Exit Lule, enter Binaisa, the consulting leader

Demonstrators storm Kampala streets in June 1979 following the ouster of president Lule. Courtesey Photo

Yusuf Kironde Lule, having failed to fully comprehend the dynamics of the prevailing political forces, fell with a thud. The National Consultative Council (NCC) on June 20, 1979 voted him out of power and he was later taken by force on a military plane to Tanzania.
The NCC was then the supreme governing body of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), a coalition of former Ugandan exiles, who had helped remove Idi Amin.

The land had been tilled for the next Ugandan president.
Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa was at the right place at the right time. He happened to be around when Lule fell and was voted by the NCC as Lule’s successor just a day after the latter’s ouster.

Born on May 20, 1920, Binaisa had returned to Uganda from exile in May 1979. Buganda had then “returned to power” through Prof Yusuf Lule, and Obote and Amin were no more.

He had come to Kampala from New York to lobby for the post of Permanent Representative to the United Nations and it seems, the NCC was swept by a wave of happiness that a man of his stature and calibre was in town ‘at the right time’.

The King’s College London law graduate tried to infiltrate the UNLF through the Andrew Kayiira and Robert Sserumaga group but this organisation was backing Lule. He could not meet the big man of the moment - Lule - apart from accessing free residence and meals at The International Hotel, now Sheraton Kampala Hotel, as an ex-political exile.

The coincidence
The political environment in Uganda was tricky; Binaisa had only one option – to get a diplomatic appointment – and on June 15, 1979, he travelled to Kenya to meet that country’s Attorney-General, Charles Njonjo, to influence Lule to appoint him. But alas! The journey fell on rocky grounds.

Uganda’s Presidents: An illustrated Biography notes that Binaisa returned to Kampala to exchange the Uganda currency he had and return to his family in London. But as he searched for senior government officers at Nile Hotel for a letter to help him purchase foreign exchange, he met Yoweri Museveni, who told him that they were looking for a Muganda, who could be president.

Binaisa, who had gone to bed oblivious of the present and the future, was woken up by Museveni, the then minister of defence, who took him to State House, Entebbe.

The lucky man, who was not even a member of the UNLF, had been made president albeit the position was reserved for the UNLF chairperson.
However, it is said his ascendancy to the helm was not a walk in the park. Binaisa met stiff competition from Edward Rugumayo, who was the chairperson of the NCC, the electoral body. He won the vote by “the narrowest of margins”.

Phares Mutibwa in Uganda Since Independence (A story of Unfulfilled Hopes) says Binaisa was favoured for the job following Lule’s surprise fall, which had plunged the NCC into confusion and that Rugumayo’s open radicalism, was not popular at the time and was even feared within the NCC.

Binaisa, unaware of the political structures on the ground, had to learn on the job. That he had received his presidency almost on a silver platter; the lawyer was briefed about how he would govern the post-Lule regime.

While in Entebbe, he was briefed about the composition of the UNLF, its various compositions, its various plans and the political agenda.
Binaisa also came to know that Uganda was not to be ruled by the 1967 Constitution and government but by the UNLF and the NCC through the Moshi Accord.

Constituted UNLF organs shared government responsibilities and the NCC was charged with appointing the Cabinet. Binaisa’s role was to move the country toward democratic rule.

Binaisa later recounted that he found himself in an awkward situation after being appointed president. He said he became absent-minded during the briefing and could not comprehend the goings-on.

He requested time to compose himself and understand why a small group of selected Ugandans could not elect a president among themselves, and, if at all, why people who knew what should be done, would not want to take the mantle.

Pro-Lule demos
Just hours after Binaisa was announced president, the population, mainly comprising the Baganda, poured into the streets demanding Lule’s return.

People flocked onto the streets to protest and the slogan ‘NO LULE, NO WORK’ was written boldly on public buildings and business centres.
The masses had also carried placards declaring “Twagala Lule, Oba tuffa tuffe” (We want Lule, if we die, so it be.) Yes, they died (some), but they would get none of Lule again.

Subsequently, troops were sent out and according to “The Social Origins of Violence In Uganda” by A.B.K. Kasozi, “dead bodies were later discovered in Kololo golf course in Kampala, and elsewhere”.

It is said that Aggrey Awori, the then presidential aide, together with a Tanzania People’s Defence Forces colonel, asked Binaisa for an order to shoot at the rioters, but Binaisa made the opposite suggestion that the protests continue. Museveni, the then defence minister, however, banned the demonstrations.

The public had not only protested Lule’s ouster, but also vehemently rejected Binaisa. Joint Underground Liberators, a resistance movement, had gathered in Kabowa and Mutundwe suburbs in Kampala to stage riots, strikes and attacks on government officials. Political prisoners were released from Katwe Police Station, including those who had worked for Amin.

It is reported that more than 80 people were killed between June and August and by the end of September, thousands of people had been held as political prisoners.
Owing to the hostility, Binaisa’s swearing-in was held behind closed doors.

“He did not make a public speech or any official speech of accession to the top office. The closed-door ceremony was boycotted by religious leaders whose presence, in the Uganda setting, signified the social legitimacy of the political leader,” notes Uganda’s presidents: An Illustrated Biography.

So was Binaisa an unaccepted man?
But that was not all; Binaisa was made aware of the presence of another power in the country’s politics that had to endorse his decisions.
The Ugandan leader could not take decisions without consulting Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere. However, it was not as direct as such. Before reaching Nyerere, he had to first ‘speak’ to the Tanzania Resident Minister in Uganda, Mr Nshekalongo.

Uganda’s presidents: An illustrated Biography adds: “According to the numerous briefings, Binaisa could not make any decision without consulting and after consulting over the decision, he still could not implement the decision without further consultations. He even had to consult about consulting!”

Continues on Monday