On April 12, 2007, a demonstration in Kampala against plans by the government to carve out part of Mabira Forest, one of the few remaining large tropical forests, and give it to the Mehta family to expand their nearby sugarcane plantation, turned violent.
The Mehta family is originally from India and was part of the early Asian exodus into Uganda initially to work on the railway and then to trade. Knowing our history, it did not take long before what started as a protest by tree-huggers quickly became racial: one Asian man was lynched, while dozens barricaded themselves in their shops and in one city temple; two would-be looters, both natives, were shot dead.
Newspaper reports at the time identified four Opposition Members of Parliament as key leaders of the protest: Jimmy Akena, Beti Kamya, Hussein Kyanjo and Beatrice Anywar, who was so identified with the protest, she would subsequently come to be referred to, honorifically, as ‘Mama Mabira’. Together with Kyanjo and 25 other protestors, she would spend some time in Luzira prison over the Mabira riots.
This week, the newspapers and social media platforms were awash with photographs of Ms Anywar, an Independent Kitgum Municipality MP, attending the NRM retreat that re-endorsed the incumbent as sole party candidate for the 2021 presidential election.
There is a picture montage showing the MP hobnobbing with her original FDC party, then with Amama Mbabazi and the short-lived Go-Forward movement, and now with the NRM. Understandably, the accompanying comments were riddled with ridicule.
A politician unrestrained by moral moorings and lacking an ideological anchor is easy to lambast and Ms Anywar has received it by the bucket load. But anyone interested in understanding contemporary Ugandan (some would say African) politics would do well to study, not just the swinging of the Mama Mabira political pendulum, but where she and the other Opposition MPs in the riot ended up.
Beti Kamya fell out with the FDC, started the Uganda Federal Alliance and lost her way running for president in 2011 (literally; she once unknowingly wandered across the border into a village in northern Tanzania and campaigned in front of a crowd of polite but bemused locals) before throwing her lot in with the NRM. She was rewarded with a Cabinet post as Minister for Kampala Affairs.
Mr Akena fought a bitter war for control of UPC, the party founded by his father, Milton Obote, then, according to his bitter political rivals, ‘handed it over’ to NRM via an unspoken entente cordiale – around the time his wife was appointed to Cabinet as Lands minister. He remains an MP for, and a leader of, what remains of UPC.
Mr Kyanjo, the only MP from the foursome to remain firmly rooted in Opposition, and openly critical of the government, was re-elected in 2011, but forced to leave the House due to ill-health. He was diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological muscular disorder that can be hereditary, caused by trauma or poison.
Mr Kyanjo, who maintains he was poisoned, is now battling cancer.
The problem here is not that people mock Ms Anywar, but that in the survival-for-the-fittest nature of our politics, only a few even remember Mr Kyanjo or would contribute to a fundraiser for his medical bills.
We need not go too far to see this cycle repeat itself. At the time of writing, controversial scholar and rights activist Stella Nyanzi was set to appear in court for a hearing after almost 140 days in the same Luzira prison on charges of abusing the President and his family.
Even those who find her language offensive agree that Ms Nyanzi’s detention before trial is excessive. Yet one suspects her biggest ‘crime’ is not in abusing, but in failing to say sorry and promising to turn her verbal swords into pro-regime ploughs.
At a fundraiser for Ms Anywar in her constituency last year, the President said: “I locked her up in Luzira because she had gone too far for starting a riot in Kampala. I later called her and asked her how Luzira prison was.” Press reports did not indicate her response to the question, but Ms Anywar had earlier complained about being held in filthy conditions without privacy and going without food.
One would not be surprised were she to turn up in the more comfortable Cabinet room, sandwiched between the ministers of Lands and Kampala Affairs. Mr Kyanjo stood by his principles, but those of us who have remained silent and unsupportive of him during his stoic but eye-wateringly expensive fight for his life have no right to criticise Mama Mabira for jumping into any political bed. Those who want to occupy the moral high ground must first be willing to help their heroes and heroines walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. [email protected]