What Uganda’s current and future politicians can learn from the life and character of Mzee Byanyima
By Andrew M. Mwenda
Although I knew he was old (at 96) and was aware of his declining health I was still shocked when I heard the news of the death of Mzee Boniface Byanyima. I have since been trying to frame my impressions of this giant of a man. I knew him very well. I used to visit him at his home in Ruti, Mbarara, sometimes spending Christmas or Easter holidays there. At other times I would be driving through Mbarara and pass by him at his home, even spend a night to talk and listen to his wisdom and experience.
During these visits, I would spend hours with him, asking questions about Uganda politics and his relations with some of the giants of our post-independence era – Bendicto Kiwanuka, Milton Obote, Idi Amin, Basil Bataringaya, Grace Ibingira and Yoweri Museveni – all of whom he knew well and had related with at close range. Indeed, his daughter, Edith Byanyima, had severally suggested to me that I should record him and write a book about his life and views, a job I never did.
Mzee Byanyima was a stubbornly principled person, a factor everyone who knew him recognised. But I am also aware that some people would like to use his principled stand in defence of what he believed to draw conclusions to suit their political agendas. Having spent many hours talking to him over a long period of time (from the late 1990s and the early 2000s), I learnt that he never personalised political disagreements.
During the 1960s, he was a Member of Parliament (MP) on the Democratic Party (DP) ticket. Many DP MPs crossed over to the ruling Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) led by Milton Obote. Mzee Byanyima remained among the only four opposition MPs by the time of the January 25, 1971 coup led by Idi Amin. During this period he put up a spirited fight against what he saw as the excesses of the UPC government, yet he never held a personal grudge against Obote, who was president of the country.
During my visits and discussions with him, he was critical of Obote’s politics and policies but never went personal against the former president. On the contrary, Byanyima always told me that Obote was a nationalist who had indulged in wrong politics and pursued bad policies. At a personal level, Byanyima would tell me that Obote was actually a friend. Sometimes after a day of acrimonious debate in parliament, they would retire to Uganda Club where they would sit together to talk – Obote drinking wine, Byanyima drinking soda. I found this intriguing.
I used to visit Obote during his long exile in Lusaka, Zambia and we would talk about Mzee Byanyima. Obote confirmed everything Byanyima had told me about their relationship. Thus, whenever I visited Obote, he would send greetings to Byanyima and vice versa. On more than one occasion, I visited Mzee Byanyima and then called Obote in Lusaka and they talked on my phone. I would sit back and smile in silent wonderment at his expression of political maturity that is rare today.