Nagenda the Legend who cemented Kabaka – Museveni ties

By Our Senior Writer

Nagenda the legend has rested. He breathed his last in a Kampala hospital on Saturday afternoon, two months short of his 85th birthday.

Mostly known as Uganda’s wordsmith on account of his weekly column in the New Vision, John Nagenda was also many other things, including being a world class cricketer though he played during his many years of exile in the UK.

It was during the final years of his exile in the UK when he conceived the idea of formally uniting the then banned Buganda monarchy with the National Resistance Movement/Army that was waging war against the Kampala government of the day.

Nagenda contacted his friend Eriya Kategaya, who was for many years regarded as Yoweri Museveni’s de facto Number two, for clearance to and assistance to smuggle Buganda’s exiled Ronald Mutebi, into the war zone. Kategaya contacted the chairman of the NRA high command, and secured the clearance. After Nagenda received the news, he put the matter to Prince Mutebi who immediately accepted.

This was possibly Nagenda’s earliest major success he scored for the NRM for the move had been a dicey one. Suppose he Prince Mutebi had not accepted to take the major risk of psychically joining the rebels? Suppose he had started with the prince and then Museveni had said he could not guarantee Mutebi’s safety in the bush? Whatever the case, Nagenda’s wild suggestion was bought by both parties and Kategaya went ahead to arrange the mission.

Nagenda and Prince Mutebi flew from London to Kigali via Nairobi, drove to Rwanda’s border and sneaked into ther country. It is reported that Museveni personally received them in Kabale and the journey into the Luwero battle fields started. Prince Mutebi spent two weeks in the bush, meeting Museveni’s troops, local leaders and the ordinary people in the war zone, encouraging them to support the NRA in its prosecution of the war to remove the UPC government. Together with Nagenda, they returned to the UK in ‘reverse order’ – Kigali – Nairobi – London, and got ready to return to their country for good, as the NRA was growing from strength to strength.

Nagenda’s friend, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, was crowned King of Buganda on July 31st, 1993.

The Ugandan public first took note of Nagenda as a tough interrogator during sessions of the Human Rights commission enquiry on which he sat. The commission was instituted soon after the NRA captured power in 1986. UPC and Uganda’s former Vice President Paulo Muwanga was so bitter with Nagenda who was grilling him that he called him a munyarwanda – alluding to his having been born in Rwanda though of Ugandan parents who were working there as missionaries. 

After the commission of enquiry for nearly a decade, Nagenda remained a backroom operator in the Museveni team, until the president faced the first direct presidential election of 1996. Museveni cut Nagenda loose and unleashed him on the Paulo Ssemogerere campaign effort.

Taking no prisoners, Nagenda’s genius exploded with a campaign designed to portray Ssemogerere as a front for Milton Obote, the twice deposed ex-president who was in exile in Zambia. Ssemogerere did not help his own case when he allied with UPC players who knew that they were still unsellable so soon after being overthrown. In the end, Nagenda scared Buganda region voters away from Ssemogerere and kept them securely in Museveni’s camp.    

After the election of 1996, Museveni’s formalized Nagenda’s role as Presidential Adviser on Media and Public relations. There were hardly any presidential advisers then and the few were really working fulltime. A parliamentary committee that was baffled at Nagenda’s power asked him exactly what his role was. He responded that he was in daily touch with the president and whatever he said about him, they better know it was exactly what the president felt. He however put a disclaimer – that matters of the army and of Museveni’s family were not under his docket, but on anything else, he was speaking for the president.

Indeed, another role Nagenda played for years but ordinary Ugandans were not aware of was fixing the government’s image abroad. For all the years Nagenda lived in London, he did not live like ordinary exiles. He was well connected with the higher circles, partly from his cricket and publishing days. He was thus an unofficial envoy of the government in the London and other European cities. 

John Nagenda’s health has been ailing for over two decades but he never had time to lament and just kept working, and living his life, unapologetically enjoying his drink whenever he wanted, even after undergoing major coronary bypass surgery.

His longtime close personal friends that he has seen off in the past decade included Eriya Kategaya and former Tanzanian president, Benjamin William Mkapa. Nagenda certainly has no regrets, having lived his life as he wanted, until his pen dried on the afternoon of Saturday 4th March, 2023.


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