Gen. Elly Tumwine is the national chairman of the medals awards committee. He spoke to Charles Etukuri on how heroes are vetted.
Today is Heroes’ Day and several Ugandans will be awarded medals for their various struggles. What prompted your decision to start the award?
In the history of Uganda, there was no serious way of recognising the people who contributed greatly to the shaping of this country. The National Resistance Movement (NRM) and Parliament recognised this need and a law was passed in 2001 in which details were given of the type of medals awarded.
Interesting names. How did you choose them?
After a series of discussions. In the civilian medals, the Pearl of Africa was derived from the fact that Uganda is the beauty of Africa. The Order of the Nile is because the River Nile means a lot to us as a country and it is the second longest river in the world. The Nalubale Medal was because it is the local name of Lake Victoria.
Order of Katonga is because that was a very decisive battle that signified the final victory of the NRA as it fought to capture power. After crossing Katonga, the war was over.
The Kabalega medal is named after King Kabelega who was a symbol of resistance against the British. The Rwenzori Star is because it is the highest mountain in Africa. The Masaba medal is the local name of Mount Elgon. Damu medal refers to the blood that was spilt for this country.
Some people do not attach much value to these medals. How important are they?
One receives national recognition by the Head of State. Uganda has 35 million people and if only 10,000 people receive the medals, is not that special? You should see their faces today as they receive them.
But some people argue that apart from the medals something more should be done to change the lives of these heroes, for instance those in Luwero who suffered during the war.
Definitely, a lot has been done to improve their lives, but it is a process. In developed countries, such people receive special recognition and I would urge all Ugandans to respect them. They should also wear them during public functions and on special ceremonies so people can recognise their role.
Looking at the conditions in the country now, some people argue that we are worse off than before.
Look at where we have been, where we are we now and where are we heading. I can assure you that there are significant developments.
The biggest is the transformation of the army. The armies we had before were anti-people.
Compared to previous governments, we are much better. There are those who are opposed to constant progress, but that is the law of nature. They give us room to improve.
What do you say about the critics who are some of your close bush war colleagues?
It is natural and okay. When a river is flowing, it loses some water. Some to animals that drink it, some is used for irrigation and then some of it is dried up by the sun.
Comment on some of the exchanges in the media involving some of your senior colleagues in the army.
Why? You see, when groundnuts are boiling and you pour cold water, they settle and boil until they are ready to eat. For harmony and if you want to have music, there must be a high and low peak. When there is need to, we speak. When there is no need to, we keep quiet. Sometimes adding to the noise may create more problems.
It is 27 years since you came to power. When shall we see you exiting the military and political life of Uganda?
Any time. First of all, I could have died during the 1979 war, during the Kabamba attack, when I was shot through the head, or when I was ambushed along the Masaka-Kampala road. The question of retirement is not a major thing. When you are requested by the army to serve, why would you refuse? I have been army commander, Minister of State for Defence and now they ask me to serve in Parliament. I do not even campaign? What would be more important than the trust of the armed forces? Why should I let them down?
Unlike some of your colleagues enjoying the state tappings and power, we do not see your name in shady deals. What makes you unique?
It is God’s grace.
But then there are colleagues of yours who whenever caught on the wrong side of the law quickly remind us they went to the bush…
They only bring it up when they are threatened.
You were once chairman of the court martial and some have criticised your tenure as being one of the worst.
It was the most wonderful time and the only people who were not excited were the journalists who I convicted.
You do not become a chairman of the court martial to please people. You go there to deliberately punish the wrong doers as an example to others.
There are fears that if the current crop of generals left the army, there would be a crisis and consequently, an unruly army.
Who tells you? Those are speculations. We have been deliberately preparing this force and as long as it continues to be a people’s army, It will outlive all of us.
The medals and their categories
The medals are in two categories — military and civilian. They vary in importance. The highest in the civilian medals is the Most Excellent Order of the Pearl of Africa. It is the highest medal given to the heads of state and government. The next is the Excellent Order of the Pearl of Africa which is awarded to heads of state spouses, vice-presidents, crown princes and princesses.
The next is the Distinguished Order of the Nile awarded to those who have distinguished themselves in production, research, economic activities, social and cultural practices.
We also have the Distinguished Order of the Crested Crane awarded to people who have distinguished themselves in leadership and service, both public and private and is meant to encourage people to be good leaders. These last two medals have classes from class one to five.
The next medal is the National Independence Medal, awarded to those who have championed and contributed significantly to the struggle for the independence of Uganda and those who have continued to promote independence. It was meant to encourage patriotism.
The next one is the Nalubale Medal, given to all who have contributed to the political development of Uganda, either through armed struggle or civil disobedience, from colonial times to date. The military medals include the Order of Katonga, the highest and rarely awarded honour for extraordinary heroism in the army. Only Nyerere has received it.
The second highest honour is the Kabalega Star awarded for gallantry. It is followed by the Ruwenzori Star for exemplary military service. The other one is the Masaba Star and is awarded in the same circumstances as the Kabalega medal, but is not as conspicuous.
Then there is the Damu (blood) Medal awarded to any member who died or was wounded in action.
We have the Luwero triangle medal awarded to anyone who was in the armed struggle or worked closely with the freedom fighters between 1981 and 1986.
The Kagera medal is awarded to any officer, national or foreign, who participated in fighting dictatorship between 1971 and 1979. We also have the Order of Lukaya, awarded under the same circumstances as the Kagera medal, but with emphasis on the 1979 battle when Amin was defeated in Lukaya.
The final one is the Kyoga Medal awarded to officers who gallantly fought and defeated several insurgencies in Uganda.