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The Amin they don’t want you to know

By YAHYA SSEREMBA

ARTICLE SUMMARY: Senior editors played a key role in stopping the Daily Monitor from publishing articles that questioned some of Idi Amin’s alleged atrocities. The worst enemy of media freedom is within the media.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY: Yahya Sseremba is the publisher of The Campus Journal current affairs website.

In February 2008 I inquired from journalist Timothy Kalyegira why his articles that challenged part of the prevalent narrative of former President Idi Amin’s history no longer appeared in the Daily Monitor, a local newspaper whose claim to independence is clamorous. With resolute clarity he replied:

Hello Yahya, Thanks for your email. Yes, I was stopped I gather by order from State House to the Nation Media Group, which passed it on to the Daily Monitor. I find it hypocritical that, having banned that subject, I am stopped but the paper keeps publishing the views of others and I am not allowed to reply to them.

Mr. Kalyegira, however, did not seem to know that even within the Monitor, some senior editors spared no effort to have his views – and by extension every positive reference to Amin – totally suppressed. One such close-minded editor was Joachim Buwembo, the executive editor then.

Equally hostile to Kalyegira’s freedom of expression was Charles Onyango-Obbo, a senior editor stationed at the Nairobi-based Nation Media Group, which owns Monitor.

The two, there is no question, stand out as accomplished media practitioners whose contribution to the industry exceeds the ordinary. Mr. Buwembo is credited for contributing greatly to making the New Vision the bestseller it is.

Mr. Obbo, on the other hand, along with others nourished the Monitor until it flourished into a formidable publication. Throughout the 1990s he risked his life and livelihood to expose corruption and abuse of power. His courage inspired many and his guidance enriched others.

To him, and to the Monitor in general, is attributed much of the training and fortitude of some of Uganda’s finest journalists, including the founders of the Observer, a semi-weekly newspaper whose in-depth reporting, whose diversified coverage and whose analytical writing have hardly been equaled and never been surpassed by any publication of our generation.

If Obbo, like Buwembo, represented the hero in the fight between excellence and mediocrity and between freedom and tyranny, he sometimes assumed the role of the villain and worked tirelessly to undermine the very values to which he claimed allegiance. In a 6000-word article disclosing his life and times with the children of Amin, former Monitor Managing Director Conrad Nkutu reveals possibly inadvertently the role the duo played in blocking Kalyegira’s articles.

The Monitor published last week – on 4 May and on 5 May – a two-series version of Nkutu’s story but conveniently left out a large section that exposes the intolerance of Obbo and Buwembo. (This current affairs website has obtained and published the full uncorrupted version of the story.) 

The pettiness of Obbo and Buwembo

Mr. Nkutu narrates that he came under relentless pressure to stop publishing Kalyegira’s articles on Amin. “I was myself well known to be a passionate and unwavering defender of Monitor's editorial freedom and its bold pro-democracy positioning – constantly under government assault – which stance would later cause the end of my newspaper career as I repeatedly declined to make unprincipled compromises under pressure,” he writes. “I could not bring myself to censor Kalyegira and limit his rights to free expression.”

Part of the pressure came from Buwembo who frowned and his face darkened whenever something good was written about Amin. “I recall discussing the matter with our Managing Editor, Joachim Buwembo, who was uncomfortable.” Part of the pressure came from Obbo whose opposition to Nkutu’s position was even greater. Obbo “raised his concerns” with Nkutu and soon after the Managing Director was ordered by his bosses in Nairobi to cease publishing Kalyegira’s articles.

What were these “concerns” that made every positive reference to Amin undeserving of space in the newspaper?

Kalyegira’s crime

The Obbos of this world argued that Kalyegira, by putting to question the number of people reportedly killed by Amin, caused much pain to the relatives of the victims. Nkutu’s reaction was prudent: “The decisive issue for me was that Kalyegira's freedom to opinionate as a journalist weighed more than the pain he was causing the victims of Amin's murders.”

Nkutu should have also added that the question of Amin’s actions is not a matter of the relatives of the victims; it is a matter of our country’s history that we must examine to the letter. The overwhelming majority of Ugandans, including this author, were born years after the fall of the ruler. We wish to access and compare contradicting accounts of our nation’s past and have the big picture.

Part of our history’s mystery is the number of people killed under Amin. Kalyegira didn’t claim that no one died during the late leader’s seven-year regime; he simply questioned the wild estimates that put the number of dead at 500,000.

He asked the exponents of such a blatant exaggeration to produce a list of only 600 people that the military leader killed. Whereas Kalyegira himself has advanced claims that are beyond the realm of proof, especially his superstitious prediction of the future, the challenge he advanced elevated the debate on Amin from the childishness of conjecture to the maturity of factual discourse.

Critics of Kalyegira’s enquiry have argued that the number of victims is immaterial since no single life deserved to be wrongly taken. But for record purposes and for purposes of establishing the extent of the tragedy, statistics are important – and they must be reasonably verifiable. Wild exaggerations are acceptable only in bars, not in the circles of clear-headed men and women where fact takes precedence over fancy.

Kalyegira’s enquiry opened a new chapter in the discourse on Amin. In his footsteps followed industrialist Christopher Sembuya who wrote a book highlighting the deceased’s contribution to the development of the country.

The 2009 book, The Other Side of Amin, sharply contradicts the slanted nature of the Ugandan media that propagates a narrow perspective of history, portraying Amin’s reign as nothing but an age of bloodbath. In the banking sector the book highlights Amin’s establishment of the Uganda Development Bank in 1972 and his extension of the Uganda Commercial Bank to rural areas.

In the sector of transport, Sembuya salutes the head of the Second Republic for founding the Uganda Airlines in 1976, which Museveni’s government failed to maintain and eventually liquidated in 2001. The late head of state expanded the railway network and established the Uganda Railways Cooperation in 1977 which, in the words of Sembuya, “became a vita[l] lynchpin in heavy haulage communication within Uganda and beyond.” This is another treasure that has gone to the dogs at the hands of Museveni.

To facilitate communication, the Field Marshal set up two earth satellites in Mukono and Arua, linking his country to the rest of the world. In the field of education, he, despite his minimal formal education, laid the foundation for the establishment of the Islamic University in Uganda and constructed Muni National Teachers College in the West Nile.

In sports, the record of the notable sportsman remains unrivalled three decades after his departure. At his hands the Uganda Cranes nearly carried the trophy of the 1978 African Cup of Nations. Today the Cranes cannot even qualify for such high-profile competitions.

Outside Uganda, Amin constructed or purchased national buildings in countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Egypt and neighboring Kenya, assets that are rotting under the watch of the current government. Even the Economic War that is widely condemned was, in the eyes of Sembuya, not entirely destructive.

“Uganda’s current leading industrialists and business magnates are direct products of Idi Amin’s Economic War,” observes Christopher Sembuya who founded several industries, including Sembule Steel Mills Ltd, Sembule Electronics Ltd and Lions Assurance. 

“Today’s Ugandans who have set up high-rise commercial buildings in urban areas in Uganda are also a direct result of Amin’s Economic War,” Sembuya continues. “They could not have been permitted to do so before his time; they could not have raised the confidence to see Kampala as their own.”

This is the Amin that Kalyegira equally portrayed in his writings besides questioning the number of victims.   For doing so, he was branded a revisionist and his stories banned from the Monitor. The wish of Buwembo and Obbo to censor Kalyegira, which the board of the Nation Media Group fulfilled, exposed the emptiness of the newspaper’s claim to diversity, tolerance and independence.

At Monitor, independence has become a senseless and meaningless term ranted to suit the narrow interests of some editors. It is this very value of independence that Daniel Kanlinaki, who was managing editor until last week, invoked when he reacted to my criticism of the way the newspaper portrayed Islam.

I have great respect for Mr. Kalinaki for teaching me two Mass Communication courses of Newspaper Editing and Public Affairs Reporting at Makerere University. But I held in deep contempt the reasoning he put forward as he jumped down my throat for questioning the fairness of the Monitor. In 2010 The Campus Journal published a story in which I accused the Monitor of allowing itself to be used as a launch-pad for all sorts of anti-Muslim propaganda.

For donkey’s years the newspaper had allowed Pentecostal radicals to demonise Muslims as, among others, followers of a violent religion that promotes the slaughter of innocent people. Such propagandists would quote out of context a small portion of a Qur’anic verse – for instance, “Kill them wherever you find them,” – to support their contemptible concoctions.

In our article, besides giving the full context of such verses and besides refuting similar fabrications with evidence from the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, we asked what the intension of the Monitor was in publishing hateful propaganda that clearly demonised the Muslim population.

Mr. Kalinaki called and bitterly accused me of inciting the Muslims against the Monitor. He argued that the role of the newspaper was to give platform to all views and that they had published pro-Islam views on countless occasions. If the role of the Monitor is to give platform to all views, including those that seek to portray as evil a whole section of the population, why was Kalyegira denied the same platform?

This contradiction, which Kalyegira called hypocrisy in his response to my inquiry, has defined the Monitor since inception. When Abasi Kiyimba, a professor of literature at Makerere University, carried out a thorough investigation in the early 1990s of the 1979 massacre of 64 innocent Muslim civilians – mostly children, women and the elderly – in Ankole, he went to the Monitor to seek for coverage for his heartbreaking findings.

The editors then, particularly the current Bukhooli Central MP Philip Wafula Oguttu, told Prof. Kiyimba that the findings were not newsworthy and would have no space in the paper. Mr. Oguttu’s response was stupid because the investigation had for the first time established the full identity of the perpetrators of the heinous crime who were still at large.

For the first time the report revealed with stunning detail the brutality with which the crimes were committed, highlighting cases such as that of “the 27-year-old Madiya Natende who was seven months pregnant” whose “stomach was slashed open with a machete and the fetus crudely ripped out.”

For the first time the report revealed the identity of the victims, spelling out their names, the names of their parents and their villages. For the first time, most importantly, President Yoweri Museveni was implicated in orchestrating the bloodbath. If this is not news, what is it?

It is not that Oguttu lacked a proper understanding of news values; he was simply blinded by his prejudice. His response illustrated the extent to which prejudice can impel an intelligent man to give up his discerning faculty and starts reasoning like a toddler. To editors like Oguttu, Obbo and Buwembo, there is no news when Muslims are killed; but there is perpetual news when a Muslim like Amin kills.

These editors have since left the Monitor even though they may retain a degree of influence over its editorial direction. The fresh editors will have to overcome the bigotry of some of their predecessors if they wish to surmount the circulation stagnancy chocking their paper.

This stagnancy is partly the result of years of lopsided journalism peddled by successive narrow-minded editors. The recent decision to allow Amin’s son to tell his story is a commendable step toward respecting journalistic values of diversity, impartiality and fairness. As new information technology ushers in alternative sources of news and views, it will be extremely difficult to produce unbalanced content and retain readership.

 

Comments   

 
+2 #1 DJ 2013-05-12 07:31
Yahya, i should commend you for a properly scripted piece.
My only concern is your article opens battle lines on many fronts. For example, the issue of monitor's unfairness to islam should have constituted another article in itself. Otherwise, those of us who wished to know more about Idi Amin's contribution were drawn into a war for which i doubt you can conclude even in an entire book and hence diverted from your original impressive piece about Idi Amin the former President of Uganda and not Idi Amin the Moslem. Great piece otherwise.
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0 #2 amisa 2013-05-12 09:45
Congs Seremba,
on the issue of Monitors bias against anything Islam and Muslims, the Monitor and the Obos are legendary. Just look at their dehumanization of the Sudan especially a period leading up to the separation of the country. wats troubling is the silence about the current atrocities carried out by southerners amongst themselves, To hell with damned hypocrites!
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+1 #3 Rogers 2013-05-12 14:28
Yahya, I will say I am proud of Ugandans like you. We have for a long time watched hypocrisy eat up many men we have always looked at with admiration. When you state that, "prejudice can impel an intelligent man to give up his discerning faculty and starts reasoning like a toddler," I agree because as a former journalist with Bukedde and having worked with, and around many other intelligent journalist and editors, I can attest to your claims. We need to stand up and alert the country of these spoils, and I respect the fact that you have chosen to go out of your way to do this. God bless you my brother.
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-1 #4 bob 2013-05-12 15:30
Religion of peace you say and this very article lambasts editors for not publishing your loved opinions in a militaristic manner.
why not just create and grow own platform to race against the monitor instead of warring against it?
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0 #5 Abu Musa 2013-05-12 17:38
Hahaha@Rogers you admit that Mr Sseremba went out of his way?This man's character is know i don't think he has jumped any boarder.Like DJ said i would love to read more about the contribution of Idd Amin as a president of this country,and may be also as a Muslim in a separate Issue?However, am proud of you Yahayah Sserembe few years back Muslims in Uganda where being despised that they never went to School, so they couldn't write 'sense',lol.If some useless media organizations because of their prejudice,ignor ance and hatred can not appreciate the good work of other people because of differences in beliefs the time has come. to hung them selves.
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0 #6 Kareem 2013-05-13 04:23
Dear brother, thanks for the piece, very educative & worth reading indeed. My only concern is about the Prof. Kiyimba's findings, what really happened after the Monitor rejection?

Were the findings ever published anywhere else? If not, could you please find time & space for it in the Campus Journal, i am really interested in reading about the findings.
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0 #7 Kiggundu 2013-05-13 06:35
Thanks Yahya,

I am sure that slowly with such independent minded individuals like you in this important arm of the nation (media), Uganda will flourish.
Keep up
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0 #8 Rash 2013-05-13 09:13
a "case of successful narrow-minded journalists" indeed what are pity.
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0 #9 Ndaula 2013-05-13 10:27
My friend Yahya, I am yet to find a student brighter than his master, so- explaining the behavior of your men & others.

Tell your, what? Museveni's prime disease is called Amin, symbolically and Muslims by course.

Recently, for example on Muwonge's program on Star TV, M7 was giving the land history of Uganda but he ended up talking about Amin land decree. But I was wandering why he in between - "it is good and it is bad - especially when it came to nationalizing land", until I watched NTV new yesterday. The man abolished all land committees save the Nantaba committee. He also called for an amendment in the land act so that Busulu is paid in court - what a stupid advance?, how much is Busulu? Aren't we about to pay for sugar from the court because the shopkeeper is kyegana the muguzi? ....:) hahahahaha, it is laughable.

And for you information he is also about to nationalise land - keep watching.
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0 #10 Jesus 2013-05-13 17:51
What can we expect from a YAHYA anyway? But Uganda is not an Islamic state. Are you aware one faces a death sentence for preaching Christianity in Saudi Arabia? As long as you belong to a religion of killers aka bin Laden, al Shabaab, Taleban we shall take you as that and NO TURNING BACK
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+1 #11 Abasi Kiyimba 2013-05-13 18:17
This is great. I have not read a better written piece in the recent past, and I warmly congratulate brother Yahya. It gives me the reassurance that the community is rich with people to indefinitely continue the struggle.

Someone has asked the question of what happened to our findings after the Monitor's rejection. We organised a seminar in the Makerere University Main hall, in which we publicly and loudly disseminated our findings. To our amazement, some respected citizens, included a prominent lawyer, the late Kayondo, accused us of over-reacting, and blamed the victims for associating with "the wrong forces" and thereby exposing themselves to danger. We reminded them that some of the victims were either under-age or over age. Hanifa Namakula, was one and half years old, and Abdallah Seggululigamba was 89 years old. They still did not retract their sentiments.
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0 #12 Editor 2013-05-14 08:38
Dear Kareem, Prof. Kiyimba's report on the massacre of innocent Muslim civilians is available on the campus journal current affairs website. Copy the following link and paste it in your url and then click 'enter': http://campusjournal.ug/index.php/special-report/investigation/534-a-detailed-account-the-1979-massacre-of-muslims-in-western-uganda
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0 #13 muhammad 2013-05-16 08:04
thanks yahya,
Amin is said to be the best president for Uganda ever only bcoz he was a Ugandan, but being led by a non ugandan has taken us to face a lot of problems.

note this also," the northern bypass road was also in Amin's manifesto"
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0 #14 Dennis 2013-06-11 08:20
I believe an otherwise great piece has been tainted by the author's attempt to portray The Monitor as simply anti-Islam. One wonders what the true inspiration of the article was in the first place...was it a sincere belief in the better - but hitherto carefully concealed - side of Idi Amin? Or was it his own burning urge to express an itching desire to indict a certain media house of religious prejudice? One can hardly resist the tendency to lean towards latter.
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+1 #15 Robert Kimera 2013-08-13 20:01
Incredibly insightful. I find Timothy Kalyegira one of my best journalists and his work is always amasing.
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0 #16 bakkabulindi 2013-12-24 13:38
thx, yahya for protect the image of islam and idd amin
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0 #17 kimbugwe Nasser 2014-03-29 12:02
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