According to a recent poll conducted by Research World International (RWI), 78% of Ugandans – an overwhelming majority – believe President Yoweri Museveni’s greatest accomplishment is there is now peace, security and stability. Perhaps even more telling, when asked what the four most serious challenges facing Uganda today, securing peace and stability was not even mentioned. Simply put, Uganda today is a peaceful nation.
As one sees Ugandans freely moving about, its young, dynamic population conducting business, gathering with friends and family, generally enjoying life, it’s hard to remember that life in Uganda was not always like this. In fact, in the past 30 years Uganda has made an extraordinary transformation from pariah to performer, all due to one word: peace.
For those who were alive before the National Resistance Movement (NRM) ousted the autocratic and kleptocratic regime, remembering the past is not an enjoyable stroll down memory lane. Both Milton Obote and Idi Amin’s regimes were marred by repression, torture, and the killing of countless civilians. Even for those not directly targeted, daily life was a struggle.
Dr. Bishop Joshua Lwere, Overseer of the National Fellowship of Born Again Pentecostal Churches, was living in Kampala during this dark period of Ugandan history. “Everybody was running out of the city,” he recalls, explaining the fear that drove everyone to leave the city by 4pm. “We had what was called ‘panda gari,’ especially in the early 80s. You’d never stay in the city after 5. You knew it was a problem.”
“Panda gari,” Bishop Lwere explained was the self-imposed curfew Ugandans endured during those decades when in Uganda the state and terror were synonymous with each other. The term “panda gari” is Swahili, and can loosely be translated as “get on board,” but this was far from a polite request. It was an order, often delivered by one who is armed and sinister.
Bishop Lwere recalled people not obeying “panda gari” could be loaded onto a truck, usually along with a number of other unfortunates, or worse, dumped into the boot of a car, and taken to a place where return was not a guarantee. People found in the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time, gangs of marauding soldiers or regime agents would subject them to physical and verbal abuse. Many times a kick in the guts was just the precursor to a far more horrifying fate. This misery, inflicted on large swaths of the population, was commonplace and an accepted reality.
Since the NRM took control of the government, “panda gari” is as good as forgotten, banished to the bin of history. Kampala is a city reborn, a veritable hive of activity and a hub of trade, commerce, and social gatherings. “We see a new life coming in,” Bishop Lwere extols. “We see a new enthusiasm, the youth enjoying their own city.”
Patrick Bitature, one of Uganda’s foremost entrepreneurs as the founder and CEO of the Simba Group, ,also remembers those darker days. As a young boy, he was lucky to have a privileged childhood, but that ended suddenly during the Amin regime when an officer brutally murdered his father. Suddenly, the 13-year old boy had to become the provider, which he did by becoming a smuggler, regularly risking life & limb. Skulking across the Uganda-Kenya border, he would return to a hero’s welcome simply for bringing back the most basic of needs, the type of things Ugandans take for granted today, like sugar.
Today, when one sees images of Mr. Bitature in the board room, accepting another award, or being cited by Forbes or other major publications as one of the most influential Africans today, it’s hard to remember that he is the same person as that 13-year old boy who put everything at risk just to feed his family. Today, he has positively thrived, his riches-to-rags-to-even-greater-riches story cemented by dozens of ventures both local and regional, but it was a future he could have never dreamed of until peace and security took hold.
For Bishop Lwere, his congregational gatherings today of tens of thousands of worshipers would have been impossible without a guarantee of peace. It is a reality he always asks the faithful to