On Monday February 16, 2015 President Yoweri Museveni led a group of Church and government dignitaries to Mucwini in Kitgum district to celebrate the life of the former Archbishop of Uganda Janani Jakaliya Luwum.
Among those who had planned to be in attendance but failed to make the journey on account of ill health was Mr Henry Kyemba, now a retired politician and former friend of Luwum. Kyemba was Uganda’s Minister of Health in February 1977 when Luwum was killed.
Going through school at Busoga College Mwiri, Mr Kyemba had steered clear of science subjects or anything that could lead him into pursing a course in human medicine because he deplored the sight of blood. Little did he know that he would end up in a cabinet portfolio that would compel him to look at the blood of friends, among whom was a man of God.
“Yes I did (look at the body of Luwum) and quite frankly it was not what you think you would want to see…incidentally I never wanted to be a Doctor because I don’t like the sight of blood,” he says.
For Kyemba February 16, 1977 began as a normal day. There was nothing unusual about being summoned for a meeting at the Nile Mansions’ Hotel where President Idi Amin had an office on the second floor.
Besides, cabinet ministers were in most cases required to go wherever the self-styled Field Marshal and Conqueror of the British Empire (Uganda in Particular) and holder of various military medals including the Victoria Cross (VC), Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Military Cross (MC) went.
On reaching the Nile Mansions, however, it soon became clear to Mr Kyemba that some unusual business was afoot.
“We found that the place was surrounded by soldiers. A cache of arms had been laid out on the lawn and a number of people had been arrested. It was a sign that something was coming to a climax here,” Mr Kyemba says.
One of Amin’s most feared henchmen, Col Isaac Malyamungu, was at hand to ensure that every ‘I’ of the confession was dotted and every ‘t’ crossed.
“Amin was watching proceedings from the Second Floor. We could not see him but he was following everything from up there,” Mr Kyemba recalls.
Shortly after the confessions had been heard, cabinet Ministers, the Clergy, soldiers and other government officials were invited into the Main Hall where Amin joined them and made a brief speech in which he accused the Bishop and others of treason.
“The Archbishop was seated in the VIP area in front of the podium and I saw him shaking his head as he was being accused, but nobody could say anything and he had no chance to respond,” Kyemba says.
According to Mr Kyemba, laying out arms, having confessions read out and making a direct if not public attack on the archbishop had not been according to Amin’s usual script and it was an ominous pointer at things to come.
Tough time for Amin
The situation in the country had been one of tension even amongst members of the cabinet. Right from the time he took over power in 1971, Amin had faced internal and external challenges.
While a group of Ugandan exiles had invaded the country from Tanzania as early as 1972, one year into his rule, internally he had to deal with dissent within the army as seen in coup attempts by Brig Charles Arube and much later by officers of the Air Force led by Maj Patrick Kimumwe.
Mr Kyemba thinks that the events of July 4, 1976 had left Amin badly annoyed and embarrassed. On that day, 100 Israeli commandos staged a 90-minutes sting operation on Entebbe airport and rescued 102 people who had been taken hostage by hijackers of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO), killed all the hijackers and 45 Ugandan soldiers. They also destroyed over 20 Russian built MiG17s and MiG21 jets of the Uganda Air Force.
“The situation had been building for some time since the raid on Entebbe. Here was a country seeing a Field Marshal and Conqueror of the British Empire being humiliated! It was a humiliation that Amin found hard to deal with,” Mr Kyemba says.
He says that matters were not helped by the brazen decision by sections of the civilian populace to go out to Nakivubo and several others to celebrate the success of the raid on Entebbe.
Amin’s response was brutal repression. Soldiers went out on the streets to beat up people and kill others, a development which raised tension among even members of the cabinet. Matters were not helped by the fact that security matters were a no go area for the cabinet.
Mr Kyemba and most of his colleagues had seen soldiers lead the Archbishop and Ministers Erinayo Oryema and Oboth Ofumbi outside the hall, but did not read much into it.
On his part, Mr Kyemba, who had been scheduled to take a visiting delegation to Paraa the next day, called up Amin and informed him that he would be leaving town. He found Amin rather brief, but again, he did not read much into it.
“Normally he would chat for a few minutes and ask about this and that, but on this occasion he was curt. His mind was clearly onto something else,” Kyemba reminisces.
A few hours after reaching home, vice president Gen Mustaphar Adirisi called to inform Mr Kyemba that the Archbishop and ministers had died in an accident.
Killings had been going on across the country, but this is one killing that Mr Kyemba had not been seen coming.
“I don’t think many had thought that Amin’s madness could go up to that extent of killing religious leaders like Archbishop Luwum. Many of us had thought that he can play with the Kyembas, and the like and so on, but to go as far as to take the lives of people in specific positions of leadership in the Church; I think really that was madness,” he says.
Mr Kyemba informed his mother with whom he had been staying at Kyadondo road about what he just been told. Her advice was even more stunning.
“She told me that she did not want to see me here anymore. She ordered me to leave the country immediately,” he recalls.
Kyemba had expected the bodies of the accident victims to be in Mulago in a few minutes, but it was several hours later that they were delivered on a military truck.
Amin directed him as minister of Health to provide a medical report, but the Government Pathologist, Dr Kafeero, declined to write it. Doctors attached to the Military were instead called upon to produce the report, but that did not erase suspicions.
The vehicles that were purported to have been involved in the fatal accident had all been involved in much earlier accidents and the Range Rover in which the Archbishop and the Ministers were said to have been killed was one of Amin’s personal cars.
Besides, Mr Kyemba notes, the Range Rover was much bigger than the car which is said to have hit the Range Rover and resulted in the death of the trio.
Operatives who attempted to stage-manage the accident were either oblivious or simply did not care that residents of some of the high rise buildings around the alleged scene of the purported accidents had been watching them as they tried to stage manage the said accident.
If dealing with the dubious circumstances under which the purported accident had been a headache, the endless statements that Mr Kyemba is alleged to have issued proved a nightmare.
“All of a sudden I was being quoted issuing statements in the media, but I did not have an independent media house to go to and say no. that was not me,” he recounts.
Under normal circumstances, one would have expected the death of an Archbishop and ministers to be cause enough for a special sitting of the cabinet, but that did not happen.
A time to flee
That partially informed Mr Kyemba’s decision to heed his mother’s advice and flee the country.
Mr Kyemba had, together with the then Minister for Finance, Brig (now General) Moses Ali, registered a company called Wedding Bells.
To throw off any suspicions, he contributed towards the purchase of what was then the official vehicle of the British High Commissioner to Uganda. The vehicle was to be hired out to transport brides at weddings. The vehicle was promptly delivered to Moses Ali’s residence.
Mr Kyemba also started talking in the presence of some of Amin’s trusted lieutenants of his plans to expand his farm in Jinja
He had already lost a brother under mysterious circumstances by then and did not want to lose another, however. This meant to Mr Kyemba that his flight to exile had to include his brother, David Nabeta, who was the Managing Director of the National Insurance Corporation, lest he fed him to the vultures.
Luckily, Nabeta had to attend an insurance-related meeting in Nigeria. At the same time, Mr Kyemba, who was the chairman of the African Health Ministers under the World Health Organization (WHO), had to hop around the continent as part of consultations ahead of the election in Geneva of a new Director General of the WHO.
In April 1977, Mr Kyemba, together with his first wife, Theresa, travelled with the Ugandan delegation to Geneva. His second wife, Betty, after being briefly held at the Gaddafi garrison in Jinja, was released and fled through Kenya to and joined him.
This was the flight that led to publication of Mr Kyemba’s famous book, “State of Blood”.