Like a snail moving from point A to point B leaves a mark on its path, General Aronda Nyakairima has in the same way left a mark on his way from the lowest ranks of the army, to the top.
On Monday, he reached the very pinnacle of this journey, when he was appointed the first Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) of the Uganda Peopleâ€™s Defence Forces (UPDF). Things have changed for the better in the UPDF, ever since he became Army Commander more than two years ago. There was no way the commander-in-chief would have dropped him for another officer. It would have been equated to a team manager changing a winning captain. Nyakairima was the sixth army commander ever since the National Resistance Army (NRA) captured power in 1986. But he has made history because he is the very first CDF. Of course, his appointment did not surprise many people.
According to people who have worked with him, it is no surprise that he is succeeding. â€œHe is naturally very organised. He is amazingly calm even under the most extreme circumstances, yet as fearless as a lion when the need arises. Those are the characters of a good soldier,â€ says one of his aides. â€œHis achievements speak for themselves,â€ says a captain in the army. Aronda made a study of the reasons why the war in the north was not ending. Issues of motivation of soldiers have been dealt with in the best way possible. Soldiers are now smarter and many of them live in better environments.
â€œWe are now given four uniforms each year, instead of the three that we were getting before he came,â€ observed a lieutenant. Another said, â€œOur salary, although still very low, arrives on time these days.â€
Through his reign as Army Commander, construction of several barracks has been made. These include Kakiri, Kalama, Kasenyi and others. This has been the first concerted effort to try and get rid of the infamous mama yingiya pole (unipots) that had become characteristic of the army.
Nyakairima has emphasised training as the basic step to modernise the army. Kimaka Senior Command Staff College Jinja, an internationally recognised military academy was established. Already, the first in-take of students that included senior army officers has formed the basis for the army restructuring. Other heavy training was undertaken by most of the specialised units, including Artillery and Air Defence in Masindi, Armoured warfare at Kalama and the Air Force at Entebbe. All these units have passed out officers this year.
Efforts to weed out â€˜ghostsâ€™ were hurried up and all units are nearly completely clean now. This means that the right number of soldiers is deployed. â€œThese days, the standing order is that there should be regular reports about the strength of each unit, before and during the course of deployment. Casualties are immediately reported, as are defections,â€ says a UPDF soldier, based at the Artillery and Air Defence Unit, Masindi. By cleaning the procurement process of the UPDF, Nyakairima and the army establishment have made sure that the best equipment is acquired by the army. This is why cases of junk equipment have disappeared from the UPDF.
There is also Nyakairima the motivator. In the first months of his appointment as Army Commander, he visited virtually every army unit in the country. He talked to the officers and men and listened to their problems. He then went back and drew plans of solving them.
Nyakairima is most of the time at the frontline, lying in trenches with his men. There is nothing that can motivate a soldier, than knowing that his chief commander is with him in the line of fire. â€œHe talks with us directly. This motivates us,â€ says a soldier in the 1st Division at Kakiri. Nyakairima joined the bush war in 1982 right from Makerere University, where he studied Political science.
In the bush, he, then in his 20s had several responsibilities, most of them risky. For example, at one time he was involved in urban subversion under a squad famously known as the Black Bomber.
At the time, he was under the command of (Brigadier) Matiya Kyaligonza. This squad used to operate behind enemy lines. Nyakairima and the likes of Colonel Elly Kayanja used to attack UNLA units within and on the outskirts of the city with devastating effect. After the war, he attended a Basic Officers Course in 1989. Later, he was sent to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas USA, where he did a course in Strategic Studies. On top of that, he also attended one of the most reputed academies, Nasser Military Academy in Egypt.
On top of those courses, friends say that he reads a lot, especially about military strategy, a lot of which he computes and applies in the UPDF. He can explain
off-hand why mambas, tanks and choppers should be deployed at the same time or why they should not.
For example, while commanding officer of the mechanised division, he came up with a concept paper on which the creation of new formations within the Mechanised division was based. His concept saw the separation of the Armoured Brigade, which mainly comprises APCs like Mambas and Buffalos from the Mechanised Division that is composed of main battle tanks. He was also among the architects of the new command structure of the UPDF.
Some of his friends claim that he takes northern Uganda to be his home. Perhaps this is because way back in the â€˜70s, he chose to undertake his secondary school education at Kitgum High School.
As a student, he interacted with the local population, learnt their language and even understood their cultures. It is these virtues especially the language that he has employed to improve the image of the UPDF in the north. There is no doubt that the image of the army before the eyes of people in northern Uganda has gone up in the last year. Previously, it was difficult to hear Acholi civilians praising the army.
Today, it is very common to hear them say â€˜Thank youâ€™. The improvement of the image, is as a result of the creation of a de facto information desk specifically for the north through the Directorate of Information in the UPDF. The Gulu information desk is headed by Lt. Chris Magezi.
Nyakairimaâ€™s biggest challenge now as he takes on the new assignment is to completely weed out corruption in the army, streamline promotions and most important of all, end the northern conflict.
While some officers are away drinking in clubs, he rests or reads. With his sobriety, his friends say he can achieve these goals.
Born in 1959, Aronda Nyakairima is son to Mzee Nyakairima of Rukungiri. From the bible, that he loves reading most, one of his best quotes is â€œHere I am my lord, send me,â€ Nyakairima has now been sent for an even bigger assignment.