• The ideals Museveni and the NRM stood for transformed Uganda for the better.
• However, optimism began to fade in 1996, 10 years after the capture of power.
TITLE: Combatants - A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda
PAPERBACK: 304 pages
PUBLISHER: Independently published, March 17, 2019
“It was my privilege to be part of the revolution,” concludes William Pike in his excellent book about one of Africa’s least understood revolutions.
It is a personal, well-written account of how much Uganda has changed in the last 30 years and how violent and torn apart it once was. It is not about Uganda today and the first parts were written over twenty years ago. For the younger generation, who often derides today’s somewhat discredited President Museveni, the book gives an inside story about the man himself and what happened. How did the international superstar and adored Ugandan leader become a president who today would only score around 30 per cent of the votes?
Why did he stay on as president and remove the two-term limit (kisanja)? That became one reason why Pike left Uganda and the newspaper New Vision after almost 20 years as the editor-in-chief. This book is essential to get behind the headlines and rumours to understand what happened. The author came to be part of Uganda and he is clear that the ideals Museveni and the NRM stood for, and in many ways still stand for, transformed Uganda for the better.
William grew up during the Cold War era in the UK, although he was born and had his first childhood years in Tanzania. It was a time when political left-wing activism among students was high. There were visions of a better, just world and, perhaps naively in retrospect, ambitions to be part of making it.
After a disappointing trip to Tanzania to see his childhood environment, Pike in 1982 started at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he soon met Ben Matogo, a Ugandan in exile. It would change his life forever. It began his involvement with the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and led to his first visit to Uganda as a journalist and then to life in Uganda after the war and at the helm of the New Vision, Uganda’s government-owned national newspaper.
His trip to Tanzania in 1982 had a great impact on him. He had believed Tanzania to be a progressive, equitable and dynamic society. Instead, he found “it was lethargic and disorganised, with the state sector exerting a deadening effect over the entire economy”. It depressed him. The experience seems to have influenced the author’s own way of steering the New Vision and businesses later on.
Pike took great personal risks to uncover the horrific atrocities of the Obote regime when in 1984, he sneaked into the killing fields of the Luwero Triangle as the first journalist to interview Museveni at the height of the Bush War. For some, it might be surprising to learn that the atrocities of the then Obote regime and his soldiers were at a scale and brutality that overshadow the Idi Amin years.
The book describes how the NRM, on the other hand, gained the confidence of the population so that it could capture Kampala in 1986. Contrary to the beliefs of many observers at the time, the revolution had minimal external support and followed the principles of protracted guerilla warfare where weaponry and equipment were captured from government forces. A map of Uganda would have helped to navigate through the different places mentioned in the book.
When did the first years of optimism after the Museveni takeover begin to fade? According to the author, it was in 1996, 10 years after the capture of power, when the new constitution came into force and the first multi-party elections were held. Previously, decisions had been taken on the basis of their economic and social benefits, but then it became clear that winning elections was what mattered more than anything. Politicians triumphed over technocrats and Museveni’s prolonged attachment to the Presidency disappointed many who formerly supported him.
On this development, Pike concludes, “some of Uganda’s problems today are of Museveni’s own making, but others are unavoidable and deeply complex problems of any developing country”.
Some of Uganda’s problems today are of Museveni’s own making, but others are unavoidable and deeply complex problems of any developing countryWilliam Pike
The book narrates how the New Vision grew from its infant lack of equipment, resources, circulation, low work ethics and editorial shortcomings to a respected and financially profitable newspaper. When a new office block was inaugurated in 2003, Museveni wrote in the visitor’s book, “Good entrepreneurial effort” and later called to say, “You and I may have had our political differences, but (with a funny laugh) I just wanted to say I admire your business acumen.”
There were many who questioned the New Vision’s independence, and Pike was asked countless times “how free is the New Vision?” He used to reply that the New Vision supported the Movement but not its failures. It was a government paper but still independent and broke many key investigative stories involving government officials.
Some interesting but contested revelations come forward in the chapters about the relationships with Kenya and Rwanda that would interest anyone who has a strong interest in contemporary politics and development of the region.
The chapters on Aids and economics are filled with many reflections on how William had to deal with the loss of colleagues. How Uganda and the New Vision told the truth of the scourge of Aids and how the newspaper argued that market reforms, proper accounting practices and workplace discipline were essential for economic recovery. High officials were also exposed for using government funds for their private properties and lifestyle.
When Pike left in 2006, he claims he left without bitterness. Instead, he felt relieved. There are many occasions laid out when William went through dramatic, sometimes life-threatening experiences. That these experiences affected his private life is clear, but sometimes he stops short of sharing his own thoughts about them.
He didn’t find his Shangri-La in Tanzania, but he found his life’s mission in Uganda.
Combatants – A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda is available at Bookstop in Yaya Centre for Sh1,750 and at Prestige Bookshop in the CBD.
Anders Ostman was the head of SIDA in Uganda in the 1990s and later the head of Unicef in Rwanda