Uganda’s Only Mzungu Ambassador Who Saved Mbabazi, Rugunda’s Lives

For the Ugandan cutting all possible corners to become not just a resident but also a citizen of a European or American country, Mirjam Blaak will come off as quite confusing.

They may reason, who is born in a country where things work like clockwork, only to give up that nationality to become Ugandan, where many things work by chance? Well, Blaak did just that.

Uganda’s ambassador to the Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – is quite different from her 32 counterparts posted to different capitals around the world. Born in The Netherlands 57 years ago, Blaak gave up her nationality to become purely Ugandan.

And her original descent from the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage now leaves Blaak in an interesting quagmire she goes around the world defending Uganda’s much-criticised anti-homosexuality law.

Blaak’s understanding and defence of the Ugandan culture and people stems from her deep love for the land, and an even deeper love for a man – Dr Ronald Bata (RIP), the man she got married to and had a child with. Upon the NRM’s capturing power in 1986, Bata was made deputy minister for Defence.

Two years ago, Blaak assumed her current position in the European states, as well as to the organs of the European Union based in Brussels. Blaak’s Ugandan odyssey started in 1981 when then 25-year-old Blaak came to Kenya to work for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Encounter with the rebels:

Blaak says while serving as UNHCR’s Refugee Protection Officer, she learnt of many kidnap cases often leading to the death of many Ugandan refugees in Kenya, notably members of the Yoweri Kaguta Museveni-led rebel NRMA external wing.

“They had fled the regime of Dr Apollo Milton Obote that had an understanding with [then Kenyan] president Daniel arap Moi’s regime, to arrest and return them to Kampala to face treason charges,” Blaak says. “Most of them were Ugandans accused of supporting Museveni (then a guerilla leader). Some of them were Banyarwanda.”

Speaking to The Observer in Brussels, Blaak recounts her genesis with President Yoweri Museveni’s rule, soon clocking 29 years. The ambassador is remembered to have played a role in the 1985 Nairobi peace talks between rebel leader Museveni and Gen Tito Okello, leader of a military junta that overthrew Obote. The talks were mediated by Moi.

“Museveni called me and asked if I could make contacts for him. That is when I joined the external committee and I had to quit my UNHCR job to form a consultancy firm. I was asked to get connections with foreign embassies,” Blaak tells of her risky venture. “Museveni then called me to thank me for what I did for Ugandans, and specifically helping to bring his wife and children to safety. He was always afraid they would be kidnapped.”

It is Blaak, hardly mentioned among the bushwar heroes, who was instrumental in relocating Janet Museveni and the couple’s four young children (Muhoozi, Natasha, Patience and Diana) to Sweden in 1983.

Two days before facilitating the family’s escape, Blaak says she also used a combination of her femininity, legal knowldge and diplomatic immunity to organise the escape of rebel NRM external wing leaders who today are some of the longest-serving cabinet members and President Museveni’s political confidants: Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and Health Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda.

“When the situation became very hard for them in 1983, Dr Rugunda and Mbabazi first came to me and told me they could not get back to their homes in Nairobi, because they thought they would get kidnapped just like some of thier fellow rebels. I immediately called our office in Geneva to ask if I could help them. They had no visa or entry stamp of Kenya, and of course we couldn’t inform the Kenyan authorities,” Blaak recalls.

“They feared to go home so, I took them to my place since there was no money for a hotel. So, the two honourables stayed at my place, sleeping on just a simple mattress.”

The trio and a bed-seater:

Now Blaak can afford to laugh when she remembers the hard times that were anything but hilarious then. She believes in helping those in need if in position to do something, which explains her going the extra mile for the rebels whose future in a real state government was not even guaranteed.

Mbabazi, one of the beneficiaries of Blaak’s kindness says: “She exhibited the greatest courage to keep two young men in her house she lived with us. It was rare courage for a young, beautiful lady [to share] a bed-seater with two young men for more than three days. I remain thankful.”

Mbabazi recounts their escape from Kenya, saying it was on the third or fourth day when Blaak returned to the bed-seater in the morning and asked them to choose a country they would like to go to and naturally they chose UK because Uganda is a former British colony and many Ugandans were there in exile . However, they were not granted visa.

“She did not rest and on the same day, together with other members of the international community in Kenya, returned and asked us to choose countries that did not require visas from Ugandans we chose Sweden,” the now very influential premier says. “In the evening (November 17, 1983) we were handed tickets and she drove us to the airport, boarded a KLM flight to Brussels and another from Brussels to Sweden.”

At Jomo Kenyatta international airport many diplomats ensured the two were not stopped or arrested.

Not another Bob Astles:

Mbabazi describes Blaak as a very effective and useful person Uganda has as an envoy to Europe, her birthplace, noting that “she is a listener, an attribute that makes her understand Uganda’s interest and communicates well to Europe.”

Mirjam Blaak does not stand alone in her history as the mzungu who saw something special in Ugandan politics. During the 1970s, there was Bob Astles, a British henchman to an African dictator, Idi Amin Dada. But not even Museveni’s arch rivals dare to compare Blaak to Astles, despite repeatedly telling her that she serves a dictator.

Labelled ‘The White Rat’ because of his allegiance to Idi Amin whose eight-year bloody rule is believed to have claimed 300,000 lives, Astles was head of the dreaded secret police.

“I think it would be unfair to compare Mirjam Blaak to Bob Astles,” says Dr Kizza Besigye, the leading opposition figure who was part of the Museveni-led rebellion she helped.

“I think she is not evil. I wouldn’t characterize her as having evil intentions. She is a different breed from Bob Astles. Bob Astles was more active and willing to engage in things that were really criminal. He became part of a really criminal network in the Amin’s regime. Mirjam is not really active or part of a criminal network instead, she is a beneficiary of the criminal networks. But she would not let go of the benefits that accrue from her position,” Besigye says.

But Besigye is adamant on one thing: “I have said and I am definitely sure she is serving crooks she knows that. She is one of those people who believed that they could cause change within the NRM that this thing could be changed without losing their benefits. And those type of people are generally well-intentioned people who would like to have their cake and eat it [too].”

For God and my country:

Blaak signed up for a job for her country and is clearly determined to do it. At least her bosses are not complaining.

“On the anti homosexuality law, she is a blonde Dutch lady, but typically Ugandan when speaking about this,” says her boss, Ambassador James Mugume, head of the Uganda Foreign Service. “She understands the cultures, both of the Africans as the Europeans, and she understands our religion.”

Blaak is seen as the preacher of African culture to the West.

“In Europe, there are many rights for the individual, but in Africa, the rights of the group or clan count,” Mugume says. “You have obligations to your clan. We call it Ubuntu I exist because you exist. Blaak understands this.”

“It is not that we want to kill gays, but for us as tribes and clans, it is not accepted. According to religion, it is a sin. Blaak has understood this and it makes her unique. [She] can explain Uganda in the West. She is a bridge between Africa and the West,” Mugume says. “She helps us to understand Europeans and to deal with them.”

“By nature she is a warm person she quickly makes friends and is very open. Fortunately, her name sounds like Black,” a bemused Mugume notes.

Source : The Observer

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