Otunnu Embodies Uganda's Hopes

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[Global Essay: Africa Update]

Various Ugandan newspapers have carried articles about the in-fighting in the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), a leading opposition party.

The articles came after reports surfaced of a “consultation and briefing” between certain UPC big-wigs and Olara Otunnu, a former Uganda foreign affairs minister and Under Secretary General of the United Nations, in Nairobi, with a view to invite Otunnu back to Uganda to contest for the presidency in 2011 under the UPC banner.

News articles discussed certain machinations within the UPC itself regarding the internal “coup” whence those so-called big-wigs were axed.  It was also alleged that the out-going party leader, Mama Maria Kalule Obote, party founder Milton Obote’s widow, was planning to have her son, James Akena Obote, succeed her as the next UPC party leader.

I looked back at my experiences on the periphery of the developments in this new dawn of Ugandan politics to weigh in with my own opinion.

Although I am thousands of miles away from Uganda and the main players in this affair, I feel like I have travelled with them and I can feel their travails. I should also disclose that I consulted with both Akena and Otunnu, with respect to this essay.

Otunnu’s prospective candidature is good for the UPC as well as for all parties and the country at large.

Why do I say this? I don’t purport to be a politician; neither do I even pretend to understand politics, nor indeed politicians. Yet, I can tell a good thing when I see one.

In my four decades, I have seen as many regimes in Uganda as King Henry VIII saw wives.I’ve also actually witnessed some of the change-overs as well; from Idi Amin’s 1971 coup d’état; the 1980 Uganda National Liberation Front putsch that removed Godfrey Binaisa; the 1985 military ouster of Obote’s regime by Tito Okello and Bazilio  Okello; and the last, but perhaps most vicious, the 1986 fight for Kampala by Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA).

I have seen good men come and go; I’ve seen good regimes come and go and indeed amongst them, I have seen men of vapid and insipient caliber.  In their midst too, we have had men of contemptible character. 

Around 1986, a police constable at Kampala Central Police Station, unsure whether to lament the fall of the Obote regime or the turbid attitude of the NRA junta confessed to me de facto: “My son, revolution is a very funny thing; good men become bad and bad men become good.”

Uganda Is Still A Blessed Country
God has blessed Uganda with its lovely nature and kind people.  Every true Ugandan is so happy and friendly that it is rare to find a hostile reception.

More importantly, take any Ugandan out of the rat-race that is Kampala City Centre and you will find that Ugandans are, on the whole, the jolliest, most languid but at the same time, most fervent of peoples.

Politics has destroyed a beautiful country and it is unfair of me to remind Ugandans of the name bequeathed them by Sir Winston Churchill – “The Pearl of Africa.”  It is also sad to note that little does it behove that title, 60 odd years on.

Growing up in Gulu, and then Kampala, and going to school in Kampala and Nabumali, Mbale, I made friends from allover the country. Even people I had childhood fisticuffs with are today great friends. My friends hail from every corner of the country. They are:  Acoli, Langi, Baganda, Rwandese, Madi, Kakwas, Basoga, Banyankole, Bakiga, Batoro, Lugbaras, Banyoro, Bagisu, Itesots and others. My friends include Christians and Muslims.

Jimmy Akena Obote
I met Jimmy Akena Obote when we were in our teens.  Jimmy and his brothers were to me, very close friends in every form and sense of the word but also in very different ways.  We went all out to have fun as young boys, and then as men.  Even today, we meet whenever the opportunity avails itself and we reminisce; we trade e-mail messages frequently.

One time, around 1984, Jimmy and I were riding our Gilera Motocross bikes --we owned a pair of similar motorcycles-- across Kampala when we happened upon a roadblock and the soldiers at the roadblock decided to mock the then President’s son. I had to speak out for him as he was too humble to even think of exerting power. In Nairobi, I was once attacked by a bottle-wielding man, also with a knife; Jimmy and his brothers stood up for me then. 

As young intelligent and opinionated young men, we had our debates and moments of disagreements. Suffice to say, we are still here today as best of friends.

The Presidents I Have Met
Very rarely do we allow ourselves the luxuries of the good memories.

I met the Late Tanzanian President Julius K. Nyerere barely a fortnight before he passed away in a London hospital.

Nyerere was not too well but had the strength of memory to remind me that he recalled every little experience he had had at Makerere University in Uganda, including with my late father J. P. Abe. He also recalled Kenyan political luminaries such as Argwings Kodhek, Oginga Odinga and Ombaki. He spoke of their time at Makerere in the late 1930s and early 1940s; and the nicknames they called each other.

Another former president of brilliant intellect is Godfrey Binaisa QC. As an ambitious young boy, I struck a friendship with him and I refer to him as my Godfather. We struck up a correspondence, in the 1980s and 1990s, borne from his many years as a close family friend to my late father, Abe and my late uncle Daudi Ocieng.  Binaisa was living and practicing law in New York. He encouraged me to study law and gave me helpful guidance of exceptional quality that I cherish dearly today.

I had the heavenly blessings of experiencing the wisdom of Apollo Milton Obote. I met this most erudite of men, on more than one occasion and at all times, he never ceased to impress upon me the profound intellect and good humor that he possessed. 

My first meeting with Obote was at his residence at Impala Avenue, in Kampala, when I was with his sons. He always greeted everyone jovially and had a moment’s chat with all – irrespective of age and status.  The encounters increased as we spent more and more time in his house and he happened to be at home. 

It never felt like it was a Presidential Residence – it felt like home from home.  Another time when I came upon Obote was when I was in the company of Olara Otunnu who was on an official trip back from the United Nations, where he was then Uganda’s Permanent Representative. We bumped into Obote in the elevator of a Kampala hotel as he was getting in. He expressed his salutations to Otunnu and had a few words for me, and inquiring after my parents.

Olara Otunnu
I have known Otunnu, now banded as a possible candidate for UPC leadership, and for the country’s presidency, for years.

Otunnu is a very close family friend whose success has not just had a profound impression on my life but I am sure, on the lives of millions of people around the globe.

He has been: a very successful scholar, highly respected around global academic circles; and he is an equally successful diplomat who could have assailed the heights of international echelons by becoming the first African UN Secretary General had his candidature not been undermined by his own country – Uganda.

My assessment of the man may be biased, having known him all my life. Yet, it’s corroborated by international bodies and organizations that have since awarded him honors, recognizing his global achievements in international affairs. He also gained pre-eminence addressing matters related to peace and the use of child soldiers in conflicts. In 2005 he was recipient of the prestigious Sydney Peace Prize; other recipients include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Professor Muhammad Yunus, President Xanana Gusmão, Sir William Deane AC KBE, Mary Robinson, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, and Arundhati Roy.

Among our numerous conversations, one particular experience has left an indelible mark on my life. It was shortly after the 1986 coup that deposed the government of General Tito Okello where Otunnu was the Minister for Foreign Affairs. We spent nearly three months together in Nairobi; many evenings I listened as he deciphered the events that lead to the fall of that government and his vision for his professional career and future for Uganda.

Otunnu shared his ideas evolving around three short to medium term plans. He did achieve them within a short space of time. He also shared a longer term vision that he possessed and he is yet to achieve. To me, these showed the mettle of the man that he is.

I have frequently sought his counsel and he's always had time for me. His advice has been rational, measured and objective. He never speaks without authority; nor does he express opinion based purely on partial assessments.

Not a tough choice
Today Ugandans are faced with a choice.  A choice of whom they wish to help propel the country into the globalized arena; the new era of bringing Uganda, and indeed Africa, into the 21st Century. 

Every new leader in Africa is always regarded with suspicion in the Western world. The Economist magazine of April 18th-20th, 2009, carried a major article entitled: "Africa’s next Big Man – Trusting Jacob Zuma."

It was a tepid welcome for the new South African leader, reserving the "trust" until his post-presidential era. Is it not the case that a man ought to be judged by his good deeds and not for the faults that he has not yet committed?

Who do we see as prospective candidates for government and ultimately for leadership? We are all born to be ambitious in our aspirations and that is only natural. Come 2011, we shall have more candidates than can fit in the Presidential Lear Jet. Of the current aspirants, bar the incumbent, I have met Dr. Kizza Besigye, who has had two cracks of the whip without success. 

My neighbor and very close family friend, Bidandi Ssaali, is a gentleman of unrivalled qualities but I am afraid to say he has reached the watershed of active politics. Make no mistakes; if I needed political counsel in Uganda today, that is the one man that I would turn to and he has always given me his time unconditionally. 

What of our young fire-brand Nobert Mao? My maternal uncle, Gulu District Chairman Mao is, in today’s Uganda, in terms of his skills comparable to a young Tom Mboya, the peerless Kenyan politician who was sadly murdered in his prime. Mao is intelligent, witty and sharp but many too oftentimes, he has left one wondering whether one has seen all he has expected to see of the man.

Whenever Mao has had to make crucial decisions, the recent rebel allegations saga being one of them, he seems to have been armed --no pun intended-- with the right hand but seems to have played the wrong card. I believe that there is still a lot that he leaves to be desired and that does not tick all the boxes by any standards.

So then, who is best for Uganda?

Mind you, it's not a UPC issue; it's a Ugandan, an African, and global issue. The country needs someone with international experience; someone who is highly respected and known around the world. We need someone who has had the benefit of years to develop an understanding of the mechanics of geo-politics.

Since this issue arose, there has been speculation and discussion about Olara Otunnu’s candidature and his record. If everyone is judged by their previous employer then the government of Uganda had better vacate office today. 

Who has not worked with the governments of Tito Okello, Milton Obote or Idi Amin? Undeniably, this much is clear: Otunnu’s record is that of a highly respected diplomat, scholar and peace campaigner. His tireless work has garnered several awards around the globe.

Jimmy Akena is my friend; he is a very intelligent young man. We used to drop him in school from our outings and the fellow passed his examinations with Distinctions.

When I was around nine years old, in Gulu, I read The Complete Works of Shakespeare. In one of Shakespeare's plays, a man agrees to take the place of his best friend in prison so his friend could go and either pay a debt or pursue his amour, as I recall. I would do that for my friend Akena; he is like a brother and “blood is thicker than water.”

Given a few more years, Akena will make a very good leader of the party. His international horizon and political skills will continue to grow. Youth is on his side. He can learn from Otunnu; just as Otunnu learned from Akena’s father, Obote. Olara Otunnu is the man that Uganda, Africa, the United States, and Europe, has been waiting for.

With a man like Otunnu at the helm of Ugandan politics, we will begin to see visions of the dream that President Obama expounded in his ground-breaking speech in Accra, Ghana. African leadership will reclaim some respect; last seen with Nelson Mandela.

I was there on the steps of the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 2009 when President Barack Obama was inaugurated. I and millions others braved that minus 5 degree chill for over six hours.

I have never held such enthusiasm for a leader before and I doubt I ever will again. Yet there is something in the air about Otunnu’s candidature and I have an inkling that if Ugandans elect him, Africa would have turned a sharp corner towards what has been echoed in the words of President Obama to the Ghanaian Parliament:

Now, make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power.  Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions. 

Now, America will not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation. The essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny. But what America will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and responsible institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance - on parliaments, which check abuses of power and ensure that opposition voices are heard; on the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice; on civic participation, so that young people get involved; and on concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting and automating services- strengthening hotlines, protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability.

And we provide this support. I have directed my administration to give greater attention to corruption in our human rights reports.”

Otunnu will bring back hope, good governance and democracy to Uganda.


The writer is a practicing Lawyer and Lecturer; working between the Uganda, Middle East and UK.

Please post your comments directly online or submit them to
milton@blackstarnews.com for publication.

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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