COMBATANTS: A MEMOIR OF THE BUSH WAR AND THE PRESS IN UGANDA

Pike’s memoir on Uganda bush war, a cautionary tale for politicians

Pike would praise NRM when praise was due, and when they committed human rights abuses, such as executing suspected rebels, he reported it.

In Summary

• Reading through the pages of Combatants, I cannot help but admire Pike for the journalist he was and still is.

• When he flew to Uganda and went to the bush to interview Museveni, Uganda was yet to become a riveting story.

William Pike, the author of 'Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda'.
EDITOR-AUTHOR: William Pike, the author of 'Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda'.
Image: COURTESY

A few years ago I penned a weekly column in The Star. 

William Pike was the boss. Although I had heard about his journalism, I had hardly read him. I knew him only as that Muzungu boss who had crossed over from Uganda to come and start a new newspaper in Kenya.

However, as a columnist with the newspaper, I had come to appreciate Pike’s sound editorial judgments. Still, I secretly hankered for the day when I would read the boss. That day came last year when he published his new book, Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda. Ahoi! Once again I am reading Combatants in the wake of President Yoweri Museveni’s six-day march in January through the jungle to retrace the path taken by his guerrilla army, the National Resistance Movement, up until 1986 when the guerrillas seized power through the barrel of the gun.

 

Reading through the pages of Combatants, I cannot help but admire Pike for the journalist he was, a cocky and relentless reporter who took on difficult assignments, and the indefatigable journalist he is today! And yet I have no idea whether it was by a quirk of history, or design, that he came to work in Africa.

He was born in Tanzania in 1952. His father was a British colonial officer and his mother was a medical doctor. Pike writes with nostalgia about his childhood in Tanzania, painting an idyllic childhood, while touching, if detachedly, on that denigrating subject of the colour bar.

He left Tanzania for England aged seven. “I always knew that I would return to Africa,” he writes.

When he was six, he buried in their garden a brass shell case discharged from the 19-gun salute during Princess Margaret’s visit to Tanzania. He hoped to come back one day to look for this brass, a story redolent of Egyptian writer-scholar Prof Arif Khudairi’s The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad, where the traveler in The Arabian Nights, embarks on a journey to look for the beautiful girl he had left behind during his last voyage.

INTERVIEWING MUSEVENI IN THE BUSH

As a student of History at York University, Pike did a course on guerrilla warfare and wrote an essay on Tito and the Yugoslav Partisans. Then Pike had no inkling that one day he would be embedded in a guerrilla movement in Africa, as a journalist, and not as the notorious Irish mercenary Mike Hoare with his adventures in the Congo and Seychelles.

When Pike flew to Uganda and went to the bush to interview Museveni, Uganda was yet to become a titillating story. The British press was inward-looking and not interested in the ongoing industrial killings and torture. It hobnobbed with a British government that feared Museveni believing he was a radical Marxist in the mould of Robert Mugabe and Samora Machel. They would rather support Milton Obote despite his human rights abuses.

 

Only a few enterprising journalists such as Richard Carver of Africa Now Magazine tried to bring these atrocities to the attention of the world, but Carver’s story did not get wide coverage. Still, his article was based on the narrative of a former DC in the Obote government who had fled to London: He had not been to Uganda himself. That would have to wait for a daring Pike, who would earn himself the distinction and international recognition as the first journalist to interview Museveni in the bush.

Ever since Idi Amin’s coup d’état in 1971, the situation in Uganda had deteriorated so much that the country was on the brink of becoming a failed state. Indeed, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo once told me in an interview when we discussed his book, My Watch: Early Life and The Military, that coups are a dangerous affair because they have the tendency of reenactment.

Uganda was in this cycle, with coup after coup. A frustrated Museveni, a voracious reader and visionary, believed he had the antidote to end the cycle of coups and begin the process of reconstruction.

In his autobiography, Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni makes a dialectic argument for guerrilla warfare as opposed to a military coup d’état. Indeed, one of the most extraordinary skills of Museveni was building a disciplined and organised military that would actually win a war.

But the propaganda machine advertised that Museveni’s disgruntled “bandits” were fast diminishing due to starvation in the bush and that Obote was winning the war. This was especially after NRM suffered setbacks in the famed Luwero Triangle, where they were pushed out by Obote’s Uganda National Liberation Army. Need I say the guerrillas, men and women, sacrificed a lot, for they hardly had enough to eat in the bush? Pike brings out this rarely told story in a most touching way.

Uganda was getting nastier and, “... foreign journalists were not just going there,” writes Pike.

It was in this fluid environment of a bloody bush war that Pike flew to Uganda in 1984, then working for South Magazine, a newspaper originally founded as a mouthpiece for the Third World.

But Pike would soon expose their inadequacies in articulating problems bedeviling an African country such as Uganda and publish his story in The Observer. 

Pike’s interview with Museveni was due to the friendship he had cultivated with exiled NRM cadres in London, whom he had met while doing his masters at The School of Oriental and African Studies. Combatants, therefore, is not only about Museveni: It is a remembrance of departed Ugandan patriots such as Ben Matogo, Eriya Kategaya and many like them.

It was Ben Matogo who introduced Pike to the NRM High Command. “After a short wait, we walked about 100 yards through the grass to the clump of thorn trees and scrubs which sheltered Museveni’s hut,” he writes.

Pike found Museveni outside his hut, “sitting on a small wooden folding chair”.

Museveni was wearing faded captured UNLA camouflage fatigues, a white T-shirt, and a peaked camouflage cap. Pike took photos that would be reproduced around the world. “But what made the photographs remarkable was the faraway look in Museveni’s eyes as he spoke,” Pike writes, “the look of a dreamer, a revolutionary”.

Museveni studied Economics, Political Science and Law at the University of Dar-es-Salaam. Then, Mwalimu Nyerere’s Tanzania was a fermenting ground for revolutionaries. Hence, as a student leader, Museveni led his colleagues to Frelimo liberated areas in Mozambique.

He travelled around and learned how to handle a gun. He might as well have taken his first lesson in guerrilla warfare in Mozambique. For his military training, he went to North Korea. “I was always interested in the military because I knew you could not oppose dictators without fighting them because they relied on the army,” Museveni would say.

Journalists who cover war and conflict may emerge with heroic tales. Yet during the war, they are humanly vulnerable. Pike could have been abducted by the Uganda security forces and executed or jailed as he tried to get to the elusive Museveni in the bush. Indeed, after the bush interview, he evaded Uganda's security and smuggled his tapes and notes out of the country through Kenya. Pike’s story helped galvanise support for NRM inside and outside Uganda. People now began to take a keen interest.

When NRM swept into power in 1986, President Museveni invited Pike back to Uganda and asked him to edit the government newspaper, New Vision.

Pike would praise NRM when praise was due, and when they committed human rights abuses, such as executing suspected rebels, he reported it. When Museveni became President, the process of reconstruction began in earnest. 

Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush and the Press in Uganda is an important historical document. Perhaps President Museveni’s greatest gift to his country is stability.

Indeed, as William Pike writes, “the past is another country.” Many forget where Uganda was 30 years ago. Pike’s memoir is a cautionary tale to politicians on how not to destroy a country. There’s quite a lot on diplomacy, ala, Britain, and tensions among President Daniel Moi, President Mobutu Sese Seko, and Museveni with assassination claims.

President Museveni’s greatest blunder which came with his betrayal of colleagues was to scrap presidential term limits to allow him stay in power forever. Yet any Kenyan, who might be scheming to undo the Constitution to allow for a president to return in disguise will recall none has the messianic vitality that Museveni had.

I recommend this book not only to every African child but to the political class. Because our cycle of rigged and violent elections does tell one that we are not insulated from Uganda’s pitfalls.

Khainga O’Okwemba is the presenter and producer of The Books Café on KBC English Service Radio