In spite of everything, Uganda’s most anticipated party in a generation came and went, as African leaders marched in, religious leaders prayed for peace, and aeroplanes took to skies, as if to announce that the country is almost ready to take off.
Yet on a day that evokes a feeling of patriotism, when Ugandans were expected to sing the national anthem with renewed vigour, the beautiful song only got a dull reception. In the buildup to the event, Ugandans had been encouraged to memorise the three stanzas of their national anthem and then belt it out but at Kololo today, not many people could pass that test.
The smooth tunes of the brass band easily overshadowed the few patriotic voices singing Uganda’s most treasured song. Few Ugandans sang the first stanza; very few attempted the second. For the East African Community anthem, there was near-dead silence as it was played by the brass band. Many people in the crowd were hearing the tune for the first time.
The theme song of the celebrations, Yoga Yoga, which had eaten up hours of studio time for the composers, was played half-way because President Museveni had to deliver his speech, the shortest in a long time, before the skies opened up. And the party passed peacefully despite earlier fears of a possible terrorist attack. The mood was one of excitement and delight as thousands gathered to mark 50 years of self-rule.
A sense of euphoria swept through the grounds as the Ugandan flag was raised, a re-enactment of October 9, 1962. The man who was privileged to perform that task then, Maj Kenneth Akorimo, was in attendance, nostalgia written all over his face. Comparing the two events, he exclusively told The Observer that today’s event at Kololo had surpassed the one in 1962 in terms of grandeur.
He pointed to the display of helicopters and MIG fighter jets to make his point. Apart from President Museveni’s speech that was surprisingly short, the occasion was hardly different from previous festivities that take place at that venue.
“I am not going to give a jubilee speech, I made that during the presidential public lecture on October 2, 2012,” Museveni said, before speaking for about 20 minutes.
The President dwelt on the achievements of the last 26 years that he has been in charge. He repeated his earlier assertion that with the discovery of oil and prudent leadership, Uganda is to become a middle-income country in the coming decade or so and definitely a first-world country within the next 50 years.
They may have been barred from having parallel events, but the opposition did not sleep. In the middle of Museveni’s speech, Moses Bigirwa, the DP national youth leader, beat the security setup and moved over to journalists carrying a poster inscribed with the words, “50 years of dictatorship, 50 years of corruption, 50 years of nepotism.” He was whisked away by the presidential guard, but not before he had made his point.
He later told The Observer: “It was just a peaceful demonstration to show the world what has been and is going on in Uganda - dictatorship, shedding of blood, lack of drugs in hospitals and an education that is unaffordable to most people.”
The function was attended by about 12 heads of state from various African countries. However, by the time President Museveni delivered his speech, shortly after 2pm, about four of them had left. These included Dr Thomas Yayi Boni of Benin, who is also current African Union chairman, Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic, and General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania.
Other presidents in attendance included Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Mwai Kibaki (Kenya), Pierre Nkurunziza (Burundi), Joseph Kabila (DRC), Salva Kiir (South Sudan) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), for whom the wildest cheers were reserved. Others present were, Seretse Khama Ian Khama of Botswana, Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid, the new Somali leader, and another new one, Ethiopia Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
People started trekking into the redeveloped Kololo grounds early morning. Pioneer Easy buses were ferrying passengers to Kololo free of charge. In Kitintale, the buses got a cold reception but that appeared to be the exception, as many roads leading to Kololo were filled with enthusiastic people.
Several local artistes were on hand to entertain the crowd. These included Pastor Wilson Bugembe, Julianna Kanyomozi, Lady Mariam, and humourist Kenneth Kimuli aka Pablo.
Leading prayers, outgoing Church of Uganda Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi decried the culture of violence, unemployment, mismanagement and theft of public resources and low standards of living, particularly in slum areas.
Shaban Mubajje, the Mufti of Uganda, advised Ugandans to forget mistakes of the past and look forward. He prayed for a future full of love and compassion, trust and integrity and devoid of vices like bribery, corruption and embezzlement.
Perhaps the most captivating performances came from gospel artiste Judy Jacobs, who belted out the song, Days of Elijah, almost bringing the roof of the new stadium down.
Veteran artiste Alex Mukulu also had the crowd on its feet, with yet another spectacular musical and dance production showing the 50 years of independence. And with that, the golden jubilee party drew to a close. Until another 50 years.