The problem about writing on 20 years of The Monitor - easily the most successful private and independent Ugandan newspaper ever - is not what to say, but what to leave out.
I have decided not to say much about ours (the founders who have all now moved on), and particularly my individual role, in the legal and political battles with the Kampala government. I will only mention that I am still keeping count, and so far the number of times that Ugandan journalists combined have appeared in court, are still fewer than the number of times I did when I was Editor of the Monitor.
I only bring this up because it goes back to a time in the late 1980s when Wafula Oguttu (later Monitor Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director), and now Bukhooli Central MP (and I) were working at the left-leaning Weekly Topic. In those days, a journalist would get in trouble with the government today, be at the home of a western diplomat or an embassy the following day, and would have been granted asylum the following week.
Over 90 per cent of journalists who got into political trouble went into exile in the West, except about three: Hassan Abdi, the BBC Swahili Service Correspondent in Uganda; Hussein Njuki, who founded The Shariat, and Haruna Kanaabi, also of The Shariat.
Abdi, and Alfred Okware of the News Desk magazine, were arrested in 1990 for asking visiting Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda “embarrassing questions” at a press conference (I know you must be saying Uganda has made great strides). The first court appearance of Abdi and Okware shocked us. Whatever had happened in jail, Abdi for one was badly shaken. His life fell apart after that, and he didn’t live much longer after his release. Njuki also died shortly after he was done with the courts and prison.
It was therefore understandable why journalists fled.
However, the politicians still used such flights against journalists. They would say the public should not trust journalists, because we wrote stories that threatened the security of the country, then get spirited out of the country to a life of luxury in the West leaving everyone behind to burn.
On a couple of occasions, Wafula, Ssezi Cheeye (then having freshly started The Uganda Confidential that would go on to ruffle very many feathers), and I sat and discussed the issue of journalists going into exile. We decided that whatever the risk, we would never run, and we would never hide. We believed that if we stayed put, the practice of journalists running to embassies for help would end. For all of Cheeye’s faults, he was really the first to take the blows and stand put.
When we started The Monitor, we agreed that no reporter or editor at the paper would ever have to flee in fear of a court case. For us the founders, it meant that whether we had a role or not in a story, we would always take responsibility. Just to give one example; the story that caused mega troubles for us in 1997, about Uganda being compensated with gold by the Laurent Kabila government for helping topple dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, was a story I had killed. I wrote that it should not be used until Andrew Mwenda had fixed the loopholes I had outlined. I then left Kampala but the following Monday, when I returned, I picked the Sunday paper only to be confronted with the story! There it was, complete with everything I had raised questions about.
At around 10am, the call came from CID. I was asked to carry Mwenda along. The nightmare had truly begun. I took responsibility for the story, although I had killed it. Mwenda too, didn’t know it was going to be used and was planning to continue work on it on the Monday morning. The journalists at The Monitor had many legitimate complaints, including about pay, but the one thing they were always sure of, was that we would always put our necks on the line for them.
I left Monitor in January 2003 to come and work for our parent group in Nairobi (a story for another day). The case of the UPDF chopper shot down in suspected rebel-infested territory in northern Uganda in October 2002, over which The Monitor was closed down for 10 days, was still in court.
I flew back to Kampala every two weeks for the trial. I had over the years made many friends at Buganda Road Court, including with court clerks, Prisons and police officers. When I returned for trial at the end of January 2003, a few of them took me aside and gave me an earful. They said I was “mad” to return, advising instead that since I was in Kenya, I should jump bail and never return.
The Monitor would never have forgiven me if I had done that. In the end, no Monitor journalist ever fled the country in fear. Asylum seeking by Ugandan journalists fell out of fashion. Now they all stand their ground, and take the blows heroically. Without The Monitor, that moment might have taken longer to arrive – or might never have come at all.
We became the first privately Ugandan newspaper to do many things; to computerise, to buy and install a colour web press and build the kind of office block that we did. But the most enduring for me was what started as what, I thought, was a mad idea by Wafula.
He suggested in one of our board meetings that we should get photos of ALL Uganda’s former leaders, including Field Marshal Idi Amin, frame them, and hang them in the reception of our new office building. And so we did. Everyone’s photo, including Kabaka Fred Mutesa, the first short-lived Prime Minister Ben Kiwanuka, the Okello generals, Obote, and Museveni of course.
On the day when we launched Monitor as a daily, and also inaugurated the new building, the photographs – not the booze or music – were the biggest attraction. For many years thereafter, people would come as “tourists” to see these photos. Many wondered why the government had never come and taken down the photos. Others were puzzled by the meaning of it. But many understood the lesson: That we need to embrace our history, with its beautiful, ugly and painful episodes, if we were ever truly to know who we were.
I smiled knowingly when recently I read that Parliament was to display photographs of all past leaders. I don’t think anyone remembered – or even imagined – that the seeds that were sowed 15 years back at 29-35th Street in the Industrial Area would bear fruit.
There are some beautiful personal moments that I will never forget. My office was sometimes like a mad house, with hot wild arguments. The biggest offender was Mwenda. Several journalists would gather and we would let go. I kept a comfortable cushion in the office, because after hot and exhausting arguments, Mwenda would become sick. He would take the cushion, crawl under the long editorial meeting table at the end of my office, and sleep off the pain.
We also had a progressive internationalist policy on interns, and many have gone on to great things. BBC’s sports presenter Nick Caville (we corrupted his name to “Kaveera”), Anna Bozello, who went on to have a sterling career with the BBC in Uganda and other parts of Africa, both started out as interns at Monitor. She was argumentative like Mwenda, and I recall one time the two of them got so worked up; Anna jumped on the meeting table for advantage, and was up there pointing down at Mwenda and raising the decibels. Sunday Editor Kyazze Simwogerere, now at Rhodes University in South Africa, came in at the point when Anna was stomping on the table. He looked at me a little confused at why I was not doing anything, and then quickly figured out what was going on. He rushed out, returned with his mug of coffee, and sat down to watch. We were all bloody coffee addicts.
One of the most stressful years was 1993. That was the year kingdoms were restored. We, the “Historicals” – Wafula, James Serugo, (the late) Kevin Aliro, David Ouma, (the late) Richard Tebere, and myself – each had slightly different views. Some opposed it, some were for it and one of us (that was David or DOB) really didn’t care. Wafula offered a way out. We would oppose a private deal between the President/NRM government and Buganda for the restoration of kingdoms.
However, we would argue for an open process of kingdom restorations involving Buganda and all the other kingdoms, and that the law should be fully complied with, which required amending the Constitution. Wafula’s argument was that in that way; all other areas that wanted kingdoms would know the standards and rules. Also, that future conflicts over kingdoms would be avoided because the president could not easily take them away at a whim as Milton Obote did in 1966.
At that time, I thought Waf (as we called him) was making too much a meal of the issue.
Everyone, including President Museveni, denounced The Monitor for that position. One day Wafula came to my office and told me his wife Alice, was terrified. She had received death threats over our position on the kingdoms, and had even suggested that they go to exile briefly for safety. He said no. Because there was total opposition to the restoration of the kingdoms, especially doing it for Buganda only, inside the NRM itself, The Monitor line became the compromise position. So kingdoms were restored via a Constitution amendment.
I am immodest enough to argue that without The Monitor, perhaps only Buganda would have got its kingdom through a presidential order or cabinet decision.
And, at the height of the face-off between Mengo and the government in 2009, the president would simply have taken back the “kingdom gift” it had given Buganda and maybe Kabaka Ronnie Mutebi would not be king today. Though The Monitor was viewed an enemy by some hardliners in Buganda in 1993, if the paper had blinked or decided to become opportunistic then, the kingdoms wouldn’t exist today. Buganda should thank Wafula – what an irony! The “Ebyaffe” (campaign to restore Buganda kingdom) also owes a lot to lawyer and staunch monarchist Charles Peter Mayiga. Mayiga saw the need for a “broad solution”, and also decided he would engage us in a civil, thoughtful debate all the way. Every week, he would come with his well-written piece, and fight the monarchist corner. He helped us to clarify the kingdom issue rather well.
Another pet issue of The Monitor was the paper’s support for talks with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to end the war in the north. It became clearer later that it was a morally bold, but a stupid business decision. The feelings against “northern oppressors” were still fresh in the south, western, and eastern part of the country. That choice, courageous as it was, was ahead of most parts of the country, and I believe cost us a lot of business both in circulation and advertising. But then, that was the beauty about being young, stupid, without much family responsibility. We could afford to take unpopular money-losing positions.
The fine arguments we made, following from Museveni’s own arguments that the leaders, or “misleaders” as the president called them, should be punished and the followers forgiven or mildly reprimanded, were lost on many people. The Monitor was accused of being an “apologist” for criminals, murderers, and terrorists, name it. But by 2001, the IDP camps teeming with over 1.4 million people – the largest in the world – was blight on the conscience of Uganda, and the country could no longer look away.
Many more voices all over the country joined the call for “peace” in the north (it was the subtle way to talk about negotiating with the LRA). It took long to happen. On July 14, 2006 talks began in Juba between the LRA and the Uganda government. I was overcome by emotion on the evening of July 13, when I learnt that the talks would begin next day. For even as we campaigned for that as a way of isolating Kony and ending the suffering of the people of the north, I always doubted that it would happen.
Looking at a settled north today, all the ridicule and rejection The Monitor endured, seems more than worthwhile. Maybe one day, one of our leading critics, President Museveni, will thank us quietly. In the 2011 election, he moved from being a sure loser in the north, and reaped a huge peace dividend, for the first time allowing the NRM to wipe out the opposition from some of their old northern strongholds.
Another crown – or part of a crown – that properly belongs to Monitor and other brave democrats, is Uganda’s return to multi-partyism in 2005. In the 1990s it was suicidal to argue against the Movement “no-party” system, which The Monitor viewed as a one-party system. True, other publications like the DP-affiliated The Citizen and the pro-UPC The People had pushed for it, but their interest was considered “selfish” because they were fighting for their parties.
The Monitor was the only publication not affiliated to a politician, or an old party interest, that campaigned for multi-partyism. In those days (for Christ’s sake, just 10 years ago), one of the worst accusations that could be made against you was that you are a “multi-partyist”. It was a favourite criticism of The Monitor by the President and NRM diehards that we were “multipartyists”. Some people wouldn’t touch us.
When cabinet voted to return to multiparty politics in 2005, a friend who is a minister called me in Nairobi. He simply said: “You have won”.
In the years to come, on Political Judgement Day, I hope Athena, the Goddess of Democracy, will testify on behalf The Monitor that it fought the good fight, it finished the race, and kept the faith.
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