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Reminiscing with Uganda's Former Rulers

At a Ugandan golden jubilee celebration, the country's former colonial officers prefer to reserve judgement on 50 years of independence.
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At the Uganda golden jubilee celebration in London. Photograph by Charles Okwir.

London, UK:

On October 6, the brightness and warmth of the autumnal day in London was matched only by the silver-white hair of the former colonial administrators gathered to celebrate Uganda’s 50 years of independence and, perhaps, the nostalgic warmth that exuded from their beaming faces whenever they bumped into anyone who looked Ugandan.

At The Royal Over-Seas League, located in a posh district of London, nearly 80 British pensioners for whom Uganda still occupies a special place in their hearts came together as part of a Uganda Society UK event.

Their sentiment is truly special especially that, as one of them pointed out, the last time many of them met was in Mbarara on October 9, 1962, when the British flag, the Union Jack, was being lowered and the new Ugandan flag hoisted to signal Uganda’s independence.

There was no better demonstration of that nostalgia than the fact that all the British pensioners, and Ugandan guests alike, proudly wore name-tags showing the when they had been in Uganda, the areas they worked in, and in what capacities.

Welcoming guests, for example, was a tall and friendly elderly gentleman whose nametag read: Keith Arrowsmith, ADC (Asst. District Commissioner) Kitgum – 1957-1965.

Coming from Kitgum, I couldn’t resist having a chat with my former District Commissioner (putting aside the fact he served before I was born). Keith eloquently transported me to the 1960s, painting a picture of peace and tranquillity that is, by all standards, a far cry from the cruel realities self-evident in the district of Kitgum today.

He talked proudly of the medals he had been awarded for his service to the people of Kitgum. “Would you flog them at an antiques auction”, I asked? “No chance”, Keith replied swiftly, his eyes dimming ever so slightly, unable to comprehend the audacity of my question. “No amount of money can buy them”, he added.

A quick scan on the nametags worn by the British pensioners in the hall revealed that nearly three-quarters had served as colonial officers in pre-independence Uganda – from Gulu to Mbarara, and from Fort-Portal to Butaleja, Soroti and beyond.

Most spoke very warmly of Uganda. Not that they didn’t know of the political mess Uganda finds itself in now, with opposition protests frequently being violently repressed. Rather, one got the sense they were holding on to beautiful memories and refusing to contaminate them with the political traumas of post-independence Uganda.

“This is purely a day for celebration – you are not going to get me to say anything else”, one of the attendees told BBC journalist Lewis Machiphisa when the latter attempted to get his reaction about the “walk to freedom” protests of that week that saw opposition leader Kizza Besigye arrested twice in as many days.

But this selective blindness didn’t last very long as Uganda’s outgoing High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Joan Rwabyomere gave a speech – one that Sam Akaki, the International Envoy to the UK from the opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) later described as “nauseating”.

A more measured way of describing the speech may be to say it was exactly what one would expect from an imperfect government who, for their privileged status and proximity to power, are totally oblivious of the tragic fate of the suffering majority.

“Ugandans can now expect to go to the polls every five years to elect their leaders”, Rwabyomere proudly asserted, ignoring the fact that the elections tend to be marred by state-inspired violence and vote-rigging.

Being “a day for celebration”, common decency demanded that she be left to ramble on – and ramble on she did, telling all and sundry how the oil discovered by her ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government will ensure that Uganda achieves middle-income status in record time.

Two elderly women were sitting next to me, intently listening to Rwabyomere’s speech. One of them suddenly broke her silence with a probing whisper: “Your brother here [referring to Edward Bisamunyu from Kigezi] has been shaking his head in you believe a word of what the High Commissioner is saying”, she asked? “It is her job to say what she said”, I replied. “I see”, was her reply and we never returned to the subject.

As this particular celebration of Uganda’s golden jubilee celebration drew to a close, it seemed clear that many of the guests had chosen to reserve their judgement on Uganda’s 50 years of independence.

But history will not be that timid. And it seems likely that history’s judgement will deem that the principle reason for Uganda’s failure lay in the persistence of a single-party authoritarianism that has proved to be incapable of, or totally unwilling to, reform itself.

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Charles,It's been a year since we attended this great event and I have been wondering if it will become an annual event even though I cannot attend because I am "locked" in China.Let us keep the candle burning for a spirited, head-shaking and non-violent literary opposition!With gratitude,Edward