Uganda's first Deputy Prime Minister Eriya Kategaya reputed as a historical member and an ideologue of the ruling NRM party on Saturday night breathed his last at Nairobi Hospital, Kenya, where he had been hospitalised for weeks. He was 67.
“The government, with deep sorrow, wishes to announce the death of Kategaya,” Information Minister Karooro Okurut said.
“This is a tragedy both for the family and the country. His death is a massive loss to Uganda and has robbed the country of an exemplary freedom fighter and true statesman.”
The cause of death was not immediately clear, but Sunday Monitor was told doctors had previously discovered a blood clot in Kategaya’s leg that was suspected to drift toward his brain.
The deputy premier simultaneously held the ministerial docket for East African Affairs but had been in bad health for months, on occasions being admitted to Kampala’s upscale Nakasero Hospital after episodes of blackouts.
Kategaya, a childhood friend of President Museveni, was considered the country’s de facto Number Two until 2003 when acrimonious debates about lifting of the constitutional provision on presidential term limits, which he opposed, polarised him and the President.
Together with other dissenting and outspoken ministers such as Maria Matembe, he was subsequently fired from Cabinet, where he had served uninterrupted under Museveni.
The presidential term limits were scrapped, clearing the main hurdle that has kept the President in power to-date.
After quitting government, Kategaya maintained an uncompromising stance and was understood to hobnob with opposition activists, vowing he would never become a political turncoat.
“Men only turn in bed but not on their words,” the former Rwampara constituency MP said, quoting a popular fable among his kins, ostensibly to underline his steely resolve at the time to keep out of what he considered a tainted regime.
Time proved him wrong and Kategaya struck a back-door deal with Museveni, and was to join cabinet and be assigned the First Deputy Premiership slot, one of several distinguished positions he had held before the 2003 fallout.
“We have lost a patriot, a very transparent person and a man with many special leadership qualities,” said Gender Minister John Nasasira, a long-serving Cabinet colleague and personal friend.
“He was always for the unity of Uganda, and we shall remember his contribution to the freedom enjoyed in this country today.”
The departed deputy premier belonged to the political wing of the National Resistance Movement, whose military wing; the NRA, won a five-year guerilla war that brought President Museveni to power in 1986.
He and Museveni were understood to be close friends, having first met at the same primary school and moving on to graduate from Dar es Salaam University in Tanzania.
It was there that they crystalised their plans for armed liberation of Uganda, leading to the violent ouster of Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa’s military junta.
State International Affairs Minister Okello-Oryem, a son of toppled President Okello Lutwa, said he visited Kategaya at Nairobi Hospital on Thursday, and conferred with him for about an hour on wide-ranging themes including the financial scam in the Office of the Prime Minister, the prickly parliamentary debate on the Marriage and Divorce Bill, 2009, and resolutions of NRM Caucus at the recent Kyankwanzi retreat.
“He was very alert,” said Mr Okello-Oryem, one of few government officials to see Kategaya on what turned out to be his death bed.
He added: “This is very sad. Kategaya was one of the most senior and vastly experienced members of NRM whose words were respected.”
Because he had served in government for decades in key positions, and largely without smudging his reputation among peers burdened by mostly allegations of graft, the deputy PM still commanded respect, by accounts of colleague ministers, after his uncharacteristic and unexpected comeback to government.
He carried an “aura of respect”, said Mr Okello-Oryem, and “his knowledge and maturity has been more wanted in NRM to give guidance to the young and emerging leaders in the party.”
The ruling party has been restless and often idled at political gridlock, sometimes public embarrassment, on the back of abrasive and spirited contest by non-conformist lawmakers subscribing to it, who in the past chose to differ openly on agreed party positions.
Mr Nasasira told the Sunday Monitor last night that Kategaya, in situations, including in Cabinet, of polarising dissent, often stood out as a “consensus builder”.
Kategaya joined the growing number of top and privileged government officials, who when ill, are admitted to or die in foreign hospitals owing to a break-down of quality medicare at ill-equipped public health facilities at home.
Meanwhile, Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki has sent a message of condolence to President Yoweri Museveni and the people of Uganda following the death of Mr Eriya Kategaya
In his message, Kibaki regretted that the passing on of Mr Kategaya was not only a big loss to the Uganda government and his family but also a great tragedy to many people who had found a dependable friend in him.
"To everyone who knew him, and had the opportunity to work and interact with him, the late Eriya was well respected as a humble man of outstanding ability,” said Kibaki