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Dennis Katungi

Gen Elly Tumwine: Spared by a Bullet for a Purpose

posted onAugust 27, 2022

By Dennis Katungi

General David Sejusa paid a terse apt tribute in a tweet, on learning that his colleague General Elly had died. It read: ‘General Elly is gone home! You danced with death all your adult life. Because it’s the way of the Soldier  You acted the way you did  because when one knows Death so well, one has responsibility for Life.”

Herdsman, Teacher, Soldier, photographer, pan-Africanist, Artist, Singer-Songwriter, fashion maestro and lover of people, cows, culture and nature. Gen Elly Tuhirirwe Tumwine was all of this and more.

 The erstwhile first Army Commander of the vanquishing National Resistance Army (NRA) as it captured State power, Gen Tumwine was a dashing handsome young man then. He had fired the first bullet that sparked the embers of the bush-war at Kabamba and returned as a one eyed war hero in 1986. He went, he saw, he fought, he stooped, commanded and conquered. In fact, as NRA advanced on Kampala, he was recuperating from an operation to his bullet-gorged eye in Nairobi.

I knew General Elly Tumwine as a student at Makerere. I was a kid in Kazo Primary School. Those days in the mid-1970s, our Kazo Trading Centre had a few decent places a traveller could Lodge at.  General Tumwine’s parents being barokore [born again] family friends of my parents, he chose to stay with us on his way to and from Kampala where he was studying at Makerere University. My father, who run the only tailoring business in Kazo then - used to out-fit him and make his garments. My family had a guest wing at our business premises in Kazo which they offered free to families they knew.  The only bus - plying the route – Mbarara to Kabogore was supervised by my grandfather, a prominent former Gomborora chief – the late Nekemia Katarushwerwa. That Bus was owned by Mr Z. Mungonya, the former Katikiro of Ankore Kingdom. It was the bus the Tumwines hiked routinely as they returned to University.

The young people that I first admired in stature and dress-code were his cohort of Makerere University students – including his late cousin Dr Kituuma and my relative Dr Benon Kamu both studying Veterinary medicine then. In characteristic style, Elly Tumwine as he was then, never ignored us as youngsters. He engaged us in conversations and took interest in our studies, inquiring this and that of me and my siblings.  What are your favourite subjects? What do you want to be when you grow up?  Can I see your last school report. We found this inquisitiveness alluring and made-out to impress him. I remember telling him that I wanted to be a DC [District Commissioner] because they were the high profile people then.

Even when he completed University and started Teaching, he remained a regular guest at our home in Kazo as he commuted to and from his Teaching posts. I was therefore shocked when all of a sudden; I saw him in Uniform, in a pick-up full of soldiers. This was in 1979 after the fall of Amin. He arrived in Kazo enroute to his home in Burunga with the late Sam Magara. They appeared to be the bosses of these many soldiers on the pick-up. My parents offered Tea and engaged them for a while in a conversation about their new career with the ‘Wakombozi’. 

They appeared to satisfy my parents curiosity and this was the start of his long trek to liberate Uganda.The next time I saw him, he was  the Army Commander of NRA.  A few weeks NRA stormed and captured Kampala, he returned from Nairobi where he had undergone surgery on the injured eye. This was early 1986. He accompanied President Museveni to Jinja, to address a public rally.  I was then in High School in Jinja and attended the rally at the Town Hall grounds. After the rally, I run to him. I was pleasantly surprised that he called me by my father’s name. We greeted like long lost relatives. He asked me to come with him to Crested Crane, a nice hotel in Jinja where they had an evening meeting with local leaders. My fellow students looked at me in awe!

Driving off with the Army Commander of NRA in a heavily guarded  Presidential convoy? I was the talk of School for a while. He gave us some good time at the hotel. Before he left for Kampala he gave me pocket money. I had not done that type of shopping in a long period. The currency notes were crisp fresh mint, I can still smell them! He still behaved like the Elly Tumwine I knew as a kid in Kazo. He was vividly pleased to find me and inquisitive to know I was doing well at School.  He asked one of his ADCs to give me his office telephone number and pronto - we were linked again.When I completed A-levels, I went to see him at Republic House. I told him I wanted to join the Army.  He dissuaded me. He reasoned that I was a bright chap who should go to University and then, join the Army when I was a graduate. I remember him telling me; ‘we have a group of students who left University and joined the struggle. Our plan is to return them to University so they can complete their studies. This was the cohort of the late Brig. Noble Mayombo and Gen James Mugira. 

 “Now for you, aim to finish studies and then come to me. You will go for officer cadet training straight away”. He asserted. He inquired what plans I had for the long vacation. I said I was heading home to Kazo.  He rejected that. He said, stay with me, you can find a small job to do till your results come. That’s how I came to stay with him at Acacia Avenue, Kololo, the most guarded address in Kampala then.

I was at the Lubiri barracks function when he got decorated Major General. He asked his ADC, Sergent Amwine Rutashoberwa to share accommodation with me. It was through his many quality contacts that I found vaccational employment at Coffee Marketing Board – my spring board to go to University in England.  My army ambition evaporated while doing internship at the famous BBC Headquarters in Portland Place, Central London. I had turned to Journalism by the time I completed University. In UK, we kept in touch. Every time he travelled to London, he checked on me.  Even when he stayed in 5 Star hotels, he checked out a day before returning to Uganda and came to my House in Beckon and spent a night with my family. I was the regular driver that dropped him off at Heathrow airport.

Elly Tumwine
The author with Gen Tumwine and others

Together with his friend, Elizabeth Kanyogonya – then Minister Counsellor at Uganda High Commission, we took him places.  He enjoyed interacting with Ugandans in the Diaspora.  He was happy that he had me and Elizabeth to run his errands and take him shopping. He loved my daughter Gillian; who modelled for his Creations Designs. She called me from Scotland  this week, despondent that Uncle Elly had departed! We have a full album of pictures with the amiable General. It was great times we had with him those days, thank God.

Around 2004, I told him that we had this idea of starting NRM UK Chapter. I informed him that opposition were more organised in Diaspora than NRM. He encouraged us. He asked to see my team and I invited 20 Ugandans whom he addressed with revolutionary fervour. He gave us the impetus to launch the NRM UK & Ireland Chapter. From these humble beginnings, we  teamed up with the group of Patrick Asiimwe and Hon Fred Opolot (current MP, Tingire County in Serere) who had an NRM cell in West London. After a few meetings, we invited Professor Kabwegyere, then Director, Diaspora Affairs at NRM Secretariat who officially launched the NRM UK & Ireland Chapter in May 2005. I became Publicity Secretary/Spokesperson for the Chapter till I returned home.

As Security Minister, we worked closely with the General, he asked my team at Uganda Media Centre to be his ear on the ground as far as the Media terrain was concerned.  We did our bit, at times in tricky circumstances like the riots in Kampala in the build up to the 2021 elections. Gen Tumwine was a man of all seasons. Never afraid to call a spade a spade, never shied away from patriotic duty – even when that duty entailed deadly confrontation with the enemy, armed or otherwise. He led from the front. 

Fare thee well cultured patriotic soldier. Uganda is poorer for losing you - but the mustard seed will germinate and take root.  ADUI AKIJA, SISI TUKO TAYALI. Aluta Continua.

The Writer is Head of Communications & Media Relations – Uganda Media Centre@Dennis_Katungi

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