Wednesday September 23 2009

Serumaga relives the story over which Amin exiled his father

For years, parents have told their children three things:

  • They stay away working long hours, because they want them (their children) to live a better life than them.
  • That they are fighting wars today, so that the children don’t have to fight again in the future.
  • And when time comes to give the big lecture, the children are told to be attentive, so they don’t make the same mistakes the parents made.

Like many fathers, one man; freedom fighter, writer, and playwright, Robert Serumaga (RIP), never told his son - the radio presenter, filmmaker, and cultural activist Robert Kalundi Serumaga - about the fourth option.
Following the clashes two weeks ago between pro-Buganda royalists and the security forces in and around Kampala that left at least 21 people dead, 100 injured, and 560 held in various prisons, Serumaga Jnr. found himself the unlikely international focus of the violence.

The last riots on that scale in Kampala were in June 1979, when the Military Commission (the military wing of the then new Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) government that had overthrown dictator Field Marshall Idi Amin), deposed its first president, Lule.

The young officer who oversaw the “restoration of order� was the deputy chairman of the Military Commission Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda today.

When Prof. Lule was president, Serumaga Snr., who was a minister in the new UNLF government, was a close confidant.

Serumaga had lived in exile in Kenya from 1975, before returning home in 1979. With Lule’s fall, Serumaga fled back to Kenya. The story of why Serumaga left Uganda in 1975 was one of the inspirations for a chapter in my little book, Mixed and Brewed in Uganda: A Short Tour of The Soul of a Nation and Its People, which was published last year.

Serumaga’s troubles began when the Organisation of African Unity (the precursor to the African Union) held its controversial summit in Kampala in 1975.

Amin wanted to impress the uniforms off his fellow presidents’ backs, so he, in keeping with that spirit, laid on a night of fine theatre. They chose the best; Serumaga Snr.’s Abafumi Theatre Company’s performance of his plays Amayrikiti (The Flame Tree). It was a moving performance where, in one scene, it dramatised soldiers grabbing a citizen and, as was the custom then, throwing him into the boot of a car, and off to his death. In the play, the scene was located in apartheid South Africa. It is alleged that some of the African leaders pulled out handkerchiefs to wipe away tears.

By the following day, Amin and his men had figured out that Serumaga had pulled a fast one on them. Amayrikiti, wasn’t about South Africa, they concluded - rightly. It was about the terror in his Uganda. As soon as the last of the delegates left, Amin sent his security forces to arrest Serumaga. Serumaga had been tipped off, and had fled to Kenya, where he was to enjoy a fairly successful life as a playwright.

Serumaga had a young family. They joined him in Nairobi some months later. Among his children was a little boy named after him, Robert Serumaga. In the last few days, the photo of that Serumaga Jnr. in a hospital bed was published in several newspapers in Africa and the world, and several groups protested his arrest.

An outspoken but soft-spoken fellow, on the evening of September 11, the day the riots broke out, Serumaga was one of the panellists on a talkshow on WBS TV. Serumaga made a stinging criticism of what he saw as President Museveni’s shabby treatment of Buganda.

Serumaga explained what happened on the night of that show: “I came out of the TV station and four guys grabbed me and forced me into a car. They were dragging me literally on my back and dumped me into the back of the car. They were punching and kicking me and for some strange reason trying to undress me.�

He was first held by the Joint Anti-terrorism Task Force, and next day, moved to the Central Police Station in Kampala.
Eventually, he was taken to hospital for injuries inflicted upon him by security agents. He was charged with sedition and inciting violence, and released on bail on Thursday.

There were two great ironies in the arrest of Serumaga Jnr. After Serumaga Snr. fled to Kenya in his second exile, he didn’t live for long. He died in Nairobi in September 1980, almost exactly 29 years to the day his son was arrested for his views in Kampala.

Second, the manner of his arrest (or “kidnap� as Serumaga calls it) was a scene straight out of the play Amayrikit, which his father wrote 35 years ago, and which led to his first exile in Kenya.

So, not all children escape the wars that their fathers fought. For some, like Serumaga Jnr., the burdens of fathers also become the burdens of the sons.

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Some aspects of this commentary first appeared in Sunday Nation (Kenya), and can be found online at: