Interview by Benon Herbert Oluka
17 October 2010
As I approach the table where she was slouched, reading a newspaper in Kampala, Dr Olive Kobusingye turns to face me and we exchange pleasantries. It is a first time meeting and she is surprised that I instantly recognized her and walked right up to the table where she was seated – paying so much attention to her newspaper that her face was not visible.
“Most people just pass me by without knowing who I am,” she says, adding that she prefers to be conspicuous. It probably explains why, in spite of having a brother, Col (rtd) Dr Kizza Besigye, who has twice contested for the presidency against President Museveni, Dr Kobusingye has largely kept out of the public eye. But then, she admits, her name has in the last few weeks grown bigger than her stature.
A petite, soft-spoken woman, Dr Kobusingye has been at the centre of a week-long saga that started last Sunday when news broke that the government had seized a consignment of a book that she wrote. The 213-page book, titled ‘The Correct Line? Uganda under Museveni’, is a uniquely written critique of President Museveni’s 24 years in power by juxtaposing what he preached and what his government now practices.
The storm generated by Dr Kobusingye’s book even before it hits Kampala’s bookshelves has taken the author with as much surprise about the move to blatantly shut out critical reading material as concern that it could attract more torment to her family, which has already suffered tragedies and pain in the hands of President Museveni’s government.
“I was surprised that in 2010, the government of Uganda would try to prevent the people of Uganda from accessing a book that one of them has written with the best of intentions. And that they would not buy the book, read it and criticize it, but that they would seize the book and stop people from accessing it,” she said.
With her book courting controversy even before making it into the country, Dr Kobusingye says her concern about her safety and that of her family is “because, unfortunately, most of the time when my family has been in the newspapers it hasn’t been to celebrate things. It has been because there is a crisis of one sort or another.”
Having graduated as a medical doctor from Makerere University in 1986 and specialised as a surgeon shortly after, Dr Kobusingye had charted a career path far from politics of any nature – even though her brother had emerged from the National Resistance Army (NRA) bush war and taken one of the influential positions in the new Museveni-led government.
Dr Kobusingye earned her first masters’ degree from the University of London in 1991 and returned to work at Mulago Hospital while doing a teaching stint at Makerere University until early 2000s. She got her second masters degree from Makerere.
Although she had stayed out of politics for most of her working life, she finally found herself playing a role during the 2001 presidential campaigns, the first time that her brother contested against President Museveni. It was a rough debut on the political scene.
In her book, Dr Kobusingye narrates how, while organizing Dr Besigye’s political rallies at his home town of Rukungiri on March 3, 2001, her brother’s supporters were attacked by soldiers belonging to the Presidential Protection Unit. The soldiers shot indiscriminately, harassed Dr Besigye’s supporters, beat up others and left at least one dead.
Describing the scene in her book, she narrates, “In the space of a few seconds, the shooting was repeated and was even more sustained. I fell to the ground, half rolling and half running toward the bank building. There was screaming everywhere. Terrified people were running for their lives, mostly heading away from the town centre. Gunshots seemed to come from everywhere….
Family falls victim
“Had it not been for the quick thinking of a policeman guarding the bank, I might have been one of those at the receiving end of the Presidential Protection Unit’s physical assault,” she added.
Fortunately, she did not fall victim. After the 2001 presidential election, she continued to live a largely serene, if not psychologically torturous, life as the government machinery descended on her family. Dr Besigye and their sister Margaret fled to exile, while their late brother Musasizi “Saasi” Kifefe was arrested for an alleged role in plans to overthrow the government.
In 2003, Dr Kobusingye left Mulago to work with the World Health Organisation in Congo-Brazzaville and Zimbabwe. It was only when she returned in 2008 that she embarked on writing her book. But what inspired her?
“I didn’t wake up one day and say I am going to write a book,” she said. “Over the years you see things; something happens and the following day you see a small article about it in the newspapers, the third day it is gone and nobody is even talking about it.”Yet you realise that this is a really important thing. It is going to change people’s lives but we don’t stop to reflect on it; we don’t see it as part of the big picture. We just say people were demonstrating and they were shot at but, you know, that is part of the big picture; why are people demonstrating? And even for whatever reason they were demonstrating, why is the response that rough?”
Dr Kobusingye maintains that although some of her siblings are significant characters in her book, the reasons that inspired her to do the book “have nothing to do with my immediate family because their stories are well known.” She says her focus was to bring out “the stories of many Ugandans who are unknown and the fact that they have eternal relevance.”
“Of course when my relatives were in the mix, I constantly realized that a regime can decide to deal with some people in a manner that is so different from what is stipulated in the Constitution and they get away with it every time. But what is even more shocking is that the rest of the population are not up in arms; they are happily going about their duties,” she said.
She says the aim of the book is to contextualize the many isolated incidents in which the government has gone against the very things that it promised to uphold so that Ugandans stop “to live the lie that Uganda” is under an unblemished government.
The discussion eventually comes to the timing of the books release. Was its release towards the start of the campaigns for the 2011 general elections intentional? Was this her way of giving her brother’s chances a shot in the arm in his third- and apparently final- bid?
Ms Kobusingye says her plan was actually to release the book towards the end 2009, and the delay frustrated her. She further says that although she told her brother of the idea, she did not eventually seek his counsel or even interview him. In fact, she explains, the manuscript went to the publishers without him even reading it.
“The book is largely about what President Museveni and his government have done; it is not about Dr Besigye and what he has or hasn’t done. Many of the things that I talk about have nothing to do with Dr Besigye or whether he would be able to solve this problem or that. If Patrick Mamenero is killed by CMI half a kilometre from the hospital where I worked, what has Dr Besigye got to do with it? Am I whitewashing him by saying that the government kills people? If there are riots over Buganda and unarmed civilians are shot and killed in the city streets, what has that got to do with whitewashing Dr Besigye?” she asked.
Dr Kobusingye instead argues that the Forum for Democratic Change should indeed be put to the same levels of scrutiny as President Museveni. “I think if Besigye ever got into government,” she starts, “we should be expected to critique his government with the same measuring tape that we are doing President Museveni’s because if you don’t, then you are breeding impunity. They need to be held accountable to the same extent. You cannot say that for President Museveni we should use this measure and Dr Besigye we should use that measure. It is the same Ugandans that are benefiting or suffer as a result of bad governance.”
Political plans? While she speaks passionately about the issues she believes in, Dr Kobusingye distances herself from political leadership. “I have no plans of going into competitive politics but I am interested in how I am governed,” says the married mother of two daughters who professes a love for teaching and research.
For a woman who says she does not like to be in the political limelight, Dr Kobusingye has kicked up one hell of a storm with her book. However, having ruffled feathers within the government, she does not plan to run off without defending what she believes in. “What I am thinking is, ‘how can we cause our government – because it not just myself now but it would be in the interest of all Ugandans – to admit that it is wrong and that we have the right to choose what to read and that they should let us have that right?’” she said. “My natural inclination would be to say, ‘I don’t need a fight. Let me just walk away from this and carry on with my life’ because that is how non-confrontational I am. But if we all keep saying, ‘we don’t want a fight,’ then we give people a chance to oppress others with impunity.”