The billboard that Col Gadaffi did not unveil

Sunday October 16 2011

The Museveni-Gadaafi billboard on Masaka

The Museveni-Gadaafi billboard on Masaka highway. Picture: Halima Abdalla 

By Halima Abdalla

In Tripoli, street caricature have replaced Col Muammar Gaddafi’s portraits.

That is, when the artists were not inspired to burn or damage them as it became obvious that the leader would go.

Elsewhere, the story unfolds differently.

In Moscow, women protested against the war.

They displayed mattresses with Gaddafi’s portrait at the European Commission building with such slogans as “Make love not war!” “Send to sleep the spirit of war!” “Mattresses and breasts, forget about war!”

On Masaka highway, about 100km south of Kampala, stands a huge billboard guarded by the army.

On the left, President Yoweri Museveni stands face to face with Gaddafi; perhaps enjoying a chat. On the right, the two stand side by side looking straight ahead. (Were they staring into the future?)

For a long time, the billboard was covered. It is not clear when it was uncovered.

Col Gaddafi was expected to unveil the billboard but that never happened. Even after Gaddafi is gone, the billboard remain heavily guarded.

To any traveller, it does not make sense until you read the inscriptions in Arabic and English.

Though it is by the roadside, it is out of bounds even without any signs saying so — the army guards are enough to keep you away.

The billboard reads: “Erected in memory of Libyan government support to the then National Resistance Army rebellion.

Around this [Luweero Triangle] the Libyan air force dropped weapons to the rebels.”

The NRA rebellion was born after the 1980 elections that Museveni contested under the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM).

UPM won one seat but refused to take its seat in parliament saying the elections were rigged in favour of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), at the time headed by Dr Milton Obote.

The Democratic Party (DP), which is said to have won the elections, chose to take its seats in parliament while Museveni took to the bush.

In his book Museveni’s Long March from Guerilla to Statesman, the late Maj. Ondonga Ori Amaza justifies the rebellion.

“The elections sparked off the rebellion but its mission was more than reversing the election results,” he wrote.

“When we went to the bush, we went to fight tribalism and other forms of sectarianism. We also fought to end murder in Uganda, corruption and backwardness in the economy,” Museveni explains in his book What is Africa’s problem.

Three months after the rebellion started, Libya made contacts with the rebels.

Museveni met Gaddafi in Libya and the latter gave the rebels some money and shortly after, smuggled in 800 rifles, 45 RPG launchers, mortars, machine guns and 100 anti-tank landmines.

But the rebels received only 96 riffles, five GPMGs, 8 RPGS and landmines.

“This relatively small amount of weapons was useful but not decisive in any way.

The mines were particularly useful in blocking the Luwero roads by blowing up trucks,” Museveni writes in his book The Mustard Seed.

Incidentally, the rest of the firearms ended up in the hands of another rebel group, the Uganda Freedom Fighters headed by Prof Yusuf Lule that was fighting separately.

Later the two groups merged into the National Resistance Movement (NRM) with NRA being the armed wing.

In 1985, Libya sent another consignment of weapons — 800 rifles, 800,000 rounds of ammunition and some SAM-47 launchers.

By this time, Gen Tito Okello and Gen Bazillio Olara with assistance from Idi Amin’s exiled soldiers had toppled Obote, sending him into exile in Zambia.

Negotiations ensued on power sharing between the Tito government and the NRM/NRA but yielded nothing.

NRM/NRA, however opted out of the negotiations that were held in Nairobi when it discovered that Tito was in league with foreign powers to isolate NRM/NRA.

“Having seen the trend, we decided to go on the offensive. We arranged for 800,000 rounds of ammunition and 800 rifles to be parachuted over our area in Ngoma using IIyushin 76 planes, the only significant support we received from Libya,” Museveni states in the book.

At that time, Katonga Bridge was blocked, cutting off the western part of the country with NRA stationed on the northern shores of the river and along the supply lines leading to where Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) and its allies were confined or besieged in Masaka Barracks. The bridge was opened after the UNLA surrendered.

“The battles of Katonga and Masaka were vitally important because it was at Katonga that we really destroyed the UNLA forces. This made our eventual assault on Kampala much easier,” Museveni writes in The Mustard Seed.

Unfortunately, the visibility of “Gaddafi” near Katonga Bridge is in contrast with the scene at the Libyan embassy.

With the exception of the emblem that can be seen at close range at its embassy gate, there is nothing else; even the Libyan flag has been lowered.