Many of the public tributes and reflections at the recent memorial and burial services for Benon Buta Biraaro, a retired senior officer of the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), were spot-on. Very many people, including his widow Joy, his daughter, his sister-in-law Mary Mugyenyi, and his friends Kizza Besigye, John Kazoora and Henry Tumukunde, spoke very well.
Even President Yoweri Museveni’s message described Biraaro as “a seriously principled man whose actions matched his words.” The irony of the President’s truthful observation, coming from one who tossed Biraaro out of the mainstream leadership of the country because of the latter’s principled adherence to the cause for which many had died, was sobering. But that is a story for another day.
Among the speeches that struck the deepest chord within me was that by Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, the National Coordinator of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT). Speaking straight from the heart, Muntu, a former commander of the UPDF, distilled in his brief remarks the principles that he and his deceased friend had lived by since they emerged from the bush as victors in 1986.
After observing that the objectives or intentions of the people who went to war in Luweero Triangle were not similar, Muntu indicated that to some, taking power from the UPC government was an end in itself. However, to people like Biraaro and Muntu, the moment the National Resistance Army (NRA) took power was just the beginning of the struggle.
The two men’s conduct over the 34 years since the NRA’s military victory has been universally acknowledged as consistent with the declared objectives of the armed rebellion. “We went to the bush for a cause,” Muntu said. “Truth must be spoken about.”
That truth is that the cause for which Muntu, Biraaro and thousands of others took up arms has been betrayed by many who rode on the backs of the dead to capture the Ugandan State as their trophy. The betrayed cause was summarised in the NRM’s 10-Point Programme, a now a forgotten document whose contents are probably considered subversive by some of the country’s top rulers. It is worth dusting off and re-reading. Certainly, younger Ugandans should find their parents’ copies or go online and read what it was that drove people like Muntu and Biraaro to the bush.
Whereas all the 10 points in the programme were important ideals that captured our imagination and hope, the four upon which everything else hinged were (a) the implementation of democracy that would enable citizens to choose leaders and representatives through “elections free of corruption and manipulation of the population;” (b) restoration of security so that “as soon as NRM takes government, not only will state-inspired violence disappear, but so will even criminal violence;” (c) “consolidation of national unity and elimination of all forms of sectarianism;” and (d) “the elimination of corruption and misuse of power.”
Whereas many who took up arms to bring these points to reality betrayed them with great ease, people like Muntu, Biraaro, Kazoora and Besigye stuck to the promise. Indeed, Besigye captured this in his speech at Biraaro’s burial in Masha, Isingiro, Nkore when he reclaimed these men’s shares in the NRM. No, not the post-1986 mockery that the Movement became, but the great force that had given hope to Ugandans when darkness and despair had engulfed the land.
“NRM niitwe! (NRM is us!)” Besigye declared. It was a potent rallying cry by a man who had paid with his blood and extreme suffering at the hands of colleagues that betrayed the cause for which many had died. It is a perfect slogan for those who still share the hope and faith in the great struggle that we lost after the brave warriors captured power in 1986.
I praise God for the survivors of the wreckage that the NRM became, Biraaro and Muntu among them. Muntu put it well: “General Biraaro may not leave much in the world, but there is one thing he has left – a name.” He added: “physical things perish, but when a name goes, rebuilding it is very tough.”
Muntu found it very easy to speak this truth because he knew he had the strength and moral authority to take the high ground. Like Biraaro, Muntu has a very good reputation. He has lived a very modest and honest life, during which he has fought to uphold the cause for which he and many others took bullets in Luweero.
Muntu’s strength came to the fore when he used Biraaro’s memorial service to send an important message to the President of Uganda, through John Byabagambi, the only Cabinet minister present.
“General Museveni, the President, the Commander-In-Chief keeps saying my army, my army, my army,” Muntu said. “Please, with respect, I would like you to carry this message to him. He needs to enlighten those of us who fought, who have been in uniform. When I went to the bush, I did not go to fight for an individual. I went to fight for a cause. So, when we were the NRA, we were not a personal army. We were a national army. We were fighting to ensure it becomes national. When it turned into UPDF, as it is now, it is not a person’s army. It is a national army, and we will do everything humanly possible to ensure that that comes into reality. If that doesn’t come into reality, it will be unfortunate for those of us who have served, those who are dead and those who are still living, that we would live in a situation where a person would think that we could ever fight for an individual.”
With that challenge to Museveni, Muntu demonstrated a quality that he shared with Biraaro. The two men, outwardly humble and meek, misunderstood by some to be weak, have been some of the strongest players on the national scene in recent decades. In Muntu’s words: “Actually being humble is strength under control.”
I am sure that those who know Muntu well have no doubt about his strength and resilience as a leader. Those who have been misinformed about him, should reflect on the power and courage that undergird his important message to our soldier-president. They may discover why many of us believe that he would make a great president of our country.