Ernest Kakwano, the smooth operator who sneaked Muhoozi and siblings to exile

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Ernest Kakwano, the smooth operator who sneaked Muhoozi and siblings to exile
The late Ernest Kakwano

On February 3, 1981, Yoweri Museveni had to sneak his children out of the country to Kenya ahead of the planned launch of war on the government three days later. He entrusted that critical task with Ernest and Alice Kakwano.

TRIBUTE | Nature clocked the time on Ernest Kakwano's life on Easter Sunday. Kakwano, 80, literally waltzed through the two major regimes in the country's history - of Idi Amin and Yoweri Kaguta Museveni - like was not even there.

Of course, he was there, bigly, living almost unfettered and enviable privileges in both regimes and enjoying everything that life gave him.

He was one of the biggest confidantes of Mr Museveni from 1981 to the end of the bush war. This is about the most important thing that Museveni had to do before launching war on the government of the time.

Ernest Kakwano, an illustrious businessman and confidante of President Museveni and his family, died Sunday - sources close to his family have confirmed.

He was born on September 10, 1944, and will be laid to rest on Friday, April 5, at his ancestral home in Muko-Rukozi, Kashari County, in Mbarara District.

By February 1981, Mr Museveni had tied many loose ends except the most important: that of the security of his family. He assigned that crucial role to Kakwano and his wife Alice.

For a man who had been an automobile baron during the Amin regime - first as general manager of DT Dobie Uganda Mercedes Agency from 1971 to 1973, and then of Uganda Motors Ltd from 1973 to 1980 - Museveni could not have got a better man to entrust the safety of his children in.

Kakwano had lived through the entire Amin regime with all its notoriety like he was either a member of the untouchable high-table or an invisible force.

But it was the latter. He was like a scent - you felt his strong presence but did not see him. Sneaking Muhoozi Kainerugaba and his siblings out of the country through the Busia-Malaba border into Kenya turned out to be piecemeal for Kakwano.

Their mother Janet Kataha would leave by air via Entebbe airport.

Kakwano, a man for all seasons who excelled as an accountant, financial manager, marketer and journalist, would join the NRA external wing in Nairobi that was led by Yusuf Lule.

The main pillars were Joseph Katende, Amama Mbabazi, Ruhakana Rugunda and Matthew Rukikaire. Shem Bageine, a historical and an active rebel member, was the treasurer.

Veteran journalist Elvis Basudde, who worked with the propaganda wing of the group, said in 2021 that Kakwano was on the committee charged with fundraising for fighters in the bush and looking after their families in Nairobi.

This committee was chaired by Matthew Rukikaire with Sam Njuba as secretary. It included Zak Kaheru, Dr Samson Kisekka, Besweri Mulondo, Ernest Kakwano, Dr Jack Luyombya, and Crispus Kiyonga.

It was here that Kakwano's rapport with Museveni and his family came to the fore.

A day after Tito Okello overthrew Milton Obote's second regime, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, who had been lukewarm towards Museveni's NRA rebels, made critical decisions.

"On confirming that Obote, whom he used to respect as a fellow African statesman, was gone for good, Moi on Sunday rung one of Museveni's key people in Nairobi," wrote Mulengera News.

Kakwano was already making hay with his automobile in Nairobi as chief executive of Japanese autos. Moi was told he was the man communication pulse.

Mulengera News in their March 20, 2022, story, "History: Inside the Moi-NRA Nakuru farm meeting which changed story forever", that Musevenis had even given Kakwano his written will when he handed the children to his care.

"This is President Moi and I'm calling to ask you to help me speak to Museveni. My people have said your family knows a lot about his movements," Moi reportedly told Kakwano.

After hesitating, Kakwano gave Janet a ring and indeed Museveni was with him that day. The embrace that Museveni received from Moi following this call would prove crucial for the NRA guerillas en route to capturing power in 1986.

Man for all seasons

Earnest Kakweno during an interview with NRA archives media in 2023

When Kakwano thought he was fully retired, he was not anywhere close. He was in 2021 taken in by the World Food Bank as their chairman.

From his home in Entebbe, he maintains that quiet demeanour while being in the circle of the high-table.

The World Food Bank, while introducing Kakwano, said he was a man who firmly believed that the future of business, and indeed the world, will belong to those with new ideas.

“New ideas must be implemented quickly in order to realise profit and serve humanity while they are still relevant," the food bank quoted him as saying.

"New products, systems, and scientific knowledge are coming on stream so fast that businesses need reliable connectivity to keep relevant and profitable."

Rising from humble beginnings, Kakwano studied economics at the then University College in Nairobi and began his career with finance posts in the mining and car export industries.

Kakwano started his career at as assistant accountant in 1966 to 1969 at Kilembe Copper Mines in Kasese. He would be promoted to finance officer until 1971 when he moved wheels to Kampala as genera manager DT Dobie Uganda Mercedes Agency.

While people were fleeing Amin's regime, Kakwano was moonwalking his way inconspicuously as a manager.

Following his success growing a Mercedes and Nissan dealership in Uganda, he was contracted by Amin's government to manage the country’s entire motor trade - everything from buses and motorcycles to spare parts and tyres.

He would leave in 1980 and take his automobile love to Kenya. In 1986, he and his family returned home. Kakwano and Alice were named war heroes, and he was contracted by the NRA government to work alongside other economists at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to study and advise the government on ways to revive the economy.

"His role specifically was to head up the country’s main export earner, the Uganda Coffee and Marketing Board," the food bank said.

After starting a commodities export company with his son Edgar in 1990, Kakwano moved to fill the gap in the East African food export industry and that his how he entered a marriage with the World Food Bank after making friends with the organisation's chief executive Richard Lackey.

“In 1969, the population of Uganda was nine million. In 2016, it was 41.5 million. By 2050, it’s expected to be 100 million,” he said.

“We have needed, and will continue to need, to very rapidly increase the productivity of our food systems and apply modern farming methods.”

In 1991, Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) was founded following the passing of the UCDA Bill by the National Resistance Council, and the presidential assent to the UCDA Statute of July 12, 1991 (amended in 1994).

Kakwano became the founding Managing Director of UCDA and Supervisor of the Liberalisation of the Coffee Trade in Uganda.

It was at UCDA that Kakwano's sticky principles were noticed.

Quiet influence

First was when Museveni wanted a relative of the First Family appointed as marketing manager at Coffee Marketing Board. The job had been advertised and this was the country’s top foreign currency earner.

Museveni gave Kakwano a ring and mentioned that he was sending him a young man for a job. He did not specify what job.

Kakwano and his  CMB top management met reviewed the young man's documents, and found him a position commensurate with his qualifications and experience.

But the new recruit did not take the job. Museveni followed up on it.

“I hear there is another job that he is interested in,” Museveni said. “I think you even advertised it in the newspapers.”

Kakwano told the President "that job is for people who are much more qualified and experienced than that young man."

“What experience are you talking about?” Museveni cut in. "Those people you talk about with experience are the ones who have brought problems to this country."

As things moved, a minister who government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo in 2023 said was a "high-flyer" made his move.

The minister wanted his side-dish appointed to a top position in CMB. Kakwano refused. It set the two up for a bitter fight and the minister next time asked Kakwano for thousands of dollars to facilitate his travel abroad.

Again, he refused.

The minister ordered him fired for insubordination. It was then that the "high flyer" got to understand how the scent that Kakwano could be felt in real form.

The President intervened when the UCDA board took issues with Kakwano's sacking and asked the minister to go to Parliament and apologise for his arbitrary action. He declined.

"Museveni then directed then Deputy Prime Minister Eriya Kategaya to brief Parliament in the minister's presence and probably humiliation, that [the minister] did not have the powers to sack an MD of a public corporation," Opondo wrote in his October 14, 2023 column in The New Vision.

Veteran journalist Michael Wakabi says Kakwano once intimated to him that the minister had gone to Museveni and plead to be saved the humiliation.

The minister pledged to deliver UPC in Ankole to NRM and the deal that followed saw the business guru step down from UCDA.

But not long after, the minister found himself battling accusations that he had solicited and received a $10,000 bribe.

Kakwano probably received the news of the minister's fall from Kampala Club, where he was chairman from 1988 until 1993 when he handed over to Henry Lubega.

While the exclusive Kampala Club was supposed to be the place for Kakwano to relax and reflect on his life, but it also became the place for one of his worst experiences and pain - the detail of which is not for this website.

Kakwano would set up a printing press and newspaper, The Market Place, based in one of his houses in Entebbe just behind Stanbic Bank.

"He had a licence to any government printing business and did print exams and the like for schools," Wakabi recalls.

"He could also just pick any advert he saw in the New Vision, plant it his Marketplace, invoice, and he would be paid."

As Kakwano takes eternal rest, Ugandans will continue reeling off names of NRA historicals and biggest contributors to Museveni's revolution success.

There will be no name Ernest Kakwano.

But in the place where in has mattered most for the last 40 years, that is probably where the name resonated.

That is the State House. And that is influence, a quiet influence that will probably follow Ernest Kakwano to the quiet world he has gone to.

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