By Patrick Kamara
Even in the late 1990s, Fort-Portal town in western Uganda was a clean little town with its well-kept flower-lined roads. This capital of Kabarole District is also home of the Tooro kingdom at the foot of the incredibly beautiful Rwenzori Mountains.
Back then, despite the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed rebel insurgency raging in the surrounding areas, Foti people knew when and how to party and unwind on weekends or even weekdays. The Foti nights were really busy teaming with revelers.
One Friday evening I took a stroll downtown to the Gardens Restaurant and Bar owned by local businessman Andrew Kaliba of Andrew and Brothers Ltd. My plan was to sip a beer or two. Instead, I ended up having a good time with the home boys. We were talking European Premier League football, girls, and playing pool. More people kept joining us, including the `big boys’ in the district political leadership. Then, just after midnight, we had an unusual guest; the national Army Chief of Staff himself – Brig. James Kazini.
The night before, Commander Jamil Mukulu, the leader of ADF had been speaking on Voice of America radio. Mukulu had said in that interview that his rag-tag rebel soldiers had “again” come close to capturing Gen. Kazini; the army chief of Staff of the UPDF. A similar statement had been made weeks earlier by the ADF spokesman Rogers Kabanda.
They claimed Kazini had survived by a whisker during an attack in Bundibugyo district. Mukulu said the UPDF chief had disguised himself in civilian clothes when they came under heavy gunfire.
“We almost captured him…,” the rebel leader boasted, “He is lucky because he is a good runner.”
There was no way to verify Mukulu’s claims but I should say it sounded like any war propaganda.
That night, as soon as Kazini entered the bar, he ordered his security to seal all outlets and not let anyone one to enter or leave. And that was not the only surprise from Kazini that time. He sat in a corner and ordered a bottle of his favourite gin; Uganda Waragi.
Soon he announced that everyone in the bar could eat and drink at his expense. Many of us were afraid to take up the offer before really getting to know what the general was after.
He repeatedly said he was serious about the offer that everyone should drink or eat and he would pick the bill.
Slowly people started ordering for all sorts of beer, wine, champagne, brandy, and whisky.
However without freedom to leave you could not enjoy the drinks. Gen. Kazini’s men were even escorting patrons to the gents – it was that serious!
I recall changing from beer to a cup of coffee; just in case I needed to remain sober. I knew even back then that drink could make one speak uncontrollably. And that is exactly what caused the controversy. Some patrons started challenging Kazini about why he was “failing to end the war” with ADF.
Kazini was not impressed. He ordered for a small table and a chair. He turned the bar into his tactical base that night.
“I want you people here; in this bar, to tell me who the ADF collaborators in Fort Portal are,” he announced.
In the bar were the district political head; then-chairman Augustine Kayonga, the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) and the District Internal Security Officer; Lt. Akiiki Kabalege (who would later emerge as the only man who beat Kazini’s tactical siege to go home).
When Gen. Kazini asked one of the girls to become his secretary; it fell to none other than the tall and elegant Mutooro lady, Sandra Kyalyetaho. Soon people started mentioning suspected collaborators and their villages.
Immediately squads would be sent to that village the people would be brought to the bar; one-by-one, to be interrogated by Kazini.
By the time I managed to sneak out, a sizeable number of people had been brought in and quizzed. Even though the “collaborators” were in reality people under arrest, they were allowed to drink and eat whatever was available. Whether it was prank or any military ploy to this day I have never understood what Gen. Kazini was after that night.
I was later to either hear of or witness other episodes of near `madness’ from Gen. Kazini.
In one of them, Kazini forced his drunken bodyguard to cross a forest the army suspected to be infested with ADF rebels alone. Private Kabakebe had committed the crime of drinking while on duty in the battlefield.
To punish him, Kazini told him to cross a ridge at night in an area that was suspected to be full of enemy forces and join another group of UPDF soldiers across.
Kazini gave the drunken soldier a gun and three magazines with a radio call.
“Call me after you have crossed,” he ordered.
“Ndiyo Afande,” the drunken Private Kabakebe said. This was the army and an order is an order. As Kabakebe staggered away with his gun and radio call, his colleagues pitied him but could do nothing to save him. Kabakebe appeared to have sobered up a little and even as he set out on the challenge, probably, knew he was going to die.
About 20 minutes later, there was a barrage of bullets from the valley in the direction Kabakebe had gone. Something was wrong. Kabakebe must have encountered the enemy. Brig. Kazini dialed him on the radio call.
“Tabu gani” Kazini asked, demanding to know from his soldier what the problem shooting was all about.
“Minafungua Barabara Afande,” answered Kabakebe meaning he had let off a few volleys to clear the way.
Kabakebe managed to cross the bridge without incident. But he probably had learnt a lesson; never drink on the frontline if Gen. Kazini is your commander.