Former cabinet minister and NRA ideologue Rukikaire on politics and leadership
BOOK REVIEW | Ian Katusiime | Mathew Rukikaire has seen it all. Born into an aristocratic family and educated in the best institutions that the colonial era could offer locally and abroad, Rukikaire has either made or participated in history-making. Therefore, when he records his life’s events in a book, political and history buffs may want to get his account of events.
One of the major events of Uganda’s history was him playing host to the start of a liberation war of 1981-86 and the formation of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) which has become one of the most influential political organisations in Uganda. The events happened in his homes in Kampala and Nairobi respectively.
Rukikaire has had a front row seat at many critical junctures in Uganda’s history. He witnessed how power was structured as a child, with a warrior grandfather during the time of the Nkore kingdom and an uncle who was a colonial era county chief in the 1950s. His book `70 Years A Witness’ is a narrative by the 81-year-old Rukikaire on how he saw events before and after independence, his two periods in exile, his role in liberating Uganda from what he terms bad leadership and the promise of the NRM under President Yoweri Museveni and how it lost the plot.
He writes that the exposure he had due to his background played a role in his selection as head prefect of Ntare School by the famous headmaster William Crichton. He had been to Kampala and visited Rwanda and Burundi which broadened his view. In 1956, he was among the pioneers of Ntare; a school that produced a generation of leaders in the country and beyond.
Rukikaire’s leadership journey took another step when he joined Kings College Budo in 1959 and was selected to be head prefect again. He was also in the pioneer class of Budo for the Higher School certificate (A-level). Rukikaire takes pride in the positions he occupied in his formative years.
On the day of his book launch in December 2019, he reiterated that he was the first non-Muganda head prefect at Budo; joking that although Wako Muloki, a Musoga, and later Kyabazinga of Busoga, had been a head prefect, many people associated Basoga with Baganda.
It was during his time at Budo that Rukikaire took a critical view of national politics which got him apprehensive. He decried the polarisation of the country along religious lines and he was increasingly distraught at the nature of politics played by Milton Obote who was soon to be elected Prime Minister of Uganda. He refers to Obote as “insecure” and as someone who had an intention “to politically tribalize the north of the country for the purpose of securing himself in power….”
In spite of his distaste for Obote, Rukikaire joined Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), a party that was falling in Obote’s grip. He saw it as the best vehicle for leading Uganda because many of his cronies were already there. Rukikaire’s political activism saw him elected guild president at Makerere University which he sought to use as a stepping stone for more influential roles.
Throughout the book, the reader gets a sense of Rukikaire’s consciousness and desire to play a role in his nation’s affairs. Later he took a role in UPC as National Organising Secretary.
Obote’s purge of opponents in 1966 forced Rukikaire into exile in Kenya in 1966. Luckily he got a job there and was even luckier that he shortly got another job as East Africa’s Representative to the European Economic Community. Based in Brussels, part of his staff were an elder British secretary and an Irishman driver.
His job as a manager with Shell in Uganda after returning from exile helped him ground his understanding of macroeconomics in the turbulent 1970s under Idi Amin. Later, Rukikaire met Museveni and as he searched for his ideological orientation, he became skeptical of those who expressed Marxist ideals feeling they were full of rhetoric.
In February 1981, young men led by Museveni assembled in Rukikaire’s home in Makindye, Kampala for “the greatest enterprise of their lives”. He writes wistfully recalling the young men pacing up and down his house brimming with revolutionary fervour.
Another significant event took place when in June 1981, a document merging PRA led by Museveni, and UFF, led by Yusuf Lule, was concluded and signed in Rukikaire’s home in Nairobi. This led to the birth of the NRM. Rukikaire was then chairman of the external committee based in Kenya in his second period in exile.
In his memoir, Rukikaire stresses the role of the External committee with the support abroad it canvassed for- a necessary ingredient for the success of the liberation war of 1981-86. He was disturbed that Museveni and other guerilla fighters had started to disparage the work of the external committee.
The intrigue against the external committee marked the start of his fallout with the NRM. The maligning went on years after the capture of power, to Rukikaire’s chagrin. His home in Nairobi besides sheltering his young family, was a meeting point for wounded comrades and a planning centre for high-level missions such as the trip to Libya to secure arms.
However he writes gladly about a time in 2016 when President Museveni invites him to State House and in a way of righting a historical wrong, he praises him and acknowledges the role of the committee.
Rukikaire’s frustration with Museveni’s government grew when he was minister for privatisation and Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB) was sold dubiously as he was left out of the loop. He looked on in disbelief as NRM discarded presidential term limits. He writes of Museveni’s attempts to woo him back to government but he was already disillusioned. Rukikaire is also disappointed by the many in NRM who share his views on the misdirection under the party but remain silent.
70 Years A Witness is an intimate portrait of the journey of Uganda from independence and also serves as a clarion call for other witnesses of the country’s history to pen their accounts.