The cruel hand of death robbed Uganda and East Africa on March 10 of an accomplished and distinguished career diplomat, ambassador Julius Baker Onen, who was a dear friend and colleague in the Uganda diplomatic service.
I was deeply shocked to hear the bad news, much as I was aware that Julius Onen had been flown to India for medical treatment in February. As a Christian, I was consoled by the fact and knowledge that death is not the end, but a beginning of a new journey which leads to eternal life with God, our Father in heaven.
I first met Onen in 1973 when he joined the Foreign Service as Third Secretary together with ambassadors Idule-Amoko, James Mugume and Justice Ralph Ochan. He graduated as a lawyer from Makerere University in the same year. I remember giving them a lecture on some aspects of Uganda’s foreign policy at the Institute of Public Administration, renamed Uganda Management Institute.
In September 1973, we travelled to New York, US, to attend the 28th regular session of the UN General Assembly and flew from Entebbe together with members of the Uganda delegation which included, Onen, Mugume, Amoko and Felix Okoboi. We spent three months in New York and returned a week before Christmas. Onen represented Uganda on the Sixth (Legal) Committee.
I got to know Onen better during our stay in New York. We lived at the same hotel and our operational base was the Permanent Mission of Uganda to the UN located at 801 Second Avenue, same building with one of New York’s finest Radio stations, WBLS 107.5FM. By the time I returned to Uganda we were friends, but our paths soon diverged for many years.
In 1974, I was posted to New York and Onen to the Embassy of Uganda, Tokyo, Japan where he worked for 12 years. When he returned to Kampala in 1986, a joke making the rounds in the corridors of Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters was that he looked Japanese and spoke English with Japanese accent.
Onen was a jolly, good fellow, hardworking, honest, transparent and generous. He never kept a grudge against anybody. Let me illustrate.
In 2005, when I was working at the Embassy of Uganda in Belgium and the European Union, ambassador Onen, who was Permanent Secretary, sent instructions to the mission to remit some funds to our embassy in Berlin, Germany.
As accounting officer, it was my duty to implement the Permanent Secretary’s instructions. The embassy operated two accounts at ING Bank and the account which had sufficient funds was for non-taxable revenue (NTR), i.e. money we collected from issuing visas and passports. In order to withdraw funds from the NTR account, one required permission from the Permanent Secretary ministry of Finance. When I sought authority to use NTR, the reply I got was negative.
In the circumstances, I had the unpleasant duty to inform the Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs that I could not comply with his instructions. On receipt of my letter, ambassador Onen was furious and accused me of insubordination, but in his heart of hearts, he knew I did the right thing.
I believe, Bank of Uganda Governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile should have done likewise in 2010 when Sabalwanyi demanded a whopping $740 million (Shs1.7 trillion) from the Central Bank, allegedly to purchase six Russian made Sukhoi SU-30 jet fighters. For the Governor to comply with an indefensible and outrageous demand was lamentable and unacceptable!
I returned to Kampala in 2008, and soon after paid a courtesy call on ambassador Onen. He received me warmly with his characteristic big smile, which was a clear sign that let bygones be bygones. Our friendship continued to grow. When I stood for parliamentary elections in 2011, on UPC ticket, Onen was one of my supporters and he gave a donation for my campaign.
Julius Onen has left a powerful, impressive and enviable legacy, which Ugandan diplomats should emulate. As a friend, I shall miss him. May God comfort the bereaved family, watch over them and give them strength to cope with the tragic loss of a man who served Uganda diligently and effectively. May Julius Onen’s soul rest in eternal peace!