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A frightened Ugandan president, a courageous magistrate and the case against Rajat Neogy and Abu Mayanja

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A frightened Ugandan president, a courageous magistrate and the case against Rajat Neogy and  Abu Mayanja

Photo: Hon. Abubakar Kakyama Mayanja (1929-2005)


The imprisonment, 50 years ago, of Rajat Neogy, the legendary founder and editor of Transition, and Abubakar Kakyama Mayanja, a prominent barrister and parliamentarian, was a symptom of Uganda’s failed democratic experiment and the inevitable fear that followed. Within two years of independence, a struggle for control of the ruling Uganda People’s Congress had ensued. 


This struggle, centred around the persons of Grace Stuart Katebariirwe Ibingira on one hand, and Apolo Milton Obote on the other, had roped in Sir Edward Muteesa II, the Kabaka of Buganda and Brigadier Shaban Opolot, the Commander of the Uganda Army. There had been a plot in late 1965/early 1966 to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Milton Obote. Among the plotters were the Kabaka of Buganda, the Army Commander and five cabinet ministers led by Ibingira. The other ministers were Balaki Kirya, Matiya Ngobi, Emmanuel Lumu and George B. Magezi.


The prime minister had carried out defensive arrests of the ministers; made Col. Idi Amin Dada the army chief of staff (and de-facto commander); fired the president of the country; made himself executive president; abrogated  the 1962 Federal Constitution; used the army to persuade a terrified parliament to pass a new Constitution without debate; and attacked the Kabaka of Buganda’s palace, forcing the king to flee into exile on May 24, 1966.  Five months after Mutesa's exile, the prime minister had fired and imprisoned Brigadier Opolot and consolidated the army's control under Idi Amin. Thus Obote had carried out a military coup d’état. 


In his essential work on Parliamentary Democracy in Uganda, Omunyoro Baganchwera N.I. Barungi, who was the Clerk to Parliament, writes: “On the day the new constitution of 1966 was introduced in the National Assembly (April 15, 1966), an outside observer standing at a distance from Parliament House would have rightly mistaken the precincts of Parliament as part of a military post or garrison. Bands of heavily armed soldiers were stationed in the beautiful and well-maintained parliamentary gardens that were used from time to time for cocktail parties and other government functions. Members of Parliament were searched not only at the main entrance of the building but also in the Division Lobbies as they entered the Chamber.”


Elsewhere in the book, Barungi writes: “To add insult to injury, copies of the new constitution were distributed after the day’s sitting of parliament……. After that incident, the National Assembly was never the same again. Members of Parliament were gripped by fear from which they never recovered.”


After cancelling the mandatory parliamentary elections that were scheduled to be held, at the latest, in April 1967, President Obote had presented a new set of Constitution Proposals on June 9, 1967 which were destined to turn Uganda into a Republic. Among that Constitution’s key proposals were the abolition of all monarchies and other traditional rulers, and the concentration of extensive powers in the presidency. 


Notwithstanding the state of fear in the country, especially in Buganda, where a State of Emergency was in place, the government invited public debate of the new proposals. There was vigorous debate in the Constituent Assembly, with parliamentarians’ speeches covered in the media.  Public statements and letters by normal citizens and academics were published.  It appeared as though space for a healthy debate had been restored. 


However, an event whose message seems to have been missed, took place during the debate. When Cuthbert Obwangor, the Minister of Planning and Economic Development, criticised parts of the Constitution Proposals in the Constituent Assembly, Obote fired him from his cabinet. Freedom of speech had negative consequences. 


It was in this milieu that Mayanja, the MP for Kyagwe North East, wrote a brilliant critique of the 1967 Constitution Proposals which was published in Transition (No. 32, Aug-Sep 1967). It was a masterpiece of legal argument, an example of outstanding literary exposition and an attempt to elevate the political debate that had been under siege since the events of 1966. Mayanja warned against the unchecked concentration of power in the presidency, creating a one-man dictatorship, and the Detention Act. 


However, that critique was not what sent him to jail. Indeed, instead of punitive measures against Mayanja,  Naphtali Akena Adoko, the chief of the civilian intelligence service, wrote a long response in Transition (No. 33, Oct-Nov 1967). It was a spirited defence of the new Constitution that had been promulgated on September 8, 1967. Mayanja was left alone.


What triggered the imprisonment of Mayanja and Neogy was an article by Picho Ali in Transition No. 36 (July 1968). Picho Ali was a 27-year old Russian-trained lawyer who was working as the Secretary for Research in the President’s Office. In his article, titled “Ideological Commitment and the Judiciary,” Ali argued against the normative school of jurisprudence which viewed the law as independent of the political milieu.  Instead he argued that the judiciary needed to “conform with the aspirations and ideological orientation of the new state” and to be “a dynamic and revolutionary institution.” 


Ali then took issue with the control of the Uganda High Court by non-Africans. “There have already come to light a number of incidents which prove that the presence of expatriates as judges in our courts is to some notable degree a manifestation of the absence of decolonization in those organs of the state,” Ali wrote.


Picho Ali’s article stirred up a hornet’s nest. The next issue of Transition (No. 37, Sep-Oct 1968) carried five long letters to the editor, all of them very critical of Picho Ali’s article. Four of the writers were J. W. Onyango, a Kisumu-based lawyer, Eriya T. Kategaya, a law student at University College, Dar es Salaam, Dani Wadada Nabudere, a Mbale-based lawyer and political scientist, and John Wycliffe Kazoora, a famous Kampala lawyer. Kazoora pulled no punches in his scholarly argument that despatched Ali’s paper as the work of one who did not understand key legal concepts and the Ugandan judicial system. 


The last letter, penned by Abu Mayanja, was very much along the lines of the other writers’ arguments. Like Kategaya, Mayanja believed that there was no ideology in Uganda. “What kind of ideological bond is there between my honourable friend, M.N. Mehta, MP, and his labourers in the sugar plantations, some of whom are also members or supporters of UPC?” he asked. He also observed that the Government of Uganda seemed to be quite happy in retaining the colonial laws and utilising them, “especially those laws designed by the colonial regime to suppress freedom of association and expression.” 


However, Mayanja’s offensive paragraph that sent him to jail was where he addressed the delayed Africanisation of the High Court. After charging Picho Ali with involving himself in “high-falutin’ philosophical disquisitions”, Mayanja went to the heart of his argument. “I do not think it requires an exercise in dialectical materialism to feel the need that our Bench must be Africanized – by appointing Ugandan-Africans to it – as soon as possible. And it is not clear to me why this has not been done.”


“Kenya has now got a Kenyan Chief Justice – a man who qualified as a lawyer some ten years after Mr. David Lubogo had been called to the Bar,” Mayanja continued.  “Mr. Lubogo is a lawyer of 16 years standing, and there are in Uganda quite a number of other African lawyers with more than ten years’ experience. Our Constitution stipulates five years as the necessary minimum. On that basis, we can Africanise the entire Bench today. Why don’t we take even a first step?”


“I do not believe the rumour circulating that the Judicial Service Commission has made a number of recommendations in this direction but that appointments have for one reason or another, mostly tribal considerations, not been confirmed,” Mayanja added. “But what is holding up the appointment of Ugandan Africans to the High Court?” Mayanja was accusing the ruler of being in the throes of tribal prejudice. 


Obote struck back on October 18, 1968. Neogy and Mayanja were incarcerated and charged with “seditious intention of bringing into hatred or contempt or exciting disaffection” against the president and against the government. 


Their trial, which began on Thursday, January 9, 1969 was a dramatic battle of legal titans of the period. Heard by Chief Magistrate Mohammed Saied, a Kenyan Asian, the prosecution was led by Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa QC, the former attorney general of Uganda. Mayanja’s defence was led by Sir Dingle Foot QC, a distinguished jurist, former solicitor general for England and Wales, and a key figure in Kabaka Muteesa II’s legal team dating back to the early 1950s. Neogy’s defence was led by Byron Georgiadis, a Greek-Kenyan who was one of East Africa’s most celebrated criminal defence lawyers.


In his judgment, Mohammed Saied agreed that the policy of Africanisation was a matter of public concern and its delay caused reasonable grievance. He held that the law of sedition did not encourage the creation of a servile press, but a press which possessed perfect freedom of speech so long as it did “not deliberately deteriorate into a malignant abuse.” Then in an unforgettable act of judicial courage and independence, Saied acquitted the accused. Within minutes, the police rearrested them. 


Why did Obote want these two men in prison? Mayanja’s reference to the rumour that Obote was delaying Africanisation of the High Court because there were no qualified people from the “correct ethnic communities” touched a very raw nerve. To borrow from Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Obote didst protest too much, methinks. 


On the other hand, Neogy’s arrest and re-arrest were triggered by the revelation, two years earlier, that Transition was one of the magazines funded by America’s CIA through the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom.  We should note that Neogy had not been aware of the CIA connection. The revelation had distressed him greatly.


In his book, The “Unlikely Diplomat,” Robert John Baker, a US Intelligence analyst who was based in Kampala in the 1960s, writes: “The Ugandan government never used that funding as an excuse to close the magazine. I suspect they were willing to tolerate it so long as Rajat railed only against dictatorship outside Uganda. There was lots of British intelligence, CIA, KGB, etc. money rolling around Uganda at the time. Doubtless it was assumed all along in Obote’s government that Rajat was funded by some foreign intelligence service. It is a fact that several newspaper editors in Uganda were funded by communist intelligence services at the time. Many Ugandan officials were on various Western and Eastern intelligence payrolls. It was almost a perk of office.”


With Obote’s increasing sense of insecurity, amidst the power struggles that were continuing inside his government, and a shaky hold on power in the post-1966 period, the president’s tolerance for free speech had grown thin. Fear had gripped the rulers, accompanied by paranoia that missed the real enemy within. Neogy summed it up in a letter to the New York Times in November 1969: “Detention is gratuitous and the chilling fact is that there has to be no reason for it other than somebody up there got suddenly frightened.” It was true fifty years ago. It remains so today. 



Related article: Rajat Neogy, the man behind Transition magazine





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