In this hour of peril, a toast to Uganda’s journey with Azania

Wednesday May 13 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I f you are over 50, and was into African liberation things, then between late 1987 and mid-1988, one of the biggest stories must have been the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

Fought between August 1987 and March 1988, near the Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale, it pitted the Angolan army, South African liberation movement forces and, critically, the Cuban army. These were the good guys.

The bad guys were the South African apartheid Defence Forces, and the quisling, albeit fairly strong, insurgents of Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) during the Angolan Civil War.

The back-of-the envelope story is that the apartheid forces attacked because Angola was a major base for the African National Congress’ armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK). They were hoping, in the long-term, to cripple Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), enable Unita to dislodge it from power and install Savimbi as a vassal ruler.

The South African apartheid army was formidable, terrorising all neighbours unhindered over their support of anti-apartheid forces, and seemed unstoppable. Until Cuito Cuavanale – or simply Cuito as we used to say.

Cuito was decisive, and by the account that became popular with progressives and the left, handed the South Africa army its first proper hiding, which broke its confidence, and eventually led quickly to the independence of Namibia, where it was the colonial power of sorts, and eventually the end of apartheid.


The Cuban embassy in Kampala, used to send around to newsrooms copies of its ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma. Other communist and socialist embassies (the Russians, the North Koreans), and western ones, used to also diligently send their official publications and other propaganda. We didn’t throw them away.

We read most of them, looking for hidden signs and soundings that would give us a glimpse into the Cold War play at the time. Granma was different. Of course, Fidel Castro looking cool with his beard and cigar was always heartwarming to see and read about.

But the thing that made Granma really different for some of us, was its review of culture, books, and music, which was very thoughtful and mostly devoid of the heavily ideological toppings that marked its political and economic reporting.

Except for one story; the Battle of Cuito. In several issues, it carried detailed and lengthy reports of the battle, rendered in colourful and dramatic fashion, and it was simply unputdownable. For once, we would wait outside the office of now defunct Weekly Topic for the courier from the Cuban embassy, and pulled rank to take away home a copy.

From Cuito, there was a settlement that ended the war, and part of it was the relocation of uMkhonto to Uganda. It involved MK leaving Angola, and that is how the bulk of them relocated to Uganda, and some to Mbeya in Tanzania.

Though their main base would later be in Luwero – and Kabalagala/Half London for its elite – they were first camped in Mbarara in early 1989. Nelson Mandela was released from prison some months later on February 11, 1990, and the first phase of the end of apartheid started.

In 1994, he was elected free South Africa’s (Azania as the nationalist know it) first democratic leader. Jump to 2004, 15 years before the would-be South African president Cypril Ramaphosa visited President Museveni in Rwakitura.

There he saw our long-horned cattle (I will only call it that, not Ankole cattle, because Rwanda also claims it, and the question of the much-fancied animal’s provenance remains unsettled). Ramaphosa fell in love, got some, and is now a leading farmer of the long-horned cattle down south.

The South Africans were not done with us yet. In 2018, Ramaphosa was back with his son Andile Ramaphosa. This time for one of our well-brought up girls.

So, we gave them a good wife, Bridget Birungi, who is former NRM big kahuna and prime minister Amama Mbabazi’s niece. Today, in a series of actions to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, President Ramaphosa’s government has banned cigarette and alcohol sales, the former because it compromises people’s health, making them more vulnerable, and the latter to stem lockdown domestic violence.

To get their booze, South Africans have rushed to buy pineapple and make home brew, what in Uganda we call munanaasi. As a result of munanaasi, the price of fresh pineapples in big South African cities has shot up by as much as 200 per cent!

Some supermarkets sell pineapples with sugar and yeast as a set, so you get all the ingredients you need to make booze in one pack. And so, the circle was completed. In solidarity, we gave them a sanctuary for their revolutionaries.

Then our long-horned cattle; our daughter for a wife; and now in days of peril, we share in the solace and mutuality of munanaasi, of which this fair country grows the sweetest pineapple anywhere on this planet.