It is difficult to remember when Uganda last mourned an individual so unanimously like it did last weekend when businessman Bulaimu Muwanga Kibirige (BMK) passed away in Nairobi, where he had relocated for a year because of the critical medical care facilities that he needed to battle terminal cancer. But Nairobi was also BMK’s other home because he had lived for several years in the Kenyan capital where he made his critical breakthroughs that helped him lay an unshakable foundation for his business empire.
BMK was in his late teens in the early 70s when the expulsion of Indians from Uganda all but destroyed the economy, making the country reliant on Kenya for most manufactured goods, and the young Kibirige practically spent most hours everyday on the buses between Kampala and Nairobi ferrying goods for the Ugandan market for several years. When he went global and started travelling to Asia, Uganda with still under military rule, he always booked his round flights starting and terminating at Nairobi because travelling from Uganda then required special clearance which he would never have got to go to a multiplicity of countries in overseas.
He would book Entebbe-Nairobi and then book from Nairobi to the real destinations and back to Nairobi, hide the passport and return to Entebbe. There was then no need for a passport to travel between Kenya and Uganda.
During the unstable post-Amin years until 1986, BMK relocated fully to Nairobi to save his life and continued growing his global businesses. As fate would have it, when he became critically ill, BMK relocated to Nairobi, where he spent his final year on earth until he passed on at Aga Khan Hospital last Friday at the age of 67.
His demise dominated Ugandan media and public conversation the entire weekend. In the remote north eastern region of Karamoja, BMK’s death brought the regional capital of Moroto to a halt. Karimojong leaders and the public eulogised the man, whose Hotel African Moroto that was opened last year opened the door to many investors now flocking north-east, ready to sink their venture capital in a region previously only known for lawlessness.
Incidentally BMK picked the name Hotel Africana from a small outfit he used to frequent in Nairobi’s River Road during his struggling years in the 70s. He returned in later years intending to buy it and preserve it for sentimental reasons but alas, it had transformed beyond recognition. There already is a Hotel Africana in Lusaka, Zambia, and others are coming up in different locations of the region.
BMK has pioneered many business trends but let us mention two in the transport sector. First, he convinced Japanese firms that used to crash decommissioned vehicles for recycling to let him first remove good spares which he then shipped to Africa. By making quality Japanese spares cheaply available, BMK helped save so many lives that were being lost to armed robbers who would kill to grab cars for stripping and supply spares dealers.
And then boda boda! In the mid 1990s, BMK imported about 200 motor bikes and gave them on credit you young men in Kampala who were riding manual bicycle taxis which were so cumbersome as both rider and passenger had to disembark and walk whenever they reached an uphill slope, however gentle. It was an overnight transformation of the transport in a region where four wheel public transport cannot reach most homes due to the state or absence of roads. Today, millions of young men in the region riding boda boda owe their jobs to BMK.
BMK did his part in providing transport solutions as was practicable in his time and is now gone. East Africa continues on the quest for transport solutions. Standard gauge railways, old gauge, Airbuses, Dreamliners, Bombardiers. For the road, Kenya is making its sleek Mobius, the first made in Rwanda car rolled off the Volkswagen line in Kigali two years ago and in Uganda, the government’s Kiira Motors Corporation (KMC) is working around the clock to meet orders for its ‘Kiira’ (River Nile) buses – both electric and diesel – after the government recently banned the importation of buses.
Tanzania has been mulling gas powered vehicles for some time and we hope this materialises sooner than later. And things are happening around Lake Victoria, starting especially starting at Kisumu in Kenya, from where increasing amounts of Uganda’s fuel imports are now shipped. Petroleum is the biggest item on Uganda’s import bill, and its transportation is another killer cost.
Truly, the EAC governments are working out solutions for transport but the efforts are still disjointed. But a man called BMK did big interconnected projects all over the EAC. Surely, the EAC governments and the secretariat in Arusha can martial more planning and financing capabilities than BMK, can’t they?
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]