In the wake of Stephen Kiprotich’s gold medal triumph at the London Olympics, I received several inquiries from friends and fans about how a mere prison warder could extraordinarily ascend to global fame.
The answer, in my perspective, can be traced to decades of moral, economic and financial support from the Uganda Prisons Service, which, alongside Uganda Police and the army has played a pivotal role in the rise of Ugandan sport.
Kiprotich’s Olympic gold medal triumph in the marathon will go down as one of the greatest sporting achievements in Ugandan sport. But for starters, his meteoric rise to the top, supported by the Uganda Prisons Service, is not a one-off never mind that going into the Olympics, few knew – or even cared to know – that the 23-year-old was a warder.
So, long before Kiprotich’s recent promotion to Assistant Superintendent of Prisons after the London heroics, Prisons,
Police and the Army - commonly known in sports circles as ‘the forces’ – had a history of nurturing raw talent into world beaters.
Competitive sport was introduced in the three government institutions during the colonial era. With emphasis on football and athletics, sport was not merely adopted as a pastime to keep the employees fit; the major purpose was image building because sporting success counted as a form of national pride. Success for these stars also came with various add-ons like promotion in rank and welfare rewards in form of free housing.
Looking back, sport used to constitute a reasonable percentage on each institution’s budget. I also remember vividly that the forces used to instill a high level of discipline among the elite sports stars, accentuated by the fact that the code of conduct in the forces is followed to the letter. I recall an incident in the late 70s when Simba’s Joachim Ndaula was detained at Makindye military barracks for getting involved in a scuffle on the pitch.
And when Police’s Denis Obua sneaked out from The Cranes camp as they prepared for the 1978 Nations Cup, Lt. Col Nasur Abdullah ordered Obua’s dismissal from the team for breaking police’s strict code of conduct. Because of the stiff competition at the time, there used to be a deliberate effort among the forces to tap talent countrywide and successful recruits got jobs instantly. The aim was to keep the newcomers well acquainted with how things are run.
For one, Bill Kirkham, who was deputy Commissioner of Prisons in the 1960s, is renowned for spotting and nurturing talented youngsters. The British national recruited several budding footballers including Peter Okee, Parry Oketch, Kefa Loli, Eddie Semwanga, Ben Ezaga, Peter Babu, Charles Ebalu among others. The aforementioned players would later go on to win the first ever national topflight league and represented Uganda for several years.
Meanwhile, athletics coach Malcolm Arnold arrived in 1968 and did a commendable job grooming Police stars. Though the Briton is best credited for nurturing legendary John Akii-Bua, he spotted the likes of Pius Olow, Jimmy Ismat, Nalis Bigingo, and Silver Ayoo among others. By the time the two expatriates left the country in the early 1970s, they had set up strong structures at the grassroots level countrywide and the forces became sporting powerhouses, providing the bulk of national stars.
Though the principle duty of sports stars from the forces was to compete on behalf of their respective institutions, there was little to differentiate them from other non-sporting workmates. The main difference was that they could temporarily be granted leave in order to prepare for sporting engagements. But during the off-season, they went about their jobs like any other employee.
And unlike their sports counterparts from clubs like Express or Coffee, athletes from the forces earned relatively low wages. Their salaries were fixed as per government scale (according to positions and ranks). Apart from army side Simba, whose player welfare greatly improved during Idi Amin’s time, the plight of players from Prisons (later renamed Maroons) and Police FC didn’t change much even when after Prisons won back-to-back league titles.
When Simba FC reached the final of the 1972 Africa Club Championship, players got promoted in rank. Skipper Polly Ouma was elevated to the rank of captain while Ahmed Doka became a lieutenant among others. Those with families were transferred from the barracks to posh Bugolobi and Mbuya flats and the rest were moved to the upscale Lohana Club (recently known as Pride Theatre) along Namirembe Road.
Things go wrong
To be a sports star in the seventies was fashionable and it was even better when you represented one of the forces because it came with added influence in public. The forces had almost all disciplines but the notable ones being Football, boxing, athletics, swimming, handball, basketball, netball, hockey among others. It was hard to find any national
team without players from the forces. However, the toppling of Idi Amin’s government in 1979 started a decline in sorting success within the forces.
Several stars from the forces like Simba’s Paul Ssali, Godfrey Kisitu and Francis Kulabigwo were arrested. This forced the likes of Obua, Ouma and Abbey Nasur among others to flee to Kenya. Even John Akii-Bua, who had been elevated to the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police, ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya.
Many of those who remained around deserted the forces, whose name had been tarnished. Subsequent governments didn’t give sport much priority. For example, when transfers were done within the forces, sports personalities too were affected. I recall when 800m star Daniel Oboth of Prisons was transferred to Tororo and the move forced him to abandon sports. Jimmy Ismat, a renowned athletics coach in Prisons and the national team, was transferred to train new
Lastly, the scheme which used to bring sports personalities into the forces during recruitment exercise was dropped. Now that Kiprotich’s triumph has greatly enhanced the image of Uganda Prisons, the hope is that authorities make sports a big priority.
Achievements from forces
Success may have died down of late but the forces remain one of Uganda’s main source of success. Here are a few examples…
Bantamweight boxer Eridad Mukwanga of Prisons won Uganda’s first ever Olympic medal at the Mexico City Games when he scooped silver.
Cranes team at the 1968 Nations Cup
The forces supplied seven players in the starting side at the tournament. These include Ben Ezaga (Prisons), skipper Parry Oketch (Prisons), Steven Baraza (Prisons), John Dibya (Army), Polly Ouma (Army), Swalleh Wasswa (Army) and Denis Obua (Police).
Baraza, Obua, Oketch, Okee and Ouma would later feature in the East Africa combined team that played against British side West Bromwich Albion that very year.
1970 Commonwealth Games
Six of the seven medals Uganda won at the Edinburgh Games came from the forces athletes; Prisons had Judith Ayaa win bronze in the 400m while her colleague James Odwori struck gold in boxing’s Light Flyweight division. The Army had Featherweight Deogratias Musoke (Silver), Light Welterweight Mohamed Muruli (Gold) and Heavyweight Benson Masanda (Gold)).
National football League
Prisons FC was the first side to win the League in 1968 and retained the title the following year. Army are also two-time winners and as recent as 2005, Police FC also won the league title and in 2006, won the Cecafa Club Championship.
To this day, this remains the watershed moment in Ugandan sports. History was made in Munich when John Akii Bua from Uganda Police scooped Uganda’s first gold medal. Akii-Bua in his specialized 400m hurdles clocked 47.82 seconds.
1972 Africa Club Championship
In 1972, army side Simba FC became the first Ugandan side to reach the final of Africa Club Championships before losing 4-7 on aggregate to Guinea’s Hafia FC. In that tournament Simba had the likes of Patrick Natan, Fred Nkolwa, Sebbi Ramadhan, Ahmed Doka, Joseph Onziga, Francis Kulabigwo, Polly Ouma, Swalleh Wasswa, John Dibya, and Godfrey Kisitu among others.
1973 All Africa Games
Of the 20 medals which Uganda collected in the 1973 All Africa Games held in Nigeria, eight were won by athletes from the forces; John Akii-Bua (Police) won gold in 400m hurdles, Silver Ayoo (Prisons) won bronze in the 400 hurdles, Yovan Ochola (Police) won gold in Hammer throw while Gabriel Luzira (Army) got silver in Hammer throw.
Others are Christine Anyakun (Prisons) 800m gold, Budesia Nyakecho (Prisons) 100m hurdles bronze and Constance Rwabiryagye (Prisons) Javelin throw gold.
1974 Commonwealth Games
At the 1974 Games in Christchurch, Uganda collected nine medals but seven were won by athletes from the forces. Prisons had Silver Ayoo-400m (Silver) and James Odwori- Light Flyweight (Silver). Army had Ali Rojo-Bantamweight (Silver); John Byaruhanga-Flyweight (Bronze); Mohamed Muruli-Welterweight (Gold); Shadrack Odhiambo- Featherweight (Silver)) and Benson Masanda-Heavyweight (Bronze).
And in the 4X400 relay men’s team which won the Bronze medal, the forces contributed three athletes; Silver Ayoo (Prisons), Pius Olow (Police) and William Dralu (Army).
1978 All Africa Games
Uganda forces still dominate the 1978 All Africa Games which held in Algeria. Legendary John Akii-Bua won a silver medal in 400m hurdles. He was joined by his Police colleagues like; Joyce Aciro-Shot Put (Gold) and Helen Alyek- Discuss throw (Silver). Prisons’ Fidelis Ndyabagye-Long jump (Silver) while Constance Rwabiryagye- Javalin (Bronze).
1978 Africa Cup of Nations
Uganda Cranes took the continent by storm—reaching the final of Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana—losing to hosts 2-0. However the forces contributed to this success by providing not only team coach Peter Okee (Prisons) but contributed eight players as follows; Paul Ssali (Simba-Army), Eddie Semwanga (Maroons-Prisons), Abbey Nasur (Maroons-Prisons); Fred Isabirye (Simba-Army), Godfrey Kisitu (Simba-Army), Polly Ouma (Simba-Army); Meddie Lubega (Simba) and Mike Diku (Maroons-Prisons).
1979 Netball World Cup (Trinidad & Tobago)
She Cranes played in the 1979 Netball World Cup and Prisons provided two of the starters; Suzan Namatovu and Florence Ntege. However, before that and after Prisons contributed a couple of players to this team like; Irene Namusisi, Agatha Nabutere, Imelda Nyongesa, Beatrice Chandiru, Emphrance Zalwango and Florence Amono. Police had; Rose Nambafu, Christine Nakato and Olivia Wawire.
Athletics at the 1987 All-Africa Games
The 1987 All Africa Games held in Nairobi, Kenya—it was only Prisons Justin Arop from the forces who won. The towering Arop grabbed a Gold medal in Javelin throw.
The author is Director Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media Ltd.