Former Oyam South Member of Parliament Ben Wacha now sits quietly in his law firm chambers on the noisy Dewinton Road in Kampala, just a few metres from the Parliament building where he worked for more than three decades.
For someone who says his venture into politics was purely accidental, it is hard to believe that he had such a long successful political career until his retirement from elective politics in 2011.
Wacha has participated in politics since the Moshi Conference of 1979, after being forced into exile by then president Idi Amin’s regime.
When he finished his Law degree, Wacha wanted to settle down into legal practice. But then Amin’s people started pursuing him. And so the trajectory of his career as he had planned it changed drastically.
He had to first find his way into exile in Tanzania, and while there, he became friends with Akena Adoko, a former head of the General Service Unit in former president Milton Obote I’s government, who led him into politics.
Through Adoko, Wacha got to meet Obote, who took a liking to him, making him a big part of the plans and activities to oust Amin. Obote had been overthrown by his former army commander Amin and forced into exile, and he had a special bond with Julius Nyerere, then president of Tanzania.
Nyerere, on the other hand, had a cold relationship with Amin, who was accused of misruling Uganda in many ways, and Nyerere would get Tanzanian forces to lend Ugandan exiles a heavy hand to eventually oust Amin in 1979.
“I was one of the 23 delegates that entered the Moshi Hall for the Conference where [Prof Yusuf] Lule was chosen as president [of Uganda],” Wacha says in reference to his role in the politics of post-Amin Uganda.
After Amin’s overthrow, Wacha became an MP in the government that replaced him (the National Consultative Council) and he never looked back.
Obote would manoeuver and – after short stints by Prof Lule and Godfrey Binaisa as presidents – the Military Commission led by Obote’s protégé, Paulo Muwanga, oversaw a controversial election after which Obote would emerge president of Uganda in 1980.
After Obote’s second ouster, Wacha stayed at the headquarters of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) party at Uganda House in Kampala as Obote lived in exile in Lusaka, Zambia.
Obote remained hopeful of bouncing back to power a third time and his policy was to treat Museveni’s outfit as illegitimate and in denying them legitimacy, he advised members of UPC against running for office under Museveni. But years passed and things changed in many ways, and in 1994, Wacha ran for a seat in the Constituency Assembly (CA), which he won together with other 81 UPC-leaning individuals.
Even when he fell out with his mentor and the leader of the party he had been working for since 1980 – Obote – over the party’s participation in the 1996 elections, Wacha was not deterred.
While Obote who was then in exile did not want the party to participate in the elections organised by his nemesis Museveni, Wacha and some other members of the party thought shunning the elections would kill the party.
He disregarded Obote’s order and participated in the elections, leading to his expulsion from the party, alongside other party members, including Cecelia Ogwal, Patrick Mwondha, among others.
In 1998, Wacha, fronted by the Young Parliamentarians Association (YPA), ran for Speaker of Parliament when then Speaker James Wapakabulo resigned. He says the group wanted to fight for the independence of Parliament because they thought President Museveni had started to interfere with the legislative arm.
Many believed that is why he (Museveni) appointed Wapakhabulo political commissar to get him from the Speaker’s role to weaken a Parliament that had gotten strong under his stewardship.
“We were not going for the Speakership because of the chair but because of the concept of the independence of Parliament,” Wacha says.
“We did not believe it was the role of the President to choose for us who should be our Speaker because that would undermine the independence of Parliament and that’s why I was fielded.”
Wacha’s bid was fought by the Executive and before voting day, 12 members of the YPA were appointed ministers, a move Wacha says was aimed at shifting their loyalty and denying him their support.
Although he managed to get 94 votes, Wacha lost the position to Francis Ayume.
That was the beginning of trouble for most YPA members.
Wacha says many of them were fought not to return to Parliament and he attributes the inefficiency of the following Parliament to that.
“That’s how the 7th Parliament got diluted,” Wacha says. “Besides the CA, the 6th Parliament was the most effective Parliament Uganda has had. It had intelligent legislators who knew what they were supposed to do, who did their work effectively without fear or influence from anybody and I think that is why we still have some grounded legislations in our law books.”
Wacha says his interest in politics started waning in the Seventh Parliament, especially after some members reportedly accepted bribes from President Museveni to amend the Constitution in 2005 to remove the presidential term limits.
“It was the saddest thing in my life to hear that Members of Parliament were being bribed to take a certain line of action. It took me by surprise to hear that people were being given Shs5m to change one aspect of the Constitution which we struggled so hard to put in the Constitution.
And people I used to respect were taking part in that sort of scheme,” Wacha says.
For him, this was contrary to what he believed politics was about. Obote, Wacha says, had taught him that politics was meant for the good and wellbeing of the people. For him, a public servant’s role was to serve the people and not themselves.
Wacha says Obote always likened a good politician to a good dog which catches the animal and patiently waits for its owner to come for it without taking a bite.
“And for an elected leader to manipulate a group of people to act in a certain way for purposes of safeguarding his own interests was unbelievable,” Wacha laments.
Wacha says after the Constitution was changed to remove term limits and let Mr Museveni continue in office beyond 2006, he started viewing the head of state in a whole new way.
“Although I didn’t believe him when he said he would be here for four years, I believed him when he said he would be President for two terms after the 1996 elections. I never thought that the Museveni I knew would do all that he has done to protect his position,” Wacha says.
But Wacha still hopes that Mr Museveni will one day realise that he has done enough and relinquish power to trigger a peaceful transition from his rule. He urges Ugandans to drop the language of “getting rid” of Museveni and work on ensuring a process of handing over.
Wacha is irked by what he calls disunity within the Opposition ranks and the irresistible need for “everybody” to contest for the top office. This, he says, divides their support and leaves the opponent (Museveni) with a solid vote.
Wacha says: “In 1996, we sat down with DP and we, as UPC, agreed that our candidate was going to be Ssemogerere despite the fact that he had been mudslinging us. We wanted one person to stand against Mr Museveni in order to have meaningful results. What baffles me now is this insatiable greed for power where everybody thinks he has to be president. If you have [Alliance for National Transformation presidential candidate Maj Gen] Mugisha Muntu, you have [National Unity Platform party presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias] Bobi Wine, you have [Forum for Democratic Change party presidential candidate Patrick] Oboi Amuriat, you have [Democratic Party presidential candidate] Norbert Mao, you have five others, aren’t you slicing the vote that should have been for one person into all those? Isn’t that giving it to Museveni on a silver platter? Can’t you think? What happened to you, young people?” Wacha wonders.
All this has made a hitherto political bigwig loathe politics. He says he cannot return to the type of politics prevailing in the country now. He says he would only return to politics if there was a senate with adequate powers to second look at legislations, regulations and appointments.
But he can’t help being nostalgic about the politics of Mr Museveni’s early years, when Parliament was still strong and respected. “I miss the politics that I had the chance to participate in. I miss making things happen. I miss correcting people, especially those in government. I miss representing the government of Uganda.”
If he could, Wacha would love to remove violence and money from politics, nepotism and what he calls the politics of me-ism.
“I used to hear things like the government of Uganda has decided… tell me how many times you have heard it in the last few years.”
1980 Elections…Were the polls rigged?
Wacha insists the 1980 election was not rigged, contrary to claims by the Democratic Party (DP), Mr Museveni and many other politicians and observers.
Mr Museveni launched a five-year war that led him to power on the pretext that the 1980 election had been rigged.
“It is purported that the war started because the (1980) election was rigged. I can state categorically that election was not rigged. It is true DP was very popular in Buganda but Buganda was not Uganda.
Because they were popular in Buganda, they had a misconception that they were also popular in other places but that was not true,” Mr Wacha says.
Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, the then DP leader, who could have become president in 1980, insists to-date that the election was comprehensively rigged, with DP candidates being blocked from standing in some areas and election results being falsified.
Mr Ssemogerere has asserted in a number of interviews with this newspaper that Vincent Ssekkono, who was the secretary to the Electoral Commission at the time of the election, telephoned to congratulate him upon his victory before the power to announce the results were usurped from the electoral body by Paulo Muwanga.
But in any case, Wacha argues, if the election was rigged, it would be Mr Museveni responsible for it.
“One of the senior officers then, you can even call him the vice president of the country at that time, was Museveni. So if the election was rigged, then he must have participated in rigging the election,” Wacha argues.
Mr Museveni was Muwanga’s deputy at the Military Commission, but he participated in the election as the leader of the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM). Mr Museveni had participated among the forces that fought Amin together with the Tanzanian forces, and had a section of the army that was loyal to him.
Obote and Muwanga also had soldiers loyal to them, and theirs was arguably the biggest faction of the heterogeneous army that the country had at the time. Mr Museveni routinely warned about waging a war should the election be rigged, while Obote would mock Ssemogerere over not having military generals to back up his quest for power.
In support of his claim that DP didn’t win a majority but it only appeared so because of the party’s massive support in Buganda region, Wacha says: “So because that war started and was mainly fought in Buganda, an area which was mainly DP, it was supported overwhelmingly.”