The first time I met ex-Vice President Gilbert Bukenya in person was also my last time. There are more saucy stories to tell about the steam bath loving, rotund politician whose name Balibaseka (roughly translated they used to laugh at me but look where I am now ) may for the first time work as a joke on his current legal problems. Bukenya, a medical professional of considerable repute once led Makerere’s medical research arm is facing charges of corruption in relation to the broad day light heist carried out by politicians and the civil service during the 2007 Commonwealth Conference in Uganda.
That afternoon I left Emmanuel Gyezaho, then our brilliant intern together with a new hire Halima Athumani, in charge of the Monitor FM news desk and accompanied Patrick Kamara (now of NTV) to Bukenya’s country home of Kakiri. All this effort was the work of Simon Kaheru, a friend and media savvy individual who had briefly convinced me and others that government might become more efficient by joining Bukenya’s team as his publicist.
We should have known better. It turned out that amidst the village tranquility of Kakiri, VP Bukenya had recreated some weird version of his boss President Yoweri Museveni in the countryside.
Rolling his eyes, and waving his hands about in a mimicry of Mr. Museveni occasionally reaching to lower his spectacles in a manner that was to become his public image was on full display to us.
We laughed at this political comedy but Bukenya must have understood and embraced its political logic. He kept us waiting for hours and then crammed us into a half finished classroom structure where he proceeded like his boss of past to lecture us in front of a black board. I remember the lesson of the day was his upland rice scheme (an important project) causing me to joke with Kaheru and Kamara that my headline for The Monitor was not the new Vice President but Rice President.
Bukenya’s nine political lives are now well known in Uganda. His personal problems and political skills at deflecting blame, largely by threatening to implicate fellow members of cabinent will be put to test again in this new indictment. However his exit from the Intricate Corridors of Power ( the title of a very unreadable book he wrote) are worth a different sort of comment.
The new Museveni cabinet is more diverse if only because of the electoral fortunes that incumbents have suffered in 2011. A large number of ministers lost their seats during the NRM primaries, which incidentally were the main event of the last elections ( 6.2 million people voted in them, a million more than in the general election).
Consequently some academics turned disappointing politicians have left cabinet including several Professors amongst them the Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi ( he most infamously defended the buying of new cars for ministers in response to bad roads), Tarsis Kabwegyere ( a former Minister for Disaster Preparedness wont to insult disaster victims, he once told me he would not mind if I dropped dead from the shock of his insensitive commentary, it would be another disaster for him to respond to) and others. Many are now worried that this new breed of leaders who reflect in effect the campaign 2011 signal an anti-intellectual era in cabinet.
Some of the new members of cabinet are political unknowns with sparse academic qualifications at least compared to the Nsibambis and Bukenya’s of this world.
The jury is still out on the real outcomes of the new cabinet who enter the stage with even more colorful characters like Al Haj Nasser Ssebagala, a convicted ex-Mayor now minister without “Fortpolio” or Muyanja Mbaabali, a lobbyist and businessman turned politician now minister for investment.
If intellectualism was tied to the Bukenya’s and Nsibambi’s with such results then this new so-called anti-intellectualism in cabinet may be quite a treat.
That evening driving back to Kampala both myself and Kamara were quite clear little more than drama could be expected from Uganda’s Rice President. At the end Bukenya is a caricature of how politics can transform the gifted amongst us. At least now he is ready for a complete makeover and still has an audience.