Andrew Mujuni Mwenda is a polarising figure with perhaps as many admirers as critics.
A critical media personality who takes no prisoners, he is also a budding entrepreneur whose opinion of President Museveni has evolved from unreservedly critical to appreciative.
Mwenda told Simon Kasyate on Capital radio’s Desert Island Discs programme, that people should attack his views not him.
You are called Old Man of the Clan; exactly what does this mean?
When Bob Kasango, my best friend, was getting married, they asked for my birth certificate; I was his best man.
So my mum sent me the birth certificate. And the birth certificate read, ‘Born on 3rd October 1912’. In 2000, I was 88 years and from that time I declared myself an old man.
And the parents of this old man?
I was born to a great couple, an old man called Phillip Muhanganzima and his wife Constance Muhanganzima. My dad, unfortunately died, almost six years ago, died at the age of 80.
They were married for 55 years. I was born and raised in a town called Fort Portal.
You may wish to share with us your childhood.
[Perhaps] I should tell you the things I used to do when I was young. Our family had a huge dairy farm and this farm was neighbouring a bush and this bush was full of Jackals or what you would call foxes, which used to come from that bush on to our farm laden with ticks.
And you know if you have exotic animals like Friesians or jerseys, if the tick bites them, they die. So my job as a young person was to go with my dogs; I had three dogs which I had myself bred and trained, Police, JackLondon and Moi. I would go with them in the field to chase these jackals.
Then my other hobby was deep water fishing...
And the family you were brought up in.
I was born in an extremely intellectually-curious family of 13 children from the same father and mother. I was among the last kids and when I grew up many of my brothers and sisters were married and had children and others had finished university.
And then we had friends and relatives who used to stay there over holidays; people like Noble Mayombo, his brother Phillip Winyi, Okwiri Rabwoni. Because my father was an intellectually-curious person, he had a huge library. Most of our lunches and dinners were spiced with discussions of Plato...
I was limited in my knowledge; so, the only way I could improve my ability to participate in these discussions was that each time the discussions ended and they had been talking about Mahmood Mamdani, Prof Kabwegyere, Prof Nabudere, I would go to our library and read every book they have written and try to catch up. Some of these things were difficult for me to capture. You cannot believe I started reading historical materialism by P.7.
But what was your father, a professor...?
My father had studied medicine, then not practised and went back to Makerere to study literature, political science and economics –he was an all-rounder... But he was working as the treasurer of the department of Public Works at the ministry of Local Government, then he retired [to his] large farm.
We could produce possibly about 500 to 600 litres of milk. I don’t think a civil servant who is honest can earn that money from their salary. So, my father retired before his retirement age because he felt [better] going into his private business, it was much more rewarding.
My mother was a businesswoman, an extremely successful one at that. One who could afford sufficient money to say buy a new car. I remember in 1979, my mother wanted to buy a Peugeot 404 pickup. But for one to buy it brand new, you needed to get it as an allocation from the government.
So, she came to Kampala to meet our uncle Prof Edward Rugumayo who was Speaker of Parliament, but something happened she couldn’t get the allocation and then she had to go back to Kampala to see President Binaisa, who was married to a cousin of my father, to give her a letter to the minister of supplies Moses Apiliga who then would give her the car.
Can you imagine that situation in Uganda?
[That’s] why I am much more reflective as I grow older that really Museveni has had a powerful change on Uganda.
[Let’s talk about school] or were you home schooled?
I should tell you, I went to the village school called Rutoma primary school. Now I was the only person and the headmaster who were speaking English.... but I was the only one who passed in division one to go to Nyakasura School in 1985.
What was your impression of secondary school life?
First of all we were bullied heavily and it taught me NEVER to bully anyone while others learnt that when you get to S.2, you should also revenge on younger ones coming. Nyakasura was interesting because we had a swimming pool there, had great fiends like Denis Mugarura, Emmanuel Mugenyi, Rogers Irumba, Adolf Mwesige...
At this point, did you have an idea of what you wanted to be in life?
I had many ideas of things I wanted to be, one I wanted to be king, wanted to be president, I wanted to be an engineer, then I wanted to be a doctor , I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted to be many big things.
When I look at my primary school exercise books I realise I used to put ‘Andrew Mwenda; President of the Republic of Uganda 2016-2046’; which means I was projecting to rule for 30 years! I no longer have any interest in joining mainstream politics except as an analyst.
Back to Nyakasura; how long were you there?
Four years, then I led a revolution. But first of all, we started a newspaper; the most powerful newspaper you could ever read that we started with my friend John Okello called the City Press. Then when I was 15, I led a revolution. But let me also say, that in 1988, while still at Nyakasura School, I made my first appearance on the national scene. President Museveni came to visit Fort Portal with Julius Nyerere, then president of Tanzania.
So, I appointed myself the leader of the youth of Fort Portal to give a speech on behalf of the youth before Julius Nyerere. And I gave a resounding speech saying, “We shall fight hook and crook to defend the NRM revolution,” now you can imagine in my old age I am now fighting to bring down the NRM revolution.
So, I give this speech and Nyerere is impressed and when I am walking off the whole crowd was shouting and cheering; although I was 15, I was a lot smaller than my age. So, Nyerere stands up and gives a very big hug and President Yoweri Museveni shakes my hand and I sit with them in front.
I should tell you that in 1996, I went to Tanzania and visited Nyerere, he took me to his home, I stayed at his home, and I reminded him of the incident...
[Back to Nyakasura...]
Finally, I led a revolution which was ‘mis-called’ a strike and we dismissed the deputy headmaster from Nyakasura [accused of dictatorial tendencies]. So, I am dismissed.
I end up being thrown in jail when I was merely 16 and I sat my final exams under heavy police guard. I passed very well and ended up going to Mbarara High School.
Did your parents ever spank you?
Yes, my mother especially would punish me. My mum was a very deliberate person, if she wanted to punish you she would say come and I beat you. So if you wanted her not to beat you, you would go and get a very big stick then she would say now I have forgiven you but if you, brought a small one she would beat you.
My dad would probably spank you in the spur of the moment when he was angry and so if you dodged anything that he was throwing at you, that is it, he would forget immediately. He was very short-tempered. I and he used to have a lot of arguments. I used to argue with my dad and challenge every single rule he wanted to impose.
My father was a typical African father with an authoritarian steak. So if he accused you of anything, you should not answer. I would say ‘no. no. no, I have to defend myself’. And then we would argue and argue and argue till the cows come home.
[Selects ‘Even if my heart would break’ by Aaron Neville and Kenny G.] It’s a song I sang for Fifi from the time we started dating. Fifi is my wife.]
So you will later be telling us about this Fifi, and your eventual marriage at a ceremony no Ugandan is aware of.
Because you think marriage is a ceremony, I pity you Simon!
So you join Mbarara High School, exporting your revolutionary traits or now cowed?
In Mbarara High, I tried to start a newspaper there, but the headmaster blocked it, but finally I led another revolution there [He ended up in Busoga College Mwiri, where the headmaster, Walugembe Kayondo, read for him the past ‘crimes’. Mwenda explained why he had led those ‘revolutions’. Kayondo was impressed.]
[After Mwiri, Mwenda went to Makerere University, where he studied Mass Communication. He later joined The Monitor, where he made his name]
Selects The Dance by Bebe Winans and Dave Koz.
... And I can say without the fear of contradiction that I broke the biggest stories at The Monitor.
We did a story on the disappearance of a plane on which Col Jet Mwebaze was. And the government said that was not true. And we turned out to be right. The then minister of [state] for Defence, Steven Kavuma, [now acting chief justice] was wrong.
I can as well say that I used to put Brig Noble Mayombo in my car and drive him to Charles Onyango Obbo’s office whenever there was a major story and government had an interest. Remember you have to call people in government and tell them there is this story and we need your comment; so people like Noble Mayombo would say, let me go and talk to Charles [COO was editor] and I would say come let’s go.
I did on many occasions drive Mayombo, not in a government car but in mine to The Monitor and he would present his case. I do not remember any time when government made a request to say this story is sensitive because of the following considerations and we would request you not to run it and Charles run it.
That is why Monitor broke all the major stories like the junk helicopters and remained in business, why? Because there were both formal and informal relationships between us and the people within the state. But they knew we were well-intentioned.
But sometimes you were in and out of jail and in courts against the state over your work; what kind of relationship was this?
Well, sometimes our interests would conflict. Because don’t forget that we did not all the time agree with government and sometimes our disagreements led to court cases.
But throughout my stay at The Monitor, I have always had a constant direct relationship with President Yoweri Museveni.
How did this come about?
When you are a serious journalist, he will pick interest in you. One time when I knew that he had interest in me, ISO was almost about to arrest me because I was having a meeting with the ADF commander in this city, Kampala. But somebody tipped me off because I had a meeting with the commander and they had surrounded the place of the meeting and the guy outwitted them.
As they were chasing me in a car to arrest me, I called the switchboard at State House and the president came on line and I told him I was going to be arrested. He told me to turn the car and drive directly to State House and that I would find Gen Kale Kayihura there.
So I drove to State House, right into the arms of Kale Kayihura and I went to see the president who I told that “look I met this man purely for journalistic and not treason reasons” and I explained to him further why I was meeting him, my desire to write a book about rebellion in Uganda and the history of how ADF was formed as this man had told me.
And the president was surprised that I had all this information and he said, “no no no, don’t disturb him let him do his work.” So from that time he developed an even stronger interest in me.
So I can now pick up my phone, call the State House switch board and bingo, President Museveni would be on line?
If you are not a serious journalist like me, it won’t happen.
Ah, so serious journalist only describes you? Would Charles Onyango Obbo pull this off?
I would imagine so, yes. You remember that Charles and Wafula had a relationship with President Museveni from their UPM days. Remember that Monitor was not started by UPC people. Charles and Wafula had been in UPM and had been editing a UPM paper called Weekly Topic .
So even today, the crisis of journalism in Uganda is that journalism is disarticulated from key decision makers. How can you be a senior editor of a major newspaper and you cannot call and the president does not take your call?
If you say that your journalism is totally detached from the political powers that be and that between journalism and politics there is a Chinese wall, that is the first day you are beginning to dig the grave for journalism.
Are there moments when you cry?
Yeah, very many times. You should ask my wife. I am brought to tears by very many small things like I can watch a romantic movie and there is a heartbreak and I cry or even I remember when I was young reading The Concubine [ a novel] and it ends when Ekwueme is dying, and I started crying. When my sister Florence died, I cried a lot.
He selects Billy Oceans When The Going Gets Tough.
So, Mwenda today; stirring a storm and stalking controversy in your wake; now there is all this noise cry and hue of how you have changed, been compromised, etc...
I should tell you, Simon, that I am a keen follower of many of my critics. I find them shallow and stupid; so, I forgive them for it. Because if I made an argument and you replied by attacking me personally that I have been bribed, I immediately write you off. It means you do not have a point to make.
It is something I learnt from Bertrand Russel when I was a young boy of 12 years in his unpopular essay where he says, “If a man makes an argument and you reply by attacking their personality, it means you do not have a point to make.”
Because if I say this, you must respond to my argument and show why it’s either right or wrong and where I am defective. I should tell you, I went on NTV and made an argument that Museveni and Kagame have made the same reconciliatory gestures as Nelson Mandela did and a guy called Albert Omara or something like that, made an argument and changed my mind on the view I held. The guy criticized me and I agreed with his criticism of me.
There is a guy called Omoros, when he is not angry, he always goes on The Independent website below my column and makes comments. I go there and only reply to him and a few others because he disagrees with me, but out of principle.
But most of these who make these attacks... they are just demonstrating to me that they are stupid and therefore don’t deserve any respect from me. And I realized that they did not study well, perhaps they have very low levels of IQ, or they are not properly bred; because I should tell you that within the intellectual community within which I live, if a person makes an argument, whatever personal feelings that you may have, if you go personal, it’s considered beneath contempt.
Do you have any culinary preferences?
I eat anything, seafood, birds except the other day when I was in Nigeria, they tried to serve me snails and I failed. I have eaten dog meat in South Korea. As long as human beings eat it, I try it.
What really works you up about people?
If they are extremely incompetent and they are working closely with me or extremely dense. I get extremely worked up by dense people.
And your teetotaller stance?
Once in a while I will drink a glass of wine. I am not the type that goes to bars; my best moment is to get a friend of mine who I consider very thoughtful like on a Sunday when I go to visit Mahmood Mamdani and his wife and we sit at his home and begin philosophising about complex global issues. For me the best moment is to be with a person who is very thoughtful and to find that person challenging to my ideas or adding value.
I should tell you, 95 per cent of the Ugandans I interact with, I think they are very shallow and they need to be [back in]schools. I am also attracted to unique ideas, not the mainstream ideas like Oh Mandela was a hero, oh democracy is a very good thing. No. I am very questioning of received wisdom. Even if you told me about god, I am very questioning of God.
Would you be considered to believe in God?
No, I don’t believe in God.
You are a very flashy guy, dresses expensively, lives in a great house, drives a wonderful car; one wouldn’t be wrong to refer to you as a rich man; other than your known business with that news magazine, what else brings bread on your table?
First of all, I do not involve in business for money. I don’t have an appetite for money, I have tried to acquire the appetite but I have failed. First of all, I have access to key influential people in government, presidents in this region, ministers and others.
People come to me, tell me problems they have and want me to fix their businesses. I have helped foreign companies that had lost contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to get their contracts reinstated. They always say, you are going to help us what is your consideration? I always tell them, I am going to do this because I believe the business you are going to do is good for the country/ region. And I have never taken even one dollar.
No businessman can say Andrew Mwenda took one dollar because he helped me get a contact or a deal which he had been denied of $200 million to 300. I am told everyone else would demand one per cent.
So, I would have made a lot of money. I am involved only in those businesses where I have a curiosity. I want to learn or I have a passion, I want to practice it.
Now like I am involved in media business, The Independent. I am involved in the airtime business with friends; we have boda boda business that offers loans to boda boda riders. I am also involved in education business because of my interest in education, derived from my father’s interest in education. I am also partially involved in a logistics business.
Do you fear anything?
Yes, reptiles. You see I am not afraid of death; so, if you told me there is death there, I would probably walk there. I am a daredevil. You should watch me driving on these Ugandan roads. I get the kick from taking extreme risks.
I realised it may not be because I am brave, because I am not; but I think I have a very low appreciation of danger. From my childhood, I have had a fascination with death, if I was told there is a guy shooting outside there, probably I would go out and see them, so I am not afraid of death but what I cannot do is commit suicide.
Marooned on a desert island, what would you carry with you?
Arnold Toynbee’s ten-volume collection, ‘A Study of History’. You need to study history to understand how man has behaved over the years.
He selects Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye, whom he says he has a fascination with.