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Myth and mystery about the Ugandan Flag on Independence Day

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Myth and mystery about the Ugandan Flag on Independence Day

In historical terms, Uganda’s independence from Britain is a recent event. However, the published myths, legends, contested claims and dark holes in the story of Tuesday, October 9, 1962 have already muddied the historical record. 


This is especially so on the internet, where the majority of literate citizens seek information. A lot of fiction is presented as fact. Kampala’s English dailies publish articles with recycled fictional accounts that suggest short-cut journalism and guesswork.  The story of the Uganda flag is a good example. 


Much confusion abounds regarding the designer(s) of the Uganda flag. The common claim is that the flag was designed by Grace Stuart Katebariirwe Ibingira, the Minister of Justice, who was an accomplished artist. However, credit for the work has also been claimed by Semei Matia Nyai, a school teacher from Koi, Maracha, West Nile and Paul Mukasa, about whom there is no readily available information. 


As of Sunday October 7, 2018, Wikipedia had two entries for the designer of our flag, one stating that it was Ibingira and another reporting that it was Andrew Kayiira! 

Without the benefit of contemporaneous minutes and notes, one can only go by the reported verbal recollections of George William Senteza-Kajubi, the chairman of the National Symbols Committee which was appointed by Benedicto Kagimu Mugumba Kiwanuka, Uganda’s first and only chief minister and first prime minister in 1961. 


Other committee members were George Wilberforce Kakoma (the composer of the National Anthem), William Wilberforce Nadiope (Kyabazinga of Busoga who became Uganda’s first Vice President in 1963), Polycarp Kakooza (priest, teacher and musicologist who composed the Buganda National Anthem), Mbabi Katana (musicologist who compiled African music for schools), Cecil Todd (British professor and head of Makerere’s School of Art) and John Moon (a colonial police band conductor).


The Committee produced a provisional flag with vertical stripes - green on either side separated from a blue middle stripe by small golden yellow ones.  A golden yellow crested crane stood on the blue stripe. This flag was adopted on March 1, 1962 when Uganda attained self-government.


However, when Apolo Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) won the elections of April 25, 1962, the new prime minister directed the Senteza-Kajubi Committee to produce a new flag. The official reason for this was that the green colour was susceptible to solar-induced fading. However, one suspects that green, being the main colour of Kiwanuka’s Democratic Party, may have influenced Obote’s aesthetic tastes. One also notes that two of UPC’s party colours were black and red.


It is said that, with the UPC cabinet’s consent, Ibingira took the black, red and gold tricolor of West Germany to Professor Todd at Makerere and asked him to design a flag for Uganda. Curiously, Prof. Todd’s online profiles and multiple sources I have consulted about Makerere’s School of Fine Art do not mention this historic commission. One would have expected it to be part of their branding.


In the event, it appears that Prof. Todd delivered the design to a cabinet committee chaired by Ibingira, with Emmanuel Lumu, Adoko Nekyon and Cuthbert Obwangor as members. The new flag was selected on May 16, 1962 and formally replaced the provisional one on October 9, 1962.


Who designed the flag? Until written evidence is availed to us, it is safe to say that the Uganda Flag was probably designed by Prof. Todd, with the input and approval of the Ibingira committee. 


Few events have attracted as many falsehoods as the identity of the people who lowered the Union Jack and raised the Crested Crane. For years, the claim was that that historic act was performed by Lt. Augustine “Gus” Karugaba. That was false. 

Karugaba, who never claimed that he hoisted our flag, repeatedly tried to set the record straight. He, of course, performed a more demanding assignment that day, namely, serving as Aide-De-Camp (ADC) to Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, who represented the British Queen at the ceremonies. 


To do this, Karugaba, who was still in training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant and flew back to Uganda for the grand occasion.  It would mark the high point of this brilliant officer’s truncated military career, as we shall narrate in a future column about his life. 


In recent years, the Daily Monitor and New Vision have reported that Akorimo Kanuti, a native of Omatenga, Kumi, Teso was the man who lowered the Union Jack and hoisted the Crested Crane. Apparently, President Yoweri Museveni and the Uganda People’s Defence Force believed the claim and promised Kanuti a number of material rewards for his alleged heroism.


In a Daily Monitor report on October 8, 2011, Kanuti, who affirmed the above claim, made other claims, among them that Obote had personally asked him to bring down the colonial flag. Kanuti also claimed that Obote had given him “the responsibility to make the final decision” on who became the army commander. Kanuti claimed that he recommended Shaban Opolot, “a decision that pitted him against Idi Amin.” 

Kanuti’s claims are fictitious. What is the likelihood that Obote would have sidestepped the army commanders to order a non-commissioned officer to lower and raise flags or to select the next army commander? 


An impeccable source that was a member of the military at independence assured me that Kanuti, a regimental sergeant major in the Uganda Rifles (as the army was known then), was nowhere near the flags at Kololo. He was the chief clerk of the first battalion of the Uganda Rifles. It was after independence that he was promoted to a lieutenant. 


In any case, a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) video recording, available on YouTube, shows the Union Jack being lowered by Sergeant Major Sidney Small of Birmingham, England. The Uganda flag is then hoisted by an African soldier of very dark complexion and average height, physical features that suggest that that was not Kanuti. My source told me that Kanuti was tall and had a light complexion. 


So, who hoisted the Uganda flag? We do not know at the moment. My source is confident that it was a darker skinned Acholi sergeant who was a member of Company A or B, under the command of Major Campbell. “He was also a boxer and I think he came from Kitgum,” my source told me. These, together with the BBC video, are enough leads to help journalists and military historians solve the mystery of the hero of our flag.


It bears repeating that journalists have a duty to exercise due diligence before publishing stories. A great opportunity exists for an investigative journalist or a student reading history at one of Uganda’s universities to interrogate the government and military archives and set the record straight for posterity.

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