For Col. Felix Kulayigye, the last seven years have been quite a journey. Arguably, to speak for one of the nation’s most sensitive institutions and with latent power of tongue to make tanks roll is no mean task. Yet, as he takes on the political commissar portifolio, many, both in the media and public domain think, the good colonel has done a great job, if not an extra-ordinary one.
Calling him “a prolific performer,” Robert Atuhairwe, a commentator wrote on the website, Ugandans At Heart, “He succeeded Col. Shaban Bantariza whose performance was sterling. But Kulayigye has managed a tougher session, not to mention his charm, accessibility and corporate touch.” To many, the former army spokesman came off as, “a man of the people and friend of the press,” cracking and accommodating a joke at social events and always the first to throw his heavy arm for a quick, firm handshake, then, generously casting his signature ear to ear smile, branded with a warm and contagious laughter.
His deep voice with a faint western accent became a familiar one on radio and television air waves; often tussling it out with a rabid talk show guest or inquisitive host. The more the argument heated up, the faster he quoted philosophers and history to drive his point home. Along the way, he of course, rubbed some the wrong way, painting a black picture of a state apologist and “political army spokesman.”
“He came off as one with vast knowledge and sharp debating skills beyond just military matters. That is why his successor, Paddy Ankunda, no stranger in the field, has a task ahead,” Solomon Oleny, a journalist observed on the facebook page, Uganda Journalists moments after his transfer was announced.
A journey since 2005
In 2005, Kulayigye, whose name means “grow up and learn”, was appointed deputy spokesman, before taking over as UPDF/ Ministry of Defence Spokesman in November the same year. “I had reservations, I actually feared it. It was a job I never wanted to do but in the military when you are deployed you have no choice,” he says of how he felt leaving the jungles where he was hunting for Joseph Kony, to come and speak for the army.
At the time, he says, Uganda was transitioning to a multi party political system and doing public relations in an environment where, “the political class tells lies deliberately was traumatising in the first days. I would have got a nerve crack but I went to the gym and worked out.”
Today, the 1964 born of Kisoro reads political literature, plays with his children and still visits the gym. When I tease him about his protruding potbelly, the former high school boxer roars with laughter and displays his hands, “This is muscle not fat. I put on weight when I am stressed.”
But the gym was not to save him from the real fire awaiting him in the position. First came the dust raising arrest of Dr Kizza Besigye laced with the infamous Black Mamba invasion of the Kampala High Court, then the UPDF’s deployment in Somalia when everyone was skeptical with Members of Parliament putting the executive on the spot.
The challenges of these rotated on how and what to say. The 2009 Kayunga riots were different. After speaking to the irate masses, as he entered his car, a man carrying a club brought it down, targeting his head. He put his hand up and it was fractured. “In whose interest? Those are occupational hazards. I forgave him but I did not forgive Ken Lukyamuzi and Beti Kamya for saying it was stage managed,” he says in response to why an armed man didn’t act in self defence.
Another challenge was the crashing of the Somalia-bound helicopters last year. One day, he told the press the choppers had landed safely, only for the world to awake to the news of the crashed planes the next day.
On contradicting himself he says, “As a spokesman, you are like a gunner, you are loaded with information and that is what you give. There are times I have received information late and journalists already have it,” he says, sipping an energy drink with emphasis on his teetotaler status. And this was one of those times. Each time he spoke to journalists, they took his word with a pinch of salt, though they keep calling him. His phone, he says, gets over 70 calls in a day. Kulayigye laughs nostalgically at the storm the chopper crash thrust him into saying he was insulted left, right and centre on social media and he quotes a memorable one, “The end of the legendary spin doctor. Finally Kulayigye falls.”
He thoughtfully says, “The media is powerful. It can bring down or make governments. It is also very important for the development of society but [also] can be very destructive so it must be used responsibly.” He declines to comment on individual media houses. “I enjoyed and still enjoy a working relationship with the media but my good friends should stay away from opinionating news reporting.” He cites the recent coup talk as a case in point, calling it, “a product from the Monitor newsroom.”
It got him moving from station to station, penning article after article to put the record straight and persuading the public to put the President, defence minister and Chief of Defence Force’s words in context. On how objective is objective, he says, “Objective reporting is when you say Kulaigye is bulky but when you say Kulayigye is bulky because of this and that, you are opinionating reporting and your newspaper is good at that.”
Convincing the audience to his side, the army has in the New Vision and Daily Monitor surveys won the most popular government institution, making the UPDF look more friendly and graduating the public relations office from responding to the media to a bigger concept of civil-military relations. This he says is his legacy.
However, achieving that has had a lot to do with his role model, President Yoweri Museveni, whom he says, “taught me to be humble despite having power and authority, to read widely and be analytical before commenting on anything.” And of course, God whom the devoted Catholic says, “has been too kind to me. God has been the centre of my life. In 2010, someone took me to a pastor and he read all my past life, some things known to only me and God. Since then, I became closer to Him and my life has been heavily rewarded since then.”
On new role
As the Chief Political Commissar, the father of seven who does marriage counselling as a hobby seems to have his job cut out for him as he will handle, “the politics in the army and spearhead political education (siasa) with a view to entrenching the ideals of patriotism and pan Africanism in the diverse army.” Whether the pro-people appeal and media friendly touch that Kulayigye has made himself during his tenure at the helm of the army’s mouthpiece remains to be seen but one thing for sure is that he is the army spokesman who will take long to fade from our memories.
His military career Kulayigye joined the army in 1989 after graduating with a degree in education from Makerere University. He acquired his Masters in Economic Policy and Planning in the same university. He rose through the ranks from serving at the Presidential Press Unit from where he was transferred on President Museveni’s orders for pushing away women forcing their way to the president. He once served as Aide de camp to then Col. Kahinda Otafiire and at the rank of captain where he commanded a hunt for LRA rebels in the Acholi region before being posted to public relations.