This article, published in The Observer of 24 July 2017, is republished with the paper’s permission.
ERIAS MULINDWA MUWONGE, one of the most influential and controversial talk show hosts, breathed his last on 18 July 2017. The Observer’s ABUBAKER MAYEMBA looks back at his career that won him as many friends as adversaries.
Mulindwa’s death last Wednesday triggered a host of tributes from friends, relatives and former workmates. Mulindwa, 54, battled hypertension for close to two weeks before he lost the battle.
Throughout his life, Mulindwa beat many odds. Starting out as a young barber in Masaka, founding Nalubaale Theatre Club in the eighties and later using his vast knowledge to inch his way into radio and onto the national stage as an on-air personality.
From barber to radio
Shrewdness endeared the youthful Mulindwa to many clients. He particularly impressed Nnalinya Sarah Kagere, Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi’s sister, who hired him to work in her salon in 1994. Mulindwa spent the next two years at Bayanja Men’s salon, which was then located in the city centre along Entebbe Road.
It is here that he made friends with Peter Sematimba and Stuart Mutebi, who catapulted him into a journalism career that changed his life forever.
“I first met him in 1994 after my colleagues recommended him to work in my salon. He was a sharp young man who was always engaged in political talk-shows,” recalled Nnalinya Kagere in a phone conversation with The Observer on Friday.
For the two years he spent there, Mulindwa was known as ‘Uganda’s encyclopedia’ of sorts. He knew a lot about the country’s past and his storytelling breathed new life into events of the past. Also a staunch SC Villa fan, no one could beat Muwonge at reconstructing how the club’s ferocious matches against Express FC in the eighties and nineties at Nakivubo stadium ended.
These sports narratives brought him closer to Stuart Mutebi. Sematimba, on the other hand, loved to hear his barber reconstruct The Battle of Mengo Hill and how Kabaka Edward Muteesa II narrowly escaped death at the hands of President Milton Obote’s soldiers by jumping over a wall fence.
Sematimba, then a popular presenter at Capital FM, noticed that Mulindwa could make a good radio personality if well trained.
“When Sematimba left Capital FM, he was assigned to recruit employees to work at Central Broadcasting Services (CBS FM) and he chose me for the sports desk and then Mulindwa. He believed that with some few touches, Mulindwa would make a great radio personality because of his vast knowledge and, indeed, he was right,” recalled Mutebi.
Through Semat Productions, Sematimba recruited more names such as DJ Shanks Vivie Dee, Menton Summer and Ssalongo John Sekandi. In 1996, Mulindwa left Bayanja salon and started work at CBS as a host of a mid-morning show, Amata Agatafa. Despite being an amateur, Mulindwa quickly got listeners’ calling in and discussing trending topics in politics and the economy.
His on-air personality peaked when government moved to introduce Value Added Tax (VAT). Mulindwa, a harsh critic of the tax, attacked the government initiative with gusto.
“How could government do that without consulting and educating the people?” Mulindwa reportedly asked then.
The next day he made VAT the topic of the day and callers, especially businesspeople, phoned in to voice their disappointment.
“That is the first time I realised the power of radio. When he was arrested on charges of inciting violence and held at Kampala Central police station, business people all over Kampala closed their shops in protest,” said Mutebi. “Even after being released, he continued denouncing VAT.”
Within less than three years on air, Mulindwa became a celebrity and all his shows were trending. He hosted ‘Parliament Yaffe’ every Saturday and a historical show ‘Ekigy’omanyi’ every Sunday night and drew huge audiences. His popularity soared after he openly spoke out against some provisions in the Land Bill 1998.
So popular Mulindwa had become that on several occasions, callers urged him to join active politics due to his anti-government stance.
Meanwhile, Mulindwa had also cut his teeth in theatre and his Nalubaale Theatre Club often performed around Kampala, Entebbe and Masaka on weekends. He also occasionally appeared in star-studded joint casts with established names such as Abbey Mukiibi, Kato Lubwama, Mariam Ndagire, Charles Senkubuge and Andrew Benon Kibuuka, among others.
However, Mulindwa’s trademark hardline position started to shift to a condescending tone at the turn of the millennium and this greatly disillusioned some of his hardcore supporters. He became critical of politicians who speak ill about government programmes but rumours that he had struck a deal with government were never proven.
Everything seemed to go well until 2001 when CBS fired him amid speculation that he was disgruntled after the departure of Sematimba. The latter had earlier left the station in acrimonious fashion and was working to start his Super FM. Six months later, Mutebi says he was also kicked out by word of mouth.
“They told me they could no longer work with Sematimba’s spies, so, they told the guards that I should never set foot at CBS,” said Mutebi.
Indeed, Mulindwa and Mutebi resurfaced at Super FM.
At Super FM, he continued reignited copycats of his CBS shows and also introduced another programme, Gafabusa, which investigated land-related complaints. He hosted Gafabusa with Charles Bwanika Sensuwa.
Though he didn’t enjoy the main-stream popularity he had while at CBS, Mulindwa nevertheless remained an influential figure on the airwaves, hosting several leading figures in government and security.
At Super FM, Mulindwa didn’t hide his support for President Museveni and often attacked leading opposition figures, especially Dr Kizza Besigye and Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago. His former employer, CBS, was not spared, particularly in 2009 when government shut down the station for 13 months.
Fallout with Sematimba
In 2012, after more than 10 years at Super FM, Mulindwa and Sensuwa fell out with Sematimba and he summarily sacked them. Sematimba was still reeling from the humbling loss to Lukwago in the Kampala mayoral race, where his supporters blamed Mulindwa’s persistent vitriol against Lukwago for the dismal showing.
Other sources claim Sematimba had had enough of complaints against Mulindwa and company, and the station’s ratings had tremendously fallen as a result.
Star FM relief
Using his wide network within government, Mulindwa joined state-owned broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) where he was appointed programmes manager at Star FM.
He revived his talk shows until earlier this month when he was admitted to Nsambya hospital with hypertension. At the time of his death, Mulindwa had filed a case in court claiming that all elected leaders in Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) should vacate their seats. He argued that the leaders were not recognised in the new KCCA law.
He was also planning to join the Law Development Centre (LDC) to pursue a diploma in legal practice.
Greatly loved and loathed almost in equal measure, Mulindwa had an imposing personality that often intimidated his guests. He also never shied away from speaking his mind, something that gave away any form of impartiality.
“He had so many battles, but he won them because of his wisdom. It is really sad,” Sensuwa summed up Mulindwa’s life.