One of the first messages I received on New Year 2021 was from a friend, Dr William Worodria, a senior consultant at Mulago hospital. He texted to inform me that, “Retired ambassador Paul Orono Etiang has passed on at IHK of Covid-19.”
I was shocked by the sad news and remembered my last encounter with Etiang on December 14, 2020, at Rubaga Cathedral where we had gone to attend a requiem mass for our colleague and good friend, William George Naggaga (RIP).
Paul Etiang was my boss, mentor and friend for many years. He was a distinguished career diplomat, gentleman, statesman, patriot, pan-Africanist and a devout Christian.
I first met Etiang in 1970 soon after I joined the diplomatic service of Uganda. Etiang was at that time Uganda’s High Commissioner to the Court of St James, London. He was the first career diplomat to be appointed by former president Milton Obote to that important and prestigious position.
After the military coup of January 25, 1971, Etiang was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters and appointed chief of protocol which placed him second in rank to the permanent secretary. He replaced Paulo Muwanga (RIP).
In March 1971, I was posted to the Embassy of Uganda, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as third secretary. The head of mission was ambassador Matiya Lubega, a career diplomat. In 1972, Etiang was promoted and appointed, on merit, as permanent secretary of Foreign Affairs, a move which was welcomed by career diplomats.
One day in August 1972, ambassador Lubega received a strange and alarming cable from Kampala saying, “Mr Acato is recalled to Kampala with immediate effect.” There was no officer by that name in Addis Ababa and no explanation was given. Acato was at our embassy in Paris, France.
The following day another cable came to say that the officer on transfer was Acemah. Since I had not yet finished my tour of duty in Ethiopia, the transfer raised many troubling questions. After some consultations, Etiang encouraged me to return to Uganda which I did reluctantly a couple of weeks later.
On my first day at work, Etiang called me for a one-to-one meeting at his office. He told me frankly that I was recalled from Addis Ababa on instructions from president Amin’s office. No reasons were given. Those who gave the orders knew me by association only, as an officer from Arua and related to Lt Col Michael Ombia who was my uncle and a senior officer in the Uganda Army.
In 1972 there was an attempted military coup led by officers from Arua, including Capt Avudria, Lt Sam Aswa and Lt Onzima. Capt Avudria was a friend and fellow OB of Busoga College Mwiri. According to Lt Col Ombia the coup would have succeeded if the officer whom the coup plotters chose to replace Gen Amin had accepted to lead. The officer who feared to assume national leadership at a critical time in Uganda’s history was then Internal Affairs minister, Lt Col Ernest Obitre Gama. The rest is history.
Against this background, Etiang appreciated the difficult and trying circumstances under which I was arbitrarily recalled to Kampala, much as I played absolutely no role in the attempted coup. During two years I served in Kampala before going to New York in 1974, Etiang did everything possible to protect me from notorious agents of the military regime. I am grateful to Etiang for his unconditional support. Thanks be to God.
Etiang has left an impressive and powerful legacy which will inspire Ugandan diplomats and public servants for generations. His record as a diplomat, international civil servant and as a politician speaks eloquently and loudly for itself. May God bless, protect and watch over Mrs Zahra Etiang and family. May his soul rest in eternal peace!
Mr Acemah is a political scientist and retired career diplomat.