By Norbert Mao
Many people aspire to greatness but it eludes them. For greatness does not lie in high office but rather in the esteem one enjoys among fellow men. When a man is truly great he will make even a humble office to be great. And when a man is not cut out for greatness, even the highest of offices is diminished when he occupies it. Unlike those who hanker after greatness in vain, Boniface Byanyima, who died a few days ago at the ripe age of 97, achieved greatness.
In describing Byanyima, I would borrow the words of Henry Lee used to describe George Washington: “pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. To his equals, he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear objects of his affections exemplarily tender; correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.”
In paying tribute to a man of high integrity and courage, it is not my intention to deify Boniface Byanyima but rather to present him as an extraordinary human being. Set apart in every way. Like all of us he was made of flesh and blood. But anyone who interacted with him would agree that the high heavens bestowed upon him extra dosages of compassion, mental energy and the courage. With his majestic bearing and penetrating but kind eyes that seemed always to look beyond his immediate surroundings, Byanyima was not only great but actually looked great.
If he were to speak to us now, I wonder what he would say. Methinks we would hear him say “weep not my fellow countrymen, lament not our separation for it is but temporary after all everything which has a beginning has an end. Rather weep for our country. In my long life I witnessed light and darkness but I lived in the faith that ultimately darkness can never overpower light. Moderate your appetite for power and wealth. Put your country first. None should be above the law. Let liberty guide our desire for order as a constant companion. Let not your partisan spirit blind you to any virtue residing in those you disagree with. Love one another. Above all let Truth and Justice be your compass.”
I spoke to family members about how he ran his last lap. He bore his physical ailments stoically. Not a groan escaped him. Till his last breath, his visage was one of undisturbed serenity. Testimonies abound about how calmly he embraced the falling of the curtain on his well spent life. Even the approaching hoofbeats of death could not terrify him.
The uncertainly that attend human affairs compelled him to face the full force of tyranny and its attendant ills. Twice elected to parliament, he saw his allies and fellow party members abandon their principles and grovel for the crumbs falling from the table of those in power. His refusal to sacrifice principle on the altar of opportunism exacted a high price for him, his family and dependants. As the last of of his valiant associates buckled under the pressure of coercion and seduction of power, only four of them remained on the opposition bench. Boniface Byanyima, Alex Latim, Jino Obonyo and Martin Okello. May their names be emblazoned in burning letters of gold in the skies.
The qualities that defined Boniface Byanyima were not accidental. They were cultivated through his upbringing, his formation in his youth and the distinguished company he sought and attracted. The Democratic Party in it early days was mainly a party of teachers. I have counted the number of distinguished teachers that formed the bedrock of the party until I ran out of fingers. Boniface Byanyima, Dr. Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, Ernest Kamara, Jino Obonyo, John Ntimba, Zachariah Byabukiika, Basil Bataringaya, Peter Katungwesi, Ben Isiko, Gaspare Oda, Mathias Ngobi, David Barasigara, David Babikingira, Andrew Adimora, Angello Banya, Yoweri Kyesimira, Prof. Kirya, Kamara, Alex Latim, Sylvester Mabweijano, JC Kiwanuka, the list is very long.
This core of leaders had a set of values, a way they looked at themselves and a way in which they looked at the world which glued them together. Whatever their differences and rivalries, they had a bigger picture and a higher purpose beyond themselves. They knew the importance of taking a stand for what is right however unpopular. They knew that the truth is the truth even if its banner is lifted up by only one person. They also knew that a lie remains a lie even if multitudes flock to its banner.
Our nation is at a defining moment. There’s anxiety about political transition. Ugandans have seen all the trappings of modernity but the the one thing Ugandans yearn for is peaceful change of government. Its unfortunate that Byanyima has died without seeing power changing hands peacefully. But that notwithstanding, Byanyima leaves a legacy of undaunted hope.
In mourning Byanyima, let’s abandon pessimism and despair. Let us look to the future with hope. True, we have a history of political turmoil. We also have an unwarranted attempt at glorifying the achievements of our rulers of today. But let’s not open a quarrel between the past and the present or we risk losing the future. I refuse to hearken to the gloomy tidings of the prophets of doom. By emulating the example of Boniface Byanyima, we can fashion a better tomorrow on the ruins of his shattered dreams. And surely, there are other Byanyima’s alive and those yet to be born in this country. Let them rise to their full stature.
Byanyima is gone but his legacy lives on. In his family, in DP, all over Uganda there’s a void. However there’s also a feeling of gratitude that our generation had the honour to be associated with this mighty man. He has left an indelible mark. Let us endeavor to be worthy of him.
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