It had been a day of noisy celebration, but you could have heard a pin drop just before midnight on the cusp of October 9, 1962, when the independent nation of Uganda was born.
Sixty thousand people stood in respectful silence at the poignant ceremony at the Kololo Stadium, in Kampala. The British flag, which had fluttered over Uganda for 68 years, was lowered to the strains of God Save the Queen; seconds later the black, yellow and red of Uganda was raised to the country’s new anthem. The crowd roared its approval and applauded the birth of Uganda; overhead fireworks crackled in the skies, bonfires blazed from the hilltops and across the city people sang and danced in the streets.
After decades of colonial rule Uganda was to join the growing club of free and independent nations in Africa. A nation that was to decide its own destiny under the authority of its own leaders in Kampala, rather than that of detached civil servants in London.
It was the climax of a day where all roads led to Kampala. From the break of dawn, thousands flooded into the city. As they arrived, many were handed free food and drink in celebration of a day to remember.
From London, through the skies, arrived the Duke and Duchess of Kent, who were Britain’s representatives, at Entebbe Airport. The new government made the Duke of Kent the first ever Freeman of Kampala.
A glance at the grainy newsreel of the day is a peek into Africa’s long-lost colonial past. The Duke of Kent wore a white uniform and ceremonial sword on his hip; there was a 21-gun salute as he left the plane and a company of soldiers from the King’s African Rifles to inspect before he left the tarmac. Waiting for him was the governor general, Sir Walter Coutts, in a cocked hat with feathers. If you took the plane and the tarmac away, it could have been a scene from the 1860s instead of the 1960s.
As the bars and streets of the city filled up, 20,000 people turned out to watch a regatta on Lake Victoria, featuring races between long canoes. An annual event that began more than 100 years before the British arrived and survives until this day.
In the heat of the Kampala afternoon, there was a genteel garden party for 4,000 people complete with a brass band, tea and cakes. Strolling through the party, as slim as a reed, was Milton Obote, then just 37 years old, the man who was soon to become the first Prime Minister of Uganda. Later, the Prime Minister opened the new Independence Pavilion of Science and Industry at the Uganda Museum.
As the sun went down, crowds poured into Kololo Stadium for the midnight handover. A military tattoo, that could have been in Edinburgh, saw British soldiers and Ugandans dance step for step.
First, the world-famous Acholi dancers from northern Uganda, who set the pace with a routine to the pulse of beating drums, then came a group of soldiers from the Scottish infantry regiment, the Gordon Highlanders, resplendent in kilts, who danced a Highland reel.
It was a night of military might to the sound of fife and drum; the Fourth Battalion of the Kings African Rifles, soon to become the First Battalion of the Uganda Rifles, performed a perfect slow march before the cheering crowds.
“Our independence shall mean great responsibilities for all of us without exception. Collectively, we shall all be responsible to safeguard our independence and to ensure peace and stability within our country. In addition, the government in whose name I now speak offers to you a firm determination to protect your life and property and opportunities for your advancement,” said the new Prime Minister Obote in his speech.
“It is in this ensuring of peace and stability and this determination for the protection of life and property coupled with opportunities for advancement as individuals and combinations and as a country that I now call upon all to pass an irrevocable resolution marking our new status and guiding us into the future. Let us add to that resolution that we are of Uganda and Uganda is ours. Let us recognize that and pay our tribute to these friends from inside and outside Uganda who have helped us on our way to independence. Let us remember the best we have received and now inherit from the British administrators. I also ask all to give the missionaries past and present a special praise for the light they brought and do still maintain.”
As the black, yellow and red flag flew through the dawn, Ugandans woke up to a new world where they were, at last, masters of their own destiny.