The clash of the three legacies of Ben Kiwanuka

What you need to know:

  • But in many respects just like the party he founded; the churches are struggling to find its voices to speak truth to power. The Bishops in luxury cars were co-opted before the political parties into the establishment. What would St Ben Kiwanuka say?

September 2022 marked two milestones for Ben Kiwanuka. In September 1972, 50 years ago, Uganda’s first Prime Minister and first Ugandan Chief Justice Ben Kiwanuka was kidnapped from his chambers at the High Court never to be seen again.

In September 2022, were he alive, Ben Kiwanuka would have turned 100 years old. Ben Kiwanuka’s service to Uganda was in three branches of government; the executive, legislature and the judiciary. Of course, he also prior to and after politics practiced law in the manner and style of Ben Kiwanuka and Company Advocates.

In 2018, former Chief Justice Bart Katureebe organised the inaugural Ben Kiwanuka Memorial Day with much fanfare at the High Court grounds. In a few short years, the Judiciary has been able to invite and get the President to attend this event. It is interesting that Kiwanuka’s tenure as Chief Justice was the shortest but most memorable in the history of our country partly owing to how it ended, and the fact that to this day, sovereign Uganda has not been able to trace his remains. 

The Judiciary correctly marks this event the run-up to his demise having been a dispute between the executive and the judiciary on exercise of judicial power.  

The status that the Judiciary enjoys today is partly owed to this single incident. Judges continued to function under Idi Amin, but his regime never survived this blemish until its fall in 1979. To his credit, Idi Amin never shut down the courts, and continued to publish legislation in the form of decrees many of which are still on the statute books today.

However, Ben Kiwanuka was more consequential in the country’s politics and fight for independence even though he ended up in the opposition and was later imprisoned in 1969 when political parties were banned by his successor Apollo Milton Obote. His political party, the Democratic Party has struggled to find its footing in modern Uganda swept aside after achieving a two-decade goal of returning Uganda to multi-partism in 2006. 

The fate of DP is similar to other pre-independence parties, its distinction being that it has never held power in independent Uganda. In the rough and tumble of politics, DP is now officially in bed in cohabitation with the ruling party and the two principals presided over the last Ben Kiwanuka Memorial Day.

There has been a mostly secret but steady third leg of Ben Kiwanuka’s legacy. Some members of the Roman Catholic Church, the country’s largest religious denomination, have been toying with the idea of his canonization. A devout Catholic, part of his intransigence with the establishment at independence was his inheritance of a political party associated with a push-back against Protestant domination of the modern Ugandan state. Up till his death, Ben Kiwanuka attended mass every day. 

His widow Maxensia Zalwango did the same until she was too frail to make the same mass each morning at the Cathedral sitting on the same pew until she died in 1993. I mention this because the canonization effort suffered an earthly blow when the Ben Kiwanuka residence was razed to the ground after suffering near dilapidation as a tenement for South Sudanese tenants. A few items may have been recovered including his car but most is now permanently lost to history.

Martyrdom requires a physical address. The Ugandan Martyrs are celebrated on valued real estate in Namugongo annually. Most of the martyrs were executed at the Anglican shrine that is now home to a Theological Seminary and Museum. The Catholics have a mini-basilica on the choicest plot, the pond where Charles Lwanga was beheaded. 

The Uganda of today, 60 years after independence is in a period of rapid change, demographic transformation and a vibrant new social identity.

The Church may see it, in its adoption of highly animated worship services. But in many respects just like the party he founded; the churches are struggling to find its voices to speak truth to power. The Bishops in luxury cars were co-opted before the political parties into the establishment. What would St. Ben Kiwanuka say?

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-At-Law and an Advocate. 


Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.