Robert (Bob) Astles arrived in Uganda in 1949 as an unimportant colonial soldier, but dramatically climbed the power ladder to assume an outsized role in the post-independence era by retailing his loyalty to the Kabaka and presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin. In Part IX of our serialisation of his memoir, Forty Tribes: A Life in Uganda, Astles recounts how Obote’s ministers, especially his cousin and minister for culture and planning Adoko Nekyon stirred up conflicts within religious sects.
“ It was not until 1962 that I finally met Dr Obote but, no doubt, he had already heard of my work. He respected anyone, Asian, European or African, who worked long hours and my activities during the terrible floods in the year of independence had perhaps brought me to his attention.
There were to be quarrels in the future but I have never regretted meeting one of Africa’s greatest leaders. I do not know if he changed under pressure later on, but when I knew him, there was much to admire in him. Unfortunately, the pattern for all these early African governments was the same.
While the leader immersed himself in affairs of State, and certainly all the evidence is that young newly independent countries made great strides in getting out of the colonial backwaters, members of their governments started to plot and intrigue. It was into the plots of such men that Nadiope was one of the first to involve himself and one of the first to fall: and the method of exposure and arrest was one that became far too common later, that of the ‘great lie’.
Nadiope had, with the help of an Asian millionaire who was responsible for one of Uganda’s largest sugar estates, built himself a model farm on the way to the old railway workshops for the Nile steamers at Namasagali, which was once part of the flourishing cotton trade. The steamers used to travel up and down the Nile between Namasagali and Masindi port, from where the cargoes travelled on by road through the haunts of the chimpanzee in the Budongo forest and down the escarpment to Butiaba port.
They then continued on the Nile to Juba, in Sudan, in large paddle steamers which also towed long barges for the hundreds of African travellers. Only Europeans were carried on the paddle steamers and it was a very popular journey as it passed beside herds of elephants, often thousands in number, on the eastern bank of the Nile. Sadly, this is now all lost to future generations because of unstable governments and the coming of the gun.
The railway workshops and port had eventually been closed and Nadiope had helped himself to a very luxurious European bungalow that had once belonged to the railway staff. Some years later, the site had become a school run by Father Grimes, a well-known trainer of some of Uganda’s boxers, and Nadiope infuriated members of Obote’s government by high- handedly refusing to return it for the use of the school headmaster.
I used to stay in this bungalow during weekend fishing trips, enjoying a couple of days of complete solitude. Its lawn sloped to the banks of the Nile and the peace was only broken by the snorts of the hippopotami.
The Nile perch in that particular spot weighed well over a hundred pounds.
It was on one of these weekends that Nadiope arrived with his picnic basket and, while we were discussing the beauty of the place, he told me that he had a project in mind for making it into a tourist centre for walkers and fishermen. He asked me to go with him to look for a suitable aircraft landing strip as his American backers wanted to fly in tourists from Kenya.
We went off, just the two of us, and chose a site quite close to his bungalow and he asked me to come back in my plane the following weekend, by which time he would have the site cleared of trees and ready for use. Although I had no doubt about his ability to act quickly and get the place cleared, I went back by road the following weekend, instructing one of the pilots in my aviation company to fly over on the Sunday and be prepared to land if I gave the green light.
He duly arrived but I could not let him land because although Nadiope’s bulldozer, borrowed from neighbouring Asians, had pushed down the trees and enormous man-high termite mounds, it had left the holes in the ground. Nevertheless it was a start and Nadiope was full of plans for the future and anticipated becoming a millionaire.
When I got back to Kampala on Monday morning, I was arrested by Mr Hassan, who was head of airstrip in Busoga province. He told me that the Europeans of the police air wing had reported to the inspector- general that on Sunday, I had given permission for one of my aircraft to land somewhere on the banks of the Nile below the Owen Falls dam, which was a strategic target.
Poor Nadiope, despite being vice-president of Uganda, had been arrested that same night. I explained to Nekyon what it was all about and the story was accepted. There were far too many witnesses to confirm my account, including the Asian who had lent Nadiope the bulldozer, for anyone to believe that the landing strip was a secret one. I soon realised that no one had believed the mercenary story anyway, even though the government newspaper printed it.
But it had been a good excuse to lock up Nadiope in Luzira upper prison to keep him away from the plotters. He remained there for some years until Amin took power and released him to die a natural death shortly afterwards.
This, then, was the first case of arrest by the ‘great lie’.
Many were to follow as African leaders realised that it was a useful way to get rid of their enemies and prevent successful challenges to the leadership.
Today, African prisons are full of political detainees who have no hope of release until a change of government exposes the falseness of the charges against them. Mercy is not an African virtue.
Obote’s troubles with bickering ministers gave him enough to worry about but he was soon faced with more serious issues when they began to meddle with religions. The first one involved the Muslims, who made up 7 per cent of the population of Uganda and mostly lived in Buganda where, over the years, the old kingdom had learned how to handle them.
One of the Baganda princes had always been head of the Muslim faith and a further precaution had been to have both Christians and Muslims in the same home. I knew one family in which one son was a Protestant chaplain and another was an Islamic sheikh. The two religions had thus coexisted peacefully in the past but the new politicians with their jealousies could not let them alone.
All the other tribes had delighted in hating the Baganda simply because they were more advanced, even though this was due to their hard work and discipline. Now it became unacceptable that a Muganda prince should be the head of the Ugandan Muslims.
And although this arrangement suited most Muslims very well, it was decided that something must be done to change it. The man who produced the plan was Nekyon, the same Langi minister who had questioned me about Nadiope. He was a Muslim himself and he proposed a new organisation to be called the National Association for the Advancement of Muslims (NAAM), which he would lead. Obote had reservations about this but nevertheless, the plan went ahead and Nekyon, who was the minister for culture and planning, erected tents on his lawn in Kampala and gave a huge feast for those Muslims willing to join NAAM.
This launched the organisation successfully but almost at once deaths followed when at CID, and he questioned me about my connections with mercenaries. I had no idea what he was talking about but during the interrogation, he had a telephone call instructing him to take me to the prime minister’s lodge at Nakasero. As I went into the building, I passed Nadiope coming out, surrounded by police.
He looked very agitated but managed to shout to me: “Bob! You tell them what I was doing!” I was taken in front of Obote’s cousin Nekyon, who was then a minister, and he wanted to know why I had joined Nadiope in building a secret Muslims organisation in Mbarara, in the Kingdom of Ankole, which resisted the change. But Nekyon was a powerful minister, claiming to be Obote’s brother and to be acting with his approval, and the Muslims were powerless and had no means of knowing that he was lying. When Obote went into exile, NAAM faded away amid bloodshed but the Muslims have remained divided.
Nekyon, having divided the Muslims, then turned his attention to the Christians. I travelled with him by car from Kampala to Mbarara, a journey of about 120 miles, during which the only incident, in a country of incidents, was a kite hawk smashing through the car windscreen. But the journey was spoiled for me by the discussion about the position of the Christians and once again, Nekyon seemed to be the final arbiter. The Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi was to resign shortly and the next in line was the Muganda Bishop of Kampala, Dunstan Nsubuga.
He could have been a wealthy man, as he came from a wealthy land owning family, but he believed his path lay with God. I knew him and his wife in his early days with the Church and they were a dedicated and pious couple devoting their great talents to helping those in need.
Most of us thought he would be the right choice to take over from the White Archbishop Brown, who was deeply respected by all Ugandans, but there were growing fears that the new government was becoming so anti-Baganda that he would be passed over.
I had been asked to do my bit in lobbying for him, and for once I thought the request was a fair and genuine one. So during that car journey to Mbarara for the first NAAM meeting, I went over the points with Nekyon.
He already knew all the arguments for a Muganda archbishop and towards the end of the discussion, I thought him sympathetic. However, he pointed out that the cabinet in general were for an archbishop from another tribe and that the Baganda must give up their dreams of being leaders in every field.
A few days later, the government announced that the College of Bishops had selected Erica Sabati from the Kingdom of Tooro in western Uganda. It was a sad blow for Buganda and, no doubt, Uganda.
The new archbishop was a sick man and unable to stand up to pressure. He relied on people like Terry Waite, who was then in Uganda, and a few others from the London-based Church Missionary Society.
I must admit that he had a shocking time from the Baganda who controlled all the church property, including the bishop’s palace and were still insisting on Dunstan Nsubuga. My first meeting with Archbishop Sabati was on a deplorable occasion when he had been coerced into attending a massive political rally of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) party at Lugazi, half way between Kampala and Jinja. Religious leaders had not previously involved themselves blatantly in politics and some of the great crowd were ardent Catholics and opposed to the government. Yet here was our new archbishop, looking weak and forlorn, standing on the platform with one hand raised in the air joining in the acclaim for UPC.
I shall never forget that rally. It was held in a sports ground and because Obote was popular, the great crowd was bursting with enthusiasm. There was a high wall at the end of the cricket pitch, to prevent the African sun blinding the players, which I had climbed with a ladder to get a better picture of Obote’s massed followers with my cine-camera.
While I was perched on the narrow top, a group of the opposition Democratic Party (DP) members, bent on mischief, crept out of the nearby long grass and ran off with the ladder. Meanwhile, the crowd followed Obote out of the arena, drumming and singing and no one noticed me stranded on the wall until several hours later when police constables came looking for me in the dark and heard my shouts. Political sabotage, especially to the television teams, became a common practice and over the years, we were to have a great deal of fun with it.
Obote needed to devote all his energy to uniting the country and spreading more widely those benefits which only part of the country had been receiving since 1900 from British administrators. Yet while still in the early years of independence, the vice president had been detained for alleged CIA connections, the Muslims were divided and the new archbishop was unwanted by one of the largest tribes, which was certain to cause further divisions. And the principal instigator of all these events was Nekyon, so Nadiope’s prophesy that Nekyon would ruin the country was well on the way to fulfilment.
The issue of the two ‘lost counties’
Unfortunately, there was yet another serious problem facing Obote and this time it had not been caused by any living Ugandan. It was the issue of the two ‘lost counties’ called Buyaga and Bugangaizi, which had once belonged to the Kingdom of Bunyoro before being transferred to the Kingdom of Buganda by a short sighted protectorate government at the beginning of the century.
Feelings continued to run so high that the matter was serious enough to be part of the London talks before Uganda’s independence and Obote inherited it when he became the first prime minister.
In order to understand why it remained such a burning issue, it may be helpful to make a short digression into the early history of the East African territories.
The British had accepted the invitation of the Baganda to become their protector in the late 19th Century with half-closed eyes and were indeed, as was prophesied at the time, walking into a hornets’ nest. The Baganda, far from being a peaceful people, were fighting furiously on all their borders either for possession of more territory or, because Baganda men never laboured on the land, for slaves. One such border giving serious trouble was that with the Kingdom of Bunyoro, whose people were the original invaders of what is now known as Uganda and who had later spread out to form other kingdoms, including Buganda. The King of Bunyoro, called the Omukama, was Kabalega and he was, arguably, one of the greatest guerrilla fighters of modern times.
His kingdom was not unknown to British and Egyptian administrators in Cairo because it had resisted Egyptian penetration into East Africa for slaves and ivory long before Speke had discovered the source of the Nile. When he issued an edict that all the ivory in the tribal areas now known as Uganda, excluding the kingdoms, belonged to his administration, a line of trading forts had to be built north of his territory to protect it from marauding armies for the ivory, salt and other commodities, bartered by other tribes to the Egyptians. Two thousand Egyptians, Nubians and European mercenaries manned the forts and the administrator was Gordon Pasha, who later became known as Gordon of Khartoum, where he met his death.
He had already completed the forts, in territory later included in the protectorate of Uganda, when Stanley was dipping his pen into ink to write in his famous letter to the London Daily Telegraph: “Oh! that some pious practical missionary should come here! What a field and harvest ripe for the sickle of civilisation.”
Kabalega’s edict earned him hatred from the local chiefs so intense that whenever I spoke to their descendants about African emigration to Britain, they reminded me of how much the colonialists owed them for their support against him.
Gordon’s able administrator for the equatorial province was the outstanding soldier-scientist and doctor from Austria, Emin Pasha, or Emin Basha as he was known to the people of West Nile in Uganda.
He penetrated Uganda to make his base in the district of a friendly chief called Wadelai and built a fortress there, the traces of which remain today and are known simply as Wadelai.
I once lived on the site and the older inhabitants, who spent many hours around my camp fire, became very excited after listening to one patriarch and we all rose with much enthusiasm to follow the old man to a thick ‘waitabit’ bush. They cut it down to show me the actual steel picket Emin Pasha had driven into the bank of the Nile as a survey bench mark to denote the distance from sea level at that point above the Mediterranean. As a lover of Africa and its history, I was greatly moved by this example of the outstanding dedication to the continent by people like Emin Pasha.
Extracted by Sarah Aanyu