In the days gone by, the great poets of Ankole would have already composed ebyevugo (heroic poems) in praise of Buta bwa Biraaro bya Kagina. Not because of his exploits in the heroic struggle in the jungles of Luweero or his military valour in the post-1986 combat zones inside and outside Uganda.
Not because of his acclaimed performance during military training in the USA and Britain or his leadership in the senior ranks of Uganda’s armed forces.
Maj Gen Benoni Biraaro, who died on February 12, had qualities that our country desperately needs and a personal conduct that made whoever interacted with him behold a man whose life glorified God.
To the majority of Ugandans, it was his entry into the 2016 presidential contest that gave them a hope-restoring discovery of a decorated warrior who preferred the way of peace; a man who put honesty above personal popularity; humility above delusions of power and invincibility; intellect above empty rhetoric; long-term vision above vote-getting bribery; and integrity above transient gratification.
I came to know Biraaro late in life. He initiated contact with me in 2012, followed by a short time of correspondence before he invited me to visit him at his home and farm in Rumuri, Masha, Isingiro, Nkore. It turned out to be one of the most memorably enlightening visits to a person who had been close to the centre of national power for a considerable period.
Biraaro was very eager to talk and we were very frank with each other. The content of our conversations that day and in subsequent interactions must remain private. I made him that promise while he lived.
I will keep his trust in his death. Suffice to say that whereas he was very careful not to reveal any military or State secrets, he was very forthcoming in his analysis of issues and key players in Uganda’s politics.
He helped me to understand why he had been “redeployed” from regular army command to a desk job at the African Union in Addis Ababa. His riveting narrative of his encounter with President Yoweri K. Museveni in 1996, in which he had advised the ruler to prepare for a smooth transition of leadership, and the President’s immediate and subsequent reactions, clarified puzzling behaviours of a number of politicians.
Biraaro understood Uganda very well. He had his finger on a future that indeed unfolded as he had predicted. Besides the depth of his analyses and observations, I was struck by other qualities about my new friend.
First, here was a senior military officer who had no airs about him. He was genuinely reverential towards elders that we met on our day-long tour of his farm and the neighbourhood. His respectful interaction with a speech and hearing-impaired man (his uncle, I think) was a heart-warming departure from the usual scene of the “big men” treating disabled people as less human than them.
Second, he was building a church a short distance from his home, a gift to God from His born-again Christian child. Biraaro was spending personal money on this project, not as a future cash cow for him, but as a sanctuary for worship in the tradition of the Anglican Church of Uganda.
Third, his interest in uplifting the standards of living and economic productivity of all Ugandans was not a convenient path towards personal power. He believed that power was a means to national transformation, founded on justice and equality of opportunities. He was partial to farmers whom he correctly identified as the core of Uganda’s survival and prosperity.
Fourth, he was an original thinker, with well costed ideas of creating new regional cities, built in strategic locations that would, hopefully, minimise complaints about geographic disparities. He was also championing the Local Investment for Transformation (LIFT) project, a profit-generating venture for investors that would fund an agricultural revolution.
I do not know whether or not he followed through with his plan to present these to President Museveni. It was the sort of creative problem solving that should have transcended partisan politics.
Fifth, he was unwavering in his commitment to peaceful change. Whereas he was under no illusions that the incumbent ruler and some of his militant opponents would readily buy the non-confrontational approach, he considered it a patriotic duty for all of us to do all we could to spare Uganda another round of civil strife and violent contest.
The years that followed that visit affirmed my first impressions of Biraaro. He was extremely comfortable in his skin. Being a military general appeared to be incidental to his being. His humility, his very strong Christian faith and his fidelity to the stated cause for which he had risked his life in the jungles of Luweero, formed the campus that guided his conduct in and out of uniform. This is what made him the epitome of a great army general.
The arrogance of power and the delusions of immortality that are manifest in some of his peers were completely foreign to him. Lies and deceitfulness, and insatiable primitive accumulation of perishable wealth were not part of his DNA.
His death has left an unfathomable emptiness in the lives of his wife Joy and their children. Our heartfelt condolences to them, and prayers for the Lord’s abundant grace and guidance. Happily, they can, with great confidence, proclaim that their beloved husband and father lived a life worthy of the gospel of Christ.
As instructed by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:15, Biraaro lived a life that qualified him to be a child of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. He shone bright and qualified for the imperishable crown in Heaven, where he is now free from physical pain.
Even as the tears flow and his absence gnaws at us; even as the dark clouds of corrupt politics, government-by-lies and national uncertainty deepen, let us honour Biraaro by remaining steadfast, immovable in our faith, always abounding in the work of the Lord, never succumbing to the temptations that have destroyed our country’s moral fabric, and doing unto others what we would they do unto us.
The transformative change for which Biraaro strove is inevitable. It is unstoppable. Our role is to be honest change agents.