A Survivor—barely—as Uganda's President, Godfrey Binaisa Finds Life in Brooklyn a Beach
05/01/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
His office, deep in the bowels of Brooklyn's Borough Hall, is a dingy little room with peeling paint and scuff-marked walls, furnished in secondhand, municipal style—two banged-up metal desks, matching file cabinets and a couple of drab chairs. Looking dapper in a royal-blue, British-made suit, Godfrey Binaisa pores over his caseload, trying to thwart those seeking retribution from the city for its alleged threats to dignity and limb. One man is asking for $500,000 after tripping on a "defectively uneven sidewalk"; another party wants a million for injuries sustained when their car collided with a fire truck. "Everybody seems to be suing the city—and given its deep pockets, it's quite worth suing," Binaisa says with a chuckle. After four months as a pretrial attorney, he doesn't find the job terribly taxing: After all, Binaisa was once President of Uganda.
Which means that in his time Binaisa has seen plenty of action—legal and otherwise. He is a veteran attorney who has practiced on three continents, was threatened with death by Uganda's wild-man dictator Idi Amin, and after a brief term as President was toppled from power in a 1980 military coup. If it seems a dispiriting journey from being hailed as "Your Excellency" to slogging through the intricacies of the torts division of the Brooklyn Corporation Counsel's office, don't worry; he's happy. "The environment and my colleagues here are all splendid," says Binaisa, 68. "Having been brought up in a British colonial system, I find it easy to take orders from people. After all, the time I was giving commands was only a short episode in my life."
Born to a prominent middle-class family in Kampala (his father, Aninia, 97, is an Episcopal minister there), Binaisa earned a law degree at King's College, London, in 1955. He returned home to ply his trade—and to join the swelling movement to oust the British, who had ruled Uganda since 1894. After independence in 1962, Binaisa became the country's first Ugandan attorney general. Five years later Binaisa resigned and went back to private practice in the capital. "I set up a multiracial office with an Indian woman barrister, two white guys from New Zealand and three Africans," he says proudly. "We were really strong, representing high-powered people, international corporations and embassies."
Business went swimmingly until 1972, when Idi Amin, who had ousted President Milton Obote the year before, turned against Uganda's onetime allies, the U.S. and Israel. Since Binaisa was serving as counsel for the Israeli embassy, he soon found himself regarded as an enemy collaborator. "Amin called me to his office," says Binaisa. "There he was, sitting in his big chair, looking me straight in the eye and speaking his half-broken English, which left a lot to be desired. He said I was a Zionist and he would have me arrested and shot in public as a traitor. I was scared stiff. I knew Amin wasn't the sort of chap who minced words. I protested my innocence, but he just grinned and said, 'I've told you what I think.' "
Binaisa made up his mind then and there to put as much distance as he could between himself and Amin, and a week later the erratic tyrant played into his hands. Apparently forgiving Binaisa his trespasses, Amin sent him to London to persuade the understandably reluctant British legal establishment to attend a Commonwealth conference in Kampala. Supplied with a first-class ticket and a lavish travel advance, Binaisa boarded a Scandinavian Airlines flight at Entebbe and never looked back. "I really went out on a red carpet," he says. "I said to myself, 'God is truly great!' But I also thought I had played my cards rather well." He had also left his wife and family behind, but with the help of the International Red Cross, Binaisa secured their freedom 10 months later.
For seven years, while Amin carried out his reign of terror, Binaisa worked as a lawyer in London and later in New York City. When Amin was finally overthrown in April 1979, Binaisa returned home "to see what was happening and what I could do." As it turned out, more than he could have imagined: After just 10 weeks in power, President Yusufu Lule was ousted and Parliament drafted Binaisa as his successor.
No sooner had he taken the oath of office than Binaisa got a taste of the troubles to come. That evening he stepped out of his suite at the Nile Mansions Hotel and saw a massive demonstration of Ugandans protesting Lule's dismissal. "It was a real anticlimax!" he says with a hearty laugh, pitching forward in his chair and clapping his hands. "But the people were simply tasting their new freedom. I told the army not to shoot—just prevent the mobs from storming the hotel and lynching me. It was quite fantastic! I'd never seen anything like it."
Binaisa's hold on power was exceedingly tenuous. He proved adept at preparing Uganda for parliamentary elections, but he was much less successful reviving the economy, which had been devastated during the chaos of Amin's rule. Nor could he fend off his formidable political opponents, including Julius Nyerere, President of neighboring Tanzania, who had sent 40,000 troops to Uganda to help topple Amin and who made it plain he wanted Obote returned to power. In May 1980, Binaisa was overthrown in a nonviolent coup and placed under house arrest on trumped-up charges of raiding the national treasury. Certain he would be killed, Binaisa engineered another escape. "Because so many Ugandans are Catholic, everybody gets very drunk at Christmas," he says. "So I arranged with the government to spend the day with a friend. Then some chaps came with two cars." Breezing past inebriated road guards, Binaisa, his wife, Irene, and their youngest child, Joan, 5, were spirited away to freedom. "Off we went, along side roads I knew like the back of my hand," says the ex-President. "After a rough passage through the bush, we walked across the border into Kenya."
Within a month, Binaisa went to Britain, where his six other children were studying. After returning briefly to Uganda under yet another, friendlier regime, he arrived in America in 1987 to work as a business consultant. Late last year he spotted the corporation counsel's classified ad in the New York Times. "I jumped at it," he says. "I thought it'd be a good challenge to defend the biggest city in the world." Although his salary isn't high, he enjoys fringe benefits Uganda could never provide, including job security. While Binaisa's bosses were impressed with his curriculum vitae, co-workers saw things differently at first. "We thought he was one of those propped-up third world dictators with not a lot going for him," says attorney Rudy Whyte. "But now Godfrey's just one of the guys."
Binaisa feels right at home too. Separated from his wife, who lives in London with four of his children (the others are working in the U.S.), he is sampling the single life in a spanking-new, one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. He is eager to graduate from pretrial work and get back to the courtroom; meanwhile, he'd like to write an autobiography and try his hand on the lecture circuit. It seems doubtful he will ever be President of anything again, but Binaisa is by nature an optimist. "By some accident of genetic engineering," he says with a grin, "the Binaisa clan, for all their wear and tear, seems to weather things very well."