I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Long Trek into the Luweero Triangle, which retraces some of the safaris taken by the National Resistance Army (NRA) during its war against the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).
The said watching was made immeasurably more enjoyable by occurring, not amidst the steep climbs in sweltering hot afternoons, but from the vantage point of my sofa.
The first such march, two decades ago, had memoir written all over it and some have suggested that this one is gimmicky and mere politicking ahead of the election next year. I take a more sympathetic view.
Every re-examination of our history throws up interesting facts and anecdotes and helps us better understand the motivations and actions of key players and moments. Take, for instance, the President’s very readable recent account of the march to attack Kabamba.
A lot of the history is well known but there were some fresh details, or at least retelling of details. Consider, in this regard, the ingenious idea the Chairman of the High Command, as he then was, says he devised ways of lowering a landmine into the entrance of the armoury and using it to blow open the door that a UNLA soldier had barricaded from inside to keep the rebels out.
This is a remarkable improvisation on its own merits, but borderline genius when it is done by someone who also happens to be, at that very moment, several dozen kilometres away evading a UNLA counter-insurgency force.
The importance of having a more accurate record of that war, and the instability that surrounded the Obote II regime – before, during and after – cannot be gainsaid.
There is a basic need to teach younger Ugandans about their recent history. To illustrate the importance of this, consider that more than one in two Ugandans alive today were not born when Kizza Besigye first ran against Yoweri Museveni just the other day in 2001. We might not realise it but those of us for whom the symphony of war was the soundtrack to our childhoods are a rapidly diminishing minority.
A child born in Gulu in 2005 when the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels effectively ended in northern Uganda will be doing their A ‘levels in 2021 and will be eligible to vote in the 2026 elections.
Such demographic attributes provide political benefits accruing from the rendering and interpretation of historical facts, particularly war. This is why an accurate and more nuanced retelling of the story is important, and it is good to see a lot more books and historical accounts beginning to appear.
During the launch of Matthew Rukikaire’s autobiography in December, the great and good of the NRA and NRM were in attendance and many who spoke gave illustrative accounts of their view of the war and the political effort that brought the NRA/M to power. Your columnist could not remember a time or event in the past two decades when Amama Mbabazi, Ruhakana Rugunda, Elly Tumwine, Kizza Besigye, Henry Tumukunde had shared a stage and publicly reminisced about the war.
Speaker after speaker spoke about sheltering in Rukikaire’s house in Kampala before the war, and then in his house in Nairobi, after the war started. There were so many such references, a wag quipped that every one involved in the war be asked to list what they owned or were doing and thus sacrificed by joining.
More seriously, though, a more critical examination of the violence of the last four decades, right from Obote I, is long overdue. Many older actors have since died and many with their stories and first-hand accounts. The living owe the dead a more complete record and the more accounts we have the more clarity we can hope to have.
Clarity isn’t an end in itself, mind. Many UNLA and Uganda Army men and officers have died or grown old in exile without accounting for the atrocities they committed. But similarly, the sheer lengthy tenure of the NRA in power has meant that it, too, has survived or avoided a critical interrogation of its role.
History might be written by the victors but justice and accountability can’t be built on singular narratives. As Mahmood Mamdani wrote, in reference to the conflict in Darfur, but with lessons closer to home, in war no one is entirely guilty or entirely innocent. Until we have a lot more accounts the long marches to the Luweero Triangle will always be paved with untold stories. Here’s to a story-filled new year.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.