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November 29, 2007
Bullied for being Obote's son

Lira Municipality MP, JIMMY AKENA, has lived the better part of his life to exile in Tanzania, Zambia and Kenya. He went to his first exile before his fifth birthday in 1971 when Idi Amin overthrew the government of Dr. A. M. Obote, his father, on January 25, 1971.
In ‘My Life in Exile’ this week, Akena tells MICHAEL MUBANGIZI how he was teased at Namasagali College and in a Kenyan school on account of being the then president’s son.

He also reveals how his father’s planned return home from Zambia exile was frustrated by death in South Africa.

I was born in 1967 and by 1971 I was in exile. It was during exile that I came to understand why my father was living the way he was.
My friends had different situations. Their fathers were working and coming to Uganda for certain events and I was wondering why he wasn’t going home.
At school some times I would be asked, “What does your father do”? And I didn’t really understand [what to say?]

My father was a free man in exile but he had limitations on what he could engage in. His life and profession was politics but he couldn’t openly politic in another country.

He spent most of his time, reading, writing, and having discussions with other people. Unfortunately all his writing got lost in the 1985 coup.
I only realised what he did in 1980 when I returned to Uganda at a massive rally of people from all over Uganda in Bushenyi. This rally was the biggest I have attended in my life.

There were people everywhere, a band and music that was extremely loud. When party (UPC) songs started, you couldn’t hear the band. The ground was shaking, the iron sheets in the VIP tent were all vibrating, then the speeches started amid the captivated audience. That was the day I said I want to become a member of UPC.

I told my father about it and he opened a party constitution and read me the provision saying one becomes a member at 18. I wasn’t 18 yet but he said that doesn’t mean I can’t take part in party activities.

Jailed at five
By January 25, 1971’s coup d’etat, I was just beginning to understand things but I remember my mother sat in the corridor and cried. There was a military tank outside our house in Kololo (Impala Avenue) moving up and down and making a lot of noise.
My belief was that my father would come and these things would disappear but it did not happen. That is when I saw people begin to change. Some people who were friendly yesterday, suddenly became hostile.

We ran to Kenya with my mother. While there, I think the [new] Government of Uganda demanded that we be [deported]. So Kenyan authorities bundled us into vehicles and drove us to the border where they handed us to Ugandan authorities who drove us straight to CPS (Central Police Station) cells in Kampala where we spent a night. That is why I say I got jailed before my fifth birthday.

The following day, we were driven to Kololo Command Post for dinner with President Idi Amin. Amin asked us if we wanted to go and join our father in Tanzania. He then turned to my mother and gave her a condition that she either remains in Uganda or she goes out and we - the children - remain. My mother said, ‘let the children go’, and that is how we ended up in Tanzania.

Disguised identity
I was a bit young to know exactly what went on during the flight but there was a problem at the (Malaba) border. We went with our auntie who gave me different names at the border. I don’t remember the names she was giving me but I thought she was trying to steal my identity, the only thing I was left holding to.

So we ended up quarrelling at the border. I was adamant, insisting that I am Jimmy Akena. It was attracting a lot of attention but I was insistent on what my name was. She ultimately gave me sleeping pills to keep me quiet and I slept all the way; first to Kenya, and later to Dar -es-Salaam.

Mzee (Obote) joined us later because by the time we arrived there, he was in Sudan. My mother also later escaped and joined us. Amin hadn’t changed his mind, so she just escaped.

No family
Some of the difficulties in exile can’t be quantified. For instance, children born in exile miss the extended family. Days like Christmas are mainly a family affair. Fortunately in exile we were a family because we had people, relatives from all over Uganda.

As we grew up, we would be introduced to uncle so and so and some times we would ask, is this a real uncle! Children in schools are also very frank. They keep reminding you, “This is not your home.” The Kiswahili word is Wakimbizi literally meaning some one who ran away from his country.

There was a time refugees were forced to get work permits and when people in Lusaka were forced to go to camps. So what can you do in such circumstances when you are very unsure where your future is going to be?

Tanzania then had a one-party system (Chama Cha Mapinduzi - CCM).We used to sing party songs and because of that I grew up thinking that Dar-es-Salaam was home!
But there is a good side to exile. I am grateful to the interaction and long term friendships I developed as I grew up in exile. I have grown up in all the three East African states and I am comfortable in all of them.

As we move towards the East African federation, I can say I am already a true East African. Dar-es-Salaam is equally home as is Nairobi and Kampala.
I wouldn’t say I missed the parental love because we were together both in the first and second exiles, so the interaction was there.

Our home in exile comprised people from all over Uganda - like [former army commander] Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu’s father, Muntuyera, people from Mbale, Busoga, Gulu...

With all those people, the uniting language was English but when we were playing football with friends it was Kiswahili.
Up to now my language is Kiswahili and English; not Luganda and Langi [his mother is a Muganda and father was Langi].

Different delegations visited us from 1971 to the 1972 invasion. Then things cooled down, and later changed again from 1977. There were many activities going on after that. One regular visitor was former Tanzanian president, the late Julius Nyerere.

Leaving exile
There was a Tanzanian Air Force plane and Zambian Air Force plane and we took off from Dar-es- Salaam to Mwanza. At Mwanza there was information that people wanted to shoot down the plane should my father come to Uganda. Some people in Uganda who did not want him to come back were trying to scare him.

There was a brief meeting where my father insisted that he was coming back whether they shot his plane or not. He left it to anybody who did not feel comfortable to stay behind.

All of us came but we were separated; families were split up - I came in a Tanzanian plane with my mother, my father went in a Zambian plane.
We landed in Mbarara and [proceeded] to the rally in Bushenyi where I decided to join politics. My father told me to wait until I was 18.

I participated in the elections. I went around the country during that campaign and UPC clearly had an advantage. I think UPC was better organised.
[About allegations that UPC rigged the elections]
There is a principle in law of innocence until proven guilty. Up to now, UPC is being accused, condemned but has never been proven guilty.

The accusation was generated to inflame people so that war could be launched against a legitimate government.

Uganda again
Before the elections, I had gone to school - Namasagali College - where I was severely bullied and beaten. I shared a desk where I kept my exercise books with someone who had a padlock. Whenever I did my work I would leave it in the desk and whenever any pages were removed, I would get a stroke for every missing page.
There was a time a student put two leeches - that suck blood from other creatures - in my mug of water for me to drink. Fortunately I was warned.

One evening, after brushing my teeth, as I picked my mug [to drink water] before going to sleep, someone crawled under my bed and stopped me. He told me to take the mug and meet him outside. We shone a torch inside it and found two leeches inside the water.

Then there was a student, a prefect, who called me to his room. On his door was a UPC T-shirt with my father’s portrait. He insisted that I wipe my feet on it before I entered.

I had been warned that disobeying prefects was insubordination that could land one into problems. But I refused to wipe my feet on my father’s portrait. Instead, I collected that T-shirt, went into the dormitory and washed it. This prefect actually made my life very difficult.

This treatment wasn’t general, it was exclusive to me and it was political. That student was a ring leader when we arrived - he came with a UPM T-shirt, so it was deliberate and the whole thing was provocation.

We have been persecuted because of who we are right from childhood and we have learnt that some things you have to deal with yourself. So we never reported to the school authorities, not even to our parents.

In Dar-es-Salaam, I was also persecuted by my class teacher in a similar fashion. Because I was born son of a president, she believed I enjoyed life and had to be punished for that. She made me sweep the classroom daily until the end of the term.
I was supposed to sweep everyday at break time. There were some two girls who would come and mess it up and I would be punished for that.

They had a system of pouring sand on the ground and I would be made to kneel on that sand. She wasn’t Ugandan and I don’t know if she was being used or not. She was later sacked for other reasons.
Second exile

I was at Namasagali for only part of the term and there after went to a school in Kenya.
The second exile started on July 27, 1985 when my dad was again overthrown by Gen. Tito Okello’s group. I was attending the UN end of decade conference in Nairobi with my mother.

I was at a friend’s place and we were supposed to come back that day when my cousin rang and told me that there had been a coup in Uganda and I was needed where my mother was.

I was with my mother during the conference but since I had studied there, I had friends, so on the day of the coup I was at a friend’s place. When I joined my mother, I learnt she had already been informed about the coup. It was a difficult moment for all of us. I don’t how to describe it.

We did not know whether my father and my two brothers in Uganda were alive.
We rang Kololo to get information about them and were told that security people were still at home.

Later that day, we were told that he had crossed to Kenya. He joined us in Nairobi after two days. He was okay, better off than we were. You couldn’t tell that he had been overthrown by just looking at him.

He came alone, our brothers came later. We continued staying in Nairobi and were planning to settle there permanently but the government of Uganda was uncomfortable with [my father’s] stay in Kenya; that he could have a great influence on events in Uganda. That is when an alternative place for him was worked out.

We had to find a country which did not border with Uganda; that is how he ended up going to Zambia. But his relationship with then Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda played a role in this.

Lonely in Zambia
Mzee went alone to Zambia. Me and my young brothers remained in schools in Nairobi. My [mother] was between Zambia and Nairobi. I stayed in Nairobi from 1985 to 1992 but every year I would visit him in Lusaka.

In 1992, I got a transfer and the company dealing in Veterinary Pharmaceuticals (Agromed Zambia Ltd) that I worked for gave me an opportunity to be its country manager in Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria or Zambia. I chose Zambia. I worked in Zambia for two years until 1994 when I quit my job to assist my father full time. That is when I became his Personal Assistant.

The drive to join politics influenced my resignation but the question was how I could balance work and politics, which weren’t possible. In fact, one time I had quit a job where they couldn’t tolerate my engagement in political discussions.
I quit as the internet became popular.

In fact, I sold my pick-up truck to get hooked to the internet which was expensive then. That eased communication between Mzee and Uganda House, UPC members across the world. He was constantly dealing with ideas, writing and communicating. As his Personal Assistant, my work involved researching-on material needed on whatever he was working on.

I was also involved in transferring some of his old literature into electronic form. I don’t regret serving him because it was also a learning process.

Jimmy Akena recently

Failed return
There were attempts to bring Mzee back before his death but he would not compromise on the attempts intended to compromise the party or his integrity. All attempts were premised on that.

Attempts to bring him back meant removing him from the party leadership and leaving it without a clear leader. They were also on condition that he doesn’t participate in active politics yet he was president of a party.

They were basically saying, ‘you abandon ship if the party gets destroyed, so be it’. This was done in bad faith, only meant to create an image that Uganda could live with its former presidents. What they were doing was crudely an attempt to destroy the party.

There were a number of attempts; the first I think was in the late 1980s, but it did not work. There was no direct contact, most of it would be leaked to the press, say what The Weekly Observer wrote, and then reactions to it, say from ministers. The clearest attempt was when they tried to get through the Zambian government.

But there was another attempt by Museveni. Somebody, a Zambian Asian businessman (Dev Babbar) came to COMESA business forum and said that he had spoken to Uganda Government officials who said they wanted a channel opened for communication.

My father told him, “No, these people shouldn’t even bother coming to discuss with me in Zambia, there is the PPC (Presidential Policy Commission - then UPC governing body in Kampala), let them discuss with it.” The PPC knew the conditions he was putting across, so he said why do you want to discuss with me?

“When PPC says the ground is clear, I will come back,” he told him.
He endured exile for the party, it wasn’t about an individual. If he was doing it for his sake, he would have come earlier.

This businessman said he was going to communicate back but then information came that President Museveni was due to open an agricultural show in Zambia and the businessman came and said we could have this meeting between Museveni and my dad.
He insisted that they discuss with people in Kampala.

His position on coming back was clear. There was a time on BBC when he said he would come back if there was multiparty [democracy] and a level playing field. Then the reporter said to him he would be shot, and he replied, “Let him shoot me but I am coming.”

So his position was clear that once we got multiparty, he was coming back. Even when he passed away in South Africa, he had gone for a medical check up and was coming back because there was now multipartyism. He had made up his mind. I was one of the people who arranged his trip to South Africa; from South Africa he was going back to Zambia and then coming home.

Final journey
Personally I started preparing to leave exile when we secured multiparty politics in a court ruling. But I finalised my coming when UPC was registered in March 2005 and by April, I was here.

My exile was based on my not being allowed to participate in the politics of my country. Now that I had that opportunity I took it. My father was due to come when he passed away in South Africa. But I had discussed my coming with him and we agreed that I come and see what was on the ground. So I did not just escape from him or run away.

Akena, daughter and his late father Dr. Obote during their time in exile in Lusaka

Had I come earlier, I was going to be used as an example, “Look, there is peace”, yet all over Uganda there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people from northern Uganda who are displaced because of war. I couldn’t accept that.

Exile experience is not something I can describe but when you have endured it, you know what it is. All I can say is that exile is very challenging. It had its own challenges which taught me a lot and I hope as time unfolds you will see how I do things.

But I learnt the importance of not sacrificing principles even when things get tough. When you sacrifice your principles you sacrifice honou,r the basis on which your credibility is built.

This thing of kyeyo is very negative, we should be setting up systems and structures, which can support professionals and wealth accumulation locally.
Everything happens for a purpose, so I am not going to challenge what has happened to me in exile. What I have learnt there will carry with me till I die.



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