Gen Elly Tumwine. PHOTO/FILE


Gen Tumwine, an artist hard to celebrate or reject

What you need to know:

  • Gen Elly Tumwine was a designer, visual artist, recording artiste and alongside Dr Gilbert Gumoshabe of Makerere University, authored a book The Achievements of the NRM Revolution. 

Even in the face of robust art, music remains the most consumed form. In death or sickness, music can be a tool that calms people down. 

In ancient Africa, there was a music, dance or sound that was used for almost all situations, a drum sound that called people to action, that signalled death of a king or an attack from a rival tribe.

Music and power
In modern Uganda, the period leading up to independence was characterised by politicking and lobbying. Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), Democratic Party (DP) and Kabaka Yekka (KY) were the major political parties that took centre stage. In 1966, when then prime minister Milton Obote deposed president Edward Muteesa, UPC became a popular party that many people wanted to identify with. Some of these people were artistes. There are many songs that were recorded in the praise of Obote and his regime while others waited for his ousting to rebuke him. 

This was at a time many African countries were trying to get their independence, many songs at the time were calling for a revolution in one way or the other.

In the 1980s music did play a role in the most famous modern war known to the current generation. Music was one of the tools that kept many of the soldiers going.

Speaking to NTV’s Frank Walusimbi for the story, Songs of Resistance, Brig Felix Kulayigye noted that they taught soldiers the importance and purpose of the revolution, though, the best way of passing on the message was putting the ideas in songs.

“The cause was taught through the singing, appreciated through the music, the music mobilised followers, the music sustained the spirit of the fighters that despite the losses, what you were aspiring for was much bigger than the setback you have suffered,” he says.

Music and NRA war
That’s where Gen Elly Tumwine’s story probably features the most in the Bush War. The General, an artiste and soldier is said to have been part of those that sang on the battlefield, yet on other times, he would share stories about his experience.

Col Fred Bogere, one of the Bush War veterans, while talking to NTV earlier in the week, noted that some people may dismiss Tumwine but he did a lot in building confidence in the fighters.

“By the time our group joined him and others, the war had gone on for two days but constantly, he would remind us to pray for the country,” he said. 

The song Omoto Wa Waka was used by fighters to celebrate small wins, like the fall of an enemy camp. Many of these fighters did not have prior army experience. Different sources note that some of these morale boosting songs had been taught to the fighters by Brig Chefe Ali who had earlier trained in Mozambique with the fighters of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, he understood the importance of music in fuelling a fighter.

On the battle front, they sang about the parts they captured and yet, when they lost one of their own, they still sang in their memory.

Kulayigye also noted that even internally, the song of resistance would galvanise the spirit of the fighters.

Tumwine the artist
In 1978, Tumwine, then an artist and teacher, had joined Fronasa forces led by Yoweri Museveni to fight the Idi Amin regime. In 1981, when Museveni formed the National Resistance Army, Tumwine went with him. He was among the 41 original NRA rebels and held one of the 27 guns.

In fact, it is said he fired the first bullet in a war that would later propel them into power in 1986.
Tumwine died on August 25 though, even when he was divisive as a politician, the one thing about him everyone remembers was a fact that he was an artist of more than a discipline.

He was a designer, visual artist, recording artiste and alongside Dr Gilbert Gumoshabe of Makerere University, he authored a book, The Achievements of the NRM Revolution. The book highlights the breakdown of Uganda by previous regimes and what had caused those problems. The book further explains the political ideology of NRM and elaborated on how their liberation struggle started.  

As a designer, Tumwine had a colourful lifestyle, always dressed in his signature African fabric shirts and at times hats, he always stood out from fellow generals and politicians that usually opted for suits.
But beyond his outfits, while serving as a commander, he designed the flag, the emblem and the uniforms of the army, and was among those behind the Shs50,000 banknote design.

The recording artiste
It is, however, Tumwine the recording artiste that most Ugandans may have been familiar with. He had released many songs in his lifetime, but it was Ainunu that most Ugandans were familiar with.
In one of the interviews, the General had noted that music was the one thing that had led him onto fine art.

Apparently, as a student at Mbarara High, the school had hired a famous guitarist Rock Ruganzi to teach Art. 
“I got interested in Art not because of anything else but to enjoy Ruganzai’s guitar in the art room,” he said, adding that it was, however, the teacher who advised him to do Art once he reached Senior Four.

Later, he would join St Henry’s College Kitovu because they taught Fine Art, ditching a chance to join Ntare. In fact, he says he chose to offer Art at Makerere University instead of Law because he had been convinced that once he did art, he wouldn’t have to look for a job.

Ainunu, his most known song, talks about the beautiful nature of Uganda, he talks about the natural waters and fauna. Like the song of his boss, Museveni’s Another Rap, Ainunu borrows a lot from his cultural folklore through the instrumentation, with lyrics from both Runyankore and English.

It is one of his few songs with known videos, but of course, even when the video was released in the early 2000s, it is hard to accuse it of being a quality one.
Other songs by the General were usually a call for patriotism, asking Ugandans to work hard and develop their country.

Tumwine the visual artist though was a controversial subject. In 1992, the General was appointed chairman of the board of trustees of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC). 
In goodwill, the General fought and used his position to promote the gallery, invite artists back to the space, and set up an African food restaurant.

But as he did all the good, in his capacity, he put up an unsupervised structure that houses his office and Creations Ltd. Creation Ltd is a company associated with Gen Tumwine that started occupying part of the space at Nommo Gallery in 1992 without a tenancy agreement entered between UNCC and the latter.
The lack of an agreement is what created legal difficulties for UNCC to demand for what would be considered rental arrears for close to 30 years.

In 1997, Ms Janat Mukwaya, then minister of Gender, dissolved the UNCC board after it was realised that for the entire time they had been in office, they had never been audited, which created confusion.
“For instance, as chairman of the board, it was conflict of interest to give himself two shops in the craft village, set up a structure at Nommo Gallery and building a gift shop in the National Theatre foyer,” Kalundi Serumaga, a former executive director of UNCC said in an 2018 interview with Monitor.

And much as Serumaga and his team successfully evicted Gen Tumwine from the National Theatre foyer, removing him from the Nommo Gallery property is something all administrations of UNCC failed to do for more than 20 years.

By the time of his death, Tumwine’s rent arrears still stood. Something that complicates the way art and artists will celebrate the General. Is it a loss for art or a liberation of an art space?