Monday, September 14, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
September 14, 2009

This article is a reminder of my painful memory as a child growing up in East Africa. I do hope that those among us who grew up with me under Kenyatta, Obote, Nyerere and thereafter Idi Amin will bear with me.

We the children of East Africa have travelled a long, treacherous, blissful and at times gruesome road to have reached where we are today. On that journey, we have seen three military attempts at take over, three successful coups, genocide and two devastating civil wars that should under normal circumstances be lessons for us to guard our freedoms and liberties with zeal. More recently, we have witnessed uncalled for turmoil erupting in Kenya and Uganda just a year apart for no good reason.
If we haven’t learnt from the Rwanda genocide; if we haven’t drawn any meaningful lesson from the furious inferno and mass rage that almost consumed Kenya, then perhaps we will never learn.

My connection with Uganda started many years ago when I was a school boy in the rainy season of April 1996. As a child I was curious to set foot on the land of my heroes then; Apollo Milton Obote, Kabaka Muteesa and those many notable Ugandans known to Kenyans then. I had heard of Makerere the dream destination of young minds like mine that yearned for better life; a dream that could only be attained if one went to Makerere University.

A chance to set foot in the land of the first African Christian martyrs presented itself to me in April 1966 when I received an invitation from my relative then living in Kampala. In those days, East Africans still enjoyed the services of the East African Common Market and a common currency. Travelling in the region was then a cup of tea. All one needed was to have a few East African shillings, hop into the nearest OTC bus or train and in hours, one was in a neighboring country. No passports were required.

My first visit to Kampala was exciting. I arrived at the OTC bus stop at 6am to find nobody waiting for me. I had forgotten to let my relative know when I would arrive. However, I had one fallback position. If I got lost, I would report to the police to take me to Nsambya police station because my relative had told me that his house was in that neighborhood.

As fate would have it, the first person I told of who I was looking for knew my cousin. My relative was a social and famous bicycle repairer. And within a few minutes I was knocking on his door.

The next three weeks were my weeks of adventure. As my cousin was busy at work, I took time to explore the city. I discovered the seven hills that constitute Kampala, the palace, parliament and several landmarks. I went to social halls and watched Obote present the Common Man’s Charter and read local newspapers especially the Uganda Argus that gave me updates on the political developments.

I loved Kampala’s neat and wide roads. I secretly promised that when I grew up, I would take a job with either East African Railways or East African Airways in order to have a chance to live in Kampala.

However, soon after I returned to Kenya, hell broke lose in Uganda. Obote fell out with Muteesa so violently that the military bombed the Kabaka’s palace sending Muteesa into exile! With that single political act, my dream of ever returning to Kampala was dashed for a quarter century.
The rest is a story we are all familiar with.

When I finally returned to Kampala, it was in 1991 as a business executive looking to open a newspaper office in Kampala. This time round Museveni had been in power for five years but life was still hard for Ugandans. Inflation was at its peak. Buildings still bore the marks of bombings during the wars with Amin, Obote and Okello regimes. Crooks were still fleecing people at the borders while even five star hotels like the Sheraton were not safe enough for foreigners.

Between 1991 and now, I have seen gradual transformation of Uganda to a moderately peaceful and prosperous member of the East African Community.

When we had our own crisis in Kenya, Uganda was one of those countries that intervened to restore peace. And they had good counsel for Kenya because they knew the bitter lessons of a civil war. It therefore defeats logic for the leadership in Uganda and Buganda to have allowed their petty differences to degenerate into the kind of mayhem that hit Kampala just months after the Kenyan experience. How could the media, government and partisan Federo activists have ignored the lessons of Rwanda and Kenya so soon?

The five states of the EAC must never again allow a Rwanda or Kenya-like chaos to erupt again because such a conflict impacts on us all. This region needs meaningful peace and prosperity built on the foundation of strong democratic practices and respect for the rule of law. Might and arrogance must not be allowed to become part of our political culture.