On Sunday this week, I was challenged by fellow columnist John Kamau to write a book on my experiences in Uganda during Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada’s murderous regime.
Coming from JK, a guy who, by rights, should have by now won a Pulitzer or two for his excellent work as a journalist did such a prize exist here, this was an exciting notion.
But I fear it won’t happen. I simply don’t know enough about what happened to the beautiful lady with cherubic cheeks, Ms Esther Chesire, whose life was cut short by Amin’s secret service thugs.
It would have been only fair if Esther’s parents had been accorded some kind of closure, but she suddenly disappeared and her sunny presence was buried in the dark clouds of mystery.
About then, I was not in a position to know what was going on, but I was to hear all about it at a Mulago Hospital ward nursing a painful dent on the forehead inflicted by a gun-butt.
Those were terrible times. However, many of us students at Makerere University led a rather sheltered life. We studied in a huge self-contained campus where the only things you could buy with Ugandan currency was bananas and rationed beer from the university cafeteria for which you had to queue.
There was also crude waragi bought from a visually impaired vendor who plied his trade openly in the staff quarters. The only place that luxuries like bottled beer and sizzling steaks could be had was in major hotels.
My utter disquiet about military rule was born in Uganda in 1974, when I resolutely concluded that soldiers should stay well within the confines of their barracks and venture out only if needed to fight off those foes who would threaten the country’s territorial integrity.
They don’t belong in state houses, not because they are unable to learn the intricacies of statecraft, but because their very training is entirely about issuing or obeying orders without question.
On the whole, those who seize power illegitimately turn into despots. The virtues of negotiation and compromise are foreign to them and they use every means, fair or foul, to hold on to power.
That is why few military juntas have ever transformed their countries or improved the lot of their subjects. The rule of the brutal Idi Amin from 1971 to 1979 was a nightmare.
Those eight years changed Uganda from a relatively prosperous nation to a basket-case, a great country ruined by a caricaturistic buffoon whose antics were beyond the pale.
Robust exchange programme
Most Kenyans living or trading in that country did not stay there long enough to know the full horrors of Amin’s rule.
Many returned back home in a hurry, while university students were recalled by the government, thus killing a robust exchange programme that had benefited learners from both countries since the colonial days. I was part of that programme.
So was Esther Chesire and hundreds of others. To graduate from Makerere was a prestigious accomplishment. I didn’t. The circumstances couldn’t allow.
Nevertheless, I am very proud of my two-year stint at Makerere. Its curriculum was quaint for it was deeply steeped in British traditions, and in the ‘English Literature’ class, we learnt all about British writers, poets and literary adventurers. Indeed, very little about African literature was taught there.
At the University of Nairobi where we had to enroll, things were not any better. But by then, celebrated author and Makerere alumnus, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was roiling up things quite a bit while spearheading the Africanisation of its Literature Department.
Anyway, to go back to my story, at the tail-end of the university calendar in 1974 when every Kenyan at Makerere was looking forward to the December holidays, two bad things happened.
Ms Chesire and her friend, Sally Githere, disappeared. This event caused bad blood between Kenya and Uganda, and things got worse when Amin claimed Kenya’s territory, sending Mzee Jomo Kenyatta scurrying for military aid.
The second was that yours truly was clobbered senseless outside the main university gate. Apparently, some soldiers thought I had seen them execute a student who had just completed his fifth year in medicine and was about to graduate. I probably did, but I’ll never know.
Generally, this was not a good time for a Kenyan to be laid up at Mulago. I was soon moved to the university’s sick bay, before being smuggled out of the country by fellow Kenyans, which is how I found myself in Eldoret town on the day the late Chelagat Mutai was jailed.
That morning, I tried to buy a newspaper, but the vendor wouldn’t sell it to a bandaged fellow who kept mixing up his “r”s and “l”s. Things were that bad.
Those who deride democracy and the rule of law should try living under a military dictatorship; they would change their tune fast. With all its imperfections, the civilian rule is always preferable to any other form of government.
However, as we go to the polls, we must be aware that brutal dictators do not always wear uniforms. They are elected by the people.
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]