Why the rule of law matters

Yet exile came at a cost! For while away his mother, Nalongo Binaisa, the family pillar, passed on. He was the first born son, but he could not return to bury his mother.

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By Dr Martin M. Lwanga

Born a year after Uganda had been declared independent, from the Brits who had casually lumped it together into some African nation, I grew up restless and concerned why some of my relatives then somewhere after decided to flee out for a life of exile. One happened to be a man Ugandans would hear a lot about since he had a big role in crafting the laws of modern Uganda, writing the 1962 and 1966 constitution- Godfrey L Binaisa, QC.

Now one day while at home I was delighted to learn he was back in Kampala. His first exile had just ended in 1979, soon after the fall of Amin government. As we all gathered for a family reunion, suddenly came news of his abrupt appointment as the fifth President of Uganda, after a palace coup he had no hand in.

Unfortunately hardly a year passed and he was pushed back to exile, after another palace coup in 1980. He hated living out of his country. In 1986 he returned to Uganda, once NRA took power, and went and boarded in the dream house he had left unfinished up on Mutundwe hill. I had progressed to Makerere university, and on weekends would occasionally visit with him, trying to catch up with a famous uncle I missed growing up under his wings. I realized he talked nothing but politics which consummated his whole life; but I had no interest there. All I wanted was to hear beautiful family stories.

Living in an unguarded house, one day, in 1987, he learnt that an old colleague of his in the struggle to remove Amin back in the US as members of the Uganda Freedom Movement, Dr. Andrew Kayira, formerly Minister of Energy, who had just been released from jail on treason charges, had been assassinated and he was next on the hit list. He fled, in the night, to New York, US, back again for a third stretch in exile. There he resumed his law practice, arguing various land mark cases, till he retired. Always he dreamed of returning to Uganda. In 2001, then aged 81, he was persuaded to return to Uganda because he heard the country was safe. The rule of law had returned and there was no need to fear, for an ex President to languish away in exile.

Settled in a government rented house in Muyenga, I would again spend long hours visiting with him. But this time I was more alert to the politics of Uganda. Once I asked him why he fled the country in 1972. “It was because the rule of law had broken down,” he said. “I was not going to wait to be abducted and then be executed, by an Amin kijambiya (matchete) man, as others were.”

His escape came when as President of Uganda Law Society; he walked directly to President Amin and tricked him to fund a trip for a Commonwealth Conference in London, to “defend Uganda’s rule of law!” It was a cynical plot but Idi Amin fell for the ruse. That was it. After the conference, he did not return, but decided to start a law practice as a Barrister in UK. This was quite common with many Ugandan professionals who disgusted with the breakdown of law at home, elected not to return.

Yet exile came at a cost! For while away his mother, Nalongo Binaisa, the family pillar, passed on. He was the first born son, but he could not return to bury his mother.

These thoughts came crushing my mind when I read that yet another Member of Parliament, Mohammed Ssegirinya, (Kawempe North); just released on bail by a High Court judge, had been abducted and thrown like a carcass into a wickedly speeding van (New Vision, September 29th 2021, pp 9). This coming in the very month of September, 49 years since Chief Justice Ben Kiwanuka was abducted, never to be seen again, hit me like a cruel joke.

Back in the 1980s there was the case of Prof Yoweri Kyesimira, a developmental government critic and of Hon Balak Kirya, once Cabinet Minister turned President Obote foe ( Kirya had been kidnapped from Kenya where he had fled after Obote who had prior to his fall in 1971 detained him for five years returned to power), who after being released on bail, were also one day after court release, abducted and whisked back to Luzira jail. From what I gather it is these injustices, among others, that led to the heroic NRA insurrection based in Bulemezi, which at the end left a once peaceful province scattered with maimed skulls all over.

If a sanctioned High court releases a suspect on bail, then hooded armed men come speeding, in a van with unmarked number plates, kidnap and whisk him away to an unknown destination, then one must wonder if we are back to the jungle law of the gruesome 1970s and 1980s! I paused to ask myself where are the lawyers, clergy, legislators, opinion leaders, intellectuals to wonder at what this means to the rule of law in the country upon which all sustainable development sits! Nothing but a chilling silence…

My apprehension is because I know history has a crude way of repeating itself. Years back, in the 1930s, Rev Martin Niemollar, was a Lutheran priest who supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, aggrieved as were many Germans by the loss of World War 11 and the penalties imposed on her by the Allied powers. Once in power though Adolf Hitler started exhibiting a reckless disregard of the rule of law, as he centralized all power unto himself, to begin execution of minorities, especially the Jews. Rev Martin Niemollar started speaking against these excess. But it was a bit late. In 1937 he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. He was only released in 1945 by the victorious Allies.

After he was out, reflecting on what had just passed, six million Jews gassed to death and an atrocious war that left over 75 million military and civilian lives lost, this is what he said: “First they came for the Communists. And I did not speak out! Because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists. And I did not speak out! Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists. And I did not speak out! Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews. And I did not speak out! Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me! And there was no one left to speak out for me!”

The writer is Assoc Prof of Management, Uganda Christian University, Mukono. He is the author of “Things Fall Apart in Uganda” (Kampala: 2013).

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