By Stephen Ssenkaaba
With Stephen Kiprotich’s Olympic victory on our hands, we can rightly claim to have a true champion. But there are champions, who never run long races; who never basked in the golden glory of Olympic victory and who literally never returned home to a warm welcome.
William Wilberforce Kalema left his Plot 22 Nakasero Road home at 6:45 pm on January 20, 1972. His wife Rhoda Kalema recalls that he drove to Kansanga to drop off a relative.
“That is the last we saw of him.” Words fail her at this point. She drops her head down, shakes it lightly and goes quiet. When she raises the head to speak again, her eyes are watery and red.
She snorts a little and goes on. “We waited until about midnight but when he did not come back home, I knew something was wrong.”
Kalema was a top civil servant in the 1960s and early 1970s. He was among the first professionals that took leadership immediately after Uganda’s independence, helping to set the stage for development in this country.
He was in the prime of his life when unknown assailants kidnapped him never to be seen again.
He started out as a teacher at his almer mater–Kings College Budo from 1948-1953. He left and went to the University of Edinburgh in the UK where he graduated with a master’s degree in economics. On his return he served in Mengo as a permanent secretary in the ministry of education and later as a Buganda election boundary commissioner.
He was among the 21 members elected to represent Buganda in the National Assembly. It is here that he joined the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) as part of a proposed, but very controversial coalition between his party Kabaka Yekka (KY) and UPC.
Kalema also served as parliamentary secretary in the ministry of education.
In 1963 he was part of the a three–man commission that transformed the then East African High Commission into the East African Common Services Organisation, which in 1967 morphed into the East African Community.
This commission was led by Chief Jerome Udoji, a Nigerian lawyer. Kalema also chaired a marriage committee that recommended the registration of all marriages and served as chairman of Makerere University council from 1964-66 and vice chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Council from 1966-67.
Kalema served in many eminent positions, but it was his service as a cabinet minister that he caught public attention.
He became minister of works, communication and housing in 1964, just two years after Uganda’s independence.
During his tenure he established networks that attracted foreign contractors from other parts of the world.
In 1965, Kalema led a powerful delegation to the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, China, Japan and India. He, together with his team successfully negotiated for the establishment of Soroti meat packers from Yugoslavia, Busitema agricultural college (now a university) from the Soviet Union and Kibimba Rice scheme from China.
Paul Etyang, the secretary to this delegation says that Kalema’s team had also worked out a deal with the Chinese to build in Uganda the first and biggest modern stadium in post-independence Africa.
“However this project was derailed by disagreements over the stadium’s location and the subsequent upheavals that happened in Buganda.”
From countries like India, Kalema and his team negotiated for what Etyang calls a ‘balance of trade’ deal where both countries could benefit from equitable trade between each other.
It was also during his tenure that the National Housing and Construction Company was set up as part of the Government’s plan to divest itself from providing housing for civil servants.
“It was put in place to provide affordable accommodation to civil servants,” recalls Etyang.
From 1964 to the early 70s, According to NHCC, the company had built over 2,384 units of various types in different locations of the country.
It was also during his time as minister that companies such as United Garments Industry, Lira Spinning Mills, Nyanza textiles, Uganda Hotels thrived. Kalema popularized the use of reflectors on heavyduty vehicles in Uganda after visiting Germany and seeing how well they worked. On his return, he proposed the compulsory use of these gadgets on such cars.
Many Ugandans, mindful of the consequences of not heeding the minister’s call, went for the reflectors. They ingeniously called them: “Tonkubya Kalema”.
During his term as commerce and industry minister from 1967 to 1972, Kalema championed the Africanisation crusade. This was a campaign to support Ugandans to own and participate in the economic development of their country.
Kalema believed that Ugandans had a big stake in the development of their own country and that they ought to share in the economic opportunities that Uganda offered.
He called Ugandans to take on economic ventures, to participate in trade and where opportunity allowed he supported people to do business.
“The Government’s policy is that more and more citizens should be given the opportunity to participate more and more directly in the country’s development,” he is quoted as saying in the Uganda Argus newspaper of June 28, 1969.Ugandans who had the capacity opened up businesses and local business thrived.
He worked tirelessly to promote the Uganda Development Corporation (UDC) an organisation created by the British colonial government in 1952 to facilitate the industrial and economic development in Uganda.
“What the UDC would do was to start industries up to a point when they were ready to begin production and then sell them to the private sector,” says Sam Rutega, who worked under Kalema as Permanent secretary in the ministry of commerce and industry.
Rutega explains that Kalema’s visionary leadership steered the UDC to growth. Kalema used his position to advocate export promotion under the organisation. He also ensured that more opportunities are availed to the local people to benefit from it.
“UDC is not only a symbol of the common man,” he said. “But it is the common man. To this end, every effort towards training, guiding and installing Ugandans in responsible positions should be made.” Once described by the outgoing British administration as “the most important entrepreneur in Uganda and a successful one in this most difficult field of fostering development,” the organisation thrived on able leadership of people like Kalema to steer Uganda to meaningful development.
By 1965, according to online sources, “it had turned a post-tax profit every year since its creation and employed (including subsidiaries) over 18,000 people, engaged in projects as diverse as cement and cotton.” According to Rutega, by 1971, the Organisation had made an after tax profit of $35m (sh88b).
Unfortunately, the pace at which the UDC was run deteriorated after the early 1970s. The organisation slid to total oblivion as political chaos set in.
The final moments
Kalema was part of thedelegation that accompanied President Milton Obote to the January 1971 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Singapore. At the summit news of a coup back home came in.
Etyang, then Uganda’s High Commissioner to the UK was in attendance. He recounts that the news troubled Kalema very much. “He was so worried for his family that he wept.” As the Uganda delegation tried to figure out a way forward, Kalema made all possible efforts to return home. Rhoda Kalema recounts his words: “He said: Let me go back and see my family. If I don’t go back, they are going to kill them.”
In February 1971, he returned home to his family. Nearly one year later, he was kidnapped and never returned.
Fourty years on and Kalema’s legacy lives on. His son Dr. William Kalema believes that the man he is proud to call father was instrumental in setting this country on the right course.
“My father is one of those capable professional Ugandans of his time who upheld the noble values of postindependence,” he says. Even though I was too young to understand what was going on, my father’s legacy has been a powerful inspiration to me in my work; he worked hard for this country and I have always strived to emulate him in all that I do,” Gladys Kalema, the last of the Kalema children says. She was only two years old when her father disappeared.
Kalema was a champion at many different levels; first to his young wife and six young children.
He was a national champion too; a standard bearer for national development and industrialization and an advocate for the economic empowerment of ordinary Ugandans.