Maj. Augustine Karugaba and Obote’s most consequential decision

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Maj. Augustine Karugaba and Obote’s most consequential decision

There once lived a man called Karugaba ka Baatoora ba Rubango, better known as Major Augustine ‘Gus’ Karugaba. In my opinion, his story was one of the most consequential in Uganda’s journey from a British colony of promise to a blood-stained sovereign state where guns trumped brains.


Born on September 11, 1937 in Ibumba parish, Rwamucuucu, Rukiga, Kigyezi, Karugaba was a Mukiga w’Omuhimba of the Bagiri clan. His father was Fabiano Baatoora and his mother Maritina Buhaburwa.


Karugaba started primary school in Mparo, Kigyezi, followed by stints at Kisubi in Buganda, Kitabi Seminary in Ankole and St. Leo’s College, Kyegobe in Tooro where he completed his secondary school education. By this time, his family had migrated from Rukiga to Bushwere in Mwizi Subcounty, Rwampara, Ankole.


It was at Kyegobe that the British recruiters from the King’s African Rifles (KAR) encouraged the young Karugaba to join the army. However, his mother’s death compelled him to take up a job with the East African Customs Department in order to assist his widowed father with caring for his four siblings. His stay at this job was brief, for he was selected by the British Army Commissioning Board for direct entry to Britain’s elite Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.


When Karugaba, a Mukiga from South-West Uganda and a devout Roman Catholic who had briefly considered joining the priesthood, was recruited for Sandhurst, Major Iain Grahame, a KAR officer, described the educated and charming young man as “a misfit, for he was both something which I have never seen in a Ugandan soldier and something which no askari has seen either.”


Karugaba arrived at Sandhurst in mid-1960, together with Simon Combes, a young British-Kenyan soldier and S. Jayasinghe, a Kenyan-Asian.  The trio joined Hugh Stott, another British-Kenyan cadet officer, and Mrisho Sam Hagai Sarakikya, a Maasai from Tanganyika, the first native East African officer cadet at Sandhurst, who had joined the academy in 1959.  


The post-Sandhurst journeys of three of the five East Africans are very instructive. Mrisho Sarakikya, who was commissioned into the KAR on December 9, 1961, was appointed army commander of the Tanzanian army following the mutiny of January 1964. He served as army commander for ten years before becoming a diplomat. General Sarakikya, now 86 years old, is in full retirement in Tanzania.


Simon Combes was commissioned into the KAR and then, at independence in 1963, he remained in the Kenya Army, retiring early as a Lieutenant Colonel. He then became a famous artist but  was killed by a buffalo on December 16, 2004 while taking a walk with his wife on Lord Delamere’s estate near Lake Elmenteita. He was only 64.


Hugh Stott joined the Royal Artillery and was seconded to the Kenya Army from 1966 to 1969 to assist in forming the 1st Battery, Kenya Army Artillery. He  retired from the British Army in August 1993 as a Lieutenant Colonel. Stott has been very generous with information via e-mail to me that has contributed to my understanding of Karugaba’s journey. His excellent article about Karugaba, published in 2013 in the King's African Rifles and East African Forces Association magazine, ought to be widely distributed in Uganda.


Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any information about S. Jayasinghe, except that he returned to the Kenya Army.


Karugaba was not so lucky. He passed out of Sandhurst in August 1962, just in time to serve as the aide de camp (ADC) to the Duke of Kent who represented his cousin, Queen Elizabeth II, at Uganda’s independence ceremonies in October 1962. He returned to the United Kingdom for further training and passed out of the School of Infantry, Hythe and Warminster, in March 1963.


He returned to Uganda, was posted to various army units, rose to the rank of major, and an appointment as Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster General.


Meanwhile, the departing British, had already been looking at the future leadership of what was to become independent Uganda’s army. However, their hope that Prime Minister Milton Obote would appoint Karugaba the army commander was overly optimistic.


Grace Ibingira reported that at a garden party, a year or so after independence, Obote pointed to Karugaba and whispered to Ibingira: “You see that man over there, the British want me to make him army commander.” Obote allegedly told Ibingira that he was not about to appoint a Roman Catholic to that post. Others, including Ibingira, accused Obote of rejecting Karugaba on ethnic grounds.


One notes in passing that Ibingira’s account may have left unsaid that he might have well hoped that his own brother, Major Rutaasyangabo Katabarwa, would find favour with Obote and become the army commander. Indeed, a retired Uganda army officer who served with Karugaba and knew him very well told me: “Both Ibingira and Opolot were against Karugaba.”


In the event, Obote ignored all advice to the contrary, and promoted minimally educated and ill-prepared soldiers like Shaban Opolot and Idi Amin. Karugaba was involuntarily retired from the army in October 1964 as the early signs of the Uganda Crisis were beginning to become evident.


In an e-mail to me, Major Iain Grahame, who is now in retirement in the UK, wrote: “Karugaba was a charming man and a good friend.  I last saw him when I returned to Uganda in 1964/65.  We had lunch together in the Kampala Club and I remember he was not happy then at the internal political situation.”


Karugaba became a civil servant in various departments, including Immigration, before joining Makerere University in 1972 to read law. Upon graduation from Makerere, Karugaba returned to the Civil Service, rising through the ranks to become Permanent Secretary in various ministries. He retired in 1992 and died of a natural illness on  July 1, 2006.


As we look back at our first 57 years of independence, it is pertinent to reflect on the consequences of Obote’s decision to subjugate merit to other considerations.


What if Obote had taken the advice of the departing British and appointed Karugaba the new nation’s army commander? Whereas one man would not have magically solved the complex jigsaw puzzle that the Europeans had patched together and called Uganda, might an army led by Karugaba have taken Uganda on a healthier path than our country has endured for nearly six decades? What does the current promotion of mediocrity portend for the future of our fragile, fractured country?


To be continued………



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