Bukedde turns 20 on a high: The inside story

By Joachim Buwembo

Bukedde means dawn, and Bukedde newspaper was launched at the dawn of an important era in Uganda in 1994. The Constituent Assembly had just begun business debating the new constitution for Uganda and the Kabaka of Buganda was settling onto his throne, following the 1993 restoration of the kingdoms ahead of the Constituent Assembly which, as everyone knew, would never have accepted the return of monarchies had the matter been left to debate. Later in the year 1994, the first FM private radio stations were to go on air. And the first mobile phone operator was licensed at the same time, launching to the public the following year. It was exciting times.

This was Bukedde's first color redesign. 25.11.99
This was Bukedde’s first color redesign. 25.11.99

With Luganda publications collapsing as fast as they were being set up, the coming of Bukedde onto the scene was notable, since it enjoyed the strong parenthood of the New Vision and was therefore not expected to collapse easily. It took Bukedde a while to establish a distinct character. Long serving New Vision Managing Director William and Editor-in-Chief Pike knew he was onto something big with the creation of Bukedde but not being a Luganda speaker himself, he left the paper’s direction heavily in the hands of Baganda editors, restricting his role largely to its business aspect. Not long after the establishment of the new constitutional order, the issue of the land law came up, seeking to harmonise the different land tenure systems. The big question of Buganda’s famous 9,000 square miles came up. Bukedde did their investigation and gathered the big names of the politically connected big shots of the new revolutionary government who had acquired thousands of acres off the “mailo akenda”. They only published the first few and as their readers awaited the full list, the exciting series was quickly and quietly dropped. The editor, Maurice Ssekawungu, was a long-serving journalist who was already pondering life after retirement and was understandably a cautious man.

As a financially strong company, New Vision had started a programme of sending its editors one by one for several months to the UK to get a feel of the world’s advanced newspaper market. Ssekawungu’s turn to go to the UK came before Bukedde had established itself as a powerful market player in the late nineties. For the three months he was to be away, his young lieutenant Geoffrey Kulubya was chosen to stand in as acting editor. Pike was still uneasy about Bukedde’s low sales. Kulubya attended his Editorial Committee meeting, New Vision’s high command of sorts where section heads would make important decisions about the different products. Chairing the meeting, Mr Pike asked Kulubya if the thought he could at least increase Bukedde’s sales by some ten percent in the three months that he was going to be in charge.

Kulubya was the ‘boy’ in that meeting. He did not share the awe and reverence the rest of us senior people had for Mr Pike. And so with the typical nothing-to-lose attitude of a junior, Kulubya rather carelessly dismissed Mr Pike’s ten percent suggestion saying he was not interested in small increases and would settle for nothing short of doubling the sales in that period.

“Stop bragging!” Pike barked.

Bukedde newspaper Editor Maurice Ssekawungu (r) with New Vision directors led by the MD William Pike talk to Mr. David Billington about the new look of the Bukedde newspaper
Bukedde newspaper Editor Maurice Ssekawungu (r) with New Vision directors led by the MD William Pike talk to Mr. David Billington about the new look of the Bukedde newspaper

But the unruly Kulubya persisted with his claim that doubling the paper’s sales was a small matter for him. After the meeting, some members advised Kulubya to tone down on his over-confidence.

Possibly the enormity of his undertaking dawned on Kulubya and he immediately went to work. He decided to employ his investigative capabilities which had not been exploited during the land grabbing story and divert them to the social affairs arena. Somewhere in the trading hub of Nakivubo, there was a small trader who was having an affair with the wife of a bigger trader. The bigger trader was stalking the poacher and it seems Kulubya got wind of it through his connections with the town “grassroots”. When the lovebirds were trapped and being caught, A Bukedde reporter and photographer were on hand to capture the whole process.

The story was published, in strict adherence to the editorial principles of accuracy and balance. The photocopy of the loverboy’s confession was printed on page two as were the decent photos of the ‘culprits’ when they were fully dressed. With a one-word banner headline ‘Babakutte’ (They have been caught), Bukedde’s turning point had come and there was no looking back. The edition sold out and people in downtown Kampala kept making photocopies and selling them. They had never seen anything like it.

By the time his boss returned from England, Kulubya had indeed doubled the Bukedde sales, albeit with a bit of recklessness. The return of Ssekawungu helped to restore the control of the paper in safe hands while not losing on the creativity and daring of his lieutenant.

Bukedde then took the risky gamble and turned its guns onto the very embodiment of Buganda monarchy, the Kabaka himself. For sometime, there had been some whispers about King Ronald Mutebi’s delay to get married. Ssekawungu’s team embarked on a search of his known girlfriends and decided to run a series profiling them and their relations with the Kabaka.

To many conservative Baganda, publishing Kabaka’s love life was bordering on blasphemey. Yet they were at the same time very keen on reading about “abazaana ba Kabaka” and the sales went through the roof. They castigated Bukedde while at the same time impatiently waiting to read the next edition about another ‘muzaana’.

Soon after, it was announced that the Kabaka was going to take a bride. Photos of the lady, Sylvia Naginda, arrived at the New Vision offices on a Saturday evening. I was editor of the Sunday Vision and had already released the first edition of the paper. My greed for scoops was well known with the group and management feared I would use the photos in the second edition that comes out on Sunday morning. At times there was rivalry in the group and for instance, the Bukedde editors never forgave me when I “hijacked” Engineer Charles Kazibwe, estranged late husband of former Vice President Specioza, as he looked for their office and got a big one from him for Sunday Vision instead. The wife had been making some unkind remarks in public and he thought he ought to set the record straight. When he arrived at the company premises asking for Bukedde, I saw him first since my office was near the reception. I went and sat in his car and he poured out his heart. The result was the unforgettable lead story “I slapped the VP twice”.

So that Saturday afternoon when the photos arrived, it was decided that Sunday Vision be restrained from using them.  Even the English daily, The New Vision, was told not to use the photos on Monday. This was Bukedde’s deserved prize and we left them savour it. On Monday morning, Kampala woke up to a Bukedde front page that was in form of a portrait. Buganda was seeing its future queen for the first time on Bukedde.

There had been a running quarrel between the kingdom radio CBS, and Bukedde newspaper over persistent attacks on some goings on at Mengo, the kingdom seat. Peter Ssematimba was still at CBs and was the main presenter of the popular morning show, Kalisoliso. Then he did the unexpected, shouting in the microphone:

“Listen carefully everybody; I am going to announce what I never imagined would ever cross my lips: Everybody go out and buy Bukedde!”

Ssematimba was not an ordinary employee of CBS. He was on Kabaka’s special assignment to help set up the station for the kingdom. He must have known what the average member of the public did not know, regarding the Kabaka’s position on Bukedde, and was not taking any risk with his call to market Bukedde.

Indeed, when groups of Baganda and non Baganda started going to Mengo palace to deliver their contributions towards the royal wedding, things became clearer when Bukedde staff and management took theirs. The Katikkiro (prime minister), singled out Bukedde for special mention. He paid glowing tribute to the paper for making the wedding possible, disclosing that it was their provocative series that had hastened the Kabaka’s decision to wed. Turning to the editors in a lower voice he said, “Omanyi eddenzi erikuliridde ku kyalo bwotolinyonyogera terivaamu  mwasi” meaning that a senior bachelor needs to be tickled into action.

But it was not brilliant journalists alone that made Bukedde the success it became. A supportive management has been behind it as well. After William Pike, Robert Kabushenga embraced Bukedde even more tightly that his predecessor. Kabushenga’s love for Bukedde, in my rather informed view, was in part born out of the constant struggle for supremacy he fought with the Belgian editor in Chief replaced David Sseppuuya who took over from Mr Pike. Els de Temmerman fought so hard to keep Kabushenga out of the editorial affairs of the English daily, and their fights became a matter of presidential concern, requiring the president to mediate between the two. This gave Robert time to focus on Bukedde, giving the Luganda paper the benefit of his marketing and creative skills. His soft spot for Bukedde must have hastened its diversification of outlets as well as concepts like its music bonanzas and motivational crusade like the Group’s ‘Pakasa’. Indeed, in the vast New Vision empire, Bukedde staff have a special fondness for Robert who has done a lot to boost their status and professional esteem.

Bukedde today continues to enjoy the peculiar distinction as the only Ugandan newspaper whose circulation continues to grow. This is mostly due to their mastery of the public tastes and preferences. On many occasions, Bukedde milks an incident that editors of other newspapers frown upon. But the growing sales figures bear them out. When local musician Paulo Kafeero died about a decade ago, Bukedde spent some two months milking the story, locating a new woman whom he had had liaison with every few days but the public did not tire of it and instead sent the paper’s sales through the roof. Whenever some military conflict arises somewhere in the world, Bukedde comes up with (internet) pictures of weapons they purport to be the ones being used, and the people buy. Kampala’s traders and urban poor whose number keeps growing love Bukedde and keep rewarding it with higher sales.

Twenty years ago, Bukedde entered a market when the media was benefitting from great new opportunities in form of relaxed legal environment and modern technology. Today, it is still on top of the local language game. But any complacency can cost them that position, a fact they must be constantly aware of, hence their endless innovations.

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