Incurring John Nagenda’s fury

Sunday June 7 2020

Former UPC president Olara Otunnu. Inset is M

Former UPC president Olara Otunnu. Inset is Mr John Nagenda, the Presidential Adviser on the Media. FILE PHOTO 

By Olara Otunnu

I recently wrote an open letter to President Museveni, concerning Uganda‘s response to coronavirus (Sunday Monitor, May 24). In New Vision of May 30, John Nagenda (Presidential Adviser on the Media) provided a rejoinder.

It is very striking that, in his response, John studiously avoided addressing any of the specific issues I raised, concerning coronavirus. Instead, he unleashed a fury of abuse, choice epithets and falsehoods, under the heading “Replying to Ivorian Olara “. My teachers (and John’s) at Budo, would have severely marked him down, for ‘padding’!
In my open letter, I make it clear that the measures imposed by Mr Museveni were appropriate and necessary. They conform to WHO advisory and interventions by other countries. I also pay special tribute to our unsung heroes, the medical and scientific personnel.

Uganda’s response to coronavirus
In fighting coronavirus, the effectiveness of a country’s response turns especially on the timing and robustness of response measures. Everywhere, early intervention is key. In Uganda, despite well-known risks and early warnings, government was very slow to act in several areas of major vulnerability.

Late interventions in the following four areas have been particularly costly for Uganda: imposing strict control and surveillance at land borders; robust monitoring and testing of cross-border truck drivers; focus on Dubai as a massive international crossroads and the biggest hub for Ugandan travellers and traders; and randomised testing across communities.

Although Mr Museveni has promulgated many measures, he has remained silent on some of the most consequential issues. These include: relief for families in great distress; a serious stimulus package, whose beneficiaries must include small-scale farmers and informal business operators; a special fund for immediate support for medical service and medical staff; overhauling of 2020/2021 Budget, including reallocation of the massive “classified” secret expenditures; submitting presidential promulgations to scrutiny by Parliament; and providing a coherent roadmap, instead of ad hoc interventions.
I ask John: Which of the issues raised above “drips with malicious poison from every pore…?”

Since writing the open letter, the situation has got worse. The incidence of infections is climbing rapidly. We now have community transmission and infection of medical personnel. The situation at key border posts and the issue of truck drivers are spiralling out of control; this underscores the imperative for collective EAC intervention.


Some regional referral hospitals have already been overwhelmed by caseloads. The distribution of relief food and public transport are in shambles; now add to this, the proposed distribution of village TV sets. Plans for reopening of schools and distribution of masks are on shaky and shifting grounds.

Systematic randomised community testing is yet to commence. Crucially, presidential leadership remains highly partisan and belligerent.

I do not wish to rain on John’s parade! But Ugandans need to discuss these issues seriously, without being obnoxious, where we may disagree.

I called out Mr Museveni for his very offensive and incendiary edict, stating that any independent distribution of food relief to starving Ugandans is “attempted murder.” This has already provided licence to some security elements to commit atrocities with impunity. I urge Mr Museveni to apologise to the country for this pronouncement and the torture of Francis Zaake. I ask John: What is your stance on “attempted murder” and the savaging of Zaake?

A larger context
John refers to “others whose names start with ‘O’ as Otunnu.” I cannot decipher this coded message. Who exactly are “the others” in Uganda? In another big leap, John declares: “Let Olara Otunnu, and his types, fail in their pathetic attempts to keep Ugandans apart!” Where is this outburst coming from? Can John kindly point to a single line in my letter which would remotely support this gratuitous falsehood? So, “the gross impudence” of raising pertinent questions about government response to coronavirus, amounts to “keeping Ugandans apart!” I get it. This is precisely the mentality and logic that lead inexorably to the doctrine of “attempted murder.”

There is a larger context to all this. In the Museveni era, John has exalted in promoting ethnic and regional bigotry and discrimination. He is one of the NRM cadres who developed and inculcated the sectarian division of Ugandans into: “us” and “them”; “those people” and “our people”; “northerners” and “southerners”; “Baganda” and “westerners”; etc. Sadly, this is the lens through which John views Uganda and Ugandans.

Our sectarian leaders have developed a cynical ploy. Those who have “the gross impudence”
to expose their sectarian policies and actions are immediately accused of being sectarian! This is designed to silence the critics and escape scrutiny. This is what John is doing, when he declares ostentatiously, “Let others who thrive on tribalism perish.” Honestly, John should address this admonition to himself, first and foremost.

John’s elliptical reference to “Ivorian” and “Ivory Coast” may have been lost on many readers. This is actually John’s triumphalist return to the scene of his previous crimes. John was one of the hatchet men who conducted a vicious campaign of persecution, disinformation and smear against me, throughout my sojourn abroad. (During this particular sojourn, 1986 to 2007, I served as professor at American University in Paris, President of International Peace Institute in New York, and Under-Secretary General at the United Nations.)

For more than 20 years, the Museveni regime rendered me a stateless person, by denying me a Ugandan passport. The regime then fabricated the story that I had renounced my Ugandan citizenship! John peddled this and other lies, repeating them ad nauseam. I would be proud to be the citizen of any African country. But this was about my Ugandan citizenship, my birthright.

Incidentally, this explains why, on my return to Uganda in 2007, there was a long standoff at Entebbe airport. I had flown into the country without a passport.

Given his particular background and admirable talents, I feel very sad about John’s chosen path. As for the hatchet job on me over the years, I forgive John. The chief reason for doing so is very autobiographical. John is the son of the legendary William Nagenda of Namutamba, who was a pioneer and leading light of the East Africa Revival (together with Simeoni Nsibambi, Blasio Kigozi, Yosia Kinuka, Joe Church, etc.)

My own father, Yusto, became a leader in that movement. William and Yusto were close revival brethren. “Nagenda” remains a greatly revered and beloved name in my family. So, at a very personal, emotional level, John is family.

Olara Otunnu is a former Uganda Peoples Congress party president