By Julius Mwesigye
Teddy Sseezi Cheeye had a column in his Newspaper Uganda Confidential. Feet of Clay, it was called, was a fiction column through which he spoke frank to those in power on issues of public policy.
In the August 30- September 6 1993 issue, he described, as hump to hump and annoying, the traffic situation along Jinja-Kampala highway—the road where he lost his life to a speeding Boda Boda on Thursday March 1, 2018.
He was a rather feisty man in his writing. Just like most Uganda journalists who have scaled the heights, Cheeye showed up from a poverty stricken and obscure background with his only trait being that he was enduring.
Though I never interacted with him in close quarters, I ‘knew’ Cheeye in a number of ways, having worked with him in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, where he was deployed as the first ‘Cadre’ in the National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime after the January 1986 overthrow of the short-lived Tito Okello regime—when the current government came to power, it deployed cadres in most government offices to ‘check’ on the excesses of public servants.
Despite his ‘high-profile job’ as a Cadre, when the plump Cheeye joined the ‘Ministry’, he was allocated a small bedsitter on Block 1 in the staff quarters, a block he shared with four other families: that of Henry Mugisha, John Ekodai (Film Department), Peter Sebatta (Copy Typist) and Eddy Ndyanabo, a very light-skinned and comic Accounts Assistant seconded to the ministry from finance— As of March 1 Cheeye was one of the last two surviving, the other being Mr. Mugisha.
Cheeye rarely interacted with neighbors. He kept most of his talking to his wife, Anne Kayiranga and baby (I don’t remember the sex) and younger brother.
This, probably, had to do with politics of the time; the North-South divide (tribal or otherwise), the poster boy of post-Independence Uganda, which gave rise a suspicious society that created the ‘we’ against ‘them’ scenario.
When Cheeye joined the Ministry and given the politics of the time, he was regarded as one of the topmost four people after the Minister, at the time Al Haji Abubaker Kakyama Mayanja (RIP), Deputy Minister Jack Maumbe Mukhwana (RIP) and Permanent Secretary, either Wilson Wanyama or Ben Otto. That was how ‘powerful’ the Cheeye of 1986 was.
It is this ‘power’ that made him to allocate himself a car, a Subaru Reg. No. UI 0095, at the time driven by one Mzee Kiggundu (Fumuka), a former driver to the Obote II Minister of Information Dr. David Obiara Anyoti, to the inconvenience of the majority of the ministry staff that worked the night shift.
The Subaru, allocated to transport night shift staff staying in the Ministry quarters in Ntinda and Naguru, was one of the few in the fleet and it being taken by Cheeye meant that staff had no means of heading home after work, usually at 11pm. But who would dare Cheeye? He was an NRM Cadre, considered a ‘spy’ by workmates and therefore, a ‘approach-him-at-your-peril’ kind of guy.
Few fraternized with him except when in line of official duties, most of which he, as Cadre in charge of the Ministry, supervised.
It was while in line of his supervisory role that staff knew about how Cheeye had actually spent some time in the NRA bush war but magically disappeared when the gun fire intensified.
“You, weren’t you with us and you abandoned us,” the four star General, Elly Tumwine, at the time the Army Commander, who had come for an interview, asked him on the sidelines.
Just like that, the story about how the man had spent some time in the bushes of Luweero spread like a bush fire and by evening had people’s tongues wagging! Many thought he was going to be arrested-for desertion- but that never happened. He remained boss, feared by many!
We somehow both left the ministry. He had fallen in love with the art of journalism and I kept following him through his works in the Uganda Confidential, the cyclostyle printed newspaper which was loathed and celebrated by those in power and the random street reader, respectively, because of its boldness and deep throat exposes.
One such expose was splash he published in the August 30- September 6 1993 issue with a carefully crafted headlined’ State House: implicated in the murder of Kagondoki?
He basically accused the first lady, Janet Museveni, of having a hand in the then third year Makerere University student’s life over a land dispute.
The story prompted President Museveni to issue a stern warning against journalists with the now famous phrase, “you can write and say anything you want about me but leave my wife and family out.”
That is how Cheeye’s journalism was: Bold. Indeed, he together with people like Major Kakooza Mutale (as Editor of Economist and Mulengera newspapers in the early 1980s) and the late James Namakajjo, in various ways changed the perception of the media industry in Uganda, with some like Cheeye brazenly reporting about the miscreant activities of government and its officials. Previously, this was unheard of because almost all journalists were employees of the few existing State-owned media outlets then.
Bold to the hilt, Cheeye did not only raffle feathers in Uganda; he ventured into post-Genocide Rwanda, starting a publication that did not live beyond its first issue! The name of the publication was as fast forgotten. Very few people know about this exploit, and even fewer know why the publication was stopped!
But never unwavering, Cheeye ‘returned’ to Uganda and continued with his journalistic work through the Uganda Confidential.
On his return, theories were abound among journalists over rounds of frothy drinks at the at the Press Club, a journalists watering hole opposite YWCA on George Street near CPS, about the extent of Cheeye’s support to the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army (RPF/A) cause.
It was at the Press Club, then owned by Irene Kwera, and her husband Herbert Muntuyera, an elder brother to then Army Commander Major General John Mugisha Muntu, that most journalists working with the Ministry of Information hang out at the time and engaged in whiskey spiced discussions.
Some of the patrons included Alfred Wasike, formerly of New Vision, Charles Ochola aka Ocholimana (because of his Rwandan like looks) and James Opoka, a sports journalist.
Kwera, the joint proprietor of Press Club, was sister to two, now deceased, senior NRA officers, Major General James Bunanukye Kazini and Lieutenant Colonel Jet Mwebaze.
Therefore, the place was the natural hangout joint for several senior NRA officers including Lt. Col. Julius Aine and presidential Aide-de-Camp (ADC) Maj. Robert (Bob) Kabura, among many others and since journalists love information, they had to keep in ears distance from the new guys in town.
Indeed, before the RPF/A attacked Rwanda, some of its ‘planning meetings’ were held at Press Club, at times chaired by Major General Fred Gisa Rwigyema.
Cheeye never came to the Press Club albeit being a renowned tough scribe. This prompted many a patron to conclude that his ‘non-participation’ in planning for the RPF/A war was responsible for his subsequent ‘rejection’ in Rwanda. Needless to say, his ancestral place was in Rwanda.
A Pioneer of modern media
To the many who knew or heard about Cheeye, he was a man of ‘nine lives’ like the proverbial cat, and his transmutation and survival instincts seemed almost natural. He would later in life, just last year, confess that prison life humbled him. That was after serving ten years for graft.
Nevertheless, he was one of the pioneers of the modern media industry in Uganda, alongside the founders of the Monitor newspaper like Wafula Oguttu and Charles Onyango-Obbo, and Wiliam Pike at the State-owned New Vision.
And, through his ‘Clay of Feet’ editorial, Cheeye exposed the ‘mighty’ that were linked to corruption. He stared them in the face. It was thus not surprising that many, including one time Vice President Dr. Samson Babi Mululu Kisekka and several ministers, some of who are still serving in Cabinet, sought for his blood and downfall.
The sword was drawn and the Uganda Confidential wound up unceremoniously. Cheeye went into oblivion but not before courts had slapped him with heavy fines arising out of the many court cases involving big shots, many of who sought to have him declared bankrupt!
His life took a temporary beating, coming amid allegations of some miscreant acts including one that he had an insatiable appetite for members of the opposite sex who already belonged to other people. He was jailed, but somehow survived the onslaught against him that, needless to say, seemed fictitious, fabricated by his many ‘enemies’.
It is not that everybody hated Cheeye, and true to that in 2002 President Yoweri Museveni came seeking his ‘James Bond’ expertise in exposing the rot the public domain. Mr. Museveni appointed Cheeye the Director of Economic Monitoring in the President’s Office, attached to the Internal Security Organization (ISO), and his life changed in an overnight as the job came with the perks, including armed guards.
Now, Cheeye the journalist-turned-spy went to work, and in process once again, stepped on many toes, unfortunately what to him tasted like Kool-Aid was actually coming from a poisoned chalice.
He was to be accused of the same crime he had spent years condemning in his black and white newspaper—corruption.
The theatre piece that brought him down was linked to the Global Fund, where he—court found—fingered a public kitty with him over Shs100 million that was supposed to treat HIV/Aids and Tuberculosis, patients.
Cheeye was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and ordered to refund the money.
He returned just year and declared that prison life had humbled him and likened his jail sentence to a funeral.
Out, he went straight to his known craft, journalism. The new Uganda Confidential was less stinging. Pessimists claimed he had been bought. This was not until he wrote an open letter to General Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh, dubbed ‘High Table of Poverty grows Operation Wealth Creation can never create wealth’, and an earlier article dubbed ‘President Museveni should take General Saleh and ISO report with a pinch of salt’. The pessimists started thinking otherwise, and sales reportedly rose.
But that was to be his last hit. Last month’s issues was headlined, “Why Muhoozi Project has always been a hoax.”
Survived by a wife, Anne and children, the Feet of Clay was a colossus in journalism. Unlike in Shakespeare’s world where ‘the evil that men do lives after them and the good is oft interred with their bones’, Teddy Sseezi Cheeye will be long be remembered for his boldness and exposing the shenanigans of the regime; his arguments against governments affront on media freedom by banning advertising will forever live through ‘the Political Economy of Instability’, an article he published in the August 30- September 6 1993 issue in his column the Feet of Clay”
RIP Teddy SseeziCheeye.
Julius Mwesigye is the News Editor, Eagle Online