As our country commemorates its 50th independence anniversary, many families will be remembering the dark days when the new African leaders visited untold suffering on Ugandans. The Kabagambe family is one of those that fell victim to the heinous crimes committed by Apollo Milton Obote and Idi Amin.
As we struggle to forget what our family has gone through over the past 40 years, let us recount our story of the killing of our father.
A week after the 10th anniversary of Uganda’s independence, our father, Peter Kabagambe, was brutally murdered by Idi Amin’s forces on October 18, 1972.
Ten years earlier on October 9, 1962, he had led the Independence Day celebrations at Rujumbura Saza Grounds. Kabagambe was the Rujumbura saza (county) chief then. Four months later, he welcomed the new prime minister, Dr. Obote to Rukungiri county headquarters.
Not in his wildest dreams would he have believed that the new Uganda and the independence leaders were not going to accommodate his vision of economic advancement for his community and the nation.
Fast forward to late 1971, Amin pays an official visit to Kisoro in Bufumbira, where he displays his military prowess with impressive parachute exercises at Nyarusiza. People recall how he proudly introduced the then Major Jack Bunyenyezi as the son of Bufumbira. Peter Kabagambe, then umutwale (administrative chief) of Bufumbira, had welcomed and, accordingly, entertained General Amin.
Dreadful second encounter with Amin
Their next encounter was in September 1972 at Simba Battalion Barracks, Mbarara after the attempted invasion of Uganda from Tanzania had been thwarted by the Uganda army.
During that same week, the US president, Richard Nixon, had referred to Idi Amin as a “pre-historic monster” and instructed Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state, to support the British, who had planned a military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Uganda.
Nixon’s orders were a result of a New York Times front page story on September 21, 1972 of a photo of Simba Barracks displaying the military brandishing rifles on a pile of corpses.
Kissinger, unfortunately, never followed through, although he himself had referred to Amin as “an ape without education”. The story would have been different had Nixon’s orders been followed since there would not have been a second encounter between Kabagambe and Amin.
The two met again when Amin visited Simba Barracks to thank his victorious army after the 1972 invasion. The perpetrators and conspiracy theorists of hate crimes had accused the umutwale of Bufumbira of recruiting young men from his area to join the rebels in Tanzania.
It appears those who hated the chief wanted him ‘punished’. During this sad period, many innocent Ugandans were falsely reported to the army by their enemies to settle unresolved disputes. Daddy fell victim to similar petty jealousies that saw many other Ugandans disappear without a trace.
When our father was arrested and brought to Simba Barracks, he met Amin briefly and was released on Amin’s orders. Amin also reportedly advised Major Yusuf Gowon to desist from being sucked into petty local politics and internal division between the Bairu/Bahima and Hutu/Tutsi.
After this incident, daddy’s family and friends advised him to leave the country, but being the man he was, he viewed this as cowardice. He argued that there was ‘nothing’ to flee from.
Fleeing the country would have been easy through Bunagana or Cyanika borders. But our father instead chose to; literally, prepare to pay the ultimate price. It is said he was ready for his detractors to deal with him rather than leave his family to suffer if he fled.
Kabagambe’s candle extinguished
What transpired on October 18, 1972 when daddy disappeared remains a mystery. This is by no means special to the Kabagambe family; many other families in our country have similar stories to tell.
It had become routine for our father to spend the weekends at his farm at Iremera in Busanza sub–county and drive the 30–minute ride back to Kisoro town for duty on Monday morning. This was the same routine on October 16, 1972.
Two days later, before lunch, two military men approached him at his office and informed him that he was wanted in Mbarara.
Having gone through this experience barely three weeks earlier, he did not hesitate. He got up from his desk, told his assistant he had been summoned to Mbarara and followed the bandits as people watched helplessly. Our father had insisted on driving his white Toyota pickup truck back home, barely five minutes away from his office. So, one of the military men joined him in his car, while the second one followed them in a military vehicle.
When they reached there, the workers saw the two soldiers head straight to our father’s bedroom and come back with a rifle. It appears that the soldiers were told that he had a gun. But the rifle was officially registered. The workers watched in horror and shock as the umutwale was led into the military truck.
This would be the last time they would see Mzee Kabagambe. The military truck was later seen at Highland Hotel in Kabale town as the soldiers went to make merry. Many people recognised our father, who was a well-known personality in Kabale, who had been tied up in the truck.
Kabale was the centre for Kigezi politics as well as national ideological debates, for which our father was a prominent member of the progressive wing of the Uganda People’s Congress.
One can only speculate as to what may have been going through his mind during that journey from Kisoro to Mbarara.
Peter Kabagambe was born in Busanza sub–county, Bufumbira in February 1918 to Paul Rugyenzabatwa and Rhoda Nyirabaseka.
He was among the first people to go to school in Bufumbira. He studied at Seseme Primary School in Kisoro town and Kigezi High School, Kabale. While at Kigezi High, he distinguished himself as an athlete and was a head boy.
He later attended local government courses at Oxford University, in the UK and served on the Uganda Welfare Advisory Committee. His career spanned 33 years, from a muluka (parish) chief in 1939 to saza chief for Rujumbura, Rukiga, Rubanda, and Bufumbira in the Kigezi district. He also served as acting administrative secretary and secretary general of Kigezi district.
He was survived by his wife, Esther Kabagambe, who died in 1998, 14 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
On the occasion of Uganda’s 50th indepedence anniversary, which will coincide with the 40th remembrance ceremony for Peter Kabagambe, our family sees this as a perfect opportunity to evoke the good teachings of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ on forgiveness.
In application of this precept, we wish to convey a message of forgiveness to all those who directly or indirectly; wittingly or unwittingly contributed to the untimely death of an innocent man at the prime of his life. Our father’s life was abruptly ended at 54 years old, with a young and large family, and at the service of our country.