Saturday, March 23, 2013



P. Anyang' Nyong'o
 March 24, 2013

"On my honor I promise that..." that is how the motto of the Scouts begin. It was developed many years ago by Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the movement who died and was buried in Kenya. I promise that I will obey the Scouts Law, it concludes; because I have so promised on my honor.

Societies, communities, families and clubs live and work under certain rules and laws: some are written, others are simply believed or accepted as normal. Anybody who goes against these laws, rules and customs is quite often regarded as a deviant or is even cursed. In modern societies, clubs and organizations, there are established systems of punishment for dealing with deviants or rule breakers and systems of rewards for thanking those who apprehend them.

When people live under governments, particularly those established through some form of social contract as constitutions, then living by the rules and laws become a cardinal principle for almost everyone based on "his or her honor". We all implicitly accept to be honorable men and women when we accept to live in societies established under such social contracts.

But among human beings there are many funny people who always want to have their cake and eat it at the same time. The element of deviancy so as to gain something against others while still deriving immense gains from living in society is always there. This is why governments establish security forces, courts, jails etc for dealing with law breakers or deviants.

How about when the government itself becomes deviant or breaks its own laws? It is like Lord Baden Powell breaking the Scouts Law and still saying "on my honor". I can only illustrate the gravity and consequences of this with a story.

One Sunday morning in January 1971, we woke up as students at Makerere University to find both the radio and TV playing nothing but marshall music. That went on the whole day until some time late afternoon when a rough looking young man appeared on TV to announce that the military had taken over the government in Uganda. We were shocked. The government had become a law breaker overnight.

As student leaders we went to the Vice Chancellor's house to tell him that this was wrong that it would hurt Uganda immensely. The VC told us that the overthrown President, Apollo Milton Obote, had made tremendous mistakes and that is why he was overthrown. We argued that whatever mistakes Obote had made the army had no excuse whatsoever making more mistakes by taking over the government by "unconstitutional means." We said we were going to demonstrate against the military takeover because we believed it was wrong. This is what the VC told us:

"Gentlemen; please don't do that. This is now a military government. The rules have changed."

As we were speaking thousands of people were already dancing in the streets of Kampala celebrating the downfall of Obote. Little did they realize that with the "rules having been changed" by the military without the people's consent, very soon the dances would turn into funerals and mournings as Amin started to rule Uganda without obeying the rules the people knew. His own whimsical directives are now what mattered.

What is the moral of this story? Rules once established for society to live by are extremely important guidelines for our lives and we should defend and promote them "on our honor".

In 1973 while I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, the same Vice Chancellor, while on tour of the US organized by the State Department, visited us. I went to see him at the Roosevelt Hotel where he was staying and we spent close to 3 hours talking about what was happening in Uganda. It was not a happy tale to tell. In the end I advised him not to go back because, having been a guest of the US government for so long, notwithstanding the fact that it was purely on education matters, somebody in the Amin government could easily concoct a story that he was plotting with the Americans against Amin. The Vice Chancellor insisted on going back; he did not think Amin could go that far. Unfortunately, three weeks after he went back he disappeared and he has not been seen to this very day.

What is the moral of this story?

Amin definitely knew that the Vice Chancellor was an important and visible man in his government. But because of that he was also a key person among those Amin suspected could plot to take power from him. Having ascended to power by force and through dubious means Amin suspected his departure could be through the very dubious and crafty means.

You will remember Shakespeare's play Henry the Second. That scene where King Henry blames Lord Northumberland for allowing himself to be used by Henry Bollingbroke to overthrow him through a court coup: do you recall how King Henry lamented? Let me quote the King's lamentations which are very relevant for our times.

Thou ladder wherewithal the mounting Bollingbroke ascends my throne;
Time will not be many years from now ere foul sin
Gathering head shall break into corruption.
And thou shalt think
Though he gives you half (of my realm)
It is too little helping him to all".

The chain of breaking laws to achieve short term gains never really pays in the long run, neither for individuals who do so not for societies they so deeply hurt. In the immediate this is a lesson that is never learnt, just like the Ugandans who poured into the streets of Kampala when Amin took over. The good news is that there are always some people ready to see far enough to confront such situations and eventually to ensure that society rises up from its ashes. These are the men and women of honor.