In the early 1998 I became the second host of Spectrum, the long running current affairs Radio 1 talk show. One of my regular guests to discuss the days events was a man I scarcely knew much about before called Aggrey Awori. But with his winsome smile and quick wit, any might strike a friendship with him. Once I also discovered we had passed through the same school, King’s College, Budo, we hit it off. Yes, of course, I did have other interesting guests. There was Winnie Banyima, later to head the global relief organization Oxfam, who had also passed through the same school at one point. Once I recall Winnie wanting to put questions in my mouth, leading us to draw into a stalemate. But that was never with Aggrey. He exuded a certain gentle confidence, that long after the show came to an end, we carried on off air discussing Uganda, and generally life.
The late 1990s were an interesting time in the political development of Uganda. In 1995 Uganda had drawn up her third constitution (within a space of just 33 years) after a tense debate between Federalists who longed for a return to the 1962 constitution and the Centrists certainly sympathetic to the 1967 republican constitution. Aggrey had participated vigorously in the writing of that constitution, leaning with the Centrists, as a Constituent Assembly delegate. A few years back he had been plucked from exile by the Museveni government, eager to secure a mandate and lend credibility to its shaky regime that had overthrown the Obote 11 regime in 1986.
Aggrey had lost his job as Uganda’s ambassador to the US and later Belgium, following the National Resistance Movement (NRM) coup. Apparently angered he decided to form an outfit called Force Obote Back Again ( FOBA). It was mainly composed of ragged youths he readily supplied AK47s directing them to attack and blow up government offices. This was around the time when Eastern Uganda which had long proved as one of the most stable support of the UPC government was spawning all sorts of rebel movements. Alice Lakwenya had started here in 1986 with her Holy Spirit movement before she was forced on the run. Her outfit however had given birth to the Lord’s Resistance Army ( LRA) under a one former Catholic Catechist called Joseph Kony who took his battle theater to Northern Uganda. In an attempt to end these wars, in 1993, after a reconciliatory meeting with President Museveni, in New York, Aggrey, decided put aside his guns and return to Uganda. He then settled into a long career as an opposition politician.
In the debates we had on Spectrum and off air, sometimes later on the terrace of Speke Hotel, Aggrey was unapologetic in drawing the government of President Museveni to account. Once he shocked parliament by revealing that the Presidential jet flew a daughter of President Museveni to give birth in Germany costing taxpayers $50,000. Another time he pointed out how Uganda was funding a US lobbyist at an astonishing fee of $300,000 for some fuzzy trade deal. He always came to the studio armed with lawyerly facts and I sensed government was on high alert based on calls that I fielded to refute his claims of alarming corruption in NRM. A formidable debater, I personally wasn’t much surprised when he was voted the best legislator of the sixth parliament, and possibly ever in Uganda.
Yet, what is interesting here, and of our politics, is that when he stood to be reelected in subsequent elections he lost his Samia- Bugwe North seat to a relatively unknown novice. While on the national scene Aggrey was exposing high level corruption, on the ground, back home, he was losing out. The days of able debaters in Uganda’s political evolution were quickly coming to a close, soon to give way to a crowd of comedians taking center stage.
Perhaps I am being rather harsh to point out that Aggrey enjoyed being in the limelight. For me it did not come as a surprise when out of seeming political oblivion he decided to bounce back and take on President Museveni during the 2001 elections. It was pure comedy as Aggrey kept boasting of his connections with world leaders and distinguished East African family roots. To prove his financial muscle he ordered a helicopter; but which only arrived in the wee hours of the election. He lost, rather ignominiously, polling less than 2%.
By then I had lost touch with him, though I kept following his politics. Sometime later I read he had crossed from his UPC party to join the party still led by the man whose policies he used to habitually question during our radio programmes and off air. Later in 2009 he was appointed by President Museveni as ICT Minister, which I thought was a reward for his crossing over to the ruling party. But in 2011, the Museveni government having exhausted all his usefulness, no longer of much threat, casually dropped him, sending what was once the most feared opposition politician into political limbo.
I must here pause and question if Aggrey’s crossing to NRM from his traditional UPC, was a sign of political maturity or an unprincipled move by a humbled politician eager to stay in the limelight? There are many other UPC politicians, like his classmate at Budo, Peter Otai, once State Minister of Defence in Obote 11 regime, who never warmed up to President Museveni’s famous advances to the very end. Although ideologically, Aggrey was closer to NRM, which was anyway a breakaway splinter movement from UPC, by the time he made peace with it, the party had long meandered from many of its earlier nationalistic pretenses. For example, in 2006 it had abandoned the two- term presidential limit at the core of the 1995 constitution. By then there were cries accusing NRM of sectarianism, especially in favor of the Western region.
So, how could he join NRM then? This is why to me Aggrey comes off across as an enigma.
Perhaps to get a better understanding of this rather complicated man we need to start with his roots. Aggrey was a sixth child of an Anglican pioneer priest, Canon Jeremiah Musungu Awori and his wife Maria, a nurse and community. This Basamia family strode along the Kenya and Uganda border, two nations arbitrary created by the British. The Aworis were an amazing couple who would raise over 16 children. But because of their settlement along the border lines, part of the family was cut off on the Uganda side. It is said Aggrey grew up with an elder sister over in Uganda and after attending Nabumali High School he joined Budo where he starred as an athlete. At one point there was interest by the British who took notice of his athletic prowess to take him to Sandhurst Military Academy. But Canon Musungu, who ensured all his children get a good education, dissuaded his son.
Instead Aggrey secured a scholarship to Harvard University where he initially enrolled to study nuclear physics but later switched to political economy. After doing post graduate work at Syracuse University in journalism, he returned to Uganda and was shortly thereafter appointed a Director of Uganda Television (UTV).
There are some unverified reports that he had long been enrolled into General Service Unit (GSU) as an intelligence officer by its head, Obote’s cousin, Akena Odoko. In any case accounts from that period do indicate that he was a partisan Director very committed to UPC Centrist ideology. Reports I never verified with him mentioned that he was very belligerent towards those for a federal arrangement, particularly the Baganda, who had been sidelined after Obotes’s 1966 coup, forcing a number into political exile.
According to some, why Aggrey was placed at UTV was to use his office and spy on journalists. Indeed, from what he would later share, Aggrey had an advance tip of the 1971 Amin coup. He made frantic efforts to alert President Obote but to no avail. Once in power Amin detained him. He might have been killed, like later his Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Alex Ojera. But Aggrey had army contacts and through the intervention of Col Nyagweso, he was freed. He quickly escaped to Kenya.
Aggrey had married a Liberian national, Thelma. The two had met as students at Harvard and had a young family. At that point in life, he could have renounced his Ugandan citizenship and taken on Kenyan citizenship, joining the majority of the Awori siblings. In Kenya the Aworis had proved to be high achievers, becoming firsts, in many different specialties. For example, there was Professor Nelson Awori, who was the first Kenyan to carry out a kidney transplant. Engineer Hannigton Awori had established himself on the board of many blue chip companies. And then there was an upcoming politician called Moody, years later to emerge as Kenya’s Vice President.
Aggrey would not renounce his Ugandan citizenship, though, in favor of Kenya, whose independence fortunes were strikingly far much rosier than Uganda. It is possible that he might have had regrets especially as he saw Uganda, the country he had adopted, descend into a bloody orgy with hundreds of thousands of Ugandans, pouring into Kenya where authorities would hound them. Simply he took up a job as a lecturer at Nairobi University. In 1979 he was one of the “Moshi revolutionaries” who joined hands leading to the overthrow of Amin regime. After President Binaisa took over he joined his government to serve as one of his Assistants. In 1980 he stood for Parliament under UPC party ticket but lost. He was then posted to the US as Uganda’s envoy.
Last year, early one morning while going through the papers, I noticed that after the 9th parliament had decided to further increase the size of Uganda’s already oversized parliament to 524 members, with also elderly MPs, which was causing heated debates in some of my circles, Aggrey was offering himself to stand as one of the elderly candidates representing Eastern Uganda. In the past I could recall he would have been the first person to question the soundness of such a decision for a strained economy like ours, unable to pay doctors a motivated wage. But now he was part of the whole gravy train. For some reason, I could no longer recognize, the man I once knew.
Ambassador Aggrey Awori’s life was heroic but also one which leaves some of those who knew him bewildered. At Harvard University he smashed records, becoming the first person in heptagonal track history to win concurrently three events, setting records that stood for years. He was a man destined for greatness, and there is no doubt he towered over his generation in many ways. But in deciding to join a party which for long he despised, at its very low moment, one can only give him the benefit of doubt. Rest in peace, Aggrey!
The writer is Associate Professor of Management, Uganda Christian University, Mukono.