Uganda’s 9/11 and the scars of Idi Amin

Author: Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

The trauma left behind by most of the killings in Uganda’s history is something many of us never get to appreciate

So  says the good book in Ecclesiastes 12:5, that man dies and mourners go about the streets and markets.

To say that we were overcome by grief when our dear friend Arnold Okwanga Anyuru (07/10/1970 -12/09/2022) breathed his last after falling and injuring his spine and brain is to make an understatement. There is a dire background.

Arnold was the third child of the late Eric Abdulla Anyuru. (The old man was a Christian who was given the name Abdulla by Muslim friends who found him affable when he visited Saudi Arabia).

Abdulla Anyuru was appointed head of the Public Service Commission by then President Milton Obote in the 1960s. It is written in Sowing the Mustard Seed by President Yoweri Museveni that Anyuru introduced Museveni, then 26, to President Milton Obote in 1970.

Museveni writes: “When I met him (Abdulla Anyuru) he interviewed me and found me quite brilliant. He then asked me, ‘can you work at the President’s Office?’ The President (Apollo Milton Obote) wants some young men around him ... and that is how I got to work at the President’s Office.”

After Amin’s coup of  January 25, 1971, Anyuru against the conventional wisdom at the time of fleeing into exile which many prominent Ugandans especially the Langi’s like Obote at the time did, he stayed put. He spent his time laying low like an envelope.

It is said that one normal day as the children were playing football in the compound of the now erased Naguru flats, in Kampala, a saloon car with state security agents came to a halt in the parking lot.

The men went to the flat, identified Anyuru, searched the house, and got a document. They then handcuffed him, while dressed in only his underwear, went to the car, and bundled him in the boot.

A few days later he appeared on state television at the Nile Mansion Hotel. He read a document under the watchful eye of a soldier ‘confessing’ his involvement in subversive activities aimed at removing the government of Idi Amin.

 He, along with 11 others, was tried by the Military Tribunal and sentenced to death by firing squad.

According to the Daily Monitor of September 8, 2018, Anyuru along with 11 others were blindfolded and tied to trees near the Clock Tower on Entebbe Road. They were shot in the head and chest on September 9, 1977.

Their bodies were pushed into sacks, taken away by prisoners, and disposed of secretly after a doctor had confirmed that they had died.

The 11 included “John Kabandize, the former Superintendent of Prison in-charge of Mubuku Farm, E.N. Mutabazi, the former Superintendent of Prison headquarters, Peter Otoa, the former Principal Officer of Murchison Bay Prison in Luzira, Daniel Nsereko, the former Assistant Commissioner of Police/ Undersecretary Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Lt. Ben Ogwang, a former Military Intelligence officer in the Malire Regiment.

Others were Y.Y. Okot, the former Inspector of schools in the Ministry of Education, John Leji Olobo, a former Senior Industrial Relations Officer in the Ministry of Labour, Elias Okidi Menya, the General Manager of Lake Victoria Bottling Company, Ben Ongom, a businessman, Julius Peter Adupa, a former teacher at Lira Polytechnic institute, and Gerison S. Onono, the former Principal of Bobi Foundation School.”

This killing was so brutal that the crowds that had gathered watched and walked away in silence. Amin had made his point of “sending a staunch warning to potential others.”  Amin was at his weakest point.

He had just personally killed Archbishop Janan Luwum in February of that very year. But things were not getting any better. Power was slipping out of his hands. He was now suspicious of even his shadow. So he became more arrogant and brutal in that he would instill fear and postpone the day of judgment.  He did not last too long after that.

Seven-year-old Arnold, his siblings, and their mother Mary Anyuru plus some sympathetic neighbours watched the proceedings that were broadcast live on national television, from the living room of the flat in Naguru.

From then on, for Mary Anyuru, it was a battle against all odds to push Sam, Sarah, Bob, Arnold, Carol, Rabat, and Antony through school. Those who lived in times of scarcity during the days of Idi Amin would understand that this was no mean feat.

The Arnold we lived with was a wonderful person but could decide to be quiet and withdrawn sometimes. When he did anything he immersed himself in it. He loved running and was a good middle-distance runner. He ran like his life depended on it and did the MTN marathon many times.

He was also an avaricious reader who was well informed about economics, sport, history, and world affairs. He read the Bible from cover to cover more than once. He bought yours truly a Luo Bible and books to learn the language! His conversations were very rich and varied.

It was the times when he chose to switch off and be to himself that were very intriguing and discomforting. It is only after one got to know the tragic story of his father that they would appreciate this side of him. He lived like he never recovered from the events of that September day; the 9/11 of Uganda’s dark history.

I once met someone whose father ‘disappeared’ in the 70s during the Amin regime. He told me that one of the important things about burials is that they provide closure to the life of a loved one. He told me that he struggled as a child.

He thought every car might be that of his father coming home at last. The fact that he did not have very vivid memories of what his father looked like meant he thought that almost every strange man he met could be his father.

He at times wondered whether his dad was somewhere alive but too scared to come back home thinking they would come and pick him up again.  It is something that lives with him 45 years later.

The trauma left behind by most of the killings in Uganda’s history is something many of us never get to appreciate. It is easy for those who have not been directly affected to say let bygones be bygones. But there are many who have never healed from the excesses of Uganda’s turbulent history.

Unfortunately, every government since independence has been a participant. The argument is that they are protecting the country. They go, leaving the county with other leaders who also ‘protect’ it in a similar fashion.

On the way from Oyam where Arnold rests, I kept on wondering when it would ever end, if at all.

As we go about the streets and markets, we pray that the Lord keeps Arnold Okwanga Anyuru well and grants fortitude to the family he left behind.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues

Twitter: @nsengoba


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