William Pike’s account of the clash between Museveni’s utopia and Uganda’s hard reality
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | A The capture of power by President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) in January 1986 was a moment of great hope. Blood had been shed, lives lost, careers abandoned, families left behind and educations sacrificed in a heroic effort to liberate the country from tyranny. It was called a new dawn, a fresh beginning, a rebirth. Museveni’s inaugural speech reflected this mood when he promised “a fundamental change in the politics of our country.” There would be democracy and freedom. And there would be rapid economic development to transform the lives of Ugandans.
This is the setting of William Pike’s book, `Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda’. It is written by a man who came close to the center of it all; an outside-insider. Pike, an Englishman, had taken enormous risks to travel from London to Kampala and then be smuggled to the bush in Luwero to witness the NRA in action. On many occasions he brushed shoulders with death. But through naivety, passion and sheer dint of tenacity, he finally reaches Matuga where he enters an NRA forward camp.
There he interviews some of the key players in this drama whose comments give us insights into them. Kale Kayihura is idealistic and ideological, David Tinyefuza is a deep thinker, Museveni is a master of strategy, Matayo Kyaligonza jolly but fearless – if not reckless, Kahinda Otafiire is witty and frank, Salim Saleh is intelligent and generous. There are high standards of hygiene; everyone is on strict instructions to use pit latrines for long and short calls. (What happened to this discipline given the mess Kampala is in today?)
It is 1984 and Tinyefuza tells Pike that the NRA and UNLA had reached “strategic parity.” When Pike interviews Museveni, he says the UNLA does not represent “any operational capacity.” Museveni the strategic thinker is in full view: “If you have to depend on a foreign country, even if it is friendly, you are hostage to that government,” he says, “What is essential in military terms is not the control of territory. What is crucial is preservation. If a liberation army can preserve itself and succeed in dismantling the enemy’s strength by killing soldiers, capturing equipment, destroying his political image and disrupting his diplomacy, then it is winning.”
Pike had met Ben Matogo, then a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) who introduced him to the NRM struggle, especially Eriya Kategaya. The latter invited him to Luwero to get firsthand experience of the struggle and broadcast it to the world. Pike’s book is a good historical document because he kept a notebook where he recorded events from 1984 to the capture of power in 1986 and to the first five years of NRM in government.
The author is more impartial, less impassioned and reflective on the changes in the NRM and of Museveni personally as their bush ideals come face to face with Uganda’s political reality – nationally, regionally and internationally.
In the bush, NRM had claimed its economic policies would be “anti-imperialist” and its political program “anti-dictatorship”. Once in power, Museveni the pragmatist triumphs over Museveni the idealist as utopia succumbs to reality.
Pike recognises the necessity of NRM abandoning its leftwing economic policy idealism in favour of free market policies. These emphasised rolling back the state via privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation and were imposed upon NRM by the IMF. Given how Uganda sold everything to multinational capital, it shows how Museveni moved from being anti-imperialist to being an agent of imperialism.
But Pike does not endorse this same necessity when it comes to the speed (as opposed to the direction) of democratisation. Didn’t Museveni have to abandon some of his anti-dictatorship rhetoric in the face of the requirements of consolidating political power and maintaining stability?
Yet it would be unfair to accuse Pike of not recognising NRM’s contribution to democratisation and a free press in Uganda. Indeed, the book is a statement of the liberal ideals of Museveni personally, Kategaya critically and the NRM generally. Pike reveals through many anecdotal stories how much freedom he had as Managing Director and Editor in Chief of a government owned newspaper, The New Vision and its sister vernacular papers. The paper was, therefore, able to continually expose corruption and human rights abuses without undue restrictions from the state.
Interestingly the only time in his 20 years at the helm of New Vision when the paper had to withhold a story from publication was under pressure from the United States government. Where Museveni disagreed with the New Vision, he called Pike on phone or for face-to-face meetings and expressed his displeasure but never forced them to withhold a story. And in almost all cases, Pike shows that Museveni’s disagreements with the paper would be on facts, not opinions. This does not mean Pike did not face political pressures.
The lesson from the book is that a free press is greatly helped if leaders in the media are connected to key state actors with liberal convictions. This makes their intentions less suspect but also arms them with internal surrogates to defend them within the system when controversies emerge. For instance, Pike had allies such as Kategaya, who was Museveni’s childhood friend, a deputy prime minister, national political commissar and for many years effectively number two. Kategaya always defended Pike and the New Vision against many elements within NRM who wanted to gag the paper. Indeed, Kategaya’s fall out with Museveni in 2003 left Pike exposed and inaugurated the process that led to his eventual fall in 2007.
The third lesson is that to have freedom of the press, the media need financial independence from the state. Although owned by the state, New Vision became profitable early in its life and therefore did not depend on state subsidies to survive. Otherwise if it had to go to politicians for money every year, they would have used this to compromise its independence. New Vision is also evidence of Pike’s own transformation from a journalist to an entrepreneur.
The book’s greatest aspect is that even with his misgivings about political developments like removing term and age limits, Pike shows how far the country has travelled from the basket case it was in 1986 to a more stable and increasingly prosperous nation it is today. Pike avoided controversy because the book stops in 1992, a period when there was a wide elite consensus in favour of Museveni.