“I will not change the number plate of this car because of its historic background,” says Colonel Stephen Basaliza, a retired Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) officer, about his 220S Mercedes Benz.
Much as Stephen started driving the car in 1975, then as an ordinary level secondary school student, it fully came into his possession in 1994, then as a Lieutenant, after it had been driven by his now 95-year-old father, Emmanuel Basaliza, and later his brother, Edward Basaliza, albeit for a short time.
Nicknamed Kajambiya because of the edges on the car trunk that look like a panga, the 59-year-old five-seater Mercedes that runs on a petrol engine was registered in Uganda in March 1962, six months before independence with UUG 149 number plate series.
Everything else on the car, including its white colour, the 220S engine and seats are still admirably intact.
According to Stephen, his is the old type of Benz that came to Uganda during colonial days.
The exact model, he recalls, was driven by the British such as William Crichton who was the Headmaster of Ntare School in Mbarara in the 1950s, and former ministers such as Oboth Ofumbi who constituted part of the Obote I government.
Stephen recalls that he was born when his father, a veteran officer and farmer-turned golfer, was driving a Ford Cortina and Austin before he acquired the 1962 model Mercedes.
History of the car
Stephen’s father drove the Benz more during the Obote I and Idi Amin regimes. However, during Amin’s rule, there was a lot of instability that claimed lives of prominent rich people.
What saved Emmanuel was that he was a retired civil servant who rubbed shoulders with and regularly played golf with government officials and army officers. After playing golf and as a survival tactic, Emmanuel gifted the officials milk from his farm.
“The problem came after the overthrow of Amin. When the Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) fighters led by Yoweri Museveni reached Fort Portal, they needed support from locals.
Emmanuel welcomed them in his homestead and it is how we became part of the effort to help liberators.
Emmanuel’s car (the Benz) on many occasions transported Museveni and his officers such as Ruhakana Rugunda, Matia Kasaija and Tom Butime and many others to and from different places.
“In 1980 after formation of the now defucnt Uganda Patriotic Movement, the Basaliza family embraced Museveni as the party president and this Benz became the official vehicle,” says 63-year-old Stephen.
Problems from support
Stephen recollects that housing the Fronasa fighters almost caused the Basalizas problems because the 1980 elections that brought back Obote to power were thought to be rigged.
“We had to hide the Benz because Obote’s soldiers looked for everyone who supported Museveni. From 1980 to 1986, the Benz was hidden out of sight on a farm because it was popular. It was brought out of hiding when peace was restored,” Stephen recalls.
Fresh from hiding, Emmanuel drove Kajambiya for a short time and lost interest in it and started driving other vehicles, leaving it in the hands of his son Edward, who also possessed it for a short time.
In 1994, the car moved hands from Edward to Stephen. Stephen often drove the Benz to Kampala, Mbarara, Mbale, Tororo and other places for official assignments. When he later became a legislator in the Seventh Parliament in 2001, he often drove it to Parliament.
“Because of being away with government vehicles, I would sometimes park it home and drive it once in a while because spare parts were hard to come by. They were also costly,” Stephen says.
Running on a six-cylinder engine, Stephen says the Benz consumes a lot of fuel. For instance, When the Mityana road was still murram and impassable, Stephen needed 200 litres to drive from Fort Portal to Kampala via Kasese, Mbarara and Masaka. Apart from these places, Kajambiya has also been to Arua. In 1998, it was part of thefleet at the late Lt Col Moses Drago wedding.
In 2011, it was entered in the Vintage and Classic Auto show at Sheraton.
Within Kampala, Stephen says he drives it to church at Bbina, Mbuya and Mutungo, and rarely to the city centre.
The Benz is currently undergoing final touches to have it driven to Stephen’s hometown of Fort Portal where it will sit at his home as a tourist attraction. His mechanics, Geoffrey Mulambuzi and Andrew Musisi are tasked with keeping the car in good condition.
Besides importing spare parts from Germany and locally fabricating a few to serve the intended purpose, Stephen says Mulambuzi and Musisi source for functional parts such as shock absorbers from similar Benzes that are no longer on the road.
Fortunately, because the Benz is no longer driven lot, most parts are still intact.
“Because of traffic jam and considering the size of the Benz, when I drive it to city traffic jam, I need a lot of fuel. It is a heavy vehicle that parking is also a challenge. When well serviced, it can go as far as Kabale District some 408 kilometres away from Kampala. It is a family car I consider a gift that anyone in the family will one day possess,” Stephen says.
Due to the fact that the Benz mostly relies on the engine, Stephen spends Shs500,000 on service when it is driven. He has received many offers from potential buyers, with some from the US, but selling has never crossed his mind.
“It is the value attached to the vehicle, not how much it is worth. It is not good to destroy what others before me have kept,” Stephen concludes.