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OBITUARY: John Nagenda; Why the press hated and loved him big too

Senior Presidential Advisor on the Media and Public Relations, John Nagenda, died March 4 aged 84

Kampala, Uganda | Andrew M. Mwenda | Senior Presidential Advisor on the Media and Public Relations, John Mwesigwa Robin Nagenda, is dead. He died March 4 at Medipal Hospital in Kampala aged 84. He was as controversial as was interesting. If you have a big ego, and you were not prepared to ignore Nagenda’s outbursts, you wouldn’t deal with him. When you learnt his ways, and accepted him for what he was, then you would be in business. This is an article I wrote about him in the Daily Monitor in August 1996 and happily republish them as an obituary.

I wrote: Very many journalists who have interviewed Nagenda once or twice would vehemently disagree with me that he is the best choice for a presidential spokesperson. But I tell you, Nagenda has brought a “fundamental change” in the relations between the press and the presidency.

First things first, when I read The Monitor story about Nagenda’s appointment to the new job, I was angry. The story sounded like Nagenda was going to build a fort around the president and block off information from that office to journalists. But this was not to be.

Since he entered his new office, Nagenda has eclipsed Presidential Press secretary, Hope Kivengere. Which is ironic, because while Hope is courteous and soft spoken, John is rude, harsh and quarrelsome.

But still there are journalists who prefer to seek out Nagenda for comments on all matters concerning the presidency, NOT Kivengere. Ask me, “why?”

Truth is that Nagenda’s hot words make good headlines. He doesn’t give a damn, he just shoots. If you call him to ask about any issue pertaining to Museveni, he will speak authoritatively. He does not mince words. Sometimes he makes unguarded statements, the type journalists love to quote.

For her part, Hope is a well cultured lady, The Perfect Press Secretary. But her biggest problem is her good manners. If anything happened at State House and you wanted a comment, Kivengere would speak in corners, roundabouts and circles. At the end of the interview, a journalist would have no news to write.

Her explanations are very guarded. And she leaves you no option but to kill most of the stories you call her over. Besides, Hope prefers reactive to proactive public relations. She therefore responds to mostly to “correct” a picture created by a story than create the picture herself before a paper can publish a story.

On the other hand, Nagenda leads the story, interview him and he will give the answer without having to wrap it in up in euphemisms. From the start Nagenda has been good for newspapers, because he is very controversial, he always provides good headlines.

Hope is rarely, if ever, involved in controversies other than when commenting on presidential matters. But Nagenda creates waves outside his office. Today, he will come running, after his car has broken down, to attend a handover ceremony of a factory he bought from government. The next day he is noisily defending the interests of farmers who got government loans and are now being threatened by banks.

Some days, later, he is embroiled in a heated loud verbal argument at Uganda Club, and finding himself in The Monitor Gossip in the process.

He is an avid writer who never takes anything lying down. Nagenda speaks and writes his mind without fear or favour. In an interview with The Crusader, he said The New Vision is “silly” and when The Monitor asked him about William Pike, the Editor-in-Chief of The New Vision, Nagenda said he was suffering from metal (not mental) fatigue. He took the opportunity to christen The New Vision with an innovative name, The Kony Chronicle.

This way, Nagenda has been in the headlines nearly every day. But he has one major problem; he is predictable. It is therefore easy to tell his response to a particular question. For example, his answer about Obote will be “He is a murderer”, and to something he does not agree with, he will say “That is silly (or stupid)”.

Thus, when I rang to ask him whether he had ever applied for Pike’s job, his first reaction was characteristic, “Why do you ring to ask me stupid questions?” he asked, “You people are sick”. Then he asked whether I had a copy of the said letter and I answered no, “Next time you ring to ask me these silly questions, you must first get the hard evidence”

That is typical of Nagenda. But rather than anger me, I often find his outbursts enjoyable. In fact, I ignore them and we delve into a discussion. And trust John, he will give you the most articulate and detailed answer when he settles down to it.

The other day, I interviewed him on comments made by some Moyo priest who compared Museveni to Aideed. He said that the majority of the NRA in 1986 were composed of Southerners i.e., Baganda and Banyakole, but due to some mix up, the story came out saying Westerners. The day after the story came out, I was on phone with him again, “Mwenda,” he called out, “you misquoted me over that story, I said Southerners not Westerners.”

I accepted his correction, But John now asked that the story be corrected lest people say he was being insensitive to Baganda who contributed a lot.

“Granted,” I said, But Nagenda wanted more, “And the correction must be carried tomorrow,” he insisted. The Friday paper was already made up, so I told him it couldn’t go in.

Then Nagenda pushed for the impossible. He insisted the correction must be the next day and without fail because the public may “forget”. “Or I will ban you from interviewing me, when you ring me next time, I will hang up the phone,” he said.

He has hang up the phone on me before. But I didn’t give up, I called him again and we talked. If he didn’t threaten not to talk to me again, it wouldn’t be Nagenda

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