By Joshua Kato
Although he had been actively involved in politics since independence, becoming the president of Uganda was never his ambition. One day in 1980, Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa, was named the president of the republic by the National Consultative Council (NCC), the legislative arm of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF).
He became Uganda’s fifth president since independence. As the country marks 50 years of independence on Tuesday, it will have had eight presidents, with Apollo Milton Obote ruling twice.
Binaisa’s tenure was one of the most chaotic in Uganda’s history. Tens of people were murdered in cold blood on the streets and in homes, and robberies were carried out in broad daylight. Some of those murdered included Dr. Obache from Lango, Dr. Jack Barlow, Katuramu Kaija and senior journalist, Bob Odong Nayenda. In the end, people started comparing the new regime to that of Idi Amin’s.
They observed that while people ‘disappeared’ during Amin’s regime, in Biniasa’s tenure they were killed as their relatives watched.
The prevailing insecurity meant night clubs could not operate and most city revellers resorted to going to clubs during the day. Essential commodities were scarce as was the case in Amin’s time. It was clear Binaisa was not in full control of the country.
Because of the breakdown of the socio-economic infrastructure during the Amin era, Binaisa inherited a country with decaying social services and a stagnated economy.
“There were no basic needs like sugar and soap. You needed a chit from a government official to buy beer or soda,” recalls Mefeyasi Kajubi, an elder. The situation was worsened by soldiers and other security agents, who went on a murderous rampage.
“There was an army bus that used move around the city and its outskirts, from where soldiers could come to rob and kill people,” says Kajubi. He adds that there was a sort of self-imposed night curfew as lawlessness was supreme after sundown.
“We called day time dancing ekizibya. But all clubs closed by 3:00pm,” he says. “After 3:00pm, the city was always emptied.”
Binaisa was born in 1920, at a time when first political protests by the Bataka Movement against colonial rule were in the formative stages. This agitation formed strong political opinions in the young Binaisa.
Binaisa went to King’s College Budo, from where he went to a university in London to pursue a law degree.
He was invited to the bar in 1956 at Lincoln’s Inn and declared a Queen’s counsel thereafter.
On his return to Uganda, he joined the Uganda National Congress (UNC) of Ignatius Kangave Musaazi, which is lauded as the first political party. Later, he joined the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) led by Obote.
When Uganda attained independence in 1962, he was named the attorney general. It was this appointment that a few years later saw him make a significant contribution to constitutionalism.
In 1966, he helped Obote abrogate the Independence Constitution and replace it with an interim one, popularly known as the ‘Pigeon Hole Constitution’. Later in 1967, he again contributed to the writing of the Republican Constitution, which abolished kingdoms.
In 1969, he fell out with Obote, saying the president was undermining the constitution. When Obote was overthrown in 1971, Binaisa stayed in the country for a short time. However, given his links to British and Israelis companies, he run into trouble with Amin. Binaisa’s law firm represented the companies.
In 1972, Amin ordered him to stop representing firms, prompting him to start planning to flee the country. Amin even made it easier for Binaisa, sending him on an assignment to London.
“He gave me an air ticket and enough money to go to the UK to talk with people he wanted to meet here (Kampala),” Binaisa said.
When he arrived in London, he never returned until Amin was overthrown in 1979. By then, he had relocated, settling in the US and also joined the Uganda Freedom Movement, one of the many outfits that fought Amin.
Binaisa discussing with Tanzania People’s Defence Forces soldiers in 1979
BINAISA’S RULE WAS THE MOST CHOATIC
After the fall of Amin, Prof. Yusuf Lule became president, but only for 68 days and was remove for disrespecting the National Consultative Council. Binaisa elected by the council to replace him.
On assuming offi ce, Binaisa was confronted with a crisis. Demonstrators took to the streets as soon as he was announced president, demanding the return of Lule. “The people did not like the fact that I was named to replace their ‘darling’ Yusuf Lule,” Binaisa said in an interview later.
Demonstrators chanting: “Twagala Lule…Oba tuffa tuffe…” (We want Lule even if it means death) stormed Nile Mansions (now Kampala Serena Hotel), where Binaisa was. In many interviews, he referred to one particular woman in the crowd who almost stripped naked to curse him.
“She was shouting and in the process, she moved forward, pulling up her dress,” he said. “My bodyguards wanted to shoot at the crowd, but I restrained them.” Binaisa was in a fi x. Because he accepted to replace a fellow Muganda, he was seen as a traitor.
“I was already an adult at the time and had a grocery stall in Nakasero Market. When demonstrations against Binaisa started, I joined,” says Pius Kiwanda.
Kiwanda had thought that Binaisa had been part of those who deposed Lule. Yet, the fact was that Binaisa was just a pawn in a political board game. Uneasy calm returned later, after days of demonstrations. Binaisa seized the opportunity to assert his authority, especially targeting Obote’s cronies, who were working towards his return.
After he was toppled in 1971, Obote lived in exile in Tanzania, where he co– ordinated activities to fi ght Amin. It was clear he wanted to return to Uganda as president.
Binaisa, who had been immersed in the politics of power struggle, wanted to block Obote’s return and also ban political party activities. So, he introduced manvuuli or the umbrella politics. This meant that UNLF was the only recognised party, and whoever wanted to vie for power, would do so under its umbrella.
Binaisa said in an interview later that the country was too divided and the umbrella was the only way to unite it. But since the umbrella has only one handle and he was the one holding it, this did not please the other groups craving for power.
When he assumed the presidential offi ce, he was amazed at the power and all the other good things that came with it. This prompted him to make the famous statement, “Entebbe ewooma,” meaning that being president is the greatest thing that can happen to anyone.
It is at this moment that he attempted to clip the powers of those who stood in his way. But he failed miserably, leading to his ouster.