By Kyetume Kasanga
The tribute to the fallen former Prime Minister Prof. Apolo Robin Nsibambi, whose Press Unit I was privileged to head when he still was, had to delay to allow space for other people to pour out their hearts. Although in some circles he was known as “Mr Lugubrious”, he was not lugubrious at all. He was an amiable personage, down-to-earth mortal, sagacious academician, personification of meticulousness, sincere political hygienist and exuberantly frank Premier.
The Prime Minister’s Press Unit had been led by an officer in acting capacity before I took up the reins as a newly promoted Principal Information Officer in July 2010. My peri-urban civil service beginnings were humble and unassuming, bred at Masindi District Local Government in the evening of the last decade but initially a secondary school teacher at Kyebambe Girls’ in Fort Portal in the early 1990s.
When I took up duty as Head of the Unit, Prof. Nsibambi had been PM for the previous 10 years. My immediate supervisor was his Undersecretary/Senior Private Secretary, Mr George Bashaija Sabiiti, now retired. I was on katebe for three weeks before my supervisor asked the officer in acting capacity to hand over office to me. The staff was reluctant, opining that since he did not receive it from anyone there was nothing to hand over to anyone; he could only surrender vehicle keys and a fuel card to the US/SPS. That was done quietly on a Friday afternoon and I accessed the items on Monday morning.
I convened a Press Unit meeting that afternoon to detail our modus operandi. Two people were conspicuously not keen to attend: that guy and the driver who I later learnt that he had been falsely told that I was going to replace him with another. I had neither the will, reason, plan nor authority to do so. I insisted we postpone the meeting until those staff were ready to attend, and so it was. Next day the driver yielded but the other declined again. The rest is history.
A few days later, Prof. Nsibambi summoned me to his Office where he had convened a top-level meeting to discuss issues surrounding the Prime Minister’s Press Unit. Little did I know I had been badmouthed before him days earlier. He tasked the Undersecretaries, the ministry’s Transport Officer and his Aide-de-Camp (ADC), a senior Police Officer, to ensure that I get an official vehicle and fuel immediately, but back off his work.
He announced point-blank: “You won’t do my work.” He mused about me, “I know this man is deeply religious. He needs these facilities (the vehicle and fuel) to go to church.” He asked me how much fuel I needed and it was agreed that I get a monthly allocation of UGX400,000 for the purpose. He then adjourned the meeting.
About an hour later, Nsibambi summoned me again. In his Office I found the Permanent Secretary, Mr Pius Bigirimana who he had called forth from his official annual leave to sort out the mess, alongside a half-dozen other top ministry officials; it was a serious rendezvous!
Before I was gestured to a seat I was astounded by these Prof. Nsibambi’s words as he looked me straight in my stone face: “I am sorry for causing confusion in the Department. From today you’ll do my work.” I just couldn’t summon any courageous belief within me! He even asked for my phone contact, which he would later routinely use to assign me!
In the afternoon he persuaded me to sit in his Benz to go for an official function at a foreign Ambassador’s Residence in Kololo. I sank into the seat on his right, him on my left and off the convoy snaked to the upscale Kampala suburb. Along the way I interacted with him timidly.
Routinely, we would discuss story ideas and the angles they would take before I filed any news item about him. The devout monarchist manifested deep cognisance when I impressed him for the first time: he represented H. E. President Yoweri Museveni at a conference in Kigali, Rwanda in late 2010. I didn’t travel with him but I had contacts who gave me video footage of the conference.
The story I filed on TVs back in Kampala really thrilled him. “You are so technical and better than your predecessor,” he commended me. “As a technocratic Prime Minister, I am proud of you!” He instructed that whenever I file a story I should just alert him to watch it on the telly.
When he was dropped in a Cabinet reshuffle on 24 May 2011 I stumbled on him as he scaled the stairs to his Office on the 6th Floor of Postel Building to prepare for Hand Over. He held my hand and rhetorically asked: “Mwami Kyetume, olabye emirimo bwegiggwa?” (Mr Kyetume, have you seen how jobs are lost?). I was totally flabbergasted and speechless in introspection!
Fare thee well, affable and charming Rt Hon. Professor “Lugubrious”! May the Good Lord grant your soul eternal peace!
The writer is a Principal Information Officer