Nagenda in context of our troubled history- Part 4

Author: Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

It was like Nagenda had been moved from the comfort of his lofty corner office to the general typing pool...

John Nagenda being apparently the top dog in President Museveni’s media and public relations put him in a very significant position in the NRM set up.

When the NRM put a hold on political party activity in 1986 the media became the home of those who opposed the government to get some breathing space.  The NRM prided itself in allowing free media as a sign of its unquestioned democratic nature. Newspapers like The New Vision, Weekly Topic, Uganda Confidential and The Monitor, The Star, Munno, Munaansi etc. thrived. The airwaves were opened up and FM radio stations like Capital, Sanyu, CBS etc had a field day. Nagenda acted as the ear and eye of the president and the government in monitoring what took place in this space. He often clashed with them and answered them in his column.

Added to this, NRM found a very useful person in Nagenda when it came to its image especially in the West.

The former supposedly Marxist guerilla outfit was now a government that needed a good image to make friends and make good reading in western media. That would help in attracting much needed aid and investment to actualize its ambitious development agenda.Nagenda, the media person and also the chummy character with friends in places as deep as British security, came in handy.  With time the NRM government established itself both at home and abroad. It became a much sought after  player in regional security as an indispensable ally in the often dubious war on terror. With that accomplished, it was time to focus on the domestic front. The honeymoon was over. Almost everything NRM stood to correct was now part of its way of life. Corruption, stolen elections, impunity, nepotism, huge gaps in the social safety net, state inspired violence, land grabbing etc. The dissent at home was now the focus as many voices sprung up to oppose the NRM from all quarters including from within the party.

It was time to come up with a different media strategy; one that unfortunately would need less of what Nagenda provided. Museveni needed people who could talk on level terms to what Nagenda disparagingly called the unwashed; the everyday people who called into radio stations and formed the crowds that followed FDCs Kizza Besigye in his defiance campaign.

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Without ceremony, Museveni brought in people like Joseph Tamale Mirundi, a man with the gift of the gab. A propagandist per excellence who borrows images from history, rumors, vulgar matters, sorcery and generally salacious side of life. Mirundi, a pamphleteer, makes his point in Luganda and English, with a strong Kiganda accent unlike Nagenda who prided in speaking British English. Mirundi came in to do you guessed right, protect the image of the President and his family; the thing that Nagenda was supposed to do. He often sounded like a hatch man. Mirundi was never reprimanded for claiming that people like Nagenda were appointed not to give advice to the President, but to earn and pay school fees for their children. 

I wrote on this page that Mirundi would soon find himself in the uncomfortable place in which Nagenda was because Museveni was ever on the move. When the battle ground shifted from the radio and Bimeeza (open air debates) to social media, with the adversaries being younger people with access to ICT, Museveni moved away from Mirundi and diversified. (Nowadays Mirundi spends most of his time lambasting ‘the mafia’ in the State House who supposedly want to kill him.) In came the Media Center. The shift brought in new hands like Robert Kabushenga, Don Wanyama and others. There was now a crowd speaking for the President. It was like Nagenda had been moved from the comfort of his lofty corner office to the general typing pool where he would have to fight for the boss’ attention like anyone else.

By this time, it was obvious to the likes of Nagenda that a generational shift had taken place and they would no longer be the jewels in Museveni’s crown. He soon revealed his frustration with the assertion in an interview with the Monitor that the President was an autocrat. Many were surprised, for Nagenda was known as an unapologetic supporter of Museveni. He later went back on his views but once in a while made that side clear; calling on Museveni to name a successor. Nagenda made it clear that he would not vote for the President’s son, Muhoozi Keinerugaba, if he offered himself.

Nagenda then played out the rest of his time doing the balancing act. For instance, his friendship with former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa put him in an awkward place as Museveni’s Presidential Advisor on Media and Public Relations. Mkapa was opposed to the lifting of the Presidential term limits in Uganda. As a government official who needed some form of clearance whenever he was leaving the country, Nagenda made it a habit to write scathing commentaries against ‘Museveni’s enemies,’ in the media before he made his annual visit to Mkapa’s retirement home in Southern Tanzania.

Many claimed that most of his support for Museveni was to serve his comfort. The truth is that Nagenda, like many people of his generation, took their word and that of the people they dealt with,seriously.

They saw Museveni as the man who would deliver Uganda to the promised land and ensure a bright future for the generations to come. They put their reputations on the line by marketing Museveni thinking he would not disappoint, judging from the effort and sacrifice it took to come to power in 1986.

They could trade off everything for the relative peace Uganda enjoyed under Museveni. They had lived in times of insecurity, humiliation of scarcity and exile. All else, especially the things that excited the younger generation like democracy, could wait.

There was the source of many a clash that at times made the very magnanimous and candid Nagenda look callous to some. For instance, how could someone who had lived in exile take pride in being part of those who sent others into exile? But so is life. We live through it with our good deeds and failings.

When Nagenda was interred on top of a hill at his farm in Bwotansimbi in Buloba three weeks ago, the classic, Time to say goodbye by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman was played. The old man from Namutamba had said his good bye to a life that was lived and molded around a lot of the modern history of Uganda with all its hallmarks of ups and downs.

Twitter: @nsengoba


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