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Who qualifies to be hero in Uganda?

By John Njoroge & Ogwens Kisangala

In 2001 parliament passed the National Honours and Awards Act. This led to the formation of a nine-member Presidential Awards Committee responsible for vetting and approving Ugandans proposed to be crowned heroes. Since 1987, Uganda has had 22 Heroes Day celebrations. It is not clear the exact number of Ugandans who have been crowned heroes to date. However, in the recent years over 2800 people have been recommended by the Committee to be awarded national honours.Â

Unlike past ceremonies, this year’s awards have been marred by criticism from the public, some members of the NRM and the opposition. Their criticism questions the criteria used by the government to declare who is eligible or not eligible to be a crowned a hero. So how does the committee determine who is a hero?

While speaking on one of the local FM radios in Kampala last week, Presidential Advisor on Defence Gen. Salim Saleh said the late Maj. Gen. Oyite Ojok, who was the army chief of staff during the Obote II government is not a hero. “Gen. Oyite Ojok was a hero in the struggle against Amin, but in our struggle he was a villain,” said gen Saleh.

Saleh’s comment implies that yesterday’s heroes could easily be today’s villains. Likewise, today’s heroes can easily become tomorrow’s villains. This means that today’s NRM heroes may be declared villains tomorrow when another regime takes over power. Â

Critics insist that President Museveni has turned the national honours into a personal strategy of rewarding his loyalists. They argue that there is no established criterion in selecting the heroes who mostly comprise former NRA bush fighters, collaborators, NRM/A historicals and presidential loyalists.

Many now believe that the original idea of heroism has been lost. Legitimacy of a national hero, to many, is expected to outlast regimes because of their known national accomplishments.

The Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) Secretary General Chris Opoka is one of these critics. Opoka says the Heroes Day should be a day of mourning and not one for personal gratification. “The Heroes Day UPC Ugandans celebrated on May 27, 1980 was symbolic to mark the return of Apolo Milton Obote. I don’t remember us mentioning names of people as heroes.  I remember we used to jokingly tell Ssemogerere to show us his generals.”

“It was a day for all Ugandans to commemorate how they struggled against Amin’s reign of murder and terror. All of us were heroes. No names were mentioned because all Ugandans had become victorious over Amin. Nobody was given a medal for being the better fighter against Amin and his regime of tyrants. It was a day dedicated to the people of Uganda who died in the struggle to bring peace to this country; those who perished as a consequence of dictatorship.”

Opoka says he and many others are disturbed by today’s Heroes Day celebrations. “Museveni started with a so-called Heroes Day for the NRM bush war. This was a civil war, a patricidal war in which brothers killed brothers, sisters killed sisters, mothers, daughters were killed. How can a fight within a family like Uganda that results into ruin turn into heroism? For those who lost their loved ones, this day brings back bad memories. We should be mourning what war made us do to each other. Instead, Museveni marks it as a triumphant day to honour his loyalists.”

Dr John Jean Barya, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Makerere University, agrees with Opoka. “No clear criterion has been given publically to justify these heroes. When you look at those declared, you will clearly see an inclining to the NRM. I think this is partisan for those who supported the NRA war against the UPC – Obote II government and those who support the government today and  Museveni in particular. We now see efforts being put into making partisan declarations on who is a good Ugandan and who is not,” Dr Barya said.

However Prof. Mondo Kagonyera, the chairman of the Presidential Awards Committee, refutes Opoka and Barya’s assertions.

“The president does not just award a hero status to anyone. There is a law that was constituted and necessitated the naming of people for national awards. This is why the Presidential Awards Committee was formed after the passing of the National Honours and Awards Act 2001.”

Prof. Kagonyera adds that nomination for a national award is not a monopoly of the president and is open to anyone. “This committee receives nominations from people in Uganda and even abroad who want to nominate others or want to nominate themselves for a national award. Those who qualify come from all walks of life; they are of different social status.  The president does not control the process. The members of the committee vet the nominees and those who qualify are awarded according to how outstanding they have been found,” he argued.

Kagonyera insists that honouring civilians is not a new thing since they also are eligible to win national awards. “In totality, there are 15 categories across which heroes are selected. These awards are not restricted to the army alone as people imagine. Any outstanding citizen of this country whether civilian, army officer, industrialist or educationist is eligible.”

So what should Ugandans expect in the next Heroes Day? Secretary to the Presidential Awards Committee, Businge Amooti, recently told the media that the 2,800 nominees will be awarded in phases with the next phase coming at the next Independence celebrations on October 9, 2009.

During a press conference at parliament, two NRM MPs, Felix Okot Ogong for Dokolo County and Henry Banyenzaki for Rubanda West asked the government to account for the funds used to organise Heroes Day celebrations and buy or make the medals. “We want government to explain to parliament and to Ugandans what criterion is used to select these heroes and where the money for those medals came from. Most of us just hear heroes. Who are they, how are they chosen? What have they done for Uganda?” Banyenzaki charged.

Opoka says, “I find it difficult to understand. If Uganda had fought a war against another country like the way the British fought the Argentineans over the Falklands of Kuwait and Iraq, one can talk about ‘Our Hero’. It would be about patriotism, nationalism. But what is this Heroes Day in Uganda all about? About who killed more than the other, who is best in killing?”

Opoka refers to former Bunyoro king Kabalega. “They are now trying to go historical by making Kabalega a hero. Kabalega fought against the British who were foreigners which is okay but Kajura [Henry]? This heroism born out of a civil war in which people maimed, killed, destroyed our country is being celebrated with pomp and giving medals is sinful,” he charges.

Another opposition leader who did not want to be quoted adds that Museveni is supporting the themes he formulated when he became a rebel against a legitimately elected government. He fought the Obote government to establish a one-party popular dictatorship in Uganda and to ensure that all other political parties cease to exist. “Is that being patriotic? Yet his theme for this Heroes Day was patriotism. The media everyday exposes corruption yet nothing happens to the accused.  Some of them have been named as heroes yet they have stolen from fellow citizens,” he argues.

He questions the legitimacy of the heroes. “Does it mean that the only heroes and patriots in this country are those who support NRM? Does it mean that the DPs and UPCs that were established long time ago did not and do not have patriots? Even Kabaka Yeka which led Uganda to independence? The laws of this country apply to certain people and not to others. Is there no virtue in people who do not support the NRM? Clearly the president is selective,”

Prof. Kagonyera dismisses the claim. “The process is transparent and participation is open. This year alone, around 1400 civilians and 800 soldiers have been recommended for national awards spanning 15 different categories. I do not think that all these are the president’s friends or loyalists as you call them. It’s a very transparent process.”

Dr Barya is skeptical about the future. “It is unfortunate that we keep writing our history negatively. May 27 Heroes’ Day was erased by this government and replaced it with its own.”

It is however worth noting that in the past, the public and the opposition had never questioned the Heroes Day because the reasons were agreed on by all the parties.

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