By Jerry Okungu
October 10, 2012
As a young boy still in school, my parents put me in a bus to go to Kampala to visit my nephew who was a bicycle repairer near Nsambya Police Station in Kampala.
My journey started from Kisumu at 9pm in a bus that was then known as the OTC or East African Road Services. I was scared because I was travelling alone for the first time outside my village. I was apprehensive because nobody had bothered to tell my nephew to expect me.
In those days, there were no mobile phones or internet to convey instant messages. The landline phone was a status symbol and was out of the reach of my nephew, a bicycle repairer. The only known method was to write a letter that would be delivered after more than a week. A quicker method would be to send a telegraph that would be delivered in a day. However, this method would send the wrong message even before the recipient opened it because it was generally reserved for bad news like the death of a family member.
When I arrived in Kampala one April morning in 1966, I found a big and confusing city. However, because I was wearing my school uniform, members of the public tended to be helpful in Kenya as they were in Uganda.
In this dilemma, I had one card up my sleeve. If I got lost, I would report to any police officer on patrol and explain my circumstances. However, the first person I approached to show me where Nsambya police station was became my savior. He realized from my accent that I was not a Ugandan. He then asked me who I was going to visit. When I informed him that my nephew was Nicodemus Mbuya Obiero the bicycle repairer, he gave me a warm smile telling me not to worry because he knew the man and where he lived. In a few minutes, I was safely home.
My impression of Kampala and Uganda in general was that Kampala was a clean city, organized and that Ugandans were a prosperous, kind and civilized people. At that tender age, I fell in love with Uganda and did not want to go back home. I wanted to go to school in Uganda and if possible, live there forever.
For the four weeks I spent in Uganda, my adventurous spirit made me explore Kampala by day, strolling to the gates of the Kabaka Palace, Uganda’s parliament and landmarks like the judiciary and the Uganda National Theatre. I marveled at the Apollo Hotel named after the President.
While in Kampala, something happened in Uganda’s parliament that was to remain engraved in my mind. I heard about it because it was relayed live on Radio Uganda. Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote had launched his Common Man’s Charter as the official Uganda People’s Congress political blue print. This step was in line with what other East African partner states had done. In Kenya, Tom Mboya had launched for Kenyatta the African Socialism manifesto as a way to rebuff the socialist policies of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who was believed to be an ally of communist USSR and China.
Next door, Tanzania had launched Ujamaism as a way of fast-tracking rural development among its peasants. Five decades down the line, none of these grandiose policies ever worked for Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda.
Two months after leaving Kampala, I was devastated to hear that Apollo Milton Obote had ordered the Uganda Army to bomb the Kabaka’s palace, Uganda’s first President and install himself as the President of the United Republic of Uganda. Young as I was, my intuition told me that beautiful Uganda would be no more. I had a feeling that Obote would not rule Uganda for long because he had told the army to disobey constitutional authority.
Five years later, Apollo Milton Obote was overthrown by the very man who he had detailed to bomb the Kabaka’s palace. Field Marshal Idi Amin timed the moment when Obote was out in Sri Lanka attending a Commonwealth meeting to take over the government with the full backing of the British and the local Baganda who hated Obote for destroying their royal authority.
The 9 years of Obote’s mixed fortunes were followed by 9 years of Idi Amin’s murderous regime that saw close 500,000 Ugandans slaughtered with thousands of Asians expelled as millions of black Ugandans trooped into exile.
And had it not been for Amin’s buffoonery and constant insults against Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, his murderous regime might have lasted longer. Nyerere’s troops invaded Uganda and sent Amin fleeing into Jeddah for the rest of his life.
When Amin left the scene in 1979, Uganda’s economy, judicial system, parliament and social order were in tatters. The Uganda shilling which at one time was as strong as Kenya’s was worthless. The worthless currency triggered a lot of smuggling of major export commodities across the borders of Kenya.
The departure of Amin was not the end of Uganda’s problems. Obote’s return to power did not help matters. A few years later, Obote was overthrown a second time after rigging the elections. In between, presidents Lule, Binaisa and Tito Okello did not last long in that office.
A semblance of stability only returned to Uganda after a prolonged bush war led by Yoweri Museveni that finally overthrew Tito Okello in 1986.
The 26 years that have followed since the NRM took power have seen stability return to Uganda. Though Yoweri Museveni is not appreciated by sections of Uganda as a democratic, one must acknowledge that broken institutions under past regimes are back and functioning. For this Ugandans should be grateful as they make their country a better place to live in for the next 50 years.