What you need to know:
- Over 70 people had suffocated to death, in one of the most shameful episodes of Uganda’s conflict history.
- A few peasants decided to take a chance, and convinced their children who were in the bush to lay down arms and surrender to Muhesi.
Kenya is in the midst of a war against terrorism. Part of it, the government says, involves smoking out possible foot soldiers of the Somali militant group, Al-Shabaab, who are hiding among law-abiding members of the Somali community in Kenya, and carrying out terrorist bomb attacks on churches, pubs, and other locations.
Fighting terrorism is tricky business. You don’t, you are damned. And most times you do, and you are damned. It is hard to find good examples in Africa of how to deal successfully with people who choose violence as their political tool.
So, please allow me to introduce a Ugandan Brigadier-General called Geoffrey Muhesi. He came to fame in the north-eastern part of Uganda in the late 1980s, when the government of President Yoweri Museveni was battling a determined rebellion there.
That area is inhabited by the Teso people, the relatives of the Teso on the Kenya side of the border.
The Museveni government faced the same challenge the Kenya government is confronted with today: How to root out violent rebels who were living among peaceful farmers, without alienating the whole of Teso.
The early stages of the government anti-insurgency push were full of disastrous mistakes, and none more so than what eventually became known as the “Mukura Massacre”.
In July of 1989, the army rounded up hundreds of civilians whom it suspected of being rebel collaborators in central Teso, and held them in a disused railway wagon at a train station called Mukura.
Later in the evening, a soldier lit a fire near the wagon. It is not clear whether it was deliberate, or a careless and thoughtless act. In any event, with the wagon already stuffy, the “prisoners” struggling to breathe, and now heat, a mad frenzy broke out inside.
WHERE RELATIVES COULD VISIT
When the soldiers opened the wagon, the sight inside was horrific. Over 70 people had suffocated to death, in one of the most shameful episodes of Uganda’s conflict history. It was a national and international disaster, and the outrage threatened to tip the war against the Kampala government.
Enter Muhesi. He was an amiable, bold, and fairly junior officer. He also doubled up as the political commissar for the military units in the Teso region.
He decided that, with only a few soldiers escorting him, he would risk going out to the villages to talk to the people to give up their sons who were in rebel ranks. He promised that they would not be killed or tortured. That they would be held in prisons where the relatives could visit him.
A few peasants decided to take a chance, and convinced their children who were in the bush to lay down arms and surrender to Muhesi. They reasoned that by doing that, their children had a chance of surviving, while by staying in the bush fighting, they were almost certain to die.
News spread that the rebels who had surrendered to Muhesi were indeed treated like regular prisoners. Strange scenes followed. There were many occasions when Muhesi would drive in an empty truck, park it at strategic points, and from the bushes rebels would come running and jump onto the lorry. Then he would drive off with them.
There were reports of occasions when there would be no space left to carry surrendering rebels, and quite a few would follow on foot, trotting behind the vehicle.
THE HARD WORK OF PERSUASION
The media was full of hilarious accounts of women in the village running after Muhesi, asking him to wait as they went to plantations to bring out their relatives who had decided to abandon rebellion.
Without firing a single shot, and by willing to do the hard work of persuasion, Muhesi single-handedly contributed 50 per cent of the dynamic that helped end the rebellion in Teso.
The Teso region was laid to waste by the rebellion, make no mistake. The pain of Mukura will linger on for years to come. But the morality of the “Muhesi Moment”, if we might call it that, allowed some movement towards closure.
It made possible an official apology from the President, and the building of a monument to honour the memory of those who died that tragic day in July 1989.
There is a clinical way for Kenya to win the war against terrorism. It should begin by finding its Muhesi.
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