Bantariza: Symbol of what was right, wrong with NRM

Friday October 30 2020

Benjamin Rukwengye

By Benjamin Rukwengye

Do you know the difference between the words “Semantics” and “Syntax”? I am still not sure I know the exact difference myself, but what I know for sure is that often when people – usually on heated English radio political talk shows – say “Semantics”, what they are usually referring to is “Syntax”.

How did I find out? Well, One afternoon while having a back and forth about the state of governance – or misgovernance if you like – the ebullient Col Shaban Bantariza, deviated from the conversation, to point out the difference to one of us who had used the one to mean the other. Just to be sure that he was just being a teacher, and that it wasn’t a deliberate diversionary tactic by a master of spin and infocraft, I looked it up after and found that he had been right.

You see, he, like several other commanders of the National Resistance Army (NRA), and later the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), had been a teacher. The image of teachers as revolutionary ideologues might be astounding today, but it shouldn’t be, for those educated in the 60s, 70s and perhaps even in the 80s.

Most of his generation was born towards the tail end of colonial rule and at the dawn of Uganda’s Independence. It probably explains why, despite their relatively humble backgrounds, they were able to attain first class education.

It is around this same education and civic awareness that out of their relative obscurity, they could discover their mission; and convinced that a new course of leadership was it, launch a liberation struggle to that effect. 

So good were they that only those within reach of their intellect could tell that a good bit of it was just a facade. So prolific was Bantariza, as army spokesperson, that he would become the standard by which all those after him are measured.


That even when you knew he was spinning, you respected him for the finesse with which he went about it. 

But it just ain’t the same. Somewhere along the way, between the privations of building and managing a State, the ball was dropped.

Every man started to look out for themselves and theirs – and to do whatever, by any means necessary, to secure the bag. And the results are everywhere if you care to look – from the quality in Parliament, to those who speak for the forces, to teachers to graduates – it just ain’t the same.

When I last met Col Bantariza last year, it was on a radio talk show. On the sidelines, Sulaiman Kakaire, who now speaks for the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) party, alluded to how at university, I had been a known NRM operator, but had since moved on.

The genial Colonel, responded that perhaps it was telling on how poorly they had handled mentorship, “if young people of Rukwengye’s calibre are choosing to leave.”
It should tell you a lot about the man, his spirit and commitment to the cause, that he had apparently been deployed to mobilise for the NRM in eastern Uganda, even when he knew that he had underlying health conditions that would put him in grave danger if he contracted Covid-19. 

Or perhaps it should tell you a lot about the soul of the party (or is it the government, or State?) that they would send a wounded soldier to battle, even with good knowledge of the likely outcome. For the good Colonel and his peers, the revolution probably didn’t have to end (pun) like this.

They probably didn’t envision a time when they’d still be jostling for power with their grand children, issuing threats to mete out violence, or balking at the idea of a handover, nearly 40 years later. Yet here we are.

This week, the Candidate Museveni campaign released their urban lingo slogan, #Sevolution, and I asked followers on Twitter to look it up on Google. You too should. It’s very unlikely that Col Bantariza sat in the meeting that approved the faux pas, because he’d have pointed out the syntax error. And in there you will find the tragedy for NRM, and Uganda.

The death of people like Col Bantariza is sad because it throws up more questions for and about Uganda than it gives answers. As for the contestation over his legacy, Shaban would say those who choose to mourn have as much a right to as those who choose not to.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.