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WEEKEND FEATURE

HOW PIKE BUILT VISION GROUP FROM SCRATCH

By John V Sserwaniko

William Pike’s very first writing in New Vision was a notice to the general public elaborating on the paper he envisaged in the coming years. “New Vision will be a campaigning newspaper that will fight to implement the ideals behind the NRA’s struggle namely an end to corruption, tribalism and sectarianism in the interest of national unity and economic development. That doesn’t mean it will be soft on government-far from it. The government has a responsibility to Uganda and indeed to Africa to make sure those ideals are fulfilled,” he stated in his commencement editorial, writing as Editor-in-Chief.

In this Vision Group photo Pike is seen joining Kabushenga to cut the cake marking 25 years of excellent journalism practice

This was July 1986 and this pledge was consistent with what he told Eriya Kategaya (a friend he had known years earlier as a leading ideologue of the NRM external wing) in March 1986 when he first urged him to leave the London paper he was freelancing for, relocate to Uganda & head the new government paper.

Kategaya, who was among the very revolutionary NRA/M big men who had just taken over and were staying at Fairway Hotel as they waited to each be allocated a government house, casually rang Pike who was in UK. Based in Nairobi, he rang Pike very often whenever there was a good story to be carried about NRA or bad one about Milton Obote. Pike would then use his vast media network, as a freelance journalist in the western capitals, to ensure the story prominently runs. The idea (as we shall show in our subsequent article) was to internationalize the NRA cause while demonizing the atrocious Obote who especially the British had vowed never to abandon in favor of the “NRA bandits.”

In this Bukedde photo, Robert Kabushenga is seen chating with his predecessor Pike

Kategaya told Pike the new government was looking at establishing a very strong state-owned newspaper to help explain the NRA values while demystifying many of the unfounded fears sections of Ugandans had about its leader YK Museveni. “This is strictly an informal discussion I’m having with you but if you are interested, I can link you up to the Minister of Information to come over and run it for us,” Kategaya told Pike on the phone. Pike was excited but asked for time to think about it. Many of those he consulted discouraged him arguing a government newspaper in Africa can’t succeed as a business because of excessive interference.

Ben Matogo (NRA/M external wing activist based in London who initially linked Pike up to M7) and senior journalist Dick Hal, who had previously edited state-owned Zambia Times under Kaunda, are some of the few that encouraged him saying this was a God-sent opportunity.

Pike is a strong family man

Pike took another 2 months (up to May 1986) thinking about the Kategaya offer. When he made up his mind and informed him, Kategaya arranged for him to meet powerful NRM Information Minister Abu Mayanja who eventually formally gave him the job. Mayanja struck Pike (now 67) as a very brilliant “short man, fat-faced with heavy glasses and pink lips.” Cabinet, chaired by new President Museveni, had sat days prior to the Kategaya phone call and chose to name it New Vision to capture the new public euphoria and hope that the Museveni government would usher in a new era that would be free of tribalism, obscurantism, corruption and other ills that had bedeviled past regimes.

Kategaya assured him the NRM was committed to walking the talk on all the freedoms it promised including freedom of press implying that, as New Vision boss, Pike would naturally have all the editorial independence required to run the paper into a vibrant business without any state interference.

Eria Kategaya was very pivotal to William Pike’s journalism career

Pike wasn’t the only one NRM ideologues considered for a potential head of the newspaper which the NRA badly needed to have in place itself having been a victim of total blackout or at best negative publicity. In his great work (COMBATANTS: A Memoir of The Bush War & the Press in Uganda) published recently, Pike reveals majority had favored Bakulumpagi Wamala closely followed by Wafula Oguttu who declined saying he was doubtful a government paper can ever succeed as a business in Africa. He preferred running The Weekly Topic as Editor-in-Chief along with Onyango Obbo. Indeed, on arrival in Kampala before even reporting for work, Pike sought out Wafula for advice and he insisted the new government paper stood no chance if his idea was to run it as a business as opposed to relying on government funding. The other person being fronted was James Tumusiime (now of Fountain Publishers) who was already running New Vision as Ag Editor-in-Chief.

In his book, Pike observes that the subsequent intrigue Tumusiime directed at him was largely because he felt he “had been passed over.” The two often had heated arguments sometimes in front of their subordinates. They were booked at Fairway Hotel where they lived neighbored by top ministers and leading NRM ideologues like Eriya Kategaya and others (as they waited being allocated appropriate gov’t housing). They would argue over things like mistakes and accuracy in case a story backfired.

Upon strong recommendation by fellow Minister Eria Kategaya, Information Minister Abu Mayanja recruited Pike as the founding boss for what became Vision Group

Pike says despite being “very arrogant, convivial drinker” and generally hard person to work with, Tumusiime was vastly talented in a many other ways. He observes that Tumusiime, who had actively participated in NRM external wing in Nairobi, was “witty, personable, articulate” and knowledgeable about Uganda’s political & social problems. Pike also confesses, as a writer of many of the lead stories, Tumusiime was the only one (in a team of the 65 employees he started with) whose stories would run without him having to go through them.

STARTING OUT

He recalls the New Vision he reported at for work effective July 1986 was a frighteningly messed up place with barely any of the basic equipment required to out a serious newspaper. Pike, whose enthusiasm and “spirits fell” on first day, observes that whereas the entire Kampala had been run down, Industrial Area where NV was located was much worse. There was dust, overgrown bushes and abandoned vehicle scraps everywhere. The NV was replacing Uganda Times that had been notorious doing Obote propaganda. It evolved from Lonrho-owned Uganda Argus which (as of 1972 when Amin nationalized it from private owners) had grown into Uganda’s largest newspaper enterprise with daily sales averaging at 30,000 copies. Uganda Times had collapsed on the eve of the July 1985 coup because of large debts and expenses.

As Minister for Information, Abu Mayanja recruited William Pike as the founding CEO & Editor-in-Chief for what became Vision Group

Staff were sent home without adequate redundancy benefits payment prompting many to (in revenge) vandalize and loot company premises as they exited. In its place & location came NV Pike was to head. Remarkably, the Uganda Times collapse was preceded by a $1.9m recapitalization/investment by David Anyoti who was Obote II’s Information Minister. Collapse was largely because the propaganda and false reporting had prompted the market to shun it at a time rival papers had their sales grow as they exposed UPC’s excesses and poor execution of the war.

Here was Pike receiving two tables and one typewriter to found what has grown into one of the most successful media businesses in EA. There was no telephone to use calling sources; preparing stories for the next edition. It was a bi-weekly coming out Monday and Thursdays. Staff morale was very low because the NV monthly salary averaged at Shs40,000 ($7); just enough to buy 8 beers. Doubling as Editor in Chief and business manager, Pike daily worked from 8am to past midnight. Gratefully getting stories wasn’t hard because he lived with sources and newsmakers at Fairway. Kategaya, who was Museveni’s de-facto No.2, being an old friend must have made news sourcing a lot easier for Pike.

Bukedde photo showing Pike on the day Vision Group honored him for his mighty pioneering works

There was so much scarcity of supplies then in Kampala that some of the inputs required to out a newspaper had to be bought on black market. Having previously worked with Uganda Times, which specialized at praising UPC with all its inefficiencies, many of the staff had poor attitude towards work. Absenteeism and late coming was rampant and many were untouchable. They felt powerful, and being UPC diehard supporters, many kept hoping Obote would bounce back and Museveni stay would be short lived. Insisting UPC won fairly as corroborated by the Commonwealth observers, they would refuse to write that the 1980 elections had been rigged yet this was common rhetoric by NRA/M functionaries at public functions.

Pike says, working with Kale Kayihura who was a very influential ideologue in NRM and MA to Museveni, he initiated study group sessions to get the senior editors and reporters change their negative attitude towards nascent NRM in vain. He called in Kale after failing to convince journalists from holding on to the old UPC propaganda that NRA (and not UNLA) was murderous and responsible for human skulls in Luwero triangle. They frustrated this effort by shunning the study sessions even when Kale would arrive on time and patiently waited. Quite often it would be Pike alone and his guest Kale. The top leadership of the NRM, through Kategaya, urged patience and saw accommodating guys whose ideology is so hostile to NRM as an opportunity to demonstrate tolerance the new administration claimed to epitomize.

William Pike also loves photography; both photographing others and being photographed too

The Editor-in-Chief wouldn’t give up. He had to rely on these very saboteurs to produce results; building NV into a vibrant self-sustaining media enterprise running without state handouts. Convinced a good General is one who fights (doing his best) with the army available and not the one he wishes he had, Pike cajoled the bad guys to make tour trips with him to the jungles of Luwero interacting with survivors of UNLA violence. This gradually changed their mindset towards NRM. Some became remorseful for the UPC propaganda they had been publishing in Uganda Times. Col Samson Mande, Phenihas Katirima, Victor Bwana & John Nagenda enabled this initiative.

Some of the UPC guys he had to change included chief sub editor Perez Owori, deputy news editor Ben Ochan (had been Press Secretary to PM Otema Alimadi), senior reporter Asuman Nakendo (had been Press Secretary to Paul Muwanga), features editor Ike Omoding (had been UPC GS for Uganda Times branch) and news editor Sam Serwanga who (despite not being very enthusiastic about UPC) wasn’t very enthusiastic about NRM either.

Pike interacts with former workmates at Vision Group

In his late 30s, James Tumusiime was the only senior figure at NV who was very enthusiastic about NRM and what it stood for but that didn’t make things any easier because as Pike notes, he “was a complex character and our relationship over the years was difficult.” Otherwise Tumusiime had many good credentials as an NRM cadre including being with Museveni since UPM days and editing Uganda Resistance News which the external wing used to expose Obote atrocities. A Muhima like Museveni, Tumusiime had also excelled freelancing for major Kenyan papers through the exile years. He also was a leading (Bogi Benda) cartoonist for the Kenyan Standard newspaper. Portraying him as vindictive, Pike reminisces that Tumusiime took his failure to become NV’s Editor-in-Chief so far that he would refuse to shake Kategaya’s hand whenever they met at functions.

Pike says despite being brilliant and hardworking, James Tumusiime (L) wasn’t an easy person to work with. Middle is Jim Muhwezi who was very supportive of Pike in his early days at NV

With the rest of the old UPC scribes becoming NRM, Pike soldiered on, re-designed NV and within just months, the company had good cash flow. Staff salaries were increased from mere $7 to $55. Chris Malwade, a nice young guy who had just returned from exile in Nairobi, was head hunted and recruited as Chief Accountant. Pike says this was a major boost as Malwade put in place systems, trained others, tracked company funds and prepared monthly management accounts. This semblance of corporate governance, Pike notes, was very rare in the Uganda and government parastatals of that time. Thus, many were in future to benchmark on the NV systems. Staff targets began to be set, outputs improved and the company began doing tremendously well. Those who had left (seeing hopelessness everywhere) desired to come back but Pike never let them in.

Other challenges remained including rampant malaria cases (mosquitoes coming from surrounding bushes) leading to widespread staff absenteeism. Management bought mosquito sprays on top of contracting a city clinic to give free treatment to staff and immediate family. A motivated workforce became willing to be subjected to higher outputs and targets leading to enhanced overall company efficiency. It was time to crack the whip on the floppy ones who insisted on remaining absent and coming late. One morning Pike expelled 10 staffers, something that made others realize it wasn’t going to be business as usual.

William Pike having a private family moment

It was time to enforce discipline targeting those that were addicted to UPC era drunkardness and corrupt practices from past work places. Pike recalls the notorious case of a one Tamale, a photographer who was notorious for making ghost refund claims from the company including for assignments he hadn’t undertaken. He often got free photos from the OPM press unit but would lie his editors he is from the field and needs transport refund. In March 1987, Abu Mayanja as line Minister presided over NV’s 1st anniversary party and (being a Muslim) he left without touching any of the Johnny Walker bottles on the high table. Before Mayanja could even leave, Tamale jumped and grabbed the bottles and started swallowing. It was a very embarrassing incident and Pike fired him the next day. Tamale accused him of being an arrogant Mzungu with vendetta against Baganda. A strong message had been sent that nobody would mess up at Pike-led NV and get away with it.

William Pike being interviewed

Rampant newspaper thefts were common as vendors would have and sell newspapers earlier than 7am which was the official dispatch time. It was the work of a powerful racket comprising vendors and production managers inside NV. It was bad for business and had to be fought. Leveraging on his good network in the new NRM intelligence circles, Pike commissioned an operation that resulted in perpetrators being prosecuted in the Magistrates Court. An illiterate West Niler, Ozelle, had a crammed home behind NV factory where inserters and managers would sneak and hide newspapers. Pike laid his trap as early as 5am and the guys were caught red-handed. For refusing to testify against the suspects in Court, NV Production Manager David Byangwa was promptly fired, creating an impression under Pike nobody was untouchable for doing wrong. Pike equally cracked the whip on vendors who were selling above the official price per copy. This was easy because, courtesy of the good stories therein, NV would sell out by 4pm.

William Pike attends a graduation ceremony

THE GOOD STORIES

Riding on Kategaya verbal assurances that NRM wouldn’t gag press freedom, Pike invested in controversial investigative stories as long as they are true. It’s such bad news that sells as good news rarely does. Pike assured his reporters they were free to write about anything-good or bad about NRM functionaries provided it was true. As they waited for the next scandal to break in NRA/M (whose revolutionary shame spirit was beginning to become compromised), future Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi unexpectedly returned home on 14th August 1986. This was his first officially recognized/accepted home coming since 1972. That very evening, a powerful contact secured for NV an exclusive moment with Mutebi. They interviewed him at his sister’s house at 8pm, took his nice photos and got the lead for their next day’s edition. They printed 8,000 copies which got done by 9am. They had scooped their major market rival The Star which was the official paper for protestant Baganda conservatives. The Star crusaded for restoration of old Buganda kingdom and not having the Mutebi exclusive was a big blow to them.

Kabaka Mutebi gave Pike one of the best exclusives New Vision ever had in its very first months in media business

Barely a month later (on 2nd September), NV had another scoop taking the market by storm. It was about an abortive coup 25 Buganda elders had organized against NRM. They operated as “Kirimuttu.” The documents (recovered by the Jim Muhwezi-led intelligence operation) indicated the elders had lured Baganda soldiers to rise and topple Museveni and replace him with someone from Royal family of Buganda. They claimed Baganda had sacrificed a lot in the war and that Prof Yusuf Lule’s place in NRM should be inherited by a Muganda and not Museveni. Suggesting names like Paulo Muwanga, Justice Minister Sam Njuba, Education Minister Mayanja Nkangi and Works Minister Dan Kigozi, the Kirimuttu promoters demanded juicy dockets like PM, Defense and Internal Affairs. Running under the headline “Coup Plot Foiled [as] Monarchist Group Kirimuttu [gets] exposed by NRA,” the NV story was construed as implicating the Ministers. This copy too sold out prompting Njuba, Nkangi and Kigozi to call a news conference bashing NV calling it unprofessional.

Such reporting killed many birds with one stone for Museveni including making good business for NV (portraying it as credible) and also testify to the press freedom NRM had promised. The Njubas demanded an apology which NV declined saying “we stand by our story.” The Ministers backed off. Some weren’t necessarily exclusive stories but the detailed reporting gave NV an edge over the competition. Coup talk was to escalate in October 1986 when Ganda ministers Kayira, Evaristo Nyanzi, David Lwanga and Paul Muwanga were arrested and charged with treason attempting to oust Museveni. Riding on its deep sources in government, NV had details nobody else had.

The Star had previously monopolized all the exclusive reporting about the Buganda Royal family

Good business prospects made Pike grow even bolder and more daring. In February 1987, he permitted senior reporter Ben Ochan to publish an elaborate story indicating serious rebel activity in Kitgum and other parts of Northern Uganda. The story quoted Verona Fathers accusing NRA of burning down people’s homes and church mission establishments to deny rebels food in places like Kalongo, Padibe, Namukora and Patongo. Tumusiime, the diehard NRA supporter who was Pike’s 2nd in command, felt this was too much; the red line had been crossed. Pike stood his ground and the two bitterly exchanged as they drove back home at Fairway after a long day at office. Tumusiime accused him of sneaking things into the stories after they had been collectively approved. Even Wafula, whose Weekly Topic was renowned for being hard on NRM, rang to warn Pike this was becoming too much. Pike never relented. For him, it was about truth, closely knowing Kategaya and many other insiders, being a Mzungu and testing the extent of the new regime’s commitment to media freedom.

Writing well about Kabaka Mutebi and moreover in an exclusive way gave Pike a edge over the competition

As of November 1986, NV sales had grown to 10,000 but still in a distant No.2 position behind Catholic church-owned Munno which did 15,000 copy sales. Star & Topic were at 6,000 and 8,000 copies respectively. For writing stories that were outrageously false against NRM (then still very popular), the public rejected DP’s The Citizen curtailing their weekly copy sales to 2,000. The market then comprised of more than 20 newspapers many of which came out irregularly. The hard-hitting stories made the public doubt NV was a government paper.

Though still sleeping at Fairway (waiting for govt house), Pike moved in with his girl friend Cathy Watson and Fairway remained their home up to May 1987. The couple made many friends including Nagenda, Mande, Katirima, Wafula Oguttu and his deputy Onyango Obbo. The Topic had offices near Nakasero market where Pike and Watson frequented for lunch at a nearby restaurant.

The NV CEO job Pike took had initially been offered to Wafula Ogutu who declined it saying he preferred private practice

March 6th 1987 was another pivotal day for the NV media enterprise. On that humid Saturday morning, someone rang Pike informing him Andrew Kayira had been murdered the previous night. He led two other scribes to murder scene in Konge-Lukuli. Inside the enclosed home, to which access was restricted being crime scene, the NV team had exclusive access and interviewed journalist Henry Gombya (of The Star & BCC) who was with the late at 11pm when the assailants attacked.

They equally interviewed Gombya’s wife and two other women who were in the house. Their reporting turned out the most detailed complete with exclusive pictures. Kayira had been a controversial figure and his murder was a story many people wanted to know. The NV reported it in a way that left nothing else for others (weeklies) to report. At burial, Masaka’ Bp Adrian Ddungu implicated government and called on Baganda to go to war against NRM. Gombya too was targeted by angry mourners wondering how he survived and where a mere journalist could casually get Shs40m in his house. With the leverage to speak to all powerbrokers in NRA, the NV team made reference to all conspiracy theories including the possibility of NRA being complicit. They had leaders like Jim Muhwezi, Kategaya & others responding giving the government version.

Onyango Obbo is one of the close friends Pike fondly refers to in his book. He recalls Obbo being ever smartly dressed

It was insistence on editorial independence, credible hard-hitting stories and winning over readership that enabled Pike build NV from scratch to the Vision Group empire we know today. That notwithstanding, he wasn’t a very happy man at the time of his departure in 2006. The NV BoD blocked his expansion plans into radio & TV. Equally rejected was his proposal to sell Capital & Beat FM to Vision Group later on when Kabushenga became MD and went into broadcasting. He had shrewdly founded Capital FM along with Patrick Quarcoo (after would-be funder Emma Kato denied them funding & plagiarized their idea by starting Sanyu fm) growing it into a major brand. At the political level, Pike shared his pal Kategaya’s betrayal on seeing Museveni seek reelection in 2006 as the 3rd term debate raged. That Museveni spoke to him and wondered how a poor Mzungu he empowered into such a powerful job would resent his continued stay in power. As he eased out, Pike at least had one thing to be proud of and that was being replaced by Robert Kabushenga, one of the many nice guys he mentored. Watch this space for another narrative detailing on how William Pike’s media activism globally demonized Obote accelerating Museveni’s ascension to power. (For comments, call, text or whatsapp us on 0703164755 or email us at mulengera2040@gmail.com).  

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