Bush War memoirs are unwelcome today

Sunday December 1 2019


By Philip Matogo

The easiest way to make history is to write it. By extension, there’s an outpouring of memoirs written by the so-called 1986 revolutionaries to whet the appetites of those who wish to know more about Uganda’s history.

To name but five such books: Betrayed By My Leader: The Memoirs of John Kazoora, Uganda’s Revolution 1979-1986: How I Saw It by Pecos Kutesa, The Agony of Power by Matayo Kyaligonza, Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda by William Pike and, most recently, 70 Years A Witness by Matthew Rukikaire.

All these authors have held true to the notion that history lies in the eye of the beholder and have thus insinuated their biases into the echo chamber of time.

To read excerpts of Rukikaire’s book, for example, is to realise that his role in the Bush War was more central than we had imagined. And, possibly, more than he himself had even imagined.

“I can say confidently, however, that I was the only person who sat on the (external) committee from the beginning of the war in 1981 until 1986 when it ended,” Rukikaire writes.

However, I suspect the late Eriya Tukahirwa Kategaya, who wrote a 132-page memoir Impassioned for Freedom and who was in and out of the bush during the war, would demonstrate how he, and only he, being President Museveni’s underboss (excuse the allusion to Mafia hierarchy), laid claim to such unswerving devotion to the cause.


But dead men tell no tales, nor do they debunk tales told, so we shall take Rukikaire’s word for it.
Apart from Rukikaire’s book being, so far, a fluent account of the events which changed Uganda forever, it is also a testimony to the high court of history.

One that pleads for absolution while asserting that such absolution is unnecessary, in view of the context in which the war was conducted. So, like the Byzantine Empire General Belisarius: Rukikaire’s imperfections flowed from a contagion of the times; his virtues were his own.

As in the case with the other said memoirists, his narrative carries a subtext which belies everything he writes. This subtext is a painful reflection upon the times and how they have marched on so remorselessly that the Bush War veterans have been either forgotten or left in the lurch.

To be sure, many people do not even see the point as to why the 1986 revolutionaries went to the bush. Since their struggle was a struggle against a corruption of power and money yet such cancers have left Uganda on her deathbed, courtesy of their leadership. And so, it would appear, the cure was worse than the disease!

More, while these memoirists seek a fair verdict from history, the actions of their fellow-travellers still warming seats of authority serve as countervailing factors to such a verdict.

In William Pike’s aforementioned memoirs, he quotes a bush-hardened Museveni as having said: “We must have a broad-based organisation. It was not just a question of UPC, people were calling us followers of Obote. I said I was not a follower of anybody, I am just a freedom fighter. How can people have followers in the 20th Century?”

Yet, today, a cult of personality has sprung up around President Museveni. And the NRM system of rule has spiralled into a neo-patrimonial system of government in which the citizens represent clients instead of interests while the leaders represent patrons instead of an activity circumscribed by the Constitution.

While our politics are held in thrall by a personality driven belief system, or Big Daddy Syndrome characterised by the leadership’s omnipotence, the deeds of yesteryear are gobbled up and spat out in the form of the public’s cold indifference to revolutionary memoirs.

Millennials, and those born after 1986, would rather listen to Kanye West or Bobi Wine than pony up a pretty penny to purchase a sentimental piece of literature in order to ride into the sunset while reminiscing with the Rukikaires about the good old days, that happened to be bad. Besides, Kanye makes hit records. While Bush War memoirs, being of similar vintage, sound like broken records.
It is tragic, yes. And it is comic, too.

However, such tragicomedy was created by a class of leaders who saw it as their bounden duty to parlay their rule into a refund for all the pain and suffering they experienced in the bush.

So when one reads their nostalgic narratives, one is immediately repulsed by the self-entitlement and preening self-pity which punctuates every expression or inflection with the repugnant words: “Were you there when we fought in the bush?”

Mr Matogo is content editor and writer with KQ Hub Africa