January 26, popularly known as NRM day in Uganda is a remarkable day. This is the day Uganda was liberated by an organised armed rebellion (NRA) under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni.
In his swearing in statement, the President declared: “This is not a mere change of guard, it is a fundamental change”. For the impressionable young people, this was music to our ears. We were teenagers in the despotic Amin times, young students in the chaotic Obote/Okello regimes and badly needed qualitative change.
In 1986, I was a Senior Five student in Jinja and had been unable to go back to Kiruhura District due to the war - for close to one year. Katonga had been cut off and NRM/A was in charge of the whole region stretching from Masaka to our borders with Rwanda and Congo. The UNLA junta controlled Central, east and northern Uganda. I was in the ‘unliberated territory’, unable to see my family.
I was aggrieved being stuck in the wrong zone for other reasons as well. Tales were filtering through of life under NRM/A. Long lost relatives who had been fighting the bush war for five years had come home to their families and I missed out on re-unions. We had some Commanders in the family. Col Patrick Lumumba ‘Musolini’ the fearless Commander of NRA’s 3rd Battalion was in Masaka so was homeboy Geoffrey Taban now Brigadier.
In the top NRA ranks, my home county Kazo had Gen EllyTumwine, Gen Joram Mugume, Brig Burundi, Brig Chef Ali, and their juniors Lauben Ikondere, Kagumire, Katuuku, Muhanguzi Kimosho, Frank Kifuba, George Rwaibanda, Geoffrey Katumbuza, Robert Kabuura, Kamwerere (most of these gallant soldiers now deceased).
My former classmates in Primary - Robert Kabuura and Tumusiime Koozi were chief body guards of the Commander in chief. Meanwhile my O-Level classmates had abandoned studies in Western Uganda to join NRA en’mass. Hebert Kyabihende now Lt. Col, Stephen Mugarura now Captain, Kanyesigye now Brigadier, Kamukama Rupapira now Lt Col and many others including the late Brig Mayombo, James Mugira now Brigadier all had enlisted and stories were finding me isolated in Busoga.
I was upset for being caught on the wrong side of the action. We had uncertainties as well - would we survive the hordes of UNLA troops who wreaked havoc as they retreated? In Jinja, we began to see friendly fire. My cousin Moses, a Manager at Associated Paper industries lived on Kutch Road, surrounded by UNLA senior quarters. Our neighbours Lt. Karim and Captain Muhoozi of UNLA told us their force was now in attrition, they had started killing each other on tribal grounds. We watched live fire fights in our street. We saw Langi/Acholi soldiers ambushing and killing other tribes and vice versa well before NRA troops got to Jinja.
Finally the boys came. They had stormed Kampala and marched on to Jinja. I remember the first Commanders to arrive. Chef Ali, Stanley Muhangi, Mwenemuzeyi, Kyatuuka, Kahangwa, Aziz Bey, all deceased were in the vanguard.
Maj Gen Pecos Kutesa arrived a few days later, only to get injured near Gadaffi barracks with bullet lodging in his scalp. I was among the first young people to visit him in Jinja hospital. He was having trouble with doctors refusing to refrain from smoking while on treatment for a life threatening injury.
I was taken aback seeing armed fighters in civilian clothes. NRA troops had elements in uniform but others were dressed in casual civilian and some kadogos were really in tattered clothes! I wondered whether these were the feared guerrillas who had just vanquished the UNLA. We shared our clothes with some of the younger soldiers of our age, like the late Robert Kavuma.
I was allowed by my age mates to hold their gun and even upholster the Pistol on my hip for a little while in their presence! It was cool. This was an exciting time with continuous celebrations driving around in Madowadowas and Santanas with Afandes!
Within a week I was invited to Kampala to meet my cousin Col Lumumba and it was a joyous re-union. For the first time I saw Afande Rufu (Gen Salim Saleh) and other top honchos in NRA. Senior officers hung-out together, if you were in the company of one, you would be able to meet many of their colleagues. My late uncle Maj. Barihona who was best man at my father’s wedding found me at the Grand Imperial where some of the officers were staying, he was the overall Commander of the Artillery Battery of NRA stationed near the American Club in Makindye. In this re-union, I saw nearly all the commanders I knew who had been in the bush for five years. It was a great jubilation.
I returned to school in Jinja after the weekend and within the week, President Museveni was to address a public rally in Jinja. As soon as his advance party got into town, my friend Robert Kabuura (chief body guard) came to my school in an open roof Mercedes and picked me up. He wanted to catch up with me as we attended the President’s rally. I was the talk of school for being picked up by the new President’s body guards and riding with the Presidential protection team.
Soon it was holiday time at school and I jumped into a taxi to Kampala. I remember attending the wedding of Maj Gen Pecos Kutesa & Dora at State House Entebbe, and soon after, I again attended the wedding of Maj Gen Jim Muhwezi also at State House. I was part of a small team that met at the Malcomx Kololo home of Maj Gen Joram Mugume to plan for his wedding to Rebecca.
I was in attendance at Lubiri parade, where NRA officers received their official ranks and insignia. I observed President Museveni decorating his officers in sets of three. Tumwine, Saleh, Rwigyema, became Major Generals. Kyaligonza, Tinyefuza, Kanyankore became Brigadiers and Chihandae, Mugume & Kutesa became full Colonels. I observed the body language of President Habyarimana of Rwanda, chief guest at the function and that of Maj Gen Rwigyema, the silence between them spoke volumes about the future. Twenty-eight years on, we soldier on in the spirit of Howard Jones Lyrics: - ‘Things can only get better. Future dreams we have to realize, a thousand skeptic hands won’t keep us from the things we plan’
Dennis Katungi is Media & Communications Manager, Uganda Media Centre.