"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Friday, 26 November 2010

Gulu and the Presidential Rally

Having missed the opportunity to join forces with the president on his way to Gulu (and still acting on my bet) I figured that I need to meet him there. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain. But first he needs someone who will direct him to the mountain. For me that person would be Kizito Serumaga, an editor of Ggwanga, the voice of Buganda people and an opposition newspaper. If there is one thing I knew about being a journalist it’s that other journalists are the best news source there is. Kizito did not disappoint and he provided me with much need info about the length of stay of Museveni in the North and a few phone numbers for his press people. He also urged me not to give up, saying there is a chance of my foolish plan succeeding.

I decided to head to Gulu the very same day. Gulu has always been a God-forsaken hole but in the last years of the LRA struggle it gained notoriety as the centre of military activity against the rebels. It was the only relatively secure place in the whole of the North, where parents would send their children from near and far villages for the night, so that they would not be kidnapped by the LRA and turned into child soldiers. It features heavily in Wojciech Jagielski’s book, Night Wanderers (out in English next year), who vividly describes how the city would empty of adults at night and become a domain of hundreds of children sleeping in the streets. As this book was one of the inspirations for this whole crazy trip of mine going to Gulu was a must anyway.

The bus takes about 6 hours to get there, plus the 1.5 hours you need to spend on it waiting for it to go. So when I arrived in Gulu it was already dark. Gulu has no street lighting and looks very derelict and dodgy indeed. Luckily, on the bus I met a local student who said who can lead me to a cheap but safe hotel. Pearl Afrique, for that was the name of the establishment, turned out to be pleasant enough and I settled for it. I did not have much of a plan of action as none of the phone numbers I got from Kizito worked. In Jagielski’s book all the military types hang out in the Acholi Inn hotel – I figured I can just as well go there for a drink and check things out.

In Acholi Inn I did not meet any military types but on arrival I was approached by the Chair of the Chamber of Commerce for Arua who obviously assumed I must be there for their meeting. We exchanged pleasantries and details. He informed me that the president is indeed in town but is staying in the military barracks not at the hotel. He also gave me a number for Presidential Private Secretary (PPS) and we parted amicably. The hotel courtyard was full of local businessmen and women deep in debate. I bought a beer and looked lost.

Then I saw Mark. At that time of course I did not know if was Mark but there. It turned out Mark was a journalist and the Africa desk editor for NRC Handelsblad, the Dutch daily. I don’t think I will ever forget the first (and hopefully not last) moment of professional pride when, on hearing what I was doing there, he smiled and said that he supposes that makes us colleagues. I don’t think I ever had a colleague before! He was there to cover some child soldier stories and did not quite register the whole presidential business yet. He raised his eyebrows in disbelief when I told him of my plan but wished me luck and I promised to keep him updated.

The next morning I went down to breakfast resolved to keep calling the PPS until I get somewhere. At breakfast I met Raphael who turned out to be the flag bearer for NRM, the Presidential Party, for Arua. Flag bearer is another name for a MP candidate. The expression comes from the time when Uganda, by order of President Museveni, was declared a non-party state. Parties were not banned but were not allowed to put up candidates for elections. Instead, everyone was encouraged to join Museveni’s National Resistance Movement and compete on merit basis within it. Independent candidates were also allowed but in fact they did not have much of a chance of winning against the (non-) party machine of the NRM. Now, under the pressure from the international community, multi-party system is back but the nomenclature remains and so do flag bearers.

As the secretary was not picking up, I resolved to got to Acholi Inn again to try my luck the second time. I did not find the secretary there but I did find Mark again. The hotel was bustling with activity, people in yellow T-shirts (Museveni’s colour) were ubiquitous and the whole place teemed with laughter. Everyone was shaking-hands with everyone, laughing, discussing, and most of all shouting into their mobile phones. As I was waiting for the secretary to leave her room (I managed to get the number of it by cunning from the concierge), I was approached by Raphael who had also come to Acholi Inn. Upon hearing of my difficulties he said that I should not worry he will try to get it arranged but we better stop calling and try to get the President in the Barracks. Before I knew it I was being rushed to the flag bearer’s car and I only had time to sway past Mark’s table and ask him if he wants to join me in the chase. The look of astonishment of his face was priceless. But as a real journalist he just packed his bag and followed.

We drove to the barracks. Despite the fact that Raphael obviously was someone to be reckoned with in the party we had a very long wait at the gate. That was military territory and Ugandan military are their own masters. Finally we managed to get through the first gate. The second gate turned out to be even harder to force. Finally a man called Amos went out, took mine and Mark’s details and told us to wait in the canteen. We bought sodas and sat under a tree, both still overwhelmed by the pace and surrealism of the situation. After a while of waiting we rose to talk to soldiers who were lounging under another tree. I was hoping to learn some military secrets but unfortunately their English was not good enough for any indiscreetness. But I made friends with Major Peter, which resulted in a lovely photo opp – unfortunately, now still in Mark’s possession.

After some forty minutes wait we were summoned to the gate again where we met Amos. He told us that the president was in meetings all this time and now is rushing to the rally so we cannot see him at that time. But he has enrolled us onto the rally coverage team and we can now attend the rallies as press so maybe there will be a chance in the evening or the next day. We had no other choice but to leave the Barracks. Mark went back to Acholi Inn and I decided to check out the HQ of Radio King FM – another place from Jagielski’s book. None of the journalists working there knew Wojciech but they were very friendly and informative. We went for late lunch in town and they shared their insights into elections and situation in Uganda in general.

As we were sitting in the restaurant ‘garden’ the rally started. A horde of yellow decorated boda-bodas honking their horns drove slowly through town. After them proceeded the orchestra, break-dancers and acrobats, who would stop at ever junction to perform. Then the crowd of supporters, sporting Museveni’s yellow Unity and Stability T-shirts. There were some three hundred people in the procession, most of them probably paid to turn up. They marched through town, chanted and danced. The streets were full of people but there was no universal merriment, more of a pensive observation and anticipation. Only children seemed to be having fun. At first I followed the crowd, taking pictures, filming and observing but then I figured I better head to the rally ground to get a good position. I caught a glimpse of Mark taking pictures, we waved but then were separated by the crowd.

The Kaunda Grounds where the Rally took place was already packed with people. There was strict security and no one was allowed to bring in cameras or take pictures. Naturally, I protested. I wanted not only to be admitted and allowed to keep my camera but also to get a good position from which to record. Without any official document to confirm my status it was not an easy task, the security around the president does not yield readily to intimidation. I have to admit that I banked on being able to just bluff my way through. I do not want to bore the readers with lengthy descriptions of negotiations, quarrels, running to and fro, waiting, calling, checking and consulting that followed. On the one hand, I was quite impressed with their diligence, on the other dismayed by the lack of communications resulting in repeated checks and enquiries. My bluffing and self-assured pose would have been quite futile if it wasn’t for the last minute arrival of some piece of paper from Amos with my accreditation on it. With my newly acquired air of legitimacy, I rushed straight onto the most elevated position on the stage from which I had a great view of the whole rally and Museveni on his car-platform. Too elevated in fact as part of the crowd was far more interested in seeing what antics the mzungu is going to perform than listening to a rather lacklustre speech of Museveni. I felt exposed.

In the evening I met up with Mark, who congratulated me on my feat. He gave up trying to get into the rally after the security told him he has to leave his camera but he saw me on the stage from the distance. We called Amos and tried to press him for the interview but he said the chances were slim. Figuring we are not going to get one this evening anyway, we went to play pool in town and then parted for the night, vowing to continue our chase the very next day. After all, we did get close.

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