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The Kenneth Kaunda factor in Uganda’s media, politics

Kaunda and Museveni

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Zambia first President Kenneth Kaunda who died yesterday visited Uganda several times, first during Milton Obote’s two tenures as president and later after Museveni captured power in 1986.

And even after retirement, he continued visiting Uganda and offered interviews to a couple of journalists. But two of Kaunda’s visits in 1990 were eventful in the Uganda’s media industry.

First in February 1990, during a state visit, two journalists were arrested for asking Kaunda what Museveni deciphered as an embarrassing questions. Hussein Abdi, the BBC’s Swahili and Somali language correspondent asked Kaunda how Zambian authorities had failed to expeditiously charge Kaunda’s son, Kambaraga Kaunda with murder.

Alfred Okware of the Weekly Topic which was an influential independent newspaper at the time asked Kaunda why he wasn’t retiring from presidency.

Festo Ebongu of New Vision asked why Kaunda wasn’t concerned that Kaunda’s anti-apartheid rhetoric was not sync with his country business ties with South Africa.

Okware and Abdi were arrested while Obongu fled to exile in Canada.

Haruna Kanabi, a retired journalist says these were the first journalists to be arrested during Museveni’s regime. It was four years after Museveni had captured power. Kanabi said that Museveni felt offended and after the press conference, ordered the arrest and interrogation of the journalists.

The section of the penal code under which they were charged of acting in a manner likely to offend a foreign dignitary, Kanabi says, had been crafted in 1954 by the colonial government. He says it was meant to protect the queen and her representative in Uganda from being abused or questioned by the locals when they were agitating for independence.

The second incident was in September 1990 when the Weekly Topic had planned to publish a piece titled “Zambia’s new laws for the rich.” It was in reference to amendment of Zambia’s mandatory death sentence for murders in a bid to spare Kaunda’s son Kambaraga Kaunda who had been charged with murder. The Zambia government in May 1990 had amended its laws, granting judges the discretion in sentencing. This meant a convicted murderer could be given a lighter sentence.

The Weekly Topic’s piece was slated for the front page. And it suggested that the only purpose of the change was to spare life of Kambaraga Kaunda.

“This was tough stuff given the government’s response the last time Kaunda was disturbed,” John Mac Arthur, publisher of Harper Magazine wrote in a 1991 article for Committee to Protect Journalists titled Tongue-tied in Uganda.  “But the night the issue was to close, and after most of the staff had gone home, word filtered through to the newsroom that Kaunda was scheduled to arrive in Entebbe the next day for an ad hoc subcommittee meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, now chaired by Museveni. “The most senior editor who could be reached — few people have working phones — rushed to the plant to stop the press, and found a truck loaded with freshly printed newspapers preparing to leave. The truck was stopped and the cargo taken off in time to avert what would certainly have been lengthy detentions for several staff.”

The article was replaced with a filler about elephants. The Weekly Topic was owned by Kintu Musoke, Kirunda Kivejinja and Bidandi Ssali who were ministers in Museveni government.

Although some writers claim that the Kaunda brushes with Ugandan journalists accelerated the establishment of the department of Mass Communications at Makerere University at Museveni’s behest so as to have more professional personnel in the media,  , this is not accurate because the course had started earlier and the first journalism candidates actually graduated that year.

Robby Muhumuza, a former journalism lecturer at the university, says Museveni in fact was convinced about the need to have journalism training at the university while still fighting in the bush in the early to mid 1980s.

JB Wasswa, a veteran journalist says Museveni was so bitter with the journalists that he told his guest not to answer their questions. He ‘explained’ to President Kaunda that the Ugandans pressmen were actually fishermen who had jumped out of the the lake when he (Museveni) brought peace to the country and were just trying the hand at journalism.

Later on Wasswa had occasion to interview Kaunda after he had left power.” Kaunda told me he felt so great leaving power, ” Wasswa recolects. “He said he no longer had to worry about the economy, the national debt or generals who would want to pverthrow him.”

Kaunda was defeated in 1991 election, handing over power to by Frederick Chiluba.

Even after leaving office, he continued visiting Uganda. He was interviewed by journalists Andrew Mwenda and Simon Kasyate.

Kaunda had visited Uganda for opening Cavendish University (he was the university chancellor) in 2008 when Simon Kasyate got an exclusive interview with him for NTV’s On Spot. After the event, Kasyate says he approached Kaunda and requested for an interview.

“As a journalist covering the event, I was amazed by how easy it was to approach him directly and seek an exclusive interview,” Kasyate says. “One would have imagined that as a former head of state, he had all this bureaucracy around to him, to book an interview through a handler. No, I just walked up to him, greeted him and he responded courteously.”

Obote, Kaunda friendship 

Many Sub Sahara first independence leaders were close friends. Thus Obote, Kaunda and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere were tight friends. They were members of Mulungushi Club founded in 1969 to push their pan African agenda. Obote spent his second exile  (1985-2005) in Lusaka, Zambia, until his death.

During his second tenure as head of state, Obote hosted Kaunda in Gulu in 1984 at a  public event attended by hundreds of people. Kaunda spoke at length at the event, describing Obote as a great thinker, great organizer, great administrator, fighter for what is right, as well as a president who always stood for what is right.

“When Milton Obote was overthrown while with us in Singapore, we of Zambia said we are not going to step on Uganda soil until Amin was overthrown,” Kaunda said.

It’s on this day that Gulu stadium was named after Kaunda.

“Mr President sir, the residents of Gulu have resolved and have requested me to ask you to accept that this ground be named President Kaunda Liberation Ground,” declared Milton Obote.



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