Life Under Idi Amin: The Story of Theresa Nanziri Bukenya
Theresa Nanziri Bukenya.

Life Under Idi Amin: The Story of Theresa Nanziri Bukenya

The introduction of security lights around Africa Hall, Makerere University was allegedly meant to keep erratic government soldiers from preying on female students.

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By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: February 27, 2007

Even the bravest Ugandan shuddered upon hearing Amin's name in the 1970s. No wonder many who knew him and his murderous ways fled the country soon after the first news of his coup emerged. Twenty seven years since his regime collapsed at the hands of Tanzanian Defense Forces, many Ugandans still wake up to haunted memories of the regime's odious acts. Jane Mukasa Sserunjoji is one of those Ugandans still having nightmares over Amin's regime.

Nanziri's sister: Jane Mukasa Sserunjoji
Nanziri's sister: Jane Mukasa Sserunjoji.

It was on the evening of June 22nd 1976 when the regime committed a heinous act that will forever hang in Jane's memory. Her elder sister, Theresa Nanziri Bukenya, then a warden of Africa Hall at Makerere University, was picked from her residence by men from the dreaded State Research Bureau. Two days later Nanziri's dead body was found with bullet wounds on the neck, at River Ssezibwa. Nanziri had joined along list of others who suffered cold death at the hands of Idi Amin.

Her murder changed her family forever. Her death sparked off blood pressure for her mother who died a year later.

Who was Nanziri?

"Nanziri was a staunch catholic, very courageous, strong hearted and straight forward. She was a very good mathematician- in fact one of the best teachers of that subject I met in my study days back in the sixties," recalls Mrs. Rosemary Musisi Kobere,warden Nanziri Hall- Kyambogo University, who Nanziri taught at Nkoko Njeru Teachers' Training College.

Charles Peter Mayiga
Charles Peter Mayiga.

Asked about the personality of Nanziri, the face of the former Buganda spokesperson and brother to the late Nanziri, Charles Peter Mayiga, lights up with broad smile. It is the childhood memory of Nanziri driving him around the town, picking him from boarding school for holidays at her home and taking him to Nabugabo beach that elevates him.

Then 12 years old, Mayiga still recalls vividly the kind of person his sister was. "She lived a robust life and was a lively person, caring, yet firm in whatever she believed in. One time she drove us to Masaka at night to the disappointment of our parents," he recalls.

Champion of girl education:

According to Dr. Maria Musoke, the chief librarian at Makerere University, Nanziri had pioneered many positive policies and steps at the University which aimed at making female students live and study in an environment conducive to their education.

"In a show of love to the girls and their education, she (Nanziri) introduced security lights around Africa Hall and on the steps. She also provided hot water for the girls to bathe in," recalls Musoke who was a resident of Mary Stuart Hall but envied those living in Africa.

The introduction of security lights around Africa Hall was allegedly meant to keep erratic government soldiers from preying on female students.

Besides enjoying a colorful career of herself, Nanziri is remembered as a champion of women's education which started with her acceptance to take up a post at Tororo girls despite the school being located in remote area. She is said to have accepted because she wanted to promote girl education especially in mathematics. In addition, Nanziri is one of the first female administrators at the University which is still a male dominated institution up to now.


A happy Theresa Nanziri Bukenya Even at her early age of 37, Nanziri was inspirational not only to women and girls but also to fellow male administrators. She had been a symbol of strength against the state of mischief. Her contemporaries knew that although murdered, her soul stood clean and her conscious left behind a legacy for them to look up to.

That is why Kyambogo University has named a female hall of residence after her and the University is in the final plans of constructing a statue in her memory. Like wise, Makerere University's top management last year resolved to rename Complex Hall after Nanziri.

Genesis of murder:

According to Jane Mukasa Sserunjoji, prior to the kidnap of Nanziri, the same men from State Research Bureau had picked up Nanziri's best friend and cousin, Frugence Musoke who they allegedly used as bait to take away Nanziri from her residence without resistance or attracting attention from University students.

Musoke then an accountant with East African Development Bank has never been seen again and relatives believe he was also killed. The kidnap and murder of Nanziri followed many other unexplained incidents at Makerere University that put Amin's regime under a magnifying glass.

A girl called Esther Chesire

By Timothy Kalyegira

On March 5, 1976, a student of the Faculty of Law at Makerere University, Paul Serwanga, was shot dead by an army captain who had developed an interest in his (Serwanga) girlfriend.

The next day, 4,000 university students took to the streets in Kampala calling for the overthrow of President Idi Amin. They were later joined by 30,000 city residents in this protest march. A week later a Kenyan student at Makerere, Esther Chesire was arrested at Entebbe airport by agents of the dreaded State Research Bureau counter-intelligence agency just before she boarded a flight to Nairobi. She had been booked on the flight with her friend and fellow Kenyan Sally Githere. Chesire was never seen again.

Whether there was any connection between Chesire and Serwanga or if she was indeed his girlfriend was never certain. Had she been an eyewitness at Serwanga's murder, and therefore had to be silenced? Was she the ringleader of the students who had called for Amin's ouster without realising the danger in such outspokenness tempted fate?

The Kenyan government pressed Ugandan officials to launch an inquiry into Chesire's disappearance and possible death. Theresa Nanziri Bukenya the warden of Africa Hall at Makerere University, the hall that Chesire resided in, was arrested by security agents. She was eight months pregnant. She had refused to testify before the commission assigned to investigate Chesire's disappearance. Bukenya's beheaded body was dumped near the Africa Hall grounds the next day.


Chesire was said to be a relative of Kenya's then vice president and later president, Daniel Arap Moi. Her unexplained disappearance at the hands of Uganda's intelligence agents caused tension between the two countries. Following the disappearance of Chesire, it is said that Amin's intelligence agents mooted many and offered flimsy explanations to cover up the girl's whereabouts and one of them being that she 'never reported back' for studies at the beginning of the term.

Refused to conspire

Behind the scenes, the security agents were trying to force Nanziri to carry this lie to the commission. Nanziri, a staunch catholic with high moral value is said to have openly told off the agents and insisted she would tell only the truth.

Chesire had reported at the beginning of the term and signed into her hall's registration book. With Nanziri's pending testimony, the regime would run out of excuses and face even more diplomatic embarrassment and possible charges on crime against humanity.

In the 7th month of her pregnancy, Nanziri, a brilliant and inspirational mathematician who had gallantly fought off many attempts by unruly Amin soldiers to kidnap and abuse female students by providing ample security lights around the hall knew that this time she was headed for a show down with the regime.

She could not betray her conscious and Chesire by lying to the very commission that was supposed to find her fate. Nanziri argued that by lying to the commission, she would not only do it on behalf of the regime that was intent to murder every one considered its opponent, but also that her lie would effectively end the commission's proceedings since the girl would be considered never to have been in the country in the first place.

"I believe Nanziri's biggest achievement was to stand up against misrule and trying to seek justice," said a somber Charles Peter Mayiga at his office at Conrad Plaza in Kampala.

But Nanziri never made it to the commission. She was picked a day before and murdered in cold blood at the banks of River Ssezibwa. It is reported that the residents who lived near the river heard her cries as she begged for mercy. She was 37 and just married to Achilles Bukenya, who now lives in South Africa.

Nanziri weds Bukenya at Saint Augustine's, Makerere
Nanziri weds Bukenya at Saint Augustine's, Makerere.

Grief filled campus

According to Dr. Musoke, Nanziri's murder sent shock waves in the entire university community, particularly to female students who considered her a symbol of bravery before the regime while at the same time reminding them that no one was safe from it.

"The university was so cold. Gloom hovered all over us and most of us girls felt really orphaned that day. It was a horrible scene seeing two bodies-Nanziri's and her babies' lying in the main hall," recalls Musoke who was a first year student then.

2006 memorial service for Theresa Nanziri Bukenya
2006 memorial service for Theresa Nanziri Bukenya.

"I traveled to Masaka (now Rakai) in Kalisizo to burry Nanziri. There was agonizing pain about Nanziri's death- to her relatives and to all Ugandans and especially women. She was part of the new generation of educated women who as well supported fellow women to achieve in that area," recalls a teary Mrs. Rosemary Musisi Kobere.

But what is still causing fear-induced goose pimples to Mrs. Kobere as she narrates the atmosphere at the burial site, is how merciless these murders to take away the two lives.

"Nanziri was 7 months pregnant. The terrible imagination of a woman being murdered with her baby in the womb was simply unbearable. The dead fetus was removed and buried separately. It is still a nightmare for me to remember," said Kobere.

Theresa Nanziri Bukenya at Nabugabo beach
Theresa Nanziri Bukenya at Nabugabo beach.

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By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: February 27, 2007
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Enoch Mutabaazi is a media practitioner at Ultimate Media Consult with more than six years experience in the print and electronic media. Since he majored in Broadcast Journalism at his graduate studies Mutabaazi first worked as a reporter at Uganda Television (now Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV) before he discovered his multidimensional skills in writing and public relations at Ultimate Media Consult. He is currently the Production Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and writes occasionally.