Kasirye Ggwanga shook the tent but never pointed at circus master

Thursday June 11 2020


By Daniel K. Kalinaki

A story is told of a senior military officer who was asked, in private and among trusted friends, why he is almost always silent about any of the regime felonies or misdemeanours.
The officer in question is one of the relatively few who had an education of note before joining the war, and is, therefore, considered to have a head on his shoulders. His answer was not long in coming.

He reminded his audience that there was a time, after the regime had taken power, when he tried to play by the rules by being honest and respectful of the rules. It had got him nowhere. In fact, he said, it had got him into trouble, presenting him as one of those who “spoke too much English” and “thought they were better than others”.
The officer licked his wounds dry and waited for penance. When it came and he once again found a spot at the feeding trough, he took a vow of silence. Never again would he look up from the trough and conduct himself in the undignified manner of those who speak with food in their mouth. It is not even African!

And boy, did he keep his vows. Over the years, the only noises that emerged from him did only when it appeared like he was being barged away from the feeding trough. But as long as the maize bran rolled and he was able to take the bacon home, Mr Officer ran his mouth like a silent maize mill.

He isn’t the only one. Over time, the eager fighters that brought the NRA to power split up into two broad groups. One believed in the cause and saw the shortcomings as teething problems or as the inevitable hurdles of State building, so they stayed the course and went away quietly when their time came.
The other came to see it as a façade for a narrow, corrupt, ethnically chauvinist power-hungry elite in which they were mere appendages. Some went away quietly, others continue to shout themselves hoarse over it. The fence separating the two broad camps had many holes and many have spent the last three decades crossing back-and-forth.

The difference with Maj Gen Kasirye Ggwanga was that he was publicly honest about it. It was hard not to be; he had fought in the Uganda Army under Idi Amin, suffered as a prisoner of war under Obote, then closely studied and hobnobbed with the various rebel formations that emerged, before throwing in his lot with the NRA.
In an interview with this newspaper 16 years ago, he confessed that he had joined the rebellion after Obote’s soldiers killed his elder brother, an airforce veteran, in February 1982. “That is why I went to the bush. Forget about this [expletive] patriotism; it doesn’t work with me.”

This cynicism about the ‘patriotism’ of the regime is one he would repeat in several subsequent media interviews. These interviews often coincided with moments of friction between the Maj Gen and the law or the regime and had the same intended effect of grunts during argy-bargy at the feeding trough.
When things were quiet, and there was no shoving, and all animals were happy, if not equal, he retreated from view and managed himself and what we saw as his eccentricities but could perhaps have been post-traumatic stress disorder, in the relative solitude of his Camp David farm.


He was a mixed bag. He considered himself worldly, thanks to his military training in the United States, took pride in the sophistication of reading Newsweek magazine when it was still something, and listed pasta, prawns and caviar among his favourite food – but found it absolutely normal to torch a grader during a land dispute, or send his bodyguard to beat up supporters of political rivals.

There was method in this madness. The general perfected the art of making just enough noise and trouble not to be ignored or disturbed, but not too much as to be seen as a nuisance or a threat. He criticised the conditions in the tent when he could, but never directly antagonised the circus master.
Like the other senior officer above, Gen Ggwanga, who died this week, learnt to see the system the way it really was, not the way he wanted it to be. He survived, but did he thrive? Those who seek to reform, retain, remove or rebuild it would be well advised to take notes.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.