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When Prof Rugumayo Saved Dr Rugunda, Students from Amin’s Anger

Audio 4

Professor Edward Rugumayo, a former minister under Idi Amin and Yoweri Museveni, is a man who has seen and heard it all. Currently retired, he sometimes cannot resist sharing some hair-raising memories of things he has witnessed in life.  

The 87-year-old professor of the environment, entered politics in 1971 when he was appointed to serve as education minister in President Idi Amin's administration. He had previously held the positions of lecturer at the Department of Education and warden of Mitchel Hall. He also served briefly as senior science inspector of schools. 

 

On Thursday afternoon, Rugumayo, who is currently the chancellor of Mountains of the Moon which was recently added to the list of public universities in Uganda, was invited as a panelist during the inaugural Annual Frank Kalimuzo Memorial Lecture which was also part of commemoration of Makerere University's Centenary. 

Whereas most speakers of the day focused on Kalimuzo, the first vice-chancellor of Makerere whose life was cut short in 1972 by Amin's men, Rugumayo shone the light on another group of people -the students- who were persecuted by the military dictator for nearly the same reasons of supports rebels. 

At the time Rugumayo was the Minister of Education, and he said that the president had ordered him to watch and report on student political activists in Makerere University. Ruhakana Rugunda was the president of the National Union of Students of Uganda-NUSU at that time. 

     

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Students began to actively participate in revolutionary activities as early as the 1930s. Initially, these movements fought for independence, but later groups turned their attention internally. Students were politically affiliated since they were the next generation of elites, and elections for student government were closely tied to political standing as it is today.  

When Uganda People Congress-UPC was in power, they facilitated the NUSU to act less as their youth group. Throughout the country's post-primary institutions as well as at universities, the said student’s group was a powerful advocate for President Milton Obote's UPC political ambitions. 

At the time when Ugandans rose to challenge Amin’s brutal regime, students were at the forefront. However, most of their major activism happened around 1976 with two major demonstrations. 

Available records show that one such demonstration held on March 6, attracted about 4,000 students calling for the overthrow of Amin. The protest followed the death of a law student, Paul Sserwanga, who had been shot dead by an army man who had allegedly developed an interest in the student’s girlfriend. 

Rugumayo shared that Amin had started witch-hunting students and their leaders in the early days of his reign. The old man with all white hair pointed out that the fierce ruler went on the offensive against the students in 1972 following an armed attempt by insurgents, supported by Tanzania. 

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Following the September attack, Amin who was already suspicious that students were supporting the insurgents in Tanzania with meetings organised in halls of residents tasked his education ministry to submit a list of all the student leaders affiliated with NUSU. 

Amid the confusion, Rugumayo quickly came up with an idea to compile a fake list composed of students who had already been freed to safety and others who had gone to join rebels in Tanzania. After submitting the list, the professor added, he quietly advised the likes of Rugunda to leave the country by leaps and bounds. 

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Rugunda who was sharing the same platform with Rugumayo on Thursday, also confirmed to the happening as they were narrated by the old man. This was a big risk for Rugumayo. What could have happened to him if Amin found out? Your guess is correct. 

Rugunda, currently a special presidential envoy ater being prime minister and holding many ministerial portfolios before, said that he had received information of him being on the state watch list sometime earlier from the then Makerere university vice-chancellor, Kalimuzo. He recollected that president Amin had received information that student and their leaders had taken a French leave from Makerere to join Obote’s effort to over topple his government. 

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Rugunda added that unfortunately after two months, Kalimuzo was taken by state operatives never to be seen again. Kalimuzo’s disappearance shocked the nation and very many student leaders that had been warned to be under watch soon started fleeing the country and going into hiding in exile.

However, students who remained in the country and those who joined the students’ movements in the years that followed constantly spoke up to the regime and staged protests and other forms of activism to cause change. 

After the October 1972 incidents, Prof Rugumayo spent only four months as a minister before throwing in the towel when he sent his resignation letter by telex from Nairobi. He was the first minister to resign and when he did, Amin sent other ministers on forced leave and made Permanent Secretaries in charge of the government.