Covering the death of a former president

The passing of former President Godfrey Binaisa presented a simple test to the Ugandan media – and I am afraid many failed it.

First thing to note is that the event had been expected by all editors for some time now. It did not take them by surprise. There have been false alarms alleging the guy’s death over the last couple of years. It therefore follows that all Ugandan media houses certainly had the opportunity to prepare their best for this event, and therefore what we have seen is the very best they are capable of. It is like Nelson Mandela dies today – the South African (and indeed world) media will be well prepared to serve their very best in terms of content, backgrounders and design.

I think Daily Monitor did well with Fred Guweddeko’s series. What I don’t know is when they commissioned him to compile it. If they didn’t and just accepted it from him when he offered it on hearing that Binaisa was dead, then there are some risks there.

Of course Guweddeko is a great resource for he loves research. But I have had to manage him over several projects for over a decade. (By the way Fred is my childhood friend as we grew up together for the very early part of our lives at Kitala, Entebbe road, so I qualify to comment on him fairly and sympathetically. Among other things, he is one of the most fantastic footballers SMACK Kisubi ever had. His father was an ace fighter pilot who once commanded the Uganda Airforce, etc… From university, while I went for greener pastures in Kenya, he did the patriotic thing and followed Museveni to the bush. Of course the military genes run in his blood.) When you talk to him today, you realise the bush war and subsequent governance left an indelible mark on him. He knows many things he may not say because of ‘military discipline’, and uses research to bring them out…

Guweddeko has very strong political views, and his research can sometimes concentrate on those facts that support his viewpoint. This is only human. So an editor who commissions him needs to crosscheck some of the very interesting things he submits. I am not saying it was necessary in the Binaisa case, nor am I saying it was not done. Guweddeko does NOT lie. But he sometimes concentrates too much on some very interesting facts.

Other than Guweddeko’s pieces, I did not perceive any signs of preparedness in the media for Binaisa’s highly anticipated death. I must admit that being out of the country, I read all my Ugandan newspapers on the Internet, so there might be some good works that I missed if they were not posted on net.

Examples:

If only for our selfish industry reasons, did any media mention that Godfrey was father to the late Charles Binaisa, co-founder of the Uganda Journalists Association? (Charles and Kintu Musoke hastily set up UJA to meet Kwame Nkrumah on a trip to Ghana and they needed some status to describe themselves with.) Charles later became a top editor before dying in an accident in 1970.

Again for selfish reasons, has Major Roland Kakooza Mutale been interviewed? He had the greatest run-ins with the Binaisa administration. Then he switched from being a Binaisa critic to his strongest supporter, exposing plots to assassinate or overthrow the man, with verbatim quotes of the conspirators. “Binaisa kasokanga aggula bifulukwa lero yagguddewo ekirimu abantu” (Binaisa is so fond of storming abandoned houses but today he has stormed one with occupants in..) Mutale quoted Muwanga verbatim, allegedly in a midnight meeting at Katwe.

The political writers, at a time of approaching elections and constitutional referenda in Kenya and Zanzibar, surely ought to have revisited the umbrella that Binaisa defended so fiercely, and went down defending. For Kenya is under an umbrella, and Zanzibar has just voted to adopt an umbrella, UK is under the same, whatever fancy new names these umbrellas are called.

At a time when the Buganda question is back – did it ever go away – to disturb the ruling party at the coming elections, Binaisa’s stances on the Buganda question are also worth analysing. In 1979 and 1980, he was widely supported by non-Baganda largely for his perceived anti-Buganda stance. Today, Museveni is facing a situation of the Buganda vote since his fights with the Kabaka became public last year. People like Binaisa and John Nagenda (and myself if I mattered) say that Mengo and Buganda are not the same thing, though to attempt to separate Kabaka and Buganda is an exercise in futility. Can someone like Nagenda or some Makerere scholar have been approached by the media to make a strong analysis of how Binaisa saw Buganda and how, had he not been militarily interrupted, he could have put the Buganda matter to rest (of course after he helped formalize the mess Obote created in the sixties).

Veterans like Bidandi and Kintu Musoke are very much around, how much have they been utilised by the media to understand Binaisa? Then there are former journalists from the fifties and sixties who are still living with their mental faculties still intact. There is one Kavuma now working for Swanair, and AD Lubowa who is in retirement at his house at Maya, a few kilometres on Masaka Road. These were senior journalists, not simple reporters in their day. Couldn’t they be better interviewees on Binaisa than some of today’s politicians?

Binaisa was largely (seen as) a Nyerere project, which many saw as preparing ground for the return of Obote. In fact it was Binaisa’s not living up to those expectations that he was deposed. Which makes me wonder why Museveni backed the removal of Binaisa, the latter having demoted him notwithstanding, when the umbrella politics was what the Movement was really about later. By helping the UPC remove Binaisa, the stage was set for the December 1980 elections that were to end in five years of bloodshed. Why didn’t Museveni prefer the UNLF to remain and he and others compete for power on individual merit? These are some questions political analysts could have been asked to handle. But back to the Nyerere hand, how much of this did the media give to the readers, especially the young who do not know? Does the average Ugandan media consumer know that the Tanzanian president was the most powerful man in Kampala for a few years, and both presidents and opposition leaders were always shuttling between Entebbe and Dar es Salaam for ‘consultation’ before any important steps were taken? Are there lessons from that era during which Binaisa ‘ruled’ Uganda? Was Binaisa ever a president of Uganda, when Lule was removed for disagreeing with UPC and ended up under House Arrest in Dar es Salaam and Binaisa was removed when it became apparent that he was planning to block Obote from returning from Dar es Salaam? Did Museveni play a similar role for Rwanda as Nyerere played for Uganda? How then did Kigali and Kampala relations fall to a level of war (in Kisangani) after so much sacrifice Uganda made for Kigali? Are there recent parallels? From the Bianisa era, from the day he lost power, why is it that Uganda has quarreled with all its neighbours (especially under Museveni) EXCEPT Tanzania? Why can’t a cantankerous Uganda ever quarrel with Tanzania? Is it just natural love between the two that they can’t quarrel or does the answer lie in the Binaisa era? Do many people know that Uganda and Tanzania had a lengthy border dispute that only ended last year but one, but it never made it to the press or political speeches, and was handled by surveyors from the two countries? Could the same differences be equally handled harmoniously with Kenya? Remember Migingo?

There are several things the Binaisa passing could have brought to the fore, ESPECIALLY as the event was widely expected and the media had all the time to delve and wander. And the journalists did not have to know or write these stories. They only had to ask the right people to talk. What happened to that key aspect of the job called ‘sourcing’? If what we saw was the best the Ugandan media is capable of, then Mwalimu Mwesige’s have a lot more to do while the tired and faint hearted Buwembo’s take off, far away from the heat, to drink Kilimanjaro beer in Dar es Salaam’s sweaty pubs.

About the Author: Joachim Buwembo is a Knight International Journalism Fellow based in Tanzania. He is a former managing editor of the Daily Monitor and Sunday Vision in Kampala, and The Citizen in Dar es Salaam.

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