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Ernest Kakwano: The Passing of an Icon

posted onApril 3, 2024

By Dennis Katungi

I first met Mr Ernest Kakwano when I was a Primary School pupil in Kazo. He used to visit his cousin, [Mr Amos Kyangungu] a Veterinary Husbandry Officer in Kazo. We were neighbours and family friends with Amos and as such, Mr Kakwano got well known to my parents. In those days he was already a highflyer. He was General Manager, Uganda Motors Corporation.

I was to meet him again in 1987. He was the General Manager of Coffee Marketing Board, and I was a recent School leaver, having just completed Senior 6.  Mr. Ernest Kakwano, Mr Elly Rwakakooko and Dr James Makumbi were the three top Executives running the huge State Corporation that handled Uganda’s prime foreign exchange earner.

As a school leaver, I did not want to head to the village for the long vacation. I chose to seek vacational employment. I was lucky to get clerical work at the famous Coffee Marketing Board (CMB) Bugolobi processing plant. It was Mr Kakwano who spotted me and moved me from the Plant to CMB headquarters at Amber House. He recognised me from those long-gone visits to Kazo, because, as he put it, ‘I looked like my father’. I can never forget him for the opportunity he availed me. My future career came to hinge on the time I spent at CMB.

The stint changed my world outlook and exposed me to national and international dynamics. CMB had branches all over the place —London, New York, Mombasa, Dar-es-Salam, Mwanza etc. He put me on a very busy Desk, handling staff travelling abroad —- process passports, per-diem, airport fees, movement of cargo and personnel from station to another and a lot more. It was a rewarding experience that I gained at CMB.

Ernest Kakwano was among the returned top-level exiles who came back to Uganda post 1986. He had had an illustrious career as a top Management Executive both in Uganda and Kenya. He survived Amin but did not hang around when Obote II came back to power. He was closely associated with UPM and Yoweri Museveni in the early 1980’s and could not have survived Rwakasisi’s NASA boys hell-bent on uprooting Museveni’s internal support system.  

A story is told in President Museveni’s Sowing the Mustard Seed - how Mrs Alice Kakwano spirited away the young Museveni children to exile as the rebel leader prepared to attack Kabamba in February 1981. Mr Kakwano was later to become an NRA/M lynchpin in Nairobi. Together with Mr Mathew Rukikaire, Dr Samson Kisekka, Amama Mbabazi, Jack Luyomba and others, they formed the NRM External Committee that performed the Diplomatic as well as fundraising function for the fighting force, the [NRA]. 

In Nairobi, Mr Kakwano supported the NRA fighters in various ways. He provided space and medical treatment for those who were injured and evacuated from the frontline. Lt. Gen. Henry Tumukunde was one of them.

He also raised funds to support the war effort. Mr Kakwano was so highly regarded in the NRM Diplomatic circles that he was the first-person President Arap Moi called as soon as the Okellos overthrew Obote in July 1985.  

Moi, hitherto aloof to Museveni and his guerrilla activities in Luwero could now see that NRA was going to be a prime actor in Uganda’s situation. Kenya’s National Security apparatus quickly zeroed on Ernest Kakwano to link Moi to Museveni for a conversation. Mr Kakwano was already in touch with Yoweri Museveni who was at that time visiting Sweden to check on his family and do a whistle stop tour of European capitals popularising NRA/M as a credible force poised to assume power in Uganda.

Ernest Kakwano rang Janet Museveni in Sweden and Yoweri Museveni was indeed with her. He briefed him about President Arap Moi’s urgent request to meet with him.  This resulted in the Moi/Museveni Nakuru Farm meeting which was a precursor to the Nairobi peace process.

Kakwano was a key actor in Coffee Marketing Board, Uganda Coffee Development Authority and later in retirement was retained by the World Food Bank as a Consultant. 

Ernest Kakwano studied Economics at the University of Nairobi and worked in the Finance sector in the mining and car export industries in the 1970s. He survived Amin’s murderous regime by keeping his head under the radar by appearing apolitical.

Indeed, Amin’s government, observing his growing success as Manager of Mercedes & Nissan Dealership, hired him to run Uganda Motors Corporation. He took his business acumen with him to exile in Kenya in 1980 where he remained successful till he returned to Uganda in 1986.  

He is survived by his wife Alice and children.

You served your country well, you were rewarded with the appropriate heroes medal by NRM, fare thee well resourceful elder. 

The writer is a family friend to the Kakwanos

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