Jehoash Mayanja Nkangi has managed to serve as minister in three different governments. He spoke to Carol Natukunda and Jeff Lule about his humble background, his ‘beef’ with Obote, his narrow escape into exile, and his time at the Uganda Land Commission
Jehoash Mayanja Nkangi is a man with a distinct receding hairline and shaped beard. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Oxford University and later rose to become Kabaka Muteesa’s right hand man, as the katikkiro (prime minister) of Buganda kingdom.
Perhaps no one would ever have known Nkangi had he given up at a early age. Born in 1937 to peasant parents, Nkangi says he never got to know much about his mother.
All he remembers is that his father, Isaiah Sibakyalwayo, was a village chief who built a school at Kabungo in Masaka district, now Kalungu district. The Church Missionary Society brought teachers to the school and that is where Nkangi studied up to P4. After P4, Nkangi was in a dilemma. The nearest school was Kako Primary School, which was about 15 miles away and there were only three vacancies left.
After interviews, he won a scholarship and joined the school for P5 and P6. Another door opened when Kako was changed into a junior secondary school. “I did not have anywhere to go. There was no money and the schools were few at that time.
The Kabaka’s government gave me a bursary for my Junior One and Two because I was performing very well,” he recalls. It was at Kako that Nkangi saw Kabaka Muteesa face to face for the first time. That morning, all pupils lined up to welcome the Kabaka.
When Nkangi saw him approaching, he put his hand forward, itching for a royal handshake. Much to his disappointment, the Kabaka just waved. “I felt bad, but later I learnt that you cannot greet the Kabaka. He should be the one to initiate the greeting,” Nkangi says. A few hours after the incident, someone had casually remarked: “This boy will be the katikkiro one day,” he recalls. And it would come to pass.
Nkangi’s glittering career On May 24, 1966, all hell broke loose. Obote stormed the Lubiri in what would be written in the books of history as the Lubiri crisis that saw the abolition of kingdoms.
Doesn’t Nkangi feel that at the time of this crisis, he failed the Kabaka and the Lukiiko? Couldn’t he have advised on a round table to avoid this coup? Does he feel there is something he should have done to avert the crisis?
Nkangi does not feel he mishandled the situation. “I knew in my heart of hearts that Obote was hungry for power and he wanted to use guns to get the power,” Nkangi says in a sombre tone. “As an individual, I do not believe in coups. We knew we had no guns. But that did not mean that we should bend low or fear someone because of their guns.
He adds: “It is like saying that a poor person should surrender everything they have to a rich aggressive neighbour. Even a poor man has rights.” Nkangi further states: “Here is a man who did everything wrong. He changed the constitution.
From A to Z, Obote was wrong.” Nkangi says he has no regrets over his solid stand against Obote. He says Obote had been provoking them for some time, and that the changing of the constitution was the climax. “There was a time he brought military jeeps around Kabaka Njagala Road and we ignored him.
Now with the constitution gone, the Lukiiko decided to remove his government from our land. And I guess that is the perfect chance Obote had been waiting for. Immediately, he went for a rebellion.” “It is good to have strength as a giant, but it is bad to use it as a giant. When Obote abrogated the constitution, we were all on our own. He had the power, he used it, but I do not support coups on principle. What if your husband gives you a divorce, and as you are walking out, he calls you to make a cup of tea, would you make it?”
Nkangi laughs hard at this question. “It would be an insult.”Fleeing into exile It was about 3:00pm when the Lubiri was attacked. Nkangi was standing in his office at Lubiri and a stray missile hit his window. He looked on and laughed. It was a sarcastic dry laugh. He did not know how he would be leaving his office. As luck would have it, a friend called him up and told him: “They are looking for you.”
Nkangi stayed put until about 7:30pm. With a big cap on and a long thick jacket, he used it to camouflage and moved out like an ordinary person. As he walked through the suburbs, he would hear people ask, “where is the Katikkiro”. But he knew better than to tell them. He walked on and went into hiding in Kawempe-Kagoma at his secret home. The next day, people already knew that he was around. Someone came and tipped him:
You have to leave immediately. Obote is looking for you.” Nkangi remembers there was a lorry belonging to the works ministry which was waiting for him. Initially, he hesitated, but it seemed like he had loyal supporters who had arranged for his escape.
“The lorry had some bags of cement, stones and sand. I got on it and covered my head and slept next to the cement,” Nkangi recalls. “When we reached Jinja, we found a roadblock. When the soldiers opened and saw bags of cement, they just waved us on.”
The lorry would stop in Busia, at the eastern border of Uganda and Kenya. “Here, another friend of mine picked me and we went to a farm in Kenya. The following day, the brother of this friend travelled from Kampala to alert me that soldiers were after me. I immediately left for a hotel in Nairobi,” Nkangi recollects“While checking in, one of the receptionists recognised me and was instantly of help.
I stayed in my room for three weeks without moving out. Meals would be brought to me.” In the meantime, one of his closest friends, Peter Mpagi, helped him to bring his passport and process a visa to flee the country.
Nkangi in London On arrival at Heathrow Airport in London, Nkangi was briefly intercepted by security officials. “My passport said I was a minister in the Buganda government. But my picture looked different because by this time, I had already grown my hair and my beard. Only my eyes were identical to those in the photograph,” Nkangi says.
It was later when officials called up Kabaka Muteesa, who was already in exile, that Nkangi was allowed to proceed. “The Kabaka told them that I was his minister. However, I did not go to live with him because in Buganda, the Kabaka and katikkiro are not allowed to stay together.”
“Life in London was tough,” is all Nkangi says. It is evident from his facial expression that he must have “grassed.” “For a whole year, I faced it rough. I had no job, no money and here I was in a foreign land. At one time, I had only one penny in my pocket, which was equal to only 50 cents.”
Nkangi was lost in thought one day when he met one of his tutors at Makerere University, who hosted him for two weeks. Another lecturer who taught him at Oxford University also helped him to pay rent after knowing about his predicament. With accommodation settled, he concentrated on looking for a job. And one day, he saw an advert in the newspapers by Lancaster University.
They wanted a research fellow. “I applied, went and did the interviews. Someone tipped me to ask for less money if they asked me how much salary I wanted. And I got the job,” Nkangi recalls. Coming back home In 1971, Nkangi was watching international news in his apartment when he saw images about the Katwe slums in Kampala, people chanting and troops moving about.
Obote had been overthrown and the new president was Idi Amin. A few weeks later, Nkangi decided it was best to return home since his ‘enemy’ was out of power. The day he resigned his Lancaster job, his colleagues called him all sorts of names. “The whites told me: ‘you are a fool. Why are you going back to such a country? You were going to be promoted!’.” But he returned to concentrate on his private career as a lawyer.
His chambers were then on Nkrumah Road. He says Amin took notice of him. “Amin had one time come to London. When I saw him, I went and greeted him. From then onwards, he told everyone that we were friends.
I never got to meet Obote because I was living a low profile. But I heard that he would tell people that I was a dangerous person,” he says. There was a woman, Nkangi remembers, called Nanyonjo who was then working as a spy.
She constantly went to Nkangi’s law chambers and casually chatted about the politics of the time. “I did not know she was a spy. She asked me about the Lubiri, and I told her it was my history, let it stay in the past.
Then she asked me if I was not interested in becoming minister, but I kept quiet. “Another time, she came back and told me, ‘Amin is killing people. What kind of president do we have?’ I told her: “Leading a country is not easy. Would you do better if you were president? And she laughed.”
A few days later, Nkangi learnt that Nanyonjo had only been spying on him to see if he was a threat to the president. leadership Even after Amin was ousted, Nkangi continued to practise law and concentrated on his private businesses, even through the Obote II regime.
The next president, Tito Okello Lutwa, seemed particularly interested in Nkangi’s leadership skills. (Nkangi had by this time founded the Conservative Party.) He appointed Nkangi minister of labour. “But I was not interested. After two weeks, they sent two soldiers to my house. They told me, ‘they are waiting for you to take oath’. That time, some people were still calling me katikkiro.
They said, this man is a Muganda and has influence in Buganda, why doesn’t he come and serve with us?” After a lot of pestering, Nkangi finally relented. He would be minister between August 1985 and January 1986, when President Yoweri Museveni’s liberation army overthrew Lutwa.
Under Museveni’s regime, Nkangi has had an eventful career and he could be one of the longest serving ministers. From 1986 to 2002, he served as education minister, planning and economic development minister, finance minister and justice and constitutional affairs minister.
He was later appointed the Uganda Land Commission chairman, until recently when he retired from public service to concentrate on his law chambers.
He retired at 83 years. What is it about this man that made him serve under different regimes and retire at an advanced age? “Katonda yekka (It is God),” he says. “You can see that from childhood, God just gives me a way when one is closed. Who am I?”
Joining Kings College Budo
One day in 1946, the Kako headmaster told little Nkangi to jump onto his bicycle and come along with him. “He did not tell me where we were going and I was too timid to ask. I did not want to appear disrespectful,” Nkangi says.
They rode on and on, until they reached Kings College Budo. That is when Nkangi knew what this was about. “He spoke to the white headmaster and told him to give me a place. He was worried for my education. I did not have school fees, yet I was very brilliant. School fees at Budo was sh300, so the headmaster said they would cater for sh200.
My father was a farmer, so he helped me get the rest of the money,” he narrates. He later joined Makerere College for his A’level and proceeded to Makerere College of East Africa, which was then affiliated to London University. Nkangi remembers that he was one of the five Ugandans admitted that year.
He would study maths and economics, and obtained a second class upper degree of the University of London. In 1954, a few months after graduation, Nkangi got a scholarship for a masters degree in economics and public finance at Oxford University, one of the first Ugandans to make it there.
The self-acclaimed born-again Christian, Nkangi said his faith was strengthened even more. In 1957, he finished his degree and decided to pursue law. “I went on a bus from Oxford to London and approached the student advisor for Ugandan students. I told him I needed more money to study law and they gave it to me because I was very hardworking and had excelled,” he says.
He would read law at Lincoln’s Inn of Courts in London. He returned to Uganda in 1960 to practise law. Joining Politics At the time, there was a movement against Indians and Nkangi started his own party with an aim of bringing everyone together. His party was called the United Party, which he later changed to United National Party.
In 1962, he abandoned it and joined the Kabaka Yekka (KY) party. Nkangi was elected KY MP for Masaka East in May 1962. Before the 1962 elections, the main political parties in pre-independence Uganda were the Democratic Party (DP) and the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC). UPC was born of a coalition of smaller parties that came together under the leadership of Milton Obote.
The KY party was hurriedly formed shortly before the elections, mainly to advance the interests of Buganda kingdom in the emerging new nation of Uganda.
A political alliance was formed between UPC and KY at the time of the 1962 elections to defeat DP. After the elections, UPC and KY formed a coalition government and Obote, head of UPC, became the prime minister. A year later, Obote nominated the Kabaka of Buganda to serve in the largely ceremonial position of president of Uganda and parliament concurred.
Meanwhile, Nkangi’s career also spurred to greater heights. He would later hold so many posts in the government, including parliamentary secretary and then minister without portfolio in the ministry of economic affairs. Then for the next two years, Nkangi was the commerce and industry minister.
Fallout with Obote In March 1964, the KY party held a rally in which speakers spoke against UPC. Obote was infuriated. “He said we had abused UPC. I remember it was about midday, and I had just returned from the East African Community meeting. He gave me a letter and said: ‘You are no longer my minister, you abuse us’,” recalls Nkangi, shaking his head. “I could not believe it, but I kept quiet and went to my law chambers to go on with business.”
In the meantime, tension between UPC and KY was worsening. Their political marriage of convenience quickly soured and in 1964, Obote championed a parliamentary bill providing for a referendum in the Buganda counties of Buyaga and Bugangaizi. The counties were split from Buganda and were reverted to Bunyoro.
Nkangi recalls that the relationship between UPC and KY was never smooth after that. Naturally, Obote feared that his support in the Buganda region was reducing. Nkangi becomes the Katikkiro One Sunday, Nkangi was going about his normal business when someone stopped him. “We want you to be a katikkiro,” the person told him. “The lukiiko (Buganda parliament) are annoyed with the previous Katikkiro for letting the counties go.”
He has served three governments as minister
Nkangi laughed at the suggestion. He was only 33 years old and unmarried. Above all, the closest he had been to the Kabaka was that time at Kako Junior, and much later at Oxford, when Kabaka Muteesa had come around the campus to visit one Ernest Sempebwa. “I knew this was impossible,” he tells of his feelings then. Even when people kept mentioning his name, Nkangi decided he would not waste time campaigning. “I did not see myself taking that office,” Nkangi says. He was wrong.
On August 17, 1964, Nkangi was overwhelmingly elected Buganda’s katikkiro by the Lukiiko. Looking back, Nkangi says his humble beginnings must have marketed him. “The Kabaka did not know me personally.
But I think he kept asking and doing research about me.”Changing the constitution On February 4, 1966, Daudi Ochieng, a KY member of parliament, approached Nkangi and told him: “Col Idi Amin and Obote are doing fishy things.” Nkangi asked him: “Do you have evidence?” Ochieng nodded.
“Yes, we know how much they are getting from smuggling of gold, ivory and coffee from Zaire.” Ochieng brought his piece of evidence and tabled it before parliament and called for a probe into the activities of Amin and Obote. As Nkangi recalls: “The next thing we heard was that Obote had fired some of his cabinet ministers, changed the constitution and assumed all executive powers.
Obote appointed Amin as his army commander. On March 3, Obote dismissed the president (Kabaka) and assumed the functions of the presidency.” On April 15, 1966, the constitution was abrogated during a parliamentary session in which Obote was surrounded by troops and a ‘revolutionary’ constitution was adopted by MPs who had not even seen it beforehand, let alone debated its contents.
This constitution later came to be known as the ‘pigeonhole’ constitution. The crisis Nkangi says the move annoyed the kingdom. “We stayed unhappy.
Before that, Obote had sent someone asking me to go and see him. I refused because I already knew what he was up to. It was clear that he was hungry for power,” Nkangi says.
You do not look 84, how do you do it?
(Laughs). My doctor told me to walk 2km every day. I have been a little lazy lately, but I am going to resume. When did you get married? My wife Ruth was doing secretarial studies when I met her in London while I was in exile. We have been married for 44 years now.
We were blessed with six children (among them musician Tshaka Mayanja and Josephine Mayanja, communications officer in the Prime Minister’s office). One of our children passed on.
There are reports that you and Obote fell out because you were both in love with Miria (Obote).
(Laughs so hard) That is not true. I do not think Obote hated me as a person. It was political reasons. What hurts me to date is that he betrayed us. Despite what Buganda did for the independence of this country, he was simply ambitious.
You headed the land commission at a time when everyone was scrambling for land. What do you think is the solution to this?
The population is growing, but the land is constant. So what we have to do now is use it for posterity.
We have to give land to those who are going to use it for development. The mailo land seems to create a lot of tension. But my view about bibanja owners is that if someone has paid rent (lease), then they own the land until that rent expires.
If say, one paid rent for only three years, then the bibanja owner should be free to take it. If they paid for life, then their children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy it.
What has been the most remarkable thing you are proud of?
Installing the Kabaka.
Around the time Kabaka Muteesa made his will, I was teaching at Lancaster. In the will, he said Ronald Mutebi would be the heir to the throne. Muteesa died in 1969. And he had requested that his boy is brought back because Obote was hostile. I remember we were about four Buganda loyalists who got together to announce that Mutebi was the next heir. Although we were in a foreign land, it was symbolic and people started talking.
To cut the story short, after several negotiations, President Museveni restored kingdoms in 1993. The day we installed the Kabaka, I was the one with the damula (royal sceptre). My greatest joy was holding Mutebi’s hand and telling the people, “This is the Kabaka.”
Attended Kako Primary School n Went to Kako Junior Secondary School for Junior One and Two.
Joined Kings College Budo in 1946. n Joined Makerere College for A’level n Went to Makerere University College of East Africa, which was then affiliated to London University.
Studied maths and economics at the University of London.
Got a masters degree in economics and public finance at Oxford University. n Did law at Lincoln’s Inn of Courts in London.
Appointed minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Affairs in 1963 under the Obote 1 government.
Then for the next two years, Nkangi was the commerce and industry minister.
Served as labour minister under the Okello Lutwa government between August 1985 and January 1986, when President Yoweri Museveni’s liberation army overthrew Lutwa. Under Museveni’s regime, Nkangi served as minister fom 1986 to 2002.
He served as education minister, planning and economic development minister, finance minister and justice and constitutional affairs minister.