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Kampala, Entebbe diaries

THE flamboyant crested crane may be Uganda’s national symbol, but it is the sad- and ugly-looking marabou stork that dominates the east African country’s capital, Kampala. The large scavenger bird – also known by its derogatory nickname “undertaker” – can be seen in many open spaces around the city, or perched on streetlight poles observing the chaotic traffic below.
And yes, Kampala’s traffic can be crazy as I discovered on my recent visit.
I arrived at Entebbe International Airport on May 10 as part of a 13-member team of journalists from Zambia to cover the inauguration of Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, who was re-elected last February.
And, of course, we had to shadow our own President Lungu, who was among heads of state invited to attend the investiture ceremony.
We checked in at the Entebbe Flight Motel, five minutes’ drive from the airport. It was not the nicest of places around, but it was a convenient place to stay.
The multi-storey building had no elevator and my room – 524 – was located on the fifth floor.
A couple of times I forgot my key in the restaurant located on the ground floor, and I had to walk back all the way down, cursing myself, to fetch it.
The building had a maze of stairs and corridors that were confusing to a new guest. The corridors, which had exposed plumbing work, reeked of dampness, and my window overlooked a pile of rubble where a building once stood.
On the other side of the building, the staircase had no guardrail, it was like a death trap. But for US$30 per night, we couldn’t have asked for a better place than the Entebbe Flight Motel.
And whatever the motel did not offer in comfort, it made up in the culinary delights served in its restaurant. I’m talking here mainly about a variety of traditional dishes – matooka, peanut butter sauce and fish from nearby Lake Victoria.
Inevitably, some of my most memorable moments at the motel were created around the dining area. I gorged myself on the matooka (cooked plantains mixed with beef), which I enjoyed thoroughly.
Back on the streets, Kampala could very well pass as a perfect candidate for the Discovery Channel reality show “Don’t Drive Here”, in which producer Andrew Younghusband drives in some of the world’s most challenging cities, traffic-wise.
There were many oops moments as we drove into the heavy traffic of the city with its ubiquitous motorbikes operating as taxis, commonly known as boda-boda.
The two-wheelers appear from nowhere, weaving through endless queues of cars and buses, and people crossing the road. In the inner city, the motorbikes buzzed around our vehicle like bees, usually overtaking us.
One estimate puts the number of boda-boda in Kampala alone at 300,000.
Some motorbikes carried as many as three adults, with some passengers carrying big bags or building materials.
A large number of the passengers were women, some dressed in office wear, perched on the back of the motorbikes facing sideways.
But I also saw some voluptuous female figures straddled behind male riders in a rather seductive manner.
With Kampala’s grid-locked traffic, the boda-boda is the quickest way to get around the city, but it is also dangerous.
According to Uganda’s Injury Control Centre, there are up to 20 boda-related cases at Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala every day.
Hence the boda-bodas are also known as the silent killers or death trap.
And as I observed one night as we drove to our motel, a good number of the two-wheelers had no tail lights or reflectors, and only came into view within a few metres of our car’s headlamps.
Notwithstanding their bad reputation, I could not have left Entebbe or Kampala without riding on the boda-boda. And on the last day of our visit, I did just that, ignoring all the discouragement from my colleagues.
I jumped on a boda-boda operated by Emmanuel Magezi.
We cruised on a wet day halfway across the city of Entebbe, past the heavily guarded State House, the official residence of President Museveni.
I had no helmet on and life flashed before me. I kept looking over my shoulder; I was particularly scared of the speeding SUVs transporting departing VIP guests to the airport a day after Museveni’s swearing-in.
Emmanuel’s motorbike only had one side mirror and I thought I could help by looking out for the cars on the other side. It was no use, Emmanuel has been at his business for a long time.
Security in Kampala was such a big issue and the security personnel were as uncompromising as they looked.
Army trucks with red flags, an indication that they were carrying live ammo, could be seen parked at strategic places in Kampala. In some places, the menacing trucks were used to form barricades across access roads.
At the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort, where most of the presidents invited to attend the ceremony were staying, the prying media was under the gawking eyes of the men in executive suits with coils plugged in their ears.
Nothing was being left to chance.
A sniffer dog was introduced into a room where Uganda’s Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda was to meet President Lungu.
And at the venue of the swearing-in ceremony, Kololo Independence Grounds, stern security men and women carefully examined every bag, camera, laptop before sticking a pink sticker on it and allowing guests in.
“What is that in your back pocket?” a man asked me after I had passed through the metal detector, without a bleep, I must add.
“My wallet,” I said, as I removed it from my pocket.
“Let me see,” he demanded.
I handed him the wallet and he leafed through the wad of business cards, as I stood by, obviously flustered.
And then there was the 24-hour shut down of social media – Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp – ordered by the security forces on the day Mr Museveni was sworn-in.
The following day when I visited a local shopping mall, a hand-held metal detector was run across my body before being allowed in.
Of the 14 African presidents who attended the investiture ceremony, one man stole the limelight – Sudanese president, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir.
Gen. Al-Bashir’s presence at the ceremony was a clear show of defiance against the West and the International Criminal Court (ICC) which issued an arrest warrant against him in 2009 for crimes against humanity.
Inevitably, the Sudanese leader was the most protected person at the venue, aside President Museveni himself. The general made a grand entry into the arena in a stretched Mercedes Benz flown over from Khartoum.
But Mr Museveni was not to be outdone in defiance against the West. He launched a scathing attack against the ICC, dismissing it as “a bunch of useless people.”
He also made disparaging remarks about the USA, prompting a walkout from the American ambassador and European Union delegation.
On the other hand, President Museveni showered praises on Russia and China for their military help.
The climax of the inauguration was a show of power by the Ugandan air force, which displayed Russian planes, including the Sukhoi Su-30, a fear inspiring war machine.
Mr Museveni unveiled his plan for the next five years, promising to turn Uganda into a middle-income economy.
After 30 years in power, it is hard to imagine Uganda without Museveni, but there is talk of who will succeed the 71-year-old once he leaves office.
A day before the swearing-in ceremony, I had met a tall, handsome, mustachioed man dressed in smart military uniform at Entebbe Military Base. He acknowledged me with just a little nod as he passed by.
“That is Museveni’s son,” whispered Bernard, our driver.
Major General Muhoozi Kainerugaba (I don’t know why he doesn’t use his father’s name) is the head of the presidential guard and is believed to be the one being groomed to succeed his father.
But in a country with many dissenting voices, such a succession plan may not go down well.
A day after the inauguration, one of those voices – Kizza Besigye, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change – was arrested and charged with treason for having a private swearing-in ceremony.
As we left our motel for the airport, a Sukhoi Su-30 whizzed across the sky with a thunder so loud, it sounded like bombs dropping on the city.