Reflections on Prof. Apolo Robin Nsibambi, RIP!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Professor Apolo Robin Nsibambi 78, the time keeper has kept his time, and in keeping with many African traditions, almost all obituaries so far, have only spoken well about his life. But Nsibambi who died last Friday, peacefully at his home, like all human beings had the other side, and at the risk of enlisting wraths, I modestly venture into shedding some light on parts of what few will dare publicly say today.

The tributes have by large measure painted Nsibambi as a progressive, when many, in fact considered him, a radical and unbending conservative, who was ready to compromise and played safe, perhaps, the reason he stayed in Uganda throughout the murderous regimes of Idi Amin, UPC II and Tito Okello Lutwa. Born in nobility and obtained elite education, Nsibambi was certainly had an impeccable integrity and thoroughness to detail to fault. He was modest and simple almost with everyone, high and low, which he enjoyed fully.

But while he appeared moderate, Nsibambi was tenaciously obstinate, hostile to being openly criticised or challenged, and didn’t gladly stand ‘fools’. As a politician he would ring a newsroom to bitterly complain even over the most mundane things against journalists. When I first walked into the political science class for my degree course more than thirty years ago, Prof. Nsibambi was the Head of Department, a stickler to punctuality, who would shut the lecture room door immediately he entered. He didn’t allow a student after him, and we got used to his strictness. Nsibambi leaves behind a trail of accomplishments and admiration in equal measure especially from those he mentored, including yours truly. 

By the time Nsibambi joined Cabinet in 1994, as Public Service Minister, his flair and flavor in at Mengo and Makrere University had begun to wane. With the false sense of entitlement that was rife at Mekerere, Nsibambi got their wrath when during one of the strikes over what was commonly referred to as demand for a “food basket” when he advised them to grow their own vegetables since they had sizeable compounds. Nsibambi was heckled out of the main hall, the venue for the meeting of the striking lecturers.

Also, the period Nsibambi lasted in government was when NRM had the most acrimonious relationship both with Mengo, and Makerere evidenced by staff and student strikes which he didn’t solve. In some instances they even objected him sitting in their negotiations with President Museveni, viewing him as a traitor.

By 1996, Nsibambi had been forced to resign as Buganda kingdom minister for political and constitutional affairs due to the toxic environment, although he was their chief negotiator with government over Ebyaffe. The greedy and ever ungrateful leaders in Mengo, now pretending to shed tears of pain, declared him persona non grata and most likely until death, Nsibambi never stepped in Bulange, Lubiri, Banda or Kireka palaces, although remained loyal to the Kabaka. 

The pretentious dark horses at Mengo rejected his personal contribution of books and money towards Muteesa Royal University, and pelted him with stones out of Lubiri. The same group in 2008 heckled him, rejected the money Nsibambi had carried as contribution towards the burial of Dr Suleiman Kiggundu, and forced him out of Kibuli mosque.

They could no longer even remember that between 1986 and 1994, Prof. Nsibambi was the most eloquent agitator and defender of the return of Buganda feudalism, coached as political federalism. Nsibambi and group, forced government to return and entrench the archaic feudal land tenure system where the so-called ‘royals’ and colonial collaborators continue to hold people in bondage, dispossession and expropriation. 

As his students, we used to scornfully tease him how, he could possibly be a professor, teaching public administration in East Africa, and International Relations, while at the same time remaining so inward looking promoting feudalism back at home. He bitterly detested that open challenge which he took so personally. During the Constituent Assembly, where he served as nominated delegate, Nsibambi continued as the indefatigable advocate for Buganda feudalism coined Federo, and when it failed, he ate his humble pies.

When we met in government, we continued our silent ideological war, but in a restrained way, although he kept the professorial attitude. Nevertheless, he gave us space, and, I think, he was a friend to and respected by many. When I occasionally visited him at his forested residence nestled above Livingstone Hall, Prof. Nsibambi was fond of music, especially playing piano. In those days his signature fashion was bright short-sleeved Kaunda suits, and not suits with neck-tie.

Of all the people he touched, both willing and unwilling, Nsibambi’s most profound achievement was marrying the woman he loved most; Rhoda, and he told us his students. And I do believe too, that Esther, who has supported him since 2003, has been another best for him. Fare thee well, Prof. Nsibambi you will fondly be remembered by family, friends, and your students as a loving husband, father, distinguished professor of political science, published author, cultural traditionalist, humarist, environmentalist, politician, champion of social consciousness, and proud patriot.