East Africans

Extract taken from Dukawalla and other stories

Published by Manqa Books in 2017

IT WAS past midnight, the talk carrying on unabated. It was the middle of what they called Spring Semester, but what we knew was really the middle of winter. We were East Africans abroad, all on scholarships at different law schools, coming together at Harvard Law in early 1975 for a seminar on law and development in Africa.

    The outside was a distasteful cold. The Yard was heavily embroidered at its edges with trampled snow. Those emptying on the late hour from booked periods on the old computer frames of those days, and from the several libraries around, did not stop to converse in the freezing air. It was the end of the meeting’s first day. The sessions had lingered on more than we thought seemly, for we were of the unspoken but unanimous opinion that such events were only to be pleasant reunions, a break from the heavy work at the schools, not an extension of it.

   We had finished dinner and had retired to the Common Room put at our disposal. A warm camaraderie sheltered us from the weather. A generous availability of beer and distance from home united us. The last session had generated some debates, and the arguments were now spilling over.

  ‘The book is good, no matter what you fellows said in the afternoon.’

  ‘No, a look on law and constitution in Uganda cannot be published at this time. There is no law and no working constitution in Uganda now,’ Mahesh Patel replied.

    Otieno Okoyo’s deep voice intervened. ‘There is no time when a book on law and constitution is not of value and ergo, no time when it cannot be published.’

  ‘But what purpose would it serve beyond recording the author’s efforts? Very commendable, no doubt.’

   ‘There will come a time when we will have ended this infamous episode in our history, and then more than ever will we be in need of a book like this,’ said Bii.

   ‘I think to publish it now is to validate Idi Amin as representing Ugandan law and constitutionalism. This is not the time for books for the future. This is time for steps to ensure that Amin goes. Amin should go,’ cried Mahesh.

  ‘I don’t think it is Idi Amin who is bad. It is the people around him,’ responded Bii.

  ‘No, no, no.’ Sserumaga intervened emphatically, banging down his glass.  ‘Let me tell you. There should be no mistake. The problem is not around him. The problem is him.’

  ‘No state is one man,’ the deep voice returned from the armchair. ‘Least of all, Idi Amin.’ A pause. ‘Or Louis XIV. Clarify your thinking. Go through Engels’ correspondence on this. You should read my book The Nature of the state in Uganda. It is forthcoming.’

   ‘We should have read the signs when that Commission on the gold from the Congo was on.’

   ‘Well, Obote too was involved in that business. We should not think that Obote was any better. That was good riddance I’d say.’

    ‘Well, it may not be a popular view now,’ said Bii ‘but if I had to choose, I should prefer him over the lawless individuals we have now.’

    Kwame, present by reason of his ongoing research on beer rather than any special interest in East African law or development, interrupted his drink enough to say, ‘You lot have paid no attention to the damage we have done ourselves in West Africa, and have learnt nothing from us. You’d better take a closer look before you go our serial way from election to coup and back. And forth!’

   ‘True,’ Otieno Okonyo grunted, ‘the Continent has seen struggles. But not always to freedom. In some places, we have moved only to tyranny.’

    ‘This is not what the struggle for uhuru was about. What you do not understand,’ said Mahesh, answering Bii, ‘is that the dominant forces here are not Idi Amin. Amin is not an aberration. He is the result of structures that were put in place by neo-colonial forces. Idi Amin is a disaster for Uganda, the region and the continent. He must be removed.’

  ‘Exactly. He must go,’ said Sserumaga. ‘I agree with Mahesh.’

  In the lull, Okonyo said dreamily, ‘The good thing about tyranny is  that it is transient.’

   Sserumaga ignored him. ‘Amin has betrayed Uganda. He has betrayed the people of Uganda. He betrayed me.’

    We all knew that last year Idi Amin had dismissed Sserumaga from his high office of Deputy Attorney – General (Parliamentary) and had thrown him out of Uganda. Sserumaga had reached Nairobi with nothing to his name and even less in prospects. He had wandered around looking for work. He could not appear in court. He could not get other jobs. His income became anti-Amin seminars. He went, on handouts, to Dar es Salaam to find some unofficial form of asylum there. He spoke when he could on the oppression and criminality of the Amin regime at university gatherings and to the diplomatic corps. He appeared in the newspapers. He became well known as an exile opposing Amin, and as one standing up for human rights and freedoms in Uganda. Eventually, supportive people in East Africa and New York, seeking ways to assist anti-Amin forces, offered him a scholarship to do his master’s in the US, on the oppression and criminal nature of the Amin regime. His maintenance and transport would also be paid.

      ‘We know that, old chap,’ said Bii sympathetically. ‘This is a bad time for Ugand.’

‘See what he has done to me after all that I did for him. After all, I was the one who drafted the Asian expulsion laws he wanted when no one else would. He must go. I agree with Mahesh.’ Sserumaga repeated, putting an arm around Mahesh Patel’s shoulder in anti – Idi Amin solidarity.


  • A Senior Counsel, is a human rights lawyer and author of Pio Gama Pinto: Patriot for Social Justice (Nairobi, Longhorn/Sasa Sema Books, 2007).

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