It is more than a week since Sam Kalega Njuba passed on.
An accomplished lawyer in his heyday as well as an astute politician, nearly all the eulogies about him centred around his works in the academia and constitutionalism; and as a person, forthrightness. However, little has come to light about his integral role in Ugandan football such as the resurrection of Express FC as well as his immense contribution towards the welfare of footballers.
I got to know Njuba in 1979 when Express FC officials were struggling to revive the club, which had been banned by Central Province Governor Abdallah Nasur in 1977. The process faced several hurdles, the biggest being a lack of players and officials, who had abandoned the club and crossed to SC Villa (formerly Express’ junior side).
Then there was division among the club faithful; the elite on one side and the ordinary folks on the other. A section of Express faithful were of the view that since ‘extremist club fanatics’ may have partly provoked Nasur to ban the club, they should be sidelined in the new hierarchy.
Express’ Red army was notorious for taunting rival clubs and at times resorted to militant ways whenever the club was facing a hiding on the pitch. But, the ‘extremists’ were the majority, didn’t want to drop their hardline stance and protested that the club belonged to ordinary people and not the elites.
At the time, Njuba had just returned from exile along with Jimmy Mugambe Kiwanuka, Vincent Bbaale Mugera and Gerald Sendaula. They teamed up with the few officials who had remained in Kampala such as Kezekiah Segwanga Musisi, Fred Yiga, Hajji Abdul Kasujja and Bablo Ali, among others, to forge the way forward.
The dilemma was who should lead the club in transition. The club needed a leader who could unite all the club faithful. Two names of Henry Muganwa Kajura and Sam Kalega Njuba came up but after lengthy deliberations, they zeroed on Njuba. Aside from his career as a prominent lawyer, Njuba exuded calmness and was a believer that the ‘haves and have nots’ could coexist and work together for the good of the club.
Besides, he was well connected with the then government leadership. He took over at a time when the club had no structures not to mention a competitive squad. As if that was not challenging enough, the club was cash-strapped. It depended on contributions from well-wishers and the occasional fundraising during training sessions.
Njuba spent much of the 1979 season not only building a new team but also trying to reconcile Express and SC Villa to merge. His view was that the two clubs shared the same history and they needed to work together to challenge the status quo of KCC FC, UCB FC and Coffee FC, who were the dominant teams at the time.
But Express diehards, who felt betrayed by Villa, demanded that the latter closes shop and rejoin Express. With free-spending Villa boss Patrick Kawooya not budging, Njuba had no option but to abandon the talks. In 1980, Express rejoined the topflight and to everyone’s surprise, the makeshift Red Eagles finished fifth on the table.
All seemed well for Njuba’s executive and plans were underway to mount a title challenge before hell broke loose. The controversial December 1980 general elections not only destabilized the country but football was also affected. For one, Njuba fled to exile in Kenya.
His absence created a leadership vacuum at the club, especially on who takes the final decisions. Performance deteriorated and with Express lacking a clear leadership, a group of fans led by Livingston Muwanga aka Sergeant Doe stormed the club’s training ground in 1981 and dissolved the entire executive.
Jimmy Mugambe Kiwanuka and Patrick Kiwanuka would later steer the club out of trouble. Njuba returned to Uganda in 1986 and was appointed minister of state for Constructional Affairs. He remained a silent supporter and on several occasions attended the club’s games. His down-to-earth approach usually surprised fans because he never moved around with security detail.
In October 1986, when ex-internationals formed a football club, they picked Njuba to be their patron. Fittingly, he took his new role with gusto and on several occasions trained with the team. When Buganda clans football was revived in 1987, Njuba played an active role in his Nakinsige clan, where he served as team manager.
His biggest challenge, however, came in November 1987 when the sports ministry threatened to ban the tournament on grounds that it was ‘discriminatory.’ It was Njuba and Abbey Kafumbe Mukasa who came out publically to successfully resist the plan.
In 1988, the sports ministry withdrew Uganda from the Cecafa Cup hosted in Malawi, but it was Njuba who convinced government to reconsider its decision after spearheading the solicitation of funds for the team. In 1989, close confidants intimated that the Cecafa Cup final between Uganda and Malawi nearly took Njuba’s life. With Uganda eager to lift the trophy for the first time in 12 years, The Cranes came from behind three times to force a penalty shootout.
It is said that the nerve-wracking spot-kicks nearly caused a heart attack and thereafter, Njuba quit football for good. Throughout the 90s, Njuba’s political career took centre stage but still, he remained an active Express fan, often consulted during crises.
The author is a director of The Observer Media Ltd