Sunday August 31 2014

Remembering the life and times of Godfrey Binaisa, QC

By Harold Acemah

August 5, 2014 marked four years since former President Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa, QC passed on. He was a nationalist, a patriot and a pan-Africanist unlike some intellectually deficient African leaders such as Yahya Jammeh who shamelessly practise tribalism and exploited the resources of Africa for personal gain. Binaisa was a decent and jolly good fellow. May his soul rest in eternal peace!

I first heard of Binaisa in 1962 when he was appointed first Attorney General of Uganda. I was in Senior Two and what fascinated us about Binaisa was his Queen’s Counsel title bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II. I believe he is the only Ugandan to have received that honour.

I first met Binaisa face to face in New York, USA. One Sunday evening in 1976 as I was watching CBS television’s highly rated programme 60 Minutes, somebody knocked at my door; the visitor was my good friend Ben Dramadri who was accompanied by his friend Binaisa. Both were then living in exile in New York.

We spent almost three hours chatting, over some drinks and muchomo, about events in Uganda. Unlike today, reliable information on what was happening in Uganda those days was not readily available. The best sources of information were BBC, VOA and Ugandan Embassies; I sometimes shared information we received with friends in the exile community.

I took the opportunity to ask Binaisa why Prime Minister Obote decided in 1966 to abrogate the 1962 Constitution instead of simply amending those sections dealing with federalism which would have had the same effect with less animosity. He responded casually that he was the one who advised Dr Obote to abrogate the 1962 Constitution which he humorously called “Obote’s baby” and hence it was no big deal to abrogate the same. I was taken aback!

Fast forward to April 1979 and the military regime of Gen Amin is overthrown by Tanzanian and Ugandan forces. All heads of Uganda’s Missions abroad were summoned to Kampala for consultations and in the absence of Ambassador Louis Mwangaguhunga, I assumed leadership of the Permanent Mission of Uganda to the UN as Charge d’Affaires a.i.

Binaisa came to the Mission like many Ugandan exiles for assistance to travel to Uganda via Dar es Salaam. We had instructions to issue passports and tickets to Ugandans to return home to rebuild the country.

The British government provided some tickets on British Airways to facilitate travel of Ugandan exiles. I was at the JFK airport to see off Binaisa and others when they left for Uganda. He had a modest ambition; to lobby for appointment as Ugandan Ambassador to USA or New York or High Commissioner to the Court of St. James, London.

I am told after trying in vain to meet President Lule, he decided to return to New York where his wife Irene was worried because he had not been in touch with the family since he travelled to Kampala.

The problem, as I tried to assure her, was that telecommunications with Uganda had been cut off for two or so months after Amin’s downfall; our official communication with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were routed via Dar es Salaam during that period.

Binaisa’s tribulations turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When the National Consultative Council (NCC) removed Lule as president on May 20, 1979 after only 68 days in office, Binaisa’s fortunes all of a sudden propelled him to State House which was not in his wildest dream when he left New York. As the Bible says, God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform; as a son of a clergyman Binaisa must have known this.

The news of his election by the NCC as President of Uganda was received in New York with surprise and great joy. Among the first things he did was to appoint Ben Dramadri as his Principal Private Secretary.

In September 1979, President Binaisa came to New York to attend the 34th regular session of the UN General Assembly and by coincidence Ambassador Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania was president of the General Assembly. The last Ugandan president to address the assembly was President Amin in 1975 when he was chairman of the OAU.

President Binaisa made a fantastic speech, both in substance and delivery and as one who has witnessed all Ugandan presidents address international conferences he was second in eloquence to President Obote who was a great orator. Many contemporary African presidents could do with lessons in public-speaking and etiquette.

Binaisa amused UN delegates when he quipped that Uganda and Tanzania were no longer at war; that instead of waging war, Tanzanian soldiers were making love with Ugandan girls! President Binaisa had a knack for cracking jokes. I returned to Uganda from New York in February 1980.

In March 1980, Mr Dramadri invited me to visit him and his boss whom he fondly called “Uncle bin Issa”. What a memorable visit it was; after a guided tour of State House we had a private lunch with President Binaisa and another friend, Aggrey Awori - then a senior presidential adviser.

I was impressed and touched by Binaisa’s appreciation of the assistance I rendered to him and his family in New York in 1979, much as I told him that it was my pleasure and a call of duty to help Ugandans who were in need.

Adios Uncle bin Issa
On May 12, 1980 the Military Commission led by chairman Paulo Muwanga and vice chairman Yoweri Museveni overthrew President Binaisa who had, against wise counsel, announced on May 10 the dismissal of the powerful Brig David Oyite Ojok as Chief of Staff of UNLA. Binaisa was put under house arrest for almost seven months at Entebbe and the rest is history!

In a lengthy and strongly worded communiqué read over Radio Uganda and UTV on May 12, the Military Commission denounced Binaisa and accused him of turning State House into a clearing house for briefcase businessmen and politicians.

Well, Binaisa must be smiling in his grave at what State House has sadly become in the 21st century; the NRM regime has gone further and turned the whole of Uganda into a den of thieves and a haven for conmen. May the LORD have mercy!

Mr Acemah is a political scientist, consultant and a retired career diplomat.