Matthew Rukikaire and the Uganda paradox

Author: Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Mr Moses Khisa says: It was in Mr Rukikaire’s house in Makindye that Mr Museveni and his initial small band of 27 rebels assembled to set off, on February 5, 1981...

I belatedly finished reading Matthew Rukikaire’s memoirs, 70 Years: From Colonialism to Resistance and Beyond.
Many Ugandans of my generation, and younger, may not know anything about, or have not heard the name, Matthew Rukikaire.

He last held political office in 2001 as an MP but later served as chairman of Makerere University Council, 2006-2010.
Mr Rukikaire’s life has innumerable ironies, emblematic of the Ugandan paradox. He has lived long enough, now an octogenarian, to write a compelling and riveting memoir. 

His book is lucid, rich and written with candour and clarity. It is a story of a versatile and gifted individual who excelled on multiple fronts: an effective corporate manager, successful businessman and able national leader.

Mr Rukikaire was born and raised during the colonial era, came of age at the dawn of independence and participated in the immediate post-independence national leadership, first as Makerere University Guild President right at the most opportune moment of independence, 1962-63, and later as national Organising Secretary of the Uganda Peoples Congress, 1964-66. 

In his more than 80 years, at least a third spent in public life and leadership, Mr Rukikaire has lived through hope and disappointment, optimism and despair, struggle and success, trepidation and triumph. He has played roles in both what has gone right and wrong with Uganda over the past close to 60 years of independence.

For one, it was in Mr Rukikaire’s house in Makindye that Mr Yoweri Museveni and his initial small band of 27 rebels assembled to set off, on February 5, 1981, on the fateful trip to attack Kabamba military barracks, launching the five-year war that brought Museveni to power.

Having hosted the rebels and aided their initial planning, Mr Rukikaire was likely going to end up on the State’s intelligence radar, so he promptly fled to exile in Nairobi, for the second time. 

From Nairobi, Rukikaire became chairman of the External Committee of the newly formed rebel group, the People’s Redemption Army (PRA), and his house turned into the defacto ‘external headquarters’. It was here that an agreement between PRA and Prof Yusuf Lule’s Uganda Freedom Front was concluded in June 1981 to form the National Resistance Army/Movement. Considering his senior position in the rebel group’s leadership, it is instructive that Rukikaire was not appointed into Cabinet until 1989, three years into Museveni’s government.

And 10 years later, with the botched sell of the country’s main and publicly owned Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB), as the minister responsible for privatisation Rukikaire took full political responsibility and resigned despite doing personally nothing wrong.  The real culprit in the UCB saga, Gen Salim Saleh, Uganda’s real vice president of long standing, deputising the brother, got away scot free. This is a great part of the Uganda paradox. 

Rukikaire belongs to a rare calibre of Ugandan public figures, now nearly extinct under the current regime of rule: principled to a fault, patriotic and deeply committed to the public good. Since leaving government two decades ago, he has lived a quiet but comfortable life with his long-time partner, Sheba, in the same house in Makindye they bought almost 50 years ago!

Mr Rukikaire’s book is an invaluable contribution to the literature on our chequered and chaotic political history. However, a perceptive reader and critic will push back on a range of topics. Here are only a few. 

First, his assessment of former president Milton Obote is rather skewed and betrays bias. Since he highlights many flaws and failings of Museveni’s rule, he would have tempered his otherwise harsh judgement of Obote, squarely blamed for just about everything that went wrong with our politics. 

Second, Mr Rukikaire gives a rather unqualified praise of the economic reform policies of the 1990s for which he was directly involved: sweeping liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation. Undoubtedly, a lot of progress was made but many mistakes were committed too in throwing everything to the whims and winds of the market. 

He defends the sale of UCB, but it is difficult to see how Uganda can achieve structural economic transformation when the bulk of the banking sector is in the hands of foreign capitalist interests. Today’s extreme cost of credit is an indictment of the reform policies of the 1990s. 

Last, Mr Rukikaire insists that he belongs to NRM, but which NRM? Since the dissolution of the ‘Movement’ system, there has been no bureaucratically established, functional and financially independent organisation called NRM. Instead, we have the state of Uganda and Mr Museveni who conduct business in the name of NRM. 

That said, if you haven’t, please find the book. Read it closely and carefully. It’s superb.