In the 1970s the road infrastructure in Uganda was not only sparse but tear and wear had begun to affect even the few major roads around. When a young graduate Engineer, Robert Hubert Kibuuka, was posted to the Eastern region, he was shocked at the time it took to get to his work station due to the bad state of road. For those living in Eastern Uganda traveling the 103Km Iganga – Tirinyi- Mbale road was a nightmare of wading through gigantic potholes and surviving occasional road accidents. The young engineer knew something had to be done. Having graduated from Makerere University with a Bachelor’s degree (Civil Engineering) he had proceeded to Loughborough university in UK where he attained a Masters degree in road mantainence.
In the 1990s Uganda under the new Museveni government started a program of road rehabilitation, largely funded by development partners. Eng Kibuuka, fresh from his overseas studies, was appointed to lead the upgrading works on the Iganga – Tirinya- Mbale road, a project long on his mind. Not only did he execute the project in record time but at less the budgeted cost and to government satisfaction. President Museveni asked who this young man was. On finding he almost immediately appointed him Permanent Secretary ( PS), Ministry of Works, ahead of many others to oversee all the road construction in Uganda.
Serving as one of the youngest PS, Eng Kibuuka worked with four different ministers until he decided to take early retirement from public service in 1996 to enter private practice. Engineers, with their methodical and perfectionist attention to detail, may find the hazy business world an odd patch of field to enter- especially for someone already honed in the stable life of public service. But he was not the one to be deterred. Resolutely he put together an engineering consulting firm, Prome Consultants, specializing in road construction. But then would he succeed!
Around this time there were hardly any indigenous road construction firm flourishing in Uganda. Some, like Mukalakazi Construction, had ventured into the highly competitive industry, only to fold for various reasons but mostly poor busniess practices. Here was an uphill task. Prome Consultants would not only survive the harsh “start up phase” but almost three decades later bears a mark on almost every major road in Uganda, with even branches of works as far as Ethiopia. Thanks to his industrousness, quiet resolve and exceptional business management.
It is in the course of this work that our paths crossed. In 2012 his firm and mine, CME Consult, a Management Consulting firm, bidded for a World Bank project to develop municipal infrastructure and Uganda’s national Urban policy, which we both won respectively. Since we were reporting to the same local manager, we often found ourselves seated in the same room comparing notes. This is how I discovered he had a prime building along Acacia road named Innovation house. On noticing its good business location and ambience I asked and, he agreed, to sublet me space for my firm.
Working in the same complex with him opened up a whole new world of knowledge. For he was such a gifted industrious man as I soon discovered. He worked long and late hours, a crime I confessed too. Most of the time we would be the only two left behind well after 8pm in the vast office complex, after all our colleagues had retired. And, just before I would head home, I would occasionally drop by his office, to chide him for working so late. Very often he would push away all his work, turn to me and we would settle into a long conversation, where sometimes the clock went ticking past 10pm, till we just had to leave.
He told me almost everything about life: the rigours of business life, faith in God, attending government cabinet meetings, serving the Kingdom of Buganda where he was once a Minister and a co- founder of CBS FM radio. Serving the Kabaka of Buganda was his life mission. Almost every time he was out of office I could guess well it was him in a meeting over in Mengo.
Tragedy had visited him in 1996 when he lost his wife and mother of four children. For reasons he confided in me, he had chosen not to remarry, but largely to do with his preoccupation to raise his children. All had done well; and his two boys, Cyrus and Ronnie, after finishing their engineering studies had returned home and were now working with him, to his great delight.
Occasionally, in our long talks, he would take me through his early years of life. He had passed through my alma matter, St Henry’s College Kitovu, too, where he was the best science student before joining Makerere University in 1972. His father, Mbidde, had tought him and his siblings the value of hard work and saving. “My father was a coffee farmer,” he once shared. “He had a row of coffe bags set up in our store, which served as a bank. If there was any urgent cash need that is when he would sell.”
As our friendship matured, I came to notice he was looking after so many people, many but not limited to members of his extended family. A bit concerned at his scale of philantrophy, once I asked him why all the bother. His answer I will never forget. “If I dont,” he calmly laboured, “who will bury me!” An educated man with all the means knew and saw the value of the community he came from and never forgot.
Eng Kibuuka had an uncommonly oversized heart. Gifted with immense wealth he saw money as a mere tool to achieve noble goals. He gave himself to minimal pleasures and more to serving others. He would look out and give jobs to his fellow Engineers sometimes just to help those struggling get by. Once, a nephew of his was struck with cancer. Immediately at his expense he flew him to India for treatment. When that failed he flew the ailing nephew to Germany, where unfortunately the patient died. Then he took over the repatriation of the body and burial arrangements, quite a huge cost.
He never forgot his home in Nabutolo, close to Busukuma on Zirobwe road where he would go almost every weekend. There are two particular projects he gave considerable resource and time. Almost single handedly he built a cathedral church in place of an ageing structure. He also raised a community center with projects to teach youth life skills.
When Covid-19 struck I lost a bit of touch with him due to the Lockdown and restricted movements. After Kampala fully opened up I visited him in his office and picked up from where we had left. He was a bit relieved that the pandemic had struck soon after he had buried his mother, whom he had nursed through a long comma. The terrain of business was rough but he knew he would pull off. He also shared with me his medical reports. “The doctors just gave me a good bill,” he said with a brim of satsfaction. “It is these late business payments now bothering me!”
After job changes in my life I knew I had to visit Eng Kibuuka for some good mentorship talk. But for me there could be no small talk with the man other engineers referred to as HRK- Herbert Robert Kibuuka. Time was scarce and therefore I moved without a farewell parting word. But he was never far from my mind. On a recent visit to Kampala, just as I was trying to figure out if I could check on him, came the sad news- “HRK has gone!”
I struggled to figure how such a good and gentle man of all seasons could leave when everyone was waiting on him! Over the years I have had this great fortune to meet and chance upon Engineers of exceptional brittle. There was Eng Abraham Waligo, the man who almost wired every major building in Kampala in the 1970s and whose office on George street was one bloc away from mine. I always enjoyed his soft teasing and roaring laughter. My Uncle Eng Henry Nalikka, one of Uganda’s first electrical Engineer, was always a calm and collected presence, each time he visited us. There was my father in law, Eng Samuel Bayizzi, one of those early engineers from Nairobi university, ethical to the bone and what a great company his was.
But Eng Kibuuka fell in another realm. All I can say I was privileged to meet him and what a debt he has left in my heart! It was the former CEO of Uganda National Roads Authority ( UNRA), an organisation he helped found, Eng Ssebugga Kimeze, whom he had mentored along with a generation of other Engineers, just before he was laid to rest at the feet of his father and mother, and close to his wife and kin whom he served so selflessly, who put it so well: “How can we raise another Eng Kibuuka among ourselves!” I don’t know!!! Tall order.