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The life and times of Prof. Apolo Nsibambi

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Added 28th May 2019 06:42 PM

Nsibambi is one of those Ugandan politicians who crossed straight from the world of academia into government

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Nsibambi is one of those Ugandan politicians who crossed straight from the world of academia into government

He was an academic turned politician, father to many and a farmer.

If you asked a random stranger to define former Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi in a single term, be sure to hear something along the lines of an intellectual, a gentleman, diplomat, moderator, an articulate speaker and very time-conscious.

That is the legacy the man has curved for himself after many years in the captains’ chamber of the cruise ship called Uganda.

Nsibambi is the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister, having occupied the office for 12 years, from April 1999 to May 2011. Some have argued that he is also the most remarkable embodiment of the Prime Minister’s Office in Uganda’s history, considering that the similarly named office that Obote occupied was different (equivalent to head-of-state) and was scrapped in 1966, while the late Dr. Samson Kiseka’s most remarkable tenure was as Vice-President.

Academic to cabinet minister
Nsibambi is one of those Ugandan politicians who crossed straight from the world of academia into government. Without holding any national political office, and having never even stood for any significant political office, he was, in 1996, drafted into cabinet straight from Makerere University where he was the director of the Institute of Social Research.

He served as Minister of Public Service until 1998 when he was appointed Minister of Education and Sports, and had held this portfolio for just a year when he was elevated to the position of Prime Minister, effectively becoming Leader of Government Business in Parliament.

He often bragged about being one of the few Ugandans who successfully transferred their classroom political science onto the actual playing field.

His appointment to Prime Minister is generally judged to have been based on a combination of factors that the President and ruling party wanted at the time.

Namely; that he was a Muganda with strong ties to Mengo; that he wielded strong influence in the Anglican Church community; and that he was a universally revered personage, being an accomplished academic with dignified mannerisms.

While most other politicians who suddenly found themselves in government later went on to stand for elections, Nsibambi throughout his tenure never contested in elections.

To justify his stand, he has always referred to himself as a technocrat Prime Minister, who owed his position not to politicking, but to expertise in government and leadership, and always argued that keeping out of elective politics always enabled him to act in the interest of the nation without being compromised by constituents.

Intellectual and public darling
Prof. Aaron Mukwaya of Makerere University says Nsibambi will be remembered for having promoted government positions through colourful oratory, in an exciting, warm and humorous manner. And indeed it should be, considering that the articulate don had always had a fan base waiting to catch his performance every time he took hold of a microphone.

Mukwaya says the don’s commanding self-expression made all people respect him to the point of almost fearing him, and that this being revered to the boundaries of fear could even be recorded as one of his weaknesses because it made his counterparts weak before him.

For smartness of dress, he had always been voted among the Best Dressed Men by New Vision readers in their annual ‘Best of the Year Opinion Poll’.

Moderate with the opposition
According to a veteran journalist who covered parliamentary issues for a long time, Nsibambi is one of the few contemporary politicians who commanded a lot of respect among both members of the ruling party and the opposition.

This was mainly because even as an NRM bigwig, he maintained a good working relationship with members of the opposition - always listening to them and according them respect.

He was moderate and non-partisan when debating issues. At his official send-off years back, President Museveni in his farewell speech mentioned foremost Nsibambi’s effort to establish harmony between Government and the opposition in Parliament.

His moderateness might also be read in the fact that he is one of the very few government officials who came out to publicly to admit government mistakes in the handling of CHOGM funds. But his critics say he had always had the habit of taking criticism personally.

Time keeping
Prof. Mukwaya said Nsibambi performed excellently as far as guiding government business was concerned. He always acted with integrity and as minister of public service, advocated better remuneration of civil servants and enforced the policy of paying salaries by the 28th day of the month.

He introduced performance-oriented management in a bid to make civil servants accountable and to ensure that they always accomplished their tasks punctually.

As minister of education, he developed the first Education Sector Strategic Investment Plan. As Prime Minister, he summoned ministers to explain on the floor of Parliament whenever issues were raised about their respective departments.

He never backed down questioning leaders even on sensitive issues. It will be remembered that Nsibambi once told all ministers whose election to Parliament had been nullified by court to stop attending cabinet and parliamentary sessions until their fate had been decided.

Mengo Darling-Turned-Persona-Non-Grata
But one area from which you will surely not get all-extolling talk about Nsibambi is Mengo, the Buganda Kingdom seat. Before he joined the NRM government, the former premier was a key player at Mengo, where he was constitutional affairs minister.

He was one of the Mengo representatives to the 1994 Constituent Assembly as chief agitator for its interests, foremost return to the federal system of governance.

But when he joined the NRM in 1996, his formerly warm relationship with Mengo moved to cold. Nsibambi had always been seen by Mengo as a traitor for negotiating on the side that had always denied them their requests.

The extent of the fallout between Nsibambi and Mengo was reflected when Mengo sent back to Nsibambi the $1,000 he had contributed to the fund for repairing the burnt Kasubi Tombs.

Early childhood
Nsibambi was born on November 27, 1938, to Simeon Nsibambi, a historical Anglican Church clergyman famed for being one of the two leaders of the East African Revival Movement.

He was educated at King’s College Budo, graduated with a bachelor of science degree in economics at the University of Chicago, where he also attained his Master of Arts in Political Science and a doctorate from the University of Nairobi.

The father of four daughters and grandfather to several grandchildren has been married twice. His first wife, Rhoda, passed away in December 2000 and in 2003 he married Esther. Upon retirement from government, he said he was falling back to a life of research, writing, playing the piano and attending to his farm.

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