He weathered the storms of leadership when crisis after crisis fueled by tribal, religious and political differences rocked post-independent Uganda.
Following the abolition of traditional institutions in 1967, John Babiiha found himself at the centre of mainstream politics as Uganda’s first Republican Vice President replacing the Kyabazinga, William Wilberforce Nadiope.
Because he became the second most powerful man in Uganda by decree, there is a mixture of hate as well as fond memories of his successes and failures embedded in the minds of those who were old enough then (1967-1971). There are even negative posting on the Internet about him.
But nevertheless accounts from friends and literature available indicate that Babiiha, who also held the portfolio for the ministry of livestock and fisheries, was a man of no mean achievements. His reign saw a boom in livestock production and household income.
He is credited for the introduction of Friesian cattle and Nile Perch in the country as well as the establishment of livestock farms across the country.
There is very scanty literature about Babiiha. However, his close associate and Uganda Peoples Congress’ strongman Maj. Edward Rurangaranga, says Babiiha was born in Bukwari village in the present Fort Portal district. He attended St. Leo’s Kyegobe Primary School, then St. Mary’s College Kisubi before joining Kabeta Veterinary College in Kenya.
“One thing I can attest to is that he was such a staunch Catholic,” recalls Rurangaranga. “It was amazing how he related so well with Milton Obote who was a staunch Protestant. Politics to both of them was beyond tribe or religion. Unity was their catch word at a time when politics was polarized along religious and tribal lines,” Rurangaranga adds.
Another admirer of Babiiha, the Reverend Issac Baka remembers Babiiha as a gentleman who wanted everybody to have a good purchasing power.
“His dream was to have Ugandans engage in trade, increase farm output and add value to agricultural produce instead of selling raw materials,” Bakka says.
Ascend to political limelight
According to veteran publisher James Tumusiime, Babiiha was brought to Parliament by Obote as a special representative for Toro after unsuccessfully contesting parliamentary elections twice first in 1961 under the Ben Kiwanuka government and then in 1962 under Obote.
In his book; 30 Years Of Uganda, Tumusiime, says the climax of events leading to Babiiha’s ascendancy to power was in 1966 when a legislator, Daudi Ochieng, raised the burning issue of; high-ranking Army Officers (Idi Amin) with the knowledge of Obote being involved in smuggling gold and coffee from Congo.
The Government and pro Lumumba Congolese were accused of involvement in the 75 tonnes of intercepted cargo comprising of Chinese arms.
Tumusiime adds that, Uganda Army commander Shaban Opolot was supposed to bring the Obote back from a tour of West Nile. There was gossip of a coup d’état day on February 22, 1966.
The crisis climaxed on May 20 1966 when an ultimatum was given by president of Uganda, Kabaka Frederick Mutesa, ejecting central government from the Buganda soil in 10 days.
Three days after the ultimatum, prominent chiefs Kaggwa and Lutaya were arrested resulting into chaos in Buganda. Amin was directed to quell the violence. He stormed the Lubiri, driving the Kabaka into exile. With lightning speed, Obote also had Grace Ibingira, Dr. E.B.S Lumu, Balaki Kirya, Matthias Ngobi and George Magezi arrested.
Shaban Opolot was suspended and replaced by Amin. The 1962 Constitution was suspended and replaced with the 1967 declaring Uganda a Republic and abolishing kingdoms.
The abolition of the kingdoms affected the then vice president who was also the Kyabazinga of Busoga, William Wilberforce Nadiope.
With Obote assuming extensive executive powers including detention without trial under the 1967 Constitution, Babiiha was named the vice president and at the same time doubling as minister for livestock and fisheries.
Together the two assumed powers through a decree and defence council. They adopted the rhetoric of communism. There was the Common Man’s Charter first followed by the Nakivubo Pronouncements.
Tumusiime asserts that, political party activity ground to a halt save announcing those crossing from one party to UPC. The party was polarised into camps belonging to either pro-Obote or pro Grace Ibingira. Obote’s section appealed to northerners and Ibingira’s to southerners.
Although others paint a grim picture of Babiiha, others praise him to have done a lot as the then minister responsible for livestock and fisheries. He is said to have been behind the introduction of exotic Friesian cattle in Uganda.
“Talk about emputa (Nile Perch) delicacy and it was his idea,” reveals Rurangaranga.
“He brought the species from abroad and crossbred it with local species. Besides being exported today, emputa remains ideal for both nutritional benefits and an efficient means of fighting poverty which keeps it relevant today. He made fish affordable in the 1960s to the ordinary citizens,” Rurangaranga adds.
To produce more milk and beef, Babiiha is said to have championed the establishment of government cattle ranches across the country.
“During his reign tsetse flies were a menace in parts of the country-the veterinary services were at their best then. That is the time Entebbe got the national animal breeding centre. Agricultural institutes were spread across the country to boost agricultural production. Famine was a non-existent term in the vocabulary then,” Rurangaranga argues.
When Obote was overthrown by Amin in 1971, Babiiha, like his boss, went into exile and only returned after Amin’s overthrow. He however, died in 1982.
Babiiha introduced Friesian cows, Nile perch