the bill was shelved by parliament. Asked how he could describe Ssekitooleko, Ssemuli said: “I cannot describe people because people have three characters, the first is the one they present to the whole world, the other they present to friends and family and the third, which is always their true character, is kept to themselves. So, I can’t describe him.”
Last week when Ssekitooleko appeared on the Frontline, a political talk show on NBS television, he was described by Miria Matembe, the former Ethics and Integrity minister as a crook. “You see, he can’t even look straight in my face,” Matembe reportedly said.
During the show, Ssekitooleko denied allegations that he bribed MPs to support the pending constitutional amendment bill. Former West Budama North MP, Fox Odoi, related with Ssekitooleko under their umbrella of independent MPs and worked together to push a constitutional amendment that allowed independent MPs to stand in party primaries.
Odoi described Ssekitooleko as a “hardworking person, very humble and willing to learn.” Odoi said the Nakifuma legislator consults where he thinks it is important to do so. Asked whether he could believe the bribery accusations leveled against Ssekitooleko, Odoi remained noncommittal.
“I know he is a principled man and, as a lawyer, I always give people the benefit of doubt,” he said.
Odoi, who formerly served as chairperson of the parliamentary committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline, told us that the current allegations are in breach of the rules, which makes it a clear case for investigation by the committee.
“We incorporated the code of conduct in the rules that requires the MPs not to put their individual interests ahead of the national interests,” he said adding: “However, it is not easy to convict any member under the rules since obtaining evidence is a tall order.”
A group of MPs led by Masaka municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga have petitioned the speaker of parliament to have the bribery allegations investigated by the committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline.
On his part, Ssekitooleko welcomed the investigation. “People are just jealous of what I have achieved but I have not been bribed or attempted to bribe anyone,” he said.
Since introducing the debate on the constitutional amendment, Ssekitooleko is heavily shielded by security guards said to be attached to the Special Forces Command. Something similar happened to Dr Kenneth Omona, the former Kaberamaido MP, when he spearheaded the move to have President Museveni stand for a fifth term in the 9th parliament.
Charles Odongtho, a senior parliamentary reporter, told The Observer; “It is rare for an ordinary MP to be offered such kind of protection except where they are doing a special assignment for the president.”
But Ssekitooleko denied that he was on any special assignment.
“I have always had a guard since 2011. I used to have one but now I have more than two because the commander in chief deems it that way. I don’t know whether he is aware but the guards can’t be assigned to me without his knowledge,” he said.
During the last election, Ssekitooleko had running battles with Dr Tanga Odoi, the NRM electoral commission chairperson, over his academic papers. Odoi had declined to nominate Ssekitooleko during the NRM primaries, accusing him of lacking the minimum academic qualification for parliament.
But Ssekitooleko later successfully challenged Odoi’s decision in court. Sources told us that the ping-pong over Ssekitooleko’s nomination was being fueled by a powerful person behind the curtains.