His is not the typical rags-to-riches story but one of how a privileged birth opened doors leading to a successful life. From treating former tyrant Idi Amin’s mother to attending to President Milton Obote when he was shot in the mouth, Dr Martin Aliker has seen it all.
He has met almost every important person of his generation as he recounts in his recently released autobiography, The Bell is Ringing, writes Alon Mwesigwa.
His story starts in 1928 in the village of Awaranga, south-west of Gulu. He was born here to Lacito Oketch, a Rwot (chief), he describes as “the most important person in the locality [who] was responsible for the collection of taxes.”
Being the son of a chief, he was admitted into King’s College Budo –a school started mainly to educate sons and daughters of royals.
Aliker, 90, writes that although Obote was bright, “he did not have the family name that would qualify him to go to Budo.” Obote went to Busoga College, Mwiri.
Aliker went on to study at Makerere University and then North Western University in the USA, where he graduated as a dentist in the mid-1950s. He returned to Uganda to set up the first private practice in the country.
He married Camille, an American, with whom they have four children: Julie, a teacher; Martin, an athlete; Philip, an economist and lawyer; and Paul Okello, a dentist.
This book reveals a man who has fulfilled his purpose in life, and also how Ugandan society works. In the book, Aliker says you learn how President Museveni works informally, allowing his friends go scot-free after committing heinous crimes.
“In all the travels I made on behalf of the president, I carried a letter only once. It was addressed to the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir.” “When I met President Museveni, after [my] appointment as a minister [of state for foreign affairs], he told me that I would report directly to him and not through the substantive minister.”
The Bell is Ringing reveals how ministers and senior officials grovel before Museveni. Aliker was minister of state for foreign affairs in 1996, and later minister of parliamentary affairs and presidential advisor.
“[But] I did not enjoy cabinet,” Aliker writes. “When the president chaired the meeting, ministers behaved like primary school children wanting the class teacher to notice them.”
“I always sat next to John Nasasira, minister for works, who sat next to a very superstitious senior minister. This man always carried a good luck charm in his pocket. While the president was chairing the meeting, this man would have his hand in his pocket praying to his ancestors to let him keep his job as a minister although he was already old,” he writes.
Aliker talks of how Museveni once referred to a female state minister who had raised her hand to speak as the “lady with a beautiful smile”.
Aliker says “this angered the full minister, who was also a lady, who told her never to smile to the president again!”
Aliker delves into Uganda’s chaotic political past, recalling how Museveni and himself visited President Binaisa in 1980 at State House Entebbe.
“Museveni was looking at the bullet holes in the ceiling. He was not interested at all and made no effort to hide his contempt for the president…”
Aliker reveals the drama that surrounded the privatisation of Apollo hotel (Sheraton Kampala hotel) which was his biggest disappointment. He writes about how a local group had made an offer in 1998 which was accepted. Then Ethiopian firm, Midroc offered more and threatened to sue government.
The officials who handled the sale demanded $5 million from Midroc as ‘key money’ but it paid $3m. The local group had also paid $2m in bribe.
Midroc officials came to Kampala and told the president what had happened.
“When they [investors] met government people to negotiate, one government official took out his pistol and laid it on the table and said ‘now let’s talk’,” Aliker writes.
When the president was told about the incident, he got upset, but he kept his composure, Aliker writes. These errant individuals were not dismissed.
Aliker was also a go-between government and LRA rebels. One day he received a letter purportedly written by rebel leader Joseph Kony asking for medicines for gonorrhoea, cholera, and diarrhoea. He forwarded the letter to Museveni who ordered then army commander, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, to put together the drugs for LRA. Aliker drove them there.
“When they took delivery of the medicines, they prayed for long life for President Museveni…,” he writes.
Aliker was very close to Sir Edward Mutesa, Kabaka of Buganda and the first post-independence ceremonial leader of Uganda. He writes that he was Mutesa’s dentist immediately after independence and how they were family friends.
“I liked him personally but thought that he was, despite his charm, a fundamentally weak man who was in the grip of elderly, conservative and narrow-minded advisers at Mengo,” Aliker writes.
ON THE BOARD
Aliker has served on boards of many companies, including Coca-Cola, Uganda Breweries, Stanbic bank, and Standard Chartered bank, among others.
“What was my value to companies like Allied Breweries and Coca-Cola or Heritage? It was undoubtedly my ability to get access to governments at the highest level.”
Take the case of Coca-Cola, which wanted a reduction in excise duties on its imported inputs. Their CEO in Uganda – a white South African – would have had no chance of seeing Museveni.
“But when Carl Ware flew in, I could arrange a meeting with him,” Aliker writes.
The book says little about his interaction with his home community in Acholi. He admits he has not lived there ever since he left for school in the USA in the 1950s.