By Matsiko wa Mucoori
During celebrations for the NRMs 24th year in power on January 26, 2010 President Museveni awarded medals to 190 people for their role in Uganda’s liberation wars.
The national function had passed as any other previous ones under the NRM reign until a member of one of the families of the decorated œheroesâ€ threw in a spanner.
Samuel Olara, son of Maj. Gen. Bazilio Olara Okello on Feb. 28 wrote an ‘open letter’ to President castigating him for demonising his father while he was still alive and failing to consult the families of the deceased before giving them the medals.
‘These medals, you said were’merely for participation without any significant contribution to the struggle.’ Yet I know for example that Gen. Tito Okello and Maj. Gen. David Oyite Ojok were overall commanders of the Ugandan contingent, Gen Bazilio Olara Okello commanded the infantry A Coy that broke the back of Amin resistance at Lukaya and subsequently captured Kampala; Brig Smith Opon Acak commanded the E Coy that went on to unfetter the Eastern Axis. One wonders therefore what exactly the President is insinuating by ‘insignificant contribution.’
Your Excellency, It is astonishing that these individuals were being awarded medals on the day that the NRM usurped power. I am certain that like ours, the families of these individuals were neither informed nor consulted prior to the awarding of these medals. Such conduct can only be interpreted as soothing one’s ego or ritualising over a dead person.’
Maj. Gen. Bazilio Olara Okello together with former head of the 1985 military junta Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa, former Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Oyite Ojok and his successor Brig. Smith Opon Acak, former Air Force pilot Maj. Gen. Zed Maruru, Col. William Omaria and Col. Tony Otoa, are among the 190 people who received liberation medals at Maluku in Mbale. They are former members of Kikosi Maalum (Swahili word for Special Unit), one of the two main liberation forces that ousted Idi Amin in 1979.
It has now emerged that the surviving former Kikosi Maalum liberators or families of those who died, were neither informed nor consulted prior to the awarding of the medals.
They were, therefore, not at the awarding ceremony to receive their medals. Some of them told The Independent that they only learnt of their medals either in the press or from friends who called them after reading their names in newspapers. One of the retired senior commanders of Kikosi Maalum, who declined to be named for personal security, told The Independent that he learnt about his medal after reading his name in a newspaper.
The medals are organised by the Presidential Awards Commiittee chaired by Prof. Mondo Kagonyera who is assisted by Gen. Elly Tumwine as the Chairman of the Chancellery for Medals. Tumwine has participated in the two liberation wars of 1979 and 1981-86. This puts him in a more technical position on the committee than Kagonyera in identifying recipients of the medals.
The medals have sparked more controversy and questions than they were meant to calm. Matters were not helped by Tumwine’s utterances at the awarding ceremony that the medals were not necessarily a recognition of the recipients distinguished role in the 1979 liberation war. Tumwine belonged to FRONASA, the second group, which was headed by Yoweri Museveni during the 1979 war. FRONASA entered Uganda from Tanzania through the Kagera border. It was in charge of the Western Axis that liberated western Uganda and continued through Hoima, Mubende Fort Portal up to West Nile.
The Kikosi Maalum commanded by Tito Okello Lutwa and comprising Oyite Ojok, Zed Maruru, Bazilio Olara Okello, Opon Acak and others entered Uganda through the Mutukula border, liberated Masaka and moved on to capture Kampala marking the final fall of Idi Amin’s regime on April 11, 1979.
According to one of the former senior commanders of the 1979 war, who declined to be named for personal safety, Lutwa was the overall commander of Kikosi Maalum which was attached to a bigger Tanzanian brigade. Bazilio Okello, Oyite Ojok, Opon Acak and Maruru were among senior commanders of the Kikosi Maalum.
“Maj. Gen. Oyite Ojok is the one who commanded the Ugandan contingent which captured Kampala. He had Bazilio Okello. How can you say they merely participated?” asked a retired former commander in the 1979 war.
He said Oyite Ojok was the commander of the Kikosi Maalum force that fought Amin’s Libyan reinforcements at Lukaya and moved to Buddo where they established their tactical headquarters before leading the ultimate assault on Kampala.
How can soldiers who commanded the fall of Kampala in 1979 be recognised for â’mere participation’ rather than â€œdistinguishedâ€ contribution in the liberation war?
On page 106 of his book Sowing The Mustard Seed, President Museveni says: “When we crossed into Uganda on 11 February, we already had a force of about 200 fighters. However, by this time (of Moshi conference in March 1979), we had a force of more than 9000. Obote on the other hand, had a force of about 600 from Kigwa in Tabora. In spite of Muwanga’s efforts, however, their force had grown to only about 1,500 by the time of the Moshi conference.”
This begs the question; if the awards were for participation in the war without significant contribution in the war, as Tumwine says, will the Presidential Awards Committee therefore also give medals to all the over 10,000 fighters who participated in the 1979 war?
At one time President Museveni referred to Tito Okello and Bazilio Okello as swine, a derogatory reference to his predecessors whom he accused of failing to run the state. So why decorate ‘swine’ now?
Some people think this is a mockery. Uganda Peoples Congress Secretary General Chris Opoka told The Independent: ‘This is an insult to former president Tito Okello and his army commander Bazilio Okello for Museveni to honour them on the day he overthrew them from power.’
Okello’s son concurs that this was an insult. â€œYour Excellency, by awarding the Kikosi Maalum medals to these individuals, you have performed the ultimate ritual – an insult to the memory of the hundreds who lost their lives in the 1971-1979 struggle and many individuals whose contributions have never been recognised, particularly in our case Gen Bazilio Olara Okello, Sam Olara says.
The Mbale medals were the first Museveni had given to his enemies whose government he overthrew. Two, it was also the first time majority of the recipients of the medals were from the east.
Political analysts say that given the growing rage that the army is dominated by people from the president’s area of western Uganda, Museveni had to do something to please other areas by way of medals.
With this noise about westerners dominating the forces, you have to give something to others so that they don’t keep grumbling,â€ says a retired senior army officer who refused to be quoted. ‘But there is nothing in the medals. They have no money. You just hang them in your room and that’s all.’
There is a general consensus among the public that the medals were a political gimmick for votes especially for the northern and eastern regions which have been politically hostile to President Museveni’s government.
“Given the utterances Museveni has been making against them (the Okello group) there is no rational basis why he should have recognised them with medals. May be he is desperate for votes. He is trying to appease the north to get their votes,” says Prof. Edward Kakonge, the Chairman of Uganda Debt Network.
This is not the first time Museveni has made contradictions in trying to rewrite his own script. After sacking Eriya Kategaya in 2003 for opposing the removal of presidential term limits from the constitution, Museveni tried to water down Kategaya’s contribution to the liberation struggle. He said that after all Kategaya’s role was minimal. Yet in Sowing The Mustard Seed, Kategaya is probably the most mentioned person, being cited 20 times. Interestingly, Kategaya was again recognised for his contribution in the liberation struggle at the Mbale medal function on Jan. 26.
Prof. Kakonge adds: “At least Museveni should have recognised Obote for his contribution to the country. To me it [awarding medals] does not make sense. Now Museveni can go any length to hoodwink the public to get votes.”
Sam Olara tells the President that since this was a national liberation war, the awarding of the medals should not have been portrayed as an NRM partisan function.
“It is true that Gen. Bazilio and the others participated in the struggle that ended the rule of Idi Amin under Kikosi Maalum. But this was neither a FRONASA army, nor your ‘liberation’ struggle as you have always told Ugandans. It was however a nationalist, Ugandan struggle that included Ugandans from all walks of life.â€ Olara says.Â â€œAllow me to conclude Your Excellency, by saying that in spite of your legendary affront utterances against our dear father, the late Gen. Bazilio Olara Okello and now the awarding of a medal, we the family always have and will continue to forgive you, particularly if uttering his name in odium and awarding him medals that do notÂ mean anything does you good.â€
The families of Oyite Ojok, Tito Okello Lutwa and Opon Acak remained silent on the post-humous medals as they never responded to The Independents communication about the issue.
So given the foregoing, did the medals achieve their intended objective? Its a split guess. But the underlying contradictions and the vagueness of the criterion used to identify the people for medals undermines the credibility of the seemingly good process.