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The force of character in public office

By Joseph Bossa

Former Bank of Uganda Governor Nyonyintono Kikonyogo exhibited exemplary depth of character worth being emulated

Ugandans should be most interested in the character of the person who aspires to occupy any of the three, in my estimation, most important public offices in this land.

In no particular order these are: the President, the Attorney General and the Governor of Bank of Uganda.

With regard to some of the decisions each of those makes, it can rightly be said that he should not be accountable to anybody but God.

This writing also serves to provide a contrast between personal physical courage as exhibited by, say, a soldier on a battle field and moral courage where the contest is within the sanctuary of one’s soul.

It will illustrate how a trait of character of the personages I have selected who once occupied one or the other of those positions impacted on their conduct of public duties. These are:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Thomas More
  • Charles Nyonyintono Kikonyogo

But first I must own that my method of selecting those positions is not scientific. It could easily have been prejudiced by my background. With regard to the presidency __because, to my amusement, some people call me a politician (I doubt my being a politician for no politician would be caught writing what I am writing here); the Attorney General __because I am a lawyer of 38 years’ standing; Governor Bank of Uganda __because I worked in that institution for 22 years and closely and keenly observed the working of four governors.

Each of those positions is the pinnacle for the politician, the lawyer and the central bank worker in me.

My choice of character as being of pivotal importance in the running of public affairs is derived from the answer to a question asked of one Lord Chancellor, the equivalent of Chief Justice, of England. He was asked what he considered in appointing a person judge and he answered, “Give me a gentleman. If he knows some law, all the better.”

I interpret that to mean that for a judge, his formal and demonstrable technical knowledge of the law is of less importance than the content of his character. It is the measure I have applied equally to the president, the attorney general and the governor of Bank of Uganda.

Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States between March, 1861 and April, 1865. According to his own autobiographical account,

“The aggregate of all his (he wrote of himself in the third person) schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or Academy as a student. What he has in the way of education, he has picked up.”

Through self-education and effort, Lincoln became a lawyer, was elected to Congress and elected President of the United States. Until he was elected President, he had never held any high or executive office.

It is near impossible to summarize Lincoln’s character. A few snippets of incidents will do. He was nicknamed “Honest Abe”. After his first business “winked out” as he put it, he resolved to pay every creditor, when he could have reneged on his creditors and run out of the state as many debtors did. It took him years to pay everybody.

Invited to address potential lawyers, he advised, “Resolve to be honest at all events and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, be honest without being a lawyer.”

With reference to his Party leaders and editorial writers who were pressing him to reverse his proclamation freeing the slaves as a way to end the civil war and ensure his reelection as President, he wrote, “Another, and not I, must be their instrument to perform it.” Why? Because, “A promise being made must be kept.”

In the midst of the civil war he gave the Gettysburg Address, the most noble, gracious and moving recorded speech ever made by a head of state in any language.

That man changed the course of the world history for were it not for him, America was likely to split into three nations, North, South and West as a result of the civil war. For better or worse the world is what it is largely because America remained one nation. He lived to be truly esteemed of his fellow men, by rendering himself worthy of their esteem.

Thomas More (1478-1535) was the Lord Chancellor (Chief Justice) of England (1529-1532).

In my categorization, I take him as an attorney general. My choice of attorney general over the Chief Justice, as one of the most important positions may need a little explanation in a footnote. Others may have chosen the Chief Justice and indeed they may cite my chosen model, Thomas More, who was a Chief Justice to bolster their argument.

I have reasons for my choice. Thomas More was for all intents and purposes, the Attorney General to King Henry VIII. Secondly, in the Ugandan context, although the Chief Justice heads the judiciary, apart from administrative decisions, he does not take judicial decisions alone. He is part of a team, called a coram, usually 7 in number in the “earth-shaking” matters. To that extent, he enjoys the safety of numbers. For example, he does not have to look alone in his soul in the deep of the night, toss and turn, to decide whether or not a politician aspiring to be president may or may not be nominated while incarcerated in prison. The Attorney General does. Unlike the Attorney General, the Chief Justice does not have to decide alone and take personal responsibility whether or not a particular compensation claim recommended by the President is legally justifiable. That is why I think, legally and morally, the Attorney General occupies a more taxing position than the Chief Justice.

Back to Thomas More. In 1529 King Henry VIII of England decided to divorce his queen, Catherine, who he believed had “failed” to produce a surviving son to inherit the throne. He wanted to marry another woman whom he thought would get him a male heir. The law of England did not permit divorce then. The best that could be done was to annul the marriage which could only be done by the Pope in Rome.

Thomas More refused to sign a petition asking the Pope to pronounce the King’s marriage to Catherine null and void for not having taken place in accordance with church law. Later he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the law passed by parliament making the king’s throne supreme over the Pope’s throne thus enabling the King to annul his marriage to Catherine and to marry a new wife. Thomas More knew the consequences of his refusal.  He knew the King had the power of life and death over him. But he stood by his principles and was prepared to pay the ultimate price. He was charged, tried, convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Today Thomas More is remembered as a saint by the Catholic Church and as A Man for All Seasons by the civil society.

In contrast to that, in Uganda a story is told of an attorney general in the years gone by who, whenever the President asked him whether a proposed course of action was permitted by the law, he answered in the positive. In time the President wondered aloud what type of lawyer his attorney general was. He resorted to other lawyers within the cabinet for legal opinion. This attorney general did not survive the cabinet reshuffle that followed.

The third most important job in the country that calls for a person of high character is that of Governor of Bank of Uganda. He presides over an institution whose budget is elastic. This is the only public office in Uganda the holder of which virtually sets his own salary. His decisions can immensely enrich himself and his friends, if he chose, and can save or ruin the economy of the country.

Charles Nyonyintono Kikonyogo was Governor of Bank of Uganda, 1990-2000. He was a political scientist and held no Ph.D degree in economics or econometrics. Two episodes speak volumes about his character.

During his term as Governor the government issued a policy that permitted civil servants and employees of parastatal corporations to buy the institution houses they were residing in at the time.

The Governor’s official residence was located at Summit View, Kololo; that of the Deputy Governor at Kawalya Kaggwa Close, also in Kololo and three other Bank houses for top Bank officials were along Kololo Hill Lane. Kikonyogo proposed that all those houses remain Bank property for use by whoever was at the time the Governor, the Deputy Governor and in any of the three top positions in the Bank.

His colleagues in the top Bank management team, apart from the Deputy Governor, were not persuaded. Today the only official Bank residencies are those of the Governor and the Deputy Governor. A man of lesser character would not have passed up a chance to acquire this most desirable of real estate coming out of a policy he had not initiated. No eye–brows would have been raised and no tut-tuts muttered.

The second episode involved the repair of a church organ. After years of use, the organ at Namirembe Cathedral where he worshipped required major repairs. Financial contributions were sought from church-goers and sympathizers to meet the cost of repairs. Charles Kikonyogo asked his friends and some Bank employees to make donations. As Governor he could not have failed to find a vote from the Bank budget out of which he could have authorized a hefty donation to this worthy charitable church cause. He chose to follow the long and hard way by seeking small contributions from friends. Governor Kikonyogo exhibited exemplary depth of character. May the soul of this unsung hero rest in eternal peace.

In my view what ails Uganda is the love of office. Uganda leaders love much too much holding on to office. In this pursuit nothing is held sacrosanct; nothing is inviolable. They will bend any rule, do the unthinkable, compromise themselves to any extent necessary to stay in office. Their consciences have been cauterized.

If the country’s Constitution proves an inconvenience, they will amend it or abolish it   altogether. If it requires keeping in place electoral laws made and an electoral commission appointed and composed to serve a different era, they will do so.

Normal people appreciate the need for peace in this country. Peace is not the mere absence of war and riots in the streets. Peace is the presence of hope and justice in the bosom of a people. That hope comes with the knowledge and assurance that there can be a change of national leadership if the people so choose in free and fair elections.

Every honest person knows that it would take a miracle in Uganda for a sitting president to lose an election he has organized under his rules. Indeed, if Idi Amin had organized an election at any point during his rule, he would have won it and won it overwhelmingly.

The present electoral laws and the electoral commission as composed and appointed cannot deliver free and fair elections and the true peace that goes with it.

It takes a person of a noble character to ignore his own interests and accept, without being forced, rules of engagement which give his competitors for power a fair shake.

For those in appointive positions, we have not seen enough of them who will have the courage to say to the appointing authority, should the occasion demand, “Another, and not I, must be the instrument to perform your wish”.

And that is Uganda’s tragedy.

Joseph Bossa is the Vice President of Uganda Peoples Congress.

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