In a twist on our normal “Book Club” format – which usually sees authors reflect on the most important stories from their recent publications – Sir Edward Clay reviews William Pike’s new work, Combatants: A Memoir of the bush war and the press in Uganda.
This is an unusual book: its first 11 chapters describe the author’s youthful determination to seek out the Ugandan rebel leader, Yoweri Museveni, and his guerrilla army (the national resistance Army – NRA), engaged in trying to bring down the chaotic regimes that followed Amin’s overthrow.
William Pike, met Ugandan exiles in London. Later, as a young, radical journalist, he idealised the NRA’s struggle as a popular uprising in which the rebels sustained themselves within, and with the support of the local population. Personally, he hoped to be the first British journalist to stay with the NRA until they won.
The latter part deals with his continuation in Uganda as a journalist, and editor of what became its leading newspaper, New Vision. In the process he became a family man, and a player in the struggle of the new Museveni regime to transform the geographic and ethnically embittered wreck they had captured into a democratic, ordered, developing, civilian and united country.
The other notable aspect is that most of the book was written nearly thirty years ago. Pike states that he has not amended much since. The very last chapter describes his departure in 2006 from the New Vision and Kampala following a cooling in the relationship which he had established with President Museveni during the bush war and sustained through the years of nation-building after the NRM’s victory in 1986.
The reader picking up the book today, therefore needs a grounding in the context of Pike’s evocation of events of the years 1980 – 1986 – 2000; even the events of the last chapter are by now 13 years old. As a result, the book lacks a rounded sense. It could have done with more perspective, of a story written with more hindsight. It flows a bit too smoothly after 1986. The text has the immediacy of the journalist’s reporting. The horrors of the bush war, and its less brutal moments are graphic. The reported speech feels authentic. It will be an invaluable source for historians. But it has important gaps. It hardly deals with Museveni’s ‘conversion’ to the donors’ nostrums in return for huge economic assistance to Uganda. There is a different or further story to be told.
Pike went to be a war correspondent, to ‘embed’ himself with the NRM. He had no radio, no cell phone and was entirely dependent on the guerrilla army whose own resources were slight. It demanded personal courage, physical and mental endurance, and commitment. He admits to feeling terrified by the ambient climate in Kampala, having entered under the noses of Obote’s vicious security forces.
Cathy Watson, his wife, was a formidable journalist, too. Pike pays tribute to her contribution to their joint endeavour. Together, Cathy and William were perhaps the most immersed foreigners in Kampala in the twenty-five years they were there. They knew leading Ugandans like nobody else. The book touches on the invasion of Rwanda by defectors from the NRM, who were mostly Rwandan refugees or their descendants. We should have had more of Watson’s expertise on Rwanda on display. The passage needs expansion to nail the more lurid myths about the genocide of 1994.
The continuity of the whole narrative derives from Pike’s own standards. He applied them to his war-reporting from the bush, and to his subsequent role as editor of the government paper (a description he rejected), New Vision. He became a major player in Museveni’s efforts to establish a new polity. He did not pull punches when the NRA’s own conduct – particularly in the north after the NRM became the government – left it open to accusations of abuse. He admits occasionally downplaying stories at the behest of government – and once, at least, at the request of the US Government. He also describes the personal risks of arguing with members of the government, and with the President himself, about awkward stories he felt it important to report. What else could he tell us?
It is also clear that throughout he stood up for high standards in the journalism he developed within the New Vision. He made sure his staff were paid better than most, but that the lazy would not be kept on. When trusted colleagues came under pressure from senior politicians, he backed them up.
He made the New Vision more reliable than its rivals, and more successful. He brought the paper into profitability. The young. hippy idealist became a successful media businessman, and a citizen of Uganda. A friend remarked on how extraordinary it was that Uganda had made him a successful entrepreneur. He is now in Kenya, practising those skills in a bigger market.
Combatants: A Memoir of the bush war and the press in Uganda, by William Pike. Amazon, 2019. x + 293 pp. £10.99 (paperback). Kindle £3.99. ISBN 9781798021002.
Edward Clay was British High Commissioner in Uganda from 1993 – 7