By Stephen Bwire
The recent appointment of Richard Todwong to the enviable post of NRM Secretary General isn’t a surprise considering his meteoric rise through the NRM political system from the time he graduated from university.
My first contact with Todwong, who has steadily won the heart and admiration of President Yoweri Museveni and also NRM chairman, was in March 2014 when I was assigned by my then news Editor to interview him for publication in Daily Monitor. At that time, the flurry in the ruling party over the post of Secretary General, which was then still being held by former prime minister Amama Mbabazi, had propelled Richard Todwong into the limelight, after he was asked by the party chairman to assist the premier with the party’s mobilisation activities. Todwong was then minister in charge of political mobilisation.
He didn’t hesitate to grant me appointment for the interview. As I waited at Shell Bugolobi, an executive light-grey Toyota Land Cruiser (VX, eight-cylinder) Prado pulled over to where I had stood waiting for 10 minutes. Someone lowered the tinted window from the backseat and beckoned me in. A sharply dressed youthful minister donning a grey suit with a matching striped necktie flashed a smile, revealing an even set of teeth. He opened the door, and moved over to the other side creating space for me. We sped-off to a nearby restaurant on Luthuli Avenue Bugolobi for our meeting which was punctuated with good Luo food.
Todwong’s story is a mixture of fortune and pain. It’s a story that requires some deeper level of empathy to understand. It’s quite unique for one to write away yet very intense like a horror movie, as he narrates.
His late late father, Mr Savio Ojok Awany, encouraged his family to be strong and committed in supporting the NRM. “His strong guidance helped us to build the love and interest in President Museveni whom he knew way back in the 1970s. Our father was the genesis of our story with the NRM and President Museveni,” he started his narration when I reached out to him for yet another exclusive interview following his new elevation to the helm of the ruling Party.
When President Museveni and his colleagues took over power in 1986, Todwong and his entire family were deep in their village of Purongo in Nwoya District. “As always, whenever there are political instabilities, Ugandans retreat to their village for ‘safety’. So we left Anaka town for the village. Even then, we were not settled because the 1985/6 war had cut off our elder brother Charles Otema in Kampala (he is now a three star General of the UPDF). This was traumatic because of the bad history that our father experienced in the hands of Amin’s soldiers,” he narrates, continuing; “Our father survived many attempts against his life in the mid 70s as an Acholi prison officer and he knew how dangerous it was for our brother to be locked up in Kampala at the dawn of a regime change. Luckily though, we got information through a family friend that our brother was alive and busy working with the new forces (NRA). We jubilated although the celebration was short-lived because our father being a senior civil servant then, knew the danger of our brother joining the liberation forces when we were all in the middle of hostilities from the remnants of the UNLA fleeing soldiers.”
“I remember our home was attacked many times by these groups (UNLA) as a demonstration to the other families in Acholi not to think of working with President Museveni and the NRM. We started living in the jungles in fear of the constant attacks and intimidation from this group. One evening when our father was listening to the BBC Focus on Africa programme from one of our hide outs by a river, he heard that the NRA group had crossed Karuma and moving to Acholi. We were excited about the news but yet not sure of our fate as a family,” Todwong recollects.
Todwong and his family kept a low profile in the jungle not sure of their next move as a family. They were being hunted like wild game by the “cilil” rebel group that was formed by the fleeing UNLA soldiers. It was at this moment that their father Mzee Awany sat them down and openly told them to find a way of supporting the new forces (the Museveni’s group) because he had confirmed from another source that his son Otema was truly alive and now working with the Museveni’s group.
Something which was very strange because they thought he had been in killed in Kampala! “It’s in order for one to conclude that we fully joined NRM because they did not kill our brother,” he says, adding, “From that moment, our father started lecturing us about the challenges of the previous Governments that he knew so well and how they were tribalistic and could not spare anyone’s life if such a person did not support them. That in Museveni’s group, he had a lot of hope since those officers who were in UNLA are now busy working with them. He equally predicted that the Acholi’s would reject Museveni and it would be dangerous for us as a family in Acholi to openly support Museveni because we would all be killed. Indeed a lot of attempts were made by the then rebels to properly clear our family but God protected us.”
The Awanys (Todwon’g family) managed to escape from the jungles and came to Gulu town when Gulu was already taken over by the NRA. They re-united with their elder brother Otema who was among the NRA/M team that entered Gulu, and he was among the other Acholi soldiers in NRA who started the struggle to fully pacify Acholi and Northern Uganda.
Todwong acknowledges that there were some mistakes that were made by the team of the NRA that first entered Acholi. “They came with a lot of force and revange attitudes that caused the bitterness in the population. Even then as a family we remained committed and I remember way back in my secondary school life I started talking good about the NRA and Museveni. Indeed as expected, I appeared strange among my fellow students because I was a lonely voice among a sea of voices against the NRM regime. But I persisted until I joined Makerere University in 1996,” he explains.
Mobilising against LRA
While at Makerere, the situation back home was worrying because the war had intensified and the whole population was put in internally displaced people’s camps, (IDPs). Mzee Odokwod pa Acheng was the RDC of Gulu. As students from Acholi, they couldn’t move back home whenever school would close owing to the debilitating war in the North. Todwong didn’t agree to the idea of him and his fellow Acholi students staying at university during holiday surviving on relief food from the Red Cross.
Todwong, who was guild speaker at the time, insisted that their people who were in the IDP camps would feel comforted if their children including university students could reach out and talk to them. “At that time a lot of misinformation was all over and the war was intensifying. Many of my colleagues disagreed with me but I managed to convince three students with whom I approached the then RDC who welcomed us to join his team of Mobilisation.”
The RDC was happy but equally scared because he never wanted the youngsters to be exposed to danger since the situation was bad and the rebels were all over Acholi. “We insisted and I remember one afternoon he asked us to inform our parents that if anything happened to us, him as the RDC and the entire Government would not be held responsible. The following day we lied to him that our parents had accepted us to be moving with him and the security team to the IDP camps,” he says further revealing that to his other friends, it was a real risky venture because all their parents did not know that they were secretly moving with the security teams in dangerous places. “Good enough for me, I was already hardened by my ‘jungle’ experience and I knew how to take care of myself in case of danger,” he narrates as he keeps answering frantic calls coming in from people seeking to congratulate him.
Todwong says that the mixture of pain and emotions of seeing the conditions under which their people lived in the camps strengthened their resolve even more. They were taken for Cadre training together with many other civil servants/Headteachers as a means to prepare and equip them for the task.
At that time, there were quite some many NGOs in Acholi and some of these NGOs were involved in keeping the children rescued from LRA. It’s worth noting that the emergence of Kony (LRA) as a rebel group dismantled all other rebel groups and so the security dynamics changed. They were in the middle of this as young university students volunteering to help. They could not help but cry every time they saw the innocent children rescued by UPDF.
“We became stronger and started being more vocal in talking about the war and challenging our leaders who were full time lamenting and blaming Government. This did not go well with many people and many of our friends whom we had gotten in touch with to join the mobilisation were either killed or got scared of the mass hostility against the NRM Government. That was the time when many LCs and local leaders were killed quietly for supporting the Government,” he reminisces.
Alienated for supporting NRM
His flirting openly with the regime that was being blamed for his people’s suffering in northern Uganda earned him stern rebukes from Acholi elders and politicians. He was considered a sell-out, and one who was not even permitted to move near Acholi girls to seek their hand in marriage. “Parents in Acholi reached the extent of forbidding their daughters from getting to me because of my association with the NRM government. I didn’t mind, in fact I later on got a beautiful girl from Bushenyi who is now my wife,” he narrates as he flashes a smile.
When his team got scattered because of fear, Todwong remained with other volunteer carders who had not finished their university studies yet. He says they were continuously abused as political novices, people with no experience or known track records. Others referred to them us as “people from useless families”, and among other derogatory statements. At the time, he had already completed his degree and embarked on recruiting more young people to join the mobilisation. He managed to get in touch with the Rt Hon Dan Kidega and others who were willing to continue with the mobilisation.
Todwong remembers the time during the 2001 elections when him and his friend Dan Kidega were taking money for the NRM leaders in Pader District (Pader was a newly created district from Kitgum); they entered an LRA ambush near Pajule Town Council. “We fought our way out of the ambush and returned the money for Pader to the late Brig Nobel Mayombo and Hon Bidandi Saleh who were in charge of President Museveni’s campaign task force,” he says wondering how they got out of the ambush.
I asked Todwong on how the Acholis and the Greater North finally started embracing NRM, and he said that they as NRM leaders in the region started offering a different narrative to the population about the war, and slowly people started changing. “We even got some positive people being elected to Parliament in 2001 General Elections. We continued and in 2006/2011 elections many NRM candidates were elected from Acholi,” he says quickly adding, “The best performance was in 2011 General elections, when many of the elected MPs from Acholi were NRM. I was one of those elected to represent Nwoya County. I relocated to Nwoya County when Nwoya became a district and rescued the constituency from the opposition for NRM for the first time in history. This was the time when IDPs were no more and the population had settled in their homes. However, the North this time round overwhelmingly voted President Museveni and NRM, and this largely explains the reason as to why the President has decided to generously reward the North with appointments. ”
First encounter with President Museveni
On how he rose from the shadows to catch the eye of the NRM leadership, particularly President Museveni, Todwong narrates that he first came into close contact with the President when he was a student at Makerere University, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences. “The elections of 1996 found me at Makerere where I was active in politics as a student leader. I was the speaker of Acholi Makerere Students Association (AMSA) and I was involved in voluntary mobilisation work for President Museveni who was offering himself as a candidate against his main rival, Paul Ssemogerere.”
“In 1996, President Museveni visited Makerere and he was speaking about unity and poverty. To me as a young man who had grown up in poverty, and having grown to witness my people in northern Uganda fight and kill each other, I embraced this message with all my heart, and that marked the beginning of my love story with the NRM and President Museveni,” he adds.
It is through his political activism at university and identification with the NRM that Todwong came to work closely with the late Noble Mayombo, Brig Henry Tumukunde and Bidandi Ssali, among other NRM leaders, carving out a path for himself that has seen him on a steady political trajectory. It was these leaders who would later on introduce him to the Movement Secretariat, where he would start working for the regime that was reviled in his homeland of northern Uganda owing to the debilitating insurgency that had forced many Acholi and Langi into internally displaced camps.
Humbled by life’s fortune
Looking back, Todwong is humbled by the positive strides his life has taken. “When I consider how fast my life has changed, I give God the glory, because as I look around, I see many of my peers who were going to school, I mean those whose schooling was never interrupted in any way, and see that none of them has achieved the measure of success I have now. I have worked in good positions in government, have been elected to Parliament, became a minister, and now am Secretary General. This is what makes me humble and thank God with all my life,” he says.
“Some people may think that I come from a rich powerful family background to get to where I am now. My father was a prisons warder who struggled to educate us and look after us. My mother is a housewife. Ours has always been a big family in humble circumstances,” he says.
Married to politics
Todwong is passionate about politics. He says there is nothing else he can do apart from politics. It’s this love for politics and his NRM party that, he says, has prompted the party chairman, President Museveni, and other party leaders to entrust him with national leadership responsibilities.
“My work stands out for me, I don’t fight to get noticed. The NRM members and supporters appreciate what I have done for them by committing my full time listening to them and helping them out as a leader. President Museveni also appreciates my effort in selflessly working for the party. For instance, I pay rent for party offices at the sub-counties in my district out of my earnings. A good leader shouldn’t spend his or her time and money on fighting to get noticed,” he asserts.
He says he feels there is nothing else he can do apart from politics, recalling that when he was working in URA as a revenue officer, he felt there was a big mismatch between his calling as a politician and working as a revenue collector. “Inside me, I believed I was a vote collector, but not a revenue collector, that is why I quit my job at URA to join politics,” he says.
Commends Kasule Lumumba
The amiable 48-year-old NRM top bureaucrat salutes the outgoing Secretary General Justine Kasule Lumumba for her accomplished achievements at the helm of the party, and congratulates her on her new Cabinet appointment.
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