22 May 2010

Uganda: Janet Museveni Opens Up On Love, Family And Politics

Kampala — They often appear detached as a pair while in public, casting the authoritative look of tough leaders.

But behind the pristine and heavily-guarded gates to State House, Mr Yoweri Museveni and Ms Janet Kataha live like an ordinary African couple, lavishing and chiding their children.

Love too flows in loads, Ms Janet Museveni told the Network Africa programme on the BBC, the British public broadcaster, in a special African First Ladies' interview, aired yesterday.

"My husband was one of my childhood friends," she said when asked if hers was love on first sight. "I knew him when I was younger; so, when we met as adults, we were really no strangers."

The pair, together with Jennifer Nkunda, the late wife to Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa, trekked kilometres on dirt road to Kyamate Primary School, now in Ntungamo District.

"Our village was a typical African village and every woman was a mother to every child and I loved that. It was such a beautiful time," said Ms Kataha, unimpressed by Ugandan youths' desire to imbibe Western way of life.

Publicly, the First Lady appears reticent and calm. Associates say, in spite of the vast power that she wields, Ms Kataha has remained the dignified 'Munyankore' wife - letting Mr Museveni play the family head in the traditional sense.

Nairobi affair

But how did the pair, after several years of living - perhaps joking and annoying one another - as platonic friends then drown in love?

The feelings of intimacy surged some 750 or so kilometres away in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, and it was nearly accidental, according to Mr Museveni.

The future President, then a guerilla under Front for National Salvation Army (Fronasa) rebel outfit, was sneaking to Uganda from Tanzania when he bumped into John Wycliffe Kazzora at Hilton Hotel in Nairobi.

At the time, Ms Kataha stayed with her cousin Kazzora, a respected and wealthy lawyer, who fled to Nairobi following the murder, in 1972, of Uganda's former Chief Justice Benedicto Kiwanuka. Suspected state security operatives had also raided the attorney's Kampala office, killing a young lawyer in his chambers.

Courier to lover

The Kenyan government, at the prodding of late President Idi Amin, forced out Kazzora who had agreed to work with the Musevenis to topple the dictatorial regime in Kampala. The good that came out of this otherwise saddening ejection was that it set the stage for Mr Museveni and Miss Kataha to upgrade their emotional feelings - fall in love.

"Kazzora [when he left Nairobi] nominated Janet to work as a courier between himself and me," President Museveni writes in his autobiography. "After a little while, I decided that the liaison officer should handle other matters. Janet and I were married in August 1973 and our first child, Muhoozi [Kainerugaba], was born on April 24, 1974 ..."

Asked in the BBC interview how she juggles as a First Lady, wife, Member of Parliament for Ruhama Constituency and State Minister for Karamoja Affairs, mother and grandmother, the First Lady said: "I am lucky to have a family that is very supportive. They all throw their [weight] around me and back my work. I go out [to work] with their blessing and I am very happy to have that support from my family.

Observers and friends, however, offer other insights to explain Janet Kataha's success as a wife and politician.

"She is a strong character and tough mother and makes her wishes strongly felt," says Mr Timothy Kalyegira, a veteran journalist who has interviewed more than 100 people, including members of the First Family, for a planned biography of President Museveni.

"She is an influential person and power broker," says Mr Kalyegira, "I think she is one of the most powerful First Ladies on the African continent today."

Such was not the luminous summit Ms Kataha envisaged in life even as her launched the five-year National Resistance Army (NRA) guerilla war in the Luweero jungles that eventually brought him to power in 1986.

Exile life in Sweden, as her husband fought in the bushes, was so tough that becoming a First Lady, even for a day, never crossed her mind.

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