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Lumu headed the best ever health system in Uganda

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Added 11th December 2019 09:20 AM

It was his prayer that the government builds more hospitals in different parts of the country

Lumu headed the best ever health system in Uganda

It was his prayer that the government builds more hospitals in different parts of the country

To mark 50 years of Uganda's independence, New Vision in 2012, published highlights of events and profiled personalities who shaped the history of this country. Kizito Musoke looked at the life of Dr Emmanuel Lumu, Uganda's first post-independence medical doctor. 

In 1966 a group of brave men planned to oust Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote. One of them was the Minister of Health in the newly created post-independence government. The coup did not work. Instead, Dr Emmanuel Lumu and colleagues were arrested.

Forty-six years down the road, the ageing medic looks back at the turbulent days with bittersweet reminiscence rather than wallow in self-pity and regret about the failed coup, the 96-year-old reflects on his career as Uganda's first health minister.

How it all began

"I was appointed to head the health ministry prior to independence," Lumu recounts. We were selected by the National Assembly. It is from them that I learnt about my appointment." Lumu does not clearly state the reason for his appointment, but he suspects he may have been seconded by his friend Kabaka Edward Mutesa — Uganda's first President, on account of his good record as a medical practitioner at Mulago Hospital.

Lumu recalls the days that preceded his appointment and the eve of Uganda's independence as if it all happened yesterday.

"Many people came from all corners of the world to witness the birth of the new nation," he says. He and his fellow newly appointed ministers watched the ceremonies from the front seats.

"By the time the Duke of Kent arrived at Kololo Airstrip, the Union Jack was still flying. The Uganda flag was raised at 12:00 am to thunderous applause from thousands of Ugandans."

Lumu recounts that when the Uganda National Anthem was played for the very first time, many people could not sing along; "They had not learnt it." Uganda officially became independent; he says when the Duke of Kent finally handed over the instruments of power to Prime Minister Milton Obote.

"We all cheered and different dances were performed. People remained at Kololo until wee hours of the morning."

Life in Cabinet

The end of celebrations marked the beginning of hard work for the new cabinet. "The following day, Obote invited us to a cabinet meeting at State House Entebbe. We were called to discuss a new development strategy for the country." Cabinet meetings became a common practice.

"We used to travel to Entebbe daily. Each minister was required to make a presentation. Since ministerial appointments were regional, all the regions were well represented."

Being administrative novices, most cabinet ministers had a lot to learn. "We had no predecessors to consult, and really we were just gambling."

As minister of health, Lumu's biggest concern was designing a national health strategy that could suit all Ugandans. We heavily relied on technical staff who helped us to sort things out. Our short-term objective was to set up hospitals in different parts of the country so that people could easily access health services without travelling to Mulago.

"We had a 10-year plan to establish regional referral hospitals. This plan was, however, frustrated by Obote."

The big fallout

After only a few years as a minister, Lumu and some of his colleagues became disgruntled with Obote's policies.

"He believed that Uganda was better off without the Kabaka. He, therefore, sought all ways to frustrate Mutesa and sideline all issues concerning Buganda."

After three years in government, Lumu and some of his colleagues felt the prime minister was misleading them.

"Together with Mathias Ngobi, G.B.K and some other few individuals, we started planning the way forward." But unknown to the coup plotters, there was a mole within them, listening to all their plans.

"He tape-corded all our conversations and handed them over to Obote," said the frail-looking Lumu, but refused to disclose the mole.

Arrest and detention

The plot created a rift between Obote and several of his ministers. So when Obote called an impromptu cabinet meeting at State House, Lumu knew his days were numbered. Driving through tight security all over Entebbe Road, he made for the presidential residence to meet a charged premier.

"I found Obote seated next to his right-hand man Sam Odaka, awaiting the arrival of other ministers. After a brief exchange between Odaka and Obote, soldiers entered and ordered me and four of my colleagues —Mathias Ngobi, G.B.K Magezi, Grace Ibingira and Balaki Kirya to move out and into a parked car outside."

From Entebbe Lumu and his colleagues were driven to Patiko Prison in Gulu and later transferred to Kotido where they were imprisoned without trial.

"Soldiers only told us that we had committed treason after trying to organise a coup." They were released in 1971 after Amin overthrew Obote.

Life after

After prison, Lumu quit politics. "I started my private clinic in Kisenyi Kampala, on a piece of land given to me by Nalinya Namikka Beatrice Victoria Mpologoma — Mutesa's sister." He later sold this land.

Dr Lumu has since lived low key, partly he says, due to sickness. It is his prayer that the government builds more hospitals in different parts of the country. He also calls for better health care for the elderly.

This article was first published on April 16, 2012.

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