2 December 2012

Uganda: Salaamu - Kamuli's 'Cute Girl' Gets Her Groove Back

Amongst the archetypal women who have emerged to challenge the status quo, the story of Proscovia Salaamu Musumba, is peppered with anecdotes of failure, resilience, perseverance and triumph.

Admired for her stoicism, the FDC eastern region vice president is loathed in nearly equal measure for her criticism by those on the other side of the political divide. During an explosive debate in the Seventh Parliament, Mary Karooro Okurut, who is now Information minister, accused Salaamu of having the kimansulo of the mouth.

At the time, Kampala was still shocked by the arrival on the scene of shows where girls danced virtually naked. To stretch Karooro's analogy, she was suggesting that when Salaamu spoke, it was the verbal equivalent of stripping to the panty. That latter, for a politician, would require courage. Not that Salaamu is a coward! In fact, as Karooro found out back then, Salaamu does relish a good fight.

And last week, after a series of political setbacks, she bounced back on the political stage in Kamuli, by upsetting the ruling party apple-cart. She took NRM candidate Thomas Kategere to the cleaners in Kamuli LC-V chairperson by-election, garnering 67 percent of the vote against her rival's measly 29 percent.

The former Bugabula South MP had lost three consecutive elections. Though she was bruised, Musumba, who has insisted she would rather be called chairman than the gender-vague "chairperson", promised to fight on. With last week's victory, she displayed a steely resolve that belies the old image of the humble Catholic girl who later married former minister Isaac Musumba.

Such has Salaamu's stock been that Kyadondo East MP Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda once tipped her to become Uganda's first female president. A lot of events could have conspired against her rival, a victim of the toxic fights amongst the ruling party leaders in the Busoga sub-region. But while many think she is too abrasive, Salaamu has consummate political skills.

By voting day, it was clear that her political instinct had charmed her rivals, making many voters feel they could not afford to make her lose. She masterfully recast the language of aggression for that of coexistence in an electoral map that favoured the ruling party. She also enjoyed silent support of the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, arguably the most influential politician in Busoga. Though they differ in ideology, Kadaga and Salaamu have been friends for a long time. Only recently, Salaamu referred to herself and Kadaga as "cute girls" whose stature flies in the face of Kamuli's image as an area covered with jiggers.

Salaamu's political trajectory through the rough and tumble of elective politics is as colourful as her life. Though her husband, Isaac Musumba, kept his allegiance with the NRM, serving as a minister for two terms, Salaamu chose to take a different path. In 1996, she resigned from her job as a senior programme officer at Uganda Red Cross Society to contest for the Bugabula South parliamentary seat, defeating a host of men to represent the rural constituency.

She entered the public consciousness as an MP in the 7th Parliament who became a vocal critic against the regime's ills. Though many women elected on the affirmative action ticket often shied away from criticising the regime, Salaamu would never be persuaded by such favours.

This, till today, would earn her implacable foes. Together with the likes of former ICT minister Aggrey Awori, DP President Norbert Mao, lawmakers like the late James Mwandha, Martin Wandera, Maj John Kazoora and other MPs who belonged to the Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (Pafo), they kept the front bench on its toes.

She was later to chair Parliament's committee on Presidential and Foreign affairs. Since she left that position, many of her colleagues believe the committee has never been more influential than when she chaired it. She continued to remain relevant even after she was defeated in Bugabula South by her bitter foe, the junior regional cooperation minister, Asuman Kiyingi.

In the sleepy rhythms of Namwendwa, her birth-place in Kamuli district, Salaamu always kept touch with her electorate but also remained actively engaged in FDC politics often making the headlines. Her commitment to the party was uncontested, appearing almost in all elections where the party was contesting, bearing long and cold nights to ensure that no vote of the FDC candidate was stolen under the cover of darkness.

Sometimes, many of her colleagues encouraged her to abandon the rural constituency, which often favours ruling party candidates, for an urban bastion, perhaps one of the constituencies in Jinja town. Others suggested she should stand on the affirmative action platform.

"She turned it down because she is resilient. She does not easily give up despite the ups and downs," argues the Justice Forum (Jeema) President Asuman Basalirwa, a close confidant of Salaamu.

Basalirwa says Salaamu rubs people the wrong way because she is straightforward and speaks with brutal candor. "She is not a hypocrite. If she does not like you, she will tell you in your face. This is why people say she is rude and arrogant," says Basalirwa.

That she has retreated to a district, having been an MP, has been seen by some as an act of desperation. But it does not have to be. The resilient woman in Salaamu is unlikely to sit on her laurels. She will continue to navigate the choppy waters and ensure that her vessel is leak-proof; and who knows how far she will sail!

Salaamu Musumba fact-file

BORN: March 11, 1963; Kamuli.

EDUCATION: Mt St Mary's Namagunga; Makerere University (SWSA); Nottingham University (MA Social Policy & Administration).

WORK: Uganda Red Cross Society (Programme Officer 1987 - 1996).

POLITICS: MP Bugabula South (1996-2006); chaired Presidential and Foreign Affairs Committee; deputy chairperson, Uganda Women Parliamentarian's Association (UWOPA); coordinator, Young Parliamentarians Association (YPA). Lost MP seat to Asuman Kiyingi in 2006.

She is FDC vice president for the eastern region. Earlier this year she tried to contest for the East African Legislative Assembly but lost out, although her party eventually pulled out.

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