Maj Gen Benon Biraaro passed on February 12. His death did not attract the media buzz that deceased former Internal Affairs minister and Chief of Defence Forces Gen Aronda Nyakairima’s elicited, or that of Brig Noble Mayombo, the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence and head of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence.
Those two had attained national name recognition among the elite and played different roles in the army that won media attention. Their deaths were equally abrupt and controversial. Biraaro had been unwell with colon cancer.
A week before his demise, I had had a chat with someone close to the corridors of power who had visited him at hospital and remarked, “It is sad that he is on his death bed.”
Biraaro’s name had entered our conversation as this official praised his meticulousness and scientific approach to politics. Before the General announced his presidential bid, he had studied Ugandan society and made observations about basics that anyone aiming for the number one job ought to appreciate.
One of those observations, that he shared with the person I met, was just how united the Muslim community in Uganda is and the sheer disparity in numbers between what the government official figures say and actual number of Muslims in the country.
His research, backed by empirical evidence, had led him to the conclusion that Ugandan politicians, especially in the Opposition, were probably not paying as significant attention to the Muslim community as they ought to in their political arithmetic.
Biraaro had silently interviewed members of this community, studied historical records, analysed them and concluded that there was no community more united than the Muslims. At least that is what he shared with my source who, a week ago, hailed him as a sophisticated man who understood our politics and society with more precision than most.
Days later, the man I was told was on his death bed, had indeed turned off his lights and taken a direct flight to the permanent residence of our ancestors.
I met Gen Biraaro in flesh twice. The first time we met was when he came to the 93.3 KFM studios for the Hot Seat talk show where I sat in for the host, Mr Patrick Kamara. That was during the 2016 general election campaign.
I vividly recall offering to pour water for him in a glass or to make a cup of tea for him. He turned down the offer and insisted he was fine. The idea that he was well, from my reading of his body language, was a polite way to say, ‘Thanks, but I don’t trust nobody,” which his gentleman status could not let him say.
Gen Biraaro then said, “I don’t want you to be blamed.”
The importance of that is that politics is toxic and one cannot tell who is happy to extinguish ones candle by whatever means. If he got poisoned from another place, wherever he had eaten or drank anything, the investigation would certainly be all encompassing and his last point of human contact would be traced.
His explanation was persuasive, and I respected his discipline and principledness. Indeed, we finished the one-hour show and that was one of the most useful 60 minutes I have had on air with anyone.
Particularly impressive was his level of engagement, depth, articulation and comprehension of the Ugandan and, indeed, post-colonial African state and the attendant development challenges. Why for instance, have we not achieved structural transformation as sub-Saharan African countries despite hundreds of changes of leadership?
What is it that would be different then, that he as president of Uganda would do if he got elected? What contribution would he make as president that he didn’t make with the few opportunities in life?
What moral authority did he have to question a government for which he had risked his life as a young man in his 20s, fresh from university and plunging himself into an armed struggle against a sitting government, a government which, upon grabbing power, he diligently served up to retirement and now, as a presidential candidate, found wanting on more fronts than one?
I bombarded him with questions, he humbled me with his humility and candid responses marked by short, precise and well-thought out, carefully stated answers that left the interviewer disarmed, almost to the point of declaring submission and support for the man on air.
Biraaro had answers to all these and more questions delivered with humility, recognising that the questions, some of which bordered on challenging his popularity ratings and seriousness as a candidate, were in good faith and not meant to pull him down.
And yet, his philosophy of politics, even in private chit chat during the show’s breaks, were always about the structural rather than the personal. He respected his opponent in the election, Gen Museveni, but where he disagreed with him, such as turning State House and the presidency into his permanent address that plunges the country into uncertainty and possibility of violent transitions common with our history, tragic failure to industrialise on a larger scale, snail-slow efforts to boost agricultural productivity and squalid social services delivery machine, he shared these frustrations, with respect, recognising that Mr Museveni was a part of a larger whole and a discussion that narrowed post-1986 Uganda to him and his individual failings, would be unhelpful.
In so doing, he situated Uganda’s development challenges in historical and global context and raised the bar of the debate beyond the usual sentiments and emotions that cloud our public debate sphere, grounding his candidacy and campaign manifesto on an ideological foundation and policy stand.
He was not bogged down by the frustrating disinterest of voters, journalists, fellow politicians and ordinary Ugandans in politics constructed around tolerance for ‘the other side’ and carefully thought-out public policy issues.
His passion was, for instance, how farming can be made more meaningful to the majority of the populace deriving livelihood from it, little wonder he named his party the Farmers Party of Uganda and without tiring built his campaign message around uplifting the Ugandan farmer through the policy shifts and proposals he stated in his manifesto.
To build a cohesive society and attain development that is inclusive, he argued on that show and elsewhere, we must make it our business to economically transform Ugandans. Fewer subjects interested him than the question of economic transformation, a thing he strongly believed was achievable in our lifetime and a topic he had adequately researched and reflected on.
The next time we met, I had gone to visit Dr Kizza Besigye at his home in Kasangati, Wakiso District (after the 2016 election) for an interview.
When Biraaro was driven into the Opposition leader’s home, Besigye asked me to pause the interview, moved and warmly hugged him, the two men staring at each other one more time, smiling affectionately and hugging again, their significant heights standing out.
Biraaro, in his characteristic politics of tolerance and reaching out, had paid a visit to his fellow ex-presidential candidate after the State had for months subjected him to house arrest. I thought that was quite profound. He was led to the living room where he was given juice and water that he happily drank (I was keen to observe this considering our experience at KFM studios).
Always smartly dressed with a shirt immaculately tucked in to a neatly pressed trouser that ably swallowed his height supported by mounds of flesh in an archetypal Muhima skeletal frame, his eyes standing out with trimmed eye lashes a few centimetres below a sharp nose that appeared to accord him good instinct to read his environment and the content of character of whoever he met, Biraaro was, in flesh and character, the effigy of a decent human being.
Now that I have shared the few and rare occasions I interfaced with this son of Uganda, I will share why his death is significant in terms of our politics.
Biraaro embodied a certain type of politics, and with the passing of people like him, that political class loses one of its few members.
Our country, and indeed the world today, finds itself in an interesting juncture in history. Ours is a time when the country needs what Leon Aaron in The Road to the Temple, calls a moral pause.
In that book he delves into Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how it found itself in a moral crisis that necessitated a re-examination of the Russian nation, the question, “who are we” “how did we get here?” and above all, a consensus that the country needed to reflect and fix the moral fabric of the politics and economics of Russia.
Corruption in society has become so commonplace and normalised that with the price of a few hundred dollars one can either secure or buy out a newspaper headline in one of the tabloids, for the cost of a guinea fowl you can be granted bail by a magistrate and for the price of a Friesian cow your lawyer may as well draft a judgment for a judge who sends her aide to pick up that brown envelop.
Oh, a professor could, after all, deny your daughter a chance to graduate because she rejected his sexual advances and a promotion at work is tied to more factors than your competence such as ethnicity, religion or even the shape of a lady’s body, or a young man’s willingness to be the boss’ conduit for kickbacks.
For a few thousands of dollars you can get a Parliament to tweak the Constitution to suit your political goals and if you are a lobbyist for a multinational company you can get MPs to support a Bill that is in your interest in exchange for a foreign trip.
And yet, there is a crisis of numbers of leaders who genuinely see that something is fundamentally wrong, and they must put their best foot forward and do something.
Biraaro was not a poor man; he was, in any case, by any standard and given his experience and opportunities, age, a rich man but modest to the dot, valued hard work over primitive accumulation and saw honesty and disregard for obsession with material opulence as a strength more than a weakness.
Where some of his fellow army Generals took to using guns and threats of violence to dispossess Ugandans from their land, and looting their way to the millionaires’ club, he patiently invested time and effort in commercial agriculture.
If a conflict over land arose, he lost the fight honourably and didn’t come with sirens bleating or remind all and sundry he liberated them from excesses of past regimes. He was the calibre of politician, leader and elder who consciously recognised the moral crisis of the day, beyond petty politicking about corruption for TV sound bites and was the embodiment of decency and honesty, and cherishing that as a value in allies more than their mobilisation capacity as the litmus test.
Such leaders, both in our civil society, Opposition and ruling party, are not only few today but their share of voice reducing too. Biraaro may not have had appreciable impact for the short time he entered the ring but the idea he departs with, is one of politics of tolerance, mutual respect, civility, issues as opposed to personalities, even when it is unattractive in the current set up of local and international order where populism and ethno-nationalism are the currency of elective politics now in parts of Europe, USA and Africa.
Biraaro also represented issue-based brand of politics, a politics that rises above the individual and seeks to examine the engineering of society’s solutions as a collective effort, often time reflecting on historicity, recognising that even the most condemned man in the house possibly means well and attempts should be made to examine his strategic blunders on their merits.
He represented a calibre of leadership that didn’t see the idea and ideal of a better society as a mundane concept but as part of man’s continuous effort to seek improvement and advancement.
For that matter, he felt politics must be in touch with the needs of the ordinary citizen. He knew he stood no chance even by the greatest stretch of imagination of upsetting the political status quo, but even as his health waned, he never feared to try, never got tired of trying, and died trying, trying to make a contribution to his society the best way he knew how and within the limits of what is humanly possible.
Somewhere in the western part of Uganda in the little-known borough of Isingiro will lie the remains of a man who dared to aspire for a better society and put his best foot forward.