Abandoned in Uganda, but made it to The Pub
Monday 4 May 2020
At dawn one crisp, sunlit Nairobi Saturday morning I and other international journalists boarded a chartered light aircraft to take us to Uganda for an East African mini-summit to welcome to the leadership club Ugandan President Milton Apollo Obote, controversially elected leader a month before in December 1980.
Spirits were low, not just because of the hour but because Uganda was a hazardous place to visit. For this reason reporting trips, were kept short; leave at dawn and exit Entebbe airport by dusk at the latest, as the runways had no lights.
The overthrow of tyrant Idi Amin in 1979 by a combined force of Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles, which I had covered, was greeted with euphoria and chaos, now just the chaos remained. Troops pillaged the country and armed gangs roamed the cities. Two new presidents were quickly deposed and a Military Commission was set up to prepare for the return of Obote, overthrown by his army chief Amin in 1971.
I had extra reason to be nervous. My reporting of the controversial elements of the poll led to the government-run Uganda Times devoting a leader to attacking my coverage calling me “a confusionist of a journalist bringing his own colonial biases to instigate trouble in Uganda.”
I had quoted diplomats as saying Obote’s “win” was likely to cause violent opposition, which it did.
Our intrepid stringer, Tom Lansner, gleefully sent me a copy of the leader to show what he faced every day. He survived and thrived, moving on to Asian hot spots and eventually becoming a professor of journalism in New York, specialising in war reporting.
The press corps hung around all day and filed as best we could from a bland, meaningless statement. The sun was setting. My taxi was late and I took a detour to pick up another reporter, but discovered he had already got a lift.
When I got to the airport the press plane had gone. The pilot was worried that by the time the three presidential jets had left it would be too late for him. So he and my colleagues decided it would be better for Hughes to spend the weekend in Kampala rather than all of us.
Sweaty, unshaven and tired, panic speeded my mental processes. The airliner of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi was still there and it was going to Nairobi. Security was surprisingly lax and I gained entry to the cockpit where the German pilot expressed willingness to give me a lift but said I had first to get clearance from the head of security, the much-feared police chief. He agreed, after telling me he was familiar with my file.
I sat quietly at the back and all went well apart from one worrying moment when Moi began pacing up and down holding forth in Swahili, spotted me and demanded of his underlings who I was. He was reassured.
Being with the President there were no immigration or custom formalities. I just walked through the airport to my car and was only slightly late for a Saturday night date at a city centre pub helpfully called The Pub.
My colleagues fared less well. Our jet had overtaken their light aircraft and with preference being given to us, they landed at another smaller airport where formalities took longer and where their cars were not parked.
Thus, I was relaxed and rehydrated when one of the press party came to the pub some time later and registered a mixture of surprise and embarrassment. ■