Some medalists pose with General Museveni (on white shirt and hat). I am second on the left.
“Why have you been awarded these medals? Is it for killing the people of Acholi?”
KITGUM-UGANDA: I literally jumped on my feet as soon as I heard my name being read by the Master of Ceremony: “John Muto p’Lajur”. I was obviously very nervous as I waited for my turn to join a long queue of medalists receiving and lining up for a presidential handshake with General Yoweri Museveni, the longtime President of the Republic of Uganda. This would be my second chance to have a handshake with him, thus far. The first time I had a handshake with him was a bit tense and confrontational.
I am wondering whether he would recognize me or remember that day in 2001 when he labeled me a ‘liar’ for reporting about the conflict between his government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda. I still vividly remember responding to him without mincing my words that “you are wrong Mr. President”. I had led a group of fellow journalists who were covering the war for a chat with the President at Presidential State Lodge in Gulu Military barracks. He intensively challenged our reporting in situations where government troops suffered casualties in the hands of the rebels. For him, our reporting demoralized the soldiers.
Despite the grilling, some journalists seized that opportunity to request the government for scholarships for furthering their studies, something the President happily granted.
Many years later, I am with him again face to face. This time, to receive a medal for the significant contributions the Media made in ending the two decades of conflict and bringing peace to the war torn region. I am in the fold of another set of twenty recipients invited to receive the medal and have a Presidential handshake alongside a photo opportunity with him.
In front of me, were two fellow media practitioners; Mr. James Onono Ojok of Mega FM and Ms. Gloria Laker, a veteran journalist who was then attached to the New Vision. I covered the LRA war alongside Ms. Laker and a host of other notable journalists Denis Ojwee, Oketch Bitek (late) and Caroline Lamwaka (late) to mention but a few. In line behind me was an old man, I presumed to be in his nineties, walking with the support of a stick. In my heart, the moment of my life I earnestly waited had come. Will it be confrontational with the President once again? Will it be peace this time? Many questions run in my thoughts without clear answers.
Suddenly, the president’s security detail asks me to disinfect my hands in preparation for the handshake, some few meters from the foot of the dais on which the President stood to congratulate each of the more than 200 medal recipients with warm handshakes. He fondly spoke to some of the familiar medalists as he waited for brief profiles of others. The old man behind me received this blessing while I missed.
My heart raced in anxiety as I climbed the few steps of the dais, all the way trying to figure out what the President will tell me this time around. Without a word, his palm felt soft as we shook hands. Confused but deeply relieved, I nodded in honor in place of introducing myself. It was all over in few minutes. Lasting impression left on my life.
This particular day is marked nationally as “Tarehe Sita”, a Kiswahili expression meaning ‘February sixth’ in commemoration of the day the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels under the leadership of now President Yoweri Museveni launched a military offensive to remove then President Dr. Apollo Milton Obote from power in 1981, some thirty-eight years ago.
Yoweri Museveni writes in his book, “Showing the Mustard Seed” that the NRA had few rebels with just 27 guns during the attack on Kabamba Military Training Base in western Uganda on February 6, 1981. They later managed to recruit more people into their ranks with which they acquired more weapons and overthrew the short-lived government of General Tito Okello – Lutwa, few months after Gen. Lutwa overran the government of President Obote in a July 1985 coup. Museveni’s group marched into state house on January 26, 1986, five years after their first Tarehe Sita. Parliament then renamed the NRA Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces (UPDF).
The new government then embarked on pacification of the country as pockets of uprising emerged. Among them, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in 1987 following the summary defeat of the Holy Spirit Movement under Alice Auma Lakwena. It is in the LRA rebellion where I would later play significant contribution for which I receive this National Independence Medal. I first learned about being in the list of recipients on Tuesday February 5, 2019 at about 4.00 pm (about 1.00 GMT) through a telephone call from a professional colleague who advised me to go to Mega FM for confirmation. I quickly took a motor-cycle taxi to Mega FM and indeed confirmed that I was on the list.
I must confess that I rarely attend functions presided by General Yoweri Museveni for many reasons I won’t disclose here. And I was wondering how I would stay at the heavily guarded venue among the other nominees. It dawns on me that I must have some money on me for transport and facilitation. I withdrew all I had in my account through an ATM boot in Gulu Town as no friend I called could offer me a lift to Kitgum district. Eventually, I am forced to be in the company of National Resistance Movement (NRM) cadres traveling from Gulu at 6.30am local time (about 03.30 GMT) in order to be at the venue in time.
My colleague, Mr. Lawino Sam of NTV television channel called another medalist, Ms. Laker Gloria at about 7.00 am (about 04.00 GMT) on the D-day. She had no information about the award despite being on the list. Although she lives in Kampala, she managed to jump in the next bus to Kitgum in time to receive her medal.
After the Presidential Handshake and photography, four of us journalists interfaced with a senior cadre of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) Party. He sarcastically asked us: “Why have you been awarded these medals? Is it for killing the people of Acholi?” Because we least expected this challenge, we had no immediate answer to offer him. And I will try to answer him now.
For cadres like this senior citizen, media practitioners did not deserve the medals they were awarded. In his thinking, it was through our ‘bad’ reporting that the war dragged on for nearly twenty years. For others, we more than deserved the medals because we exposed the war to the international communities who later intervened and restrained the war from going on. I share this line of thought because the small pieces of our modest contributions have eventually paid off; peace has returned and the population it displaced are back in their homes rebuilding their lives.