I have long since got over it, but long ago I used to be hurt when I went to Nakasero Market and saw the butcher casually wrapping meat with yesterday’s newspaper.
As a journalist, I thought newsprint was sacred. The late Sam Owor, Rotarian extraordinaire, and former Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB) chief, also was a man who saw newspapers as an enduring trove of knowledge.
He kept all the newspapers that he had ever bought over the years, so much so that his collection was more complete than the Makerere University Library archives’. Local and international researchers on Uganda who needed a complete newspaper collection went to Owor’s private collection.
One day at the Monitor, one of Owor’s relatives walked into my office. At that time Owor was away with the African Development Bank in Abidjan. He said he was selling “rare” old newspapers, and he was the only one who had them.
My face fell, because I immediately figured out what had happened. He was raiding Owor’s collection.
I said he should bring the material I look at it. Immediately he left, I rushed to Wafula Oguttu’s office and told him. He said we had two choices; either refuse to buy the newspapers and the gentleman would sell it cheaply in the market and the archive would be lost; or we buy and save it, and let Owor know. We did the latter, and over a period bound the newspaper collection.
Later, I realised that the fact that even the day’s newspaper was being used to wrap meat was a signal of the beginning of the end for print. The time for the newspaper to die had arrived. It still survives, but it is a dead man walking.
There was the same feeling last week after the Age Limit bill was passed by Parliament. With the same casualness the Nakasero Market butcher wraps meat with newspapers, the MPs not only deleted the 75-year age limit – which was expected – but in a grand gesture of democratic contempt also changed theirs and the president’s term from five to seven years.
Although they brought back the term limit, it was meaningless. There was no sense of occasion about it.
On the day the bill passed, before I went to bed I decided to check the main Ugandan websites to see how they closed their day with the story. None of them had the passage of the age limit Bill as their lead on their websites at that point. Then the penny dropped. I realised that the 1995 constitution had finally died.
This story begins in 1981 when Yoweri Museveni and a band of brave young men take to the bush in Luweero to begin a bush war, after the disputed December 1980 elections. Their goal was to “bring a fundamental change, not a mere change of guard” to Uganda.
In the bush, and early in power, Museveni railed against Africa leaders who cling to power – until early 2005 when his tone changed, ahead of the scrapping of the two term limit.
I only went to Museveni’s-war Luwero in late 1985. The Okello generals (Tito and Bazllio) had overthrown Milton Obote in July 1985. Peace talks between the Okello junta and Museveni’s NRA/NRM in Nairobi were slow and rocky. Weekly Topic, having been banned by the Obote government in 1981, had reopened.
NRA operatives would sneak to our offices to give us updates. So it was that Wafula, the Xinhua correspondent in Kampala, and myself sneaked to Luweero to meet the NRA.
They were tough, determined, but haggard, and in rags. These guys, had sacrificed a lot.
Immediately after Museveni took power, together with a colleague, Nassali Tamale, at Weekly Topic, we made two trips around Luwero to report the horror of the war – dried up decomposed bodies frozen in the painful postures in which they died. There were axes and machetes still embedded in skulls and spines.
To this day, I believe that the scale of inhumanity that happened in Luweero has not fully registered nationally, in much the same way we have not even began to comprehend what happened in the long years of war in the north. It was a steep price to pay for freedom.
I crisscrossed Luweero twice in recent years. The Luweero of 1986 is gone. On one of the trips I returned to Kampala late at night, on Christmas eve. The towns along the road were packed and busy like crazy. The traffic jam was horrific.
Everywhere hawkers sold cheap plastic and imitation Christmas presents from China. It was tacky, but there was also something heartening about it. “They’ve really moved on from the Luweero of the 1980s”, I said to myself.
Last week on the floor of Parliament, the last men and women standing also did.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]