In his willingness to change his mind in the face of new facts, he embodied the finest traits of intellectual self-confidence
I spent most of Saturday March 2 night staring at my computer at home trying to write an obituary of the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of East African affairs, Eriya Kategaya, who had just died. I did not exceed a paragraph. I then spent a good part of Sunday morning and evening on a similar exercise, still without success. I cannot claim that this was just because I was overcome with grief. My relationship with Kategaya was more political than personal. His loss to me was more intellectual than emotional. I was, therefore, puzzling on how to frame his role in Uganda’s politics.
For example, whenever there was a major national issue, Museveni would meet Kategaya. And on such occasions, the two would talk for hours on end. And when they came out with a position, it was always what was implemented. In that way, there was a genuinely shared leadership. In fact, Museveni would not announce a cabinet without consulting Kategaya. If Kategaya objected to someone being appointed to a specific portfolio, Museveni was always willing to change his mind. This is what happened when the President proposed Bidandi Ssali as prime minister in 1996. Kategaya went to meet Museveni and Kintu Musoke was appointed prime minister instead.
I was a student at Makerere University and full of opinions that were published in The Monitor. Many of them were critical of the NRM government. In the Constituent Assembly, NRM was advocating a Movement system, while I was arguing for a multiparty system in the pages of Monitor. I would accuse the NRM of being deeply sectarian and corrupt. Yet Kategaya would never be angry with me. Whenever I met him, he would point out where I made a point but for the most part mock my criticisms or simply laugh at me. However, he would listen keenly even where he disagreed with me.
Whenever I met him, we would debate politics. Kategaya would always challenge my assumptions, question my facts, or expose logical flaws in my argument, and inconsistencies in my reasoning. He was always willing to change his mind whenever you gave him facts which contradicted what he thought was true. Although this made some to assume he lacked core convictions, I think Kategaya had a deep intellectual self-confidence which allowed him to easily change his mind in the face of new facts or counter arguments he had not thought about. Most of us suffer from a hidden intellectual inferiority complex which makes us reflexively reject out of hand arguments that contradict our own.
This way, Kategaya was the politician who would perhaps have made the President that most of Kampala’s chattering class would have loved to have but perhaps would never have voted for. He was not the man to stand and denounce his opponent with vitriol. Instead, he always focused on the issue, not the person. When he criticised, it was to disagree, not to insult. The more I engaged him, the more I admired his ways – his political behavior. I also realised how different I was from what I admired in him. I am acutely aware of my tendency to be like many Ugandans, given to dismissing opposing views without reflection.
I would watch in silent wonderment the calm composure with which he debated even with those he disagreed and realised that perhaps that is the leader our country needed. But in the tumble of Ugandan politics, many of our people seem to get attracted to polarising politicians – those who call their opponents names. For example, I once had lunch with Kategaya to discuss why he went back into cabinet after he had been dropped over his disagreement with Museveni over term limits. His answer was profound.
Kategaya said he agrees with Museveni on many things and disagrees with the President on a few – one of them, term limits. “I have not changed my mind on term limits,” he said, “I still think it was done wrongly and I have told the president this.” He told me he did not leave cabinet over term limits since he never resigned. It is the president who fired him. There are many other things he was willing to work with Museveni over for the good of Uganda, the region and Africa – even if they disagreed on term limits. So when the President asked him to work towards East African integration, he was willing to make a contribution.
For a man who had gone through many political struggles, he surprisingly exhibited little political ambition. He never seemed to hanker for a top job or scramble for money. For him power was to serve, not to rule. So Kategaya never strove for pomp and glory. Instead he sought to be obscure even when he was at the top. Throughout his career, his name did not come into the mud of corruption that has consumed most NRM politicians. Some accused him of returning to government because of financial burdens. Had he stolen his way to economic security, he would have secured the financial independence he needed to challenge the government without becoming destitute.
We can debate his decision to go back into government and the personal motivations that may have influenced him. But it was vintage Kategaya. He would disagree with you but he would never be disagreeable. This way he was like Ruhakana Rugunda – always affable and willing to listen to the other side. He was vigorous in his political beliefs but restrained in his political actions. Those are qualities that could make a very good president but, perhaps, not a good presidential candidate. This flexibility made him who he was – Eriya Kategaya.