It takes real bravado to impersonate an ex-military general who has ruled Uganda for 26 years. But Herbert Ssegujja, a secondary school teacher and part-time comedian, has perfected the mimicking of President Yoweri Museveni into an art form, sending audiences into fits of laughter. And Uganda’s president is one of his biggest fans, reports Bamuturaki Musinguzi from Kampala.
Just before his State of the Nation Address, President Yoweri Museveni keeps a brief silence for some seconds, closes his eyes, and raises his right hand while drawing back his head like he is thinking of how to start.Museveni sips from his mug of milk and places it back on a table. He then begins by saying that when he was returning from Amuria District recently, he listened to a local FM radio station playing a Luganda song with lyrics that mentioned “Abantu bakooye” (people are tired). “I am telling them that if they are tired, they should go to hell because I was the first to get tired when I fought in the bush. If you live in Kampala around State Lodge Nakasero, you can’t escape the loud noise that will cause you more tiredness,” a visibly angry Museveni, stammering occasionally, informs the nation. But wait a minute! This is not President Yoweri Museveni who has ruled Uganda since January 1986. It is Herbert Ssegujja (alias Mendo Museveni) doing what he knows best – impersonating the president of the republic at a weekly Comedy Night Show in Kampala. Ssegujja wears oversize clothes to fit the president’s character. And today he is dressed in a large, light blue, long-sleeved shirt, khaki hat, black scarf, gloves, black trousers and black army boots, depicting Museveni on a cold evening.
Ssegujja continues by telling the nation that those who think that being a president is like being in heaven should think twice because it is not easy to govern a country like Uganda. “In fact, governing Uganda is like driving a four-wheel truck with no fuel on a road that has potholes,” Ssegujja explains, amidst laughter. “Driving such a truck needs people with experience and vision. I laugh at people like Mafabi, Besigye, and Otunnu who think leadership is like gambling. Leadership needs people who are focused.” Ssegujja then turns to Uganda’s controversial Youth Fund. He clarifies that the money is meant for youths with business strategies and not for gambling. “I was told that there is an increase in the rate of gambling by the youth through sports betting. I am not giving this money to people going to bet on soccer, moreover, from Europe – that is promoting neo-colonialism. The bad thing is that Africans are not good predictors. They always predict losses. How do you predict wins for a team like Arsenal, knowing very well that Arsenal do not buy good quality players?”
Ssegujja has mastered Museveni’s character, including his stammering and his Kinyankole accent, to such perfection that some people cannot differentiate between the comedian and the real thing.
Two years ago, during the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party executive elections at Namboole Stadium, some people did not realise that it was the comedian giving a Museveni speech. After mimicking the president for several minutes, Ssegujja walked over to an area occupied by women from Soroti District to greet them. The women knelt and shook hands with him, thinking he was the real Museveni. By the time they realised that they had knelt before a comedian, Ssegujja was gone.
Ssegujja singles out one performance during last year’s presidential campaign as his best act, in which NRM supporters confused him with Museveni who had been delayed on the campaign trail. “When my slotted time came,” Ssegujja recalls, “I entered Namboole Stadium in a Toyota Prado pick-up and campaigned as if I were Museveni the candidate. After my address, the supporters started trickling out of the stadium thinking they had listened to the real Museveni.
“Museveni’s campaign team got worried and devised a means of returning the supporters to the stadium. So I was put in a ‘presidential fleet’ that drove towards the stadium in which I managed to attract the people back to the venue.”
Ssegujja derives fun from Museveni’s humorous speeches, which are full of proverbs and wise but funny sayings. “I like his stammering. His mannerisms are so funny, which make him look more of a comedian than a president,” Ssegujja says.
“I like his left arm and hat, which I think are his trademark. His movements are so funny and I can tell his mood depending on how he is dressed. When he is in military combat gear, he is a no-nonsense person. He is fast when in a suit, and when he is tired at home he is in casual wear.”
Ssegujja started imitating Museveni in 2003 in Alex Mukulu’s play, Akattambwa. He came face to face with Museveni for the first time on 30 July 2010, at a send-off party for Amelia Kyambadde, who had resigned her job as Museveni’s principal private secretary. Ssegujja sent the president into prolonged bouts of fitful laughter while the audience was left wiping away tears of joy. On that day, Ssegujja mimicked Museveni extolling names with the letter K: “I thought I was the only president with a vision, but I have realised that the other presidents with names starting with the letter K have visions as well. Kagame, Kikwete, Kabila, and Kiir. However, not everybody with a letter K has a vision, people like Kizza Besigye, Kony, and Katuntu.” Ssegujja went on: “I thought I had discussed the contentious Migingo Island with President Kibaki [of Kenya]. I suggested to Kibaki that Kenya takes the island and Uganda keeps the waters. We can separate the fish by painting them in our national colours…” The audience burst into laughter.
Ssegujja looks back on that July 2010 performance and says: “Before the performance I felt nervous. When the president arrives, you feel his presence especially when he is in a military uniform. I was trembling inside and had difficulty in memorising my script. However, I was determined to kill him with laughter. So I did my best.
“Immediately he saw me approach the stage, Museveni burst out with laughter and wiped his tears. The other guests were also in laughter. I could not believe it. I was amused and I almost burst out laughing myself. Museveni was laughing so hard and wiping his tears all the time I was on stage. I had to control myself to avoid laughing,” Ssegujja told the New Vision newspaper.
Interestingly, the president and his imitator did not talk after that performance. “We did not talk. He could not even talk. He was just looking at me and laughing. You know when you are laughing so hard that you cannot collect yourself to speak; that is the state he was in,” Ssegujja remembers. The imitator has since performed 10 times before Museveni, including three occasions at State House, Entebbe.
Ssegujja says what he finds interesting is the reaction of people who think it is inconceivable to imitate the head of state. “They find it weird and scary. Yet for me it is normal, it’s like any other performance. I have observed three types of audiences: the first laughs out loud; the second thinks the real Museveni is on the stage; and the third keeps quiet, sensitive of the big figure I am bringing out.”
Ssegujja says it never occurred to him that Museveni would take his mimicry in bad faith. “I prepared my foundation very well because I never cast him in bad light. I promote his image, I promote his party, and I love him as president. He might have weaknesses but I can’t have them on stage.”
In preparation for a performance, Ssegujja writes a script and practises how to deliver the speech. He wears costumes depending on the function, time and weather conditions. “I find the costumes a little bit expensive. For example, I must select his particular shirts because he does not dress in every fashion. Everything is oversize except the shoes. I wear size nine. Shopkeepers always wonder why I buy large shirts, yet my actual size is medium. I assure them that I am buying them for my big brother.”
Ssegujja has only been stopped once from imitating Museveni. “After a long rehearsal,” he recalls, “the Local Council chairman in Buwama stopped me from mimicking Museveni at the last minute, at the official opening of the Kyankobe Polytechnic in 2003 when I was still a student at the Kyambogo University. The chairman said: ‘Do you want us to lose our jobs?’ They could not imagine someone imitating the president.”
Ssegujja is a secondary school teacher of African and European history. Comedy is his second job. “Although the bigger percentage of my income comes from comedy,” he says, “I still enjoy my teaching profession. I like history because every fact is backed by a story which I can sketch into comedy.
“I don’t find any problem in combining comedy and teaching because being a teacher, I programme my lessons. Besides, my lessons are all in the morning so I am free in the evenings for my comedy.”
Besides Museveni, Ssegujja mimics the American president, Barack Obama, and the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, among others. “Although I have perfected Museveni, for me it is a talent because I can mimic anybody,” he says. Ssegujja has depicted Museveni and the late Libyan leader, Muammar Al Gathafi sharing ideas on how to stay in power.
Mimicry, Ssegujja says, is primarily about observing a character and trying your best to behave as though you were that character. He does a lot of research on the president and owns a collection of his proverbs, and his speeches in audio and video.
Ssegujja started mimicking people when he was only 11, at Primary Six. He started off mimicking the late Luganda radio announcer, John Ssalongo. From there, he performed special mimicry roles in secondary school dramas.
Now 28, Ssegujja was born in Boowa village, in Luweero District in a family of four. He holds a Diploma in Education from Kyambogo University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Performing Arts from Makerere University.
“I want to make comedy my lifetime career, and my dream is to open a comedy institute in Uganda,” he says.
He believes that comedy has a future in Uganda. “Being a new trend, people have begun to appreciate comedy and we can measure this by the big turn-up for our shows,” he adds.