Sometime in early November 1987, two State operatives entered Mitchell Hall at Makerere University on a mission to pick up a 24-year-old student they suspected of keeping an impressive stash of guns in his dorm room. They didn’t find the guns but they took him away anyway.
The young man in question was not a student leader, nor was he an activist. He was a regular student of Library and Information Science whose only crime, as it turned out, was his linguistic identity and the fact that he was a member of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC). The student’s name was Joseph Pinytek Ochieno.
The details of the torture he underwent in custody over the next several days are, by his sad reminiscence, rather too painful for these pages. Fortunately, Ochieno escaped from his captors a few days into the torture and commenced plans to seek refuge elsewhere.
On November 22, 1987, with bated breath, Ochieno slumped down into his seat on a Uganda Airlines flight and fastened his seatbelt. The clock was ticking. All he had to do was pretend to be calm or asleep for the next 15 minutes as he waited for take-off. He dreaded the possibility of being carried off the plane at the very cusp of his freedom. He had survived seven roadblocks on the way to the airport, but it was not over until he was in the air. Every bit of his mortal being was praying.
Take-off came and went. Ten minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes. Thirty minutes past take-off time and the plane was still seated like mother hen. The hunger, the aches and bruises from several days of torture faded in comparison to the pain of that delay.
Finally, the reason for the delay was resolved by the arrival of one of the senior NRA officers. Hundreds of passengers were furious to learn that he was the sole reason they had lost almost an hour of their time.
The officer recognised Ochieno immediately and proceeded to demand his removal. But as expected, the furious passengers were in no mood to play along. They would not suffer another minute of waiting, which is exactly what the arrest of the young man would have caused. It was one man against an entire cabin of angry passengers. They told him off and saved the life of the asylum seeker, albeit inadvertently.
“I sought asylum on arrival. I was in another world, traumatised, beaten and bruised, but, ironically – free – in exile. My close family members never got to know the details or the timing of my exit. I wept for my siblings, but more particularly I wept for my father,” Ochieno says.
Thirty three years later, Ochieno is still in London. He is one of the foremost commentators on African matters for the broadcasting giants of the world. His name is on speed dial at CNN, BBC, CGTN, Al Jazeera, Sky News and such other global television news channels. He’s commented on the continent’s big stories dating back to the late 1990s. Yet activism, not a course in journalism, brought him to that place.
“When I arrived in the UK, I never settled. I joined Ugandans to campaign to expose the atrocities and excesses of the NRA, especially in the north at the time, and eventually Rwanda and DR Congo,” Ochieno says.
Ochieno juggled his activism with his university education. He had joined the University of East London for a BA (Business Studies) on arrival and later returned to the same university to do a MA in Refugee Studies.
Ochieno would later participate in anti-apartheid campaigns in London and for the release of Nelson Mandela. He would participate in activism against land-ownership problems in Zimbabwe and several other causes on the continent. All this meant that he would have to immerse himself in the complex dynamics surrounding these continental issues on a daily basis. And as such, the activist metamorphosed into a journalist.
“I saw the gaps and the misrepresentations. I saw the absence of representation of Africans in global media and I was reeled. I opted to make it my daily business. Closer to home, I wondered why an outsider could head Uganda’s national daily – The New Vision – for 20 years,” Ochieno says in a tone that smacks of activism.
“The media are the 4th Estate, the most important mirror on the other estates, namely the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. But like the rest of the other institutions in Uganda today, it is substantially limited by patronage and State control. Recent events suggest they are substantially limited in their roles. Like the wider citizenry, they are victims of the national malaise.”
Childhood and education
Ochieno attributes his fiery activism to his mother. “My mother was semi-illiterate but perfected her literacy and numeracy through adult education in the 1960s. My mother was the boss. Loud, hardworking, neat, strict and very bold. She never held back on what she didn’t like. I certainly pinched bits of her. And all the key life skills and training I have today is because of her.”
On the contrary, Ochieno’s father was a Grade One teacher and catechist who later joined Tororo local government and retired as a county road inspector.
“I had the most secure childhood and upbringing. I was lucky to see and experience all my grandparents. My parents (RIP) were both devout Catholics. I would wish my early experience for every child,” he says.
Ochieno was the last born of three boys and two girls. From early childhood, he remembers enjoying the news on radio and reading anything. So much so that by the time he completed his primary education at St Joseph’s Primary School in Nagongera, he had read a number of African classics like No Longer at Ease, No Past No Present No Future, God’s Bits of Woods and so on.
Ochieno proceeded to Busoga College Mwiri where the seed of politics was first sown. “It was there in 1980 when I first met [Yoweri] Museveni (UPM); [Paul] Ssemogerere (DP) and our own (senior) OB [Milton] Obote (UPC). Obote sealed it for us with his eloquence, the demeanour and all. We were a school of intellect, debating and high aspirations.”
Ochieno would only get stronger in his UPC convictions going forward. It was those same convictions that nearly got him killed at Makerere. But as any strong conviction, when he got exiled in the UK, he resumed UPC work with renewed fervour and subsequently got in touch with his idol, Obote, who was also in exile in Zambia.
“I rose from there to become one of his closest aides by the time of his death. That is how and why he asked me to return to Uganda in 2004/2005 following the lifting of the ban on political parties,” Ochieno says.
Ochieno would become the biggest news in the UPC party elections of 2005. It was a well-known secret that Obote had ‘anointed’ him as the next leader of the UPC. That rumour alone had a huge bearing on the UPC electorate even when Ochieno was not known at the grassroots level. It was likely that he could have won the election had Obote not died shortly before the election.
When asked to comment about Uganda’s multiparty politics, he says, “Political parties and organisations in Uganda are as much lost as are most of the citizens they represent. So first, parties must recognise NRM and Museveni for what they are. Unless Museveni and his NRM/A are effectively deconstructed, political parties will continue to merely swim in NRM pools expecting to emerge smelling fresh.”