Intelligent, eloquent, elegant, and duty-bound, Elizabeth Bagaaya Nyabongo of Toro (born c. 1940) successfully revived Uganda's tarnished international image during her tenure as roving ambassador (1971-1973), minister of foreign affairs (February-November 1974), and United Nations ambassador (1986-1988).
The daughter of the Omukama (King) George D. Rukiidi III of Toro (1924-1965), Bagaaya was born between the late 1930s and early 1940s in Kabalole, the capital of Toro in western Uganda. Toro became an independent state in the 18th century when it seceded from the ancient and famous empire of Bunyoro-Kitara, which covered parts of present-day Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zaire, and Uganda. Toro lost its kingdom status in 1967 when Milton A. Obote's government (1962-1971) abolished monarchs in Uganda.
As her mother (Lady Kezia Byanjeru) was the king's legal wife, Bagaaya became entitled to the status of Batebe (head of the princesses). She, however, shared the hectic royal court life in Kabalole with the king's other children. The harmonious life in the court though, made it possible for the royal children to receive an indigenous education, including an overview of the history of the motherland empire of Bunyoro-Kitara.
Bagaaya received her elementary education at Kyebambe Girl's School, a Protestant missionary institution that was named after her grandfather, a champion of Christianity and Western education in Toro. She continued her education at Gayaza High School in Buganda Kingdom, the center of British colonial control of Uganda from 1894 to 1962. Though officially she was under the care of the Kabaka (King) of Buganda, Bagaaya resided in the school dormitory. This in essence meant she lost most of the royal privileges she had enjoyed either in the palace or in the state, since Buganda was a different kingdom from Toro. She thus participated in all school activities like any other student.
Bagaaya completed her high school education at Sherborne in England. An all-girls' school, Sherborne presented new challenges; she had to adjust not only to a new culture, but also had to learn what it means to be the only African student in a school where others were white aristocrats. There was also coping with the academic work, which proved difficult because of cultural bias.
Between 1959 and 1962 she studied law, history, and political science at the University of Cambridge, England. As Cambridge was one of the educational and political powerhouses, Bagaaya acquired a quality education and was introduced to influential people who later played key roles in her career. It was at Cambridge, for example, that in 1961 Bagaaya gave a party in honor of Jomo Kenyatta, who later became president of Kenya (1963-1978). That she identified herself with Kenyatta, an individual whom the British authorities at that time regarded with disdain because of his role in the Mau Mau (Kenya's violent nationalist movement, 1952-1961), was evidence that Bagaaya still remained an African.
Bagaaya continued her legal education in London, qualifying as a barrister-at-law in 1965. She became one of the few female attorneys in east, central, and southern Africa. However, 1965 was a mixed bag for Bagaaya: at the height of her academic achievement, she had to cope with the death of her father, a personal confidant, and she also faced the uncertain political future resulting from Obote's desire to abolish monarchs in Uganda.
Modeling and Acting Careers
She returned to Uganda in 1965 to attend the funeral of her father and the coronation of her brother in 1966 as Omukama Patrick D. Kaboyo Olimi VII. As the coronation was publicized by the international press, Bagaaya, who played a key role in the ceremony as Batebe (the King's first sister), was catapulted to prominence.
Desiring a career, Bagaaya went to Kampala, capital of Uganda, to work with a law firm, where she was called to the Uganda bar in 1966. Just as she was ready to start practicing law, the political landscape in Uganda changed. Partly due to Obote's republican beliefs and his personal conflicts with the Kabaka of Buganda, he abolished the 1962 constitution that had preserved the monarchical status of the kingdoms of Ankole, Bunyoro, Buganda, and Toro, replacing it with a republican constitution in 1967.
The political uncertainty that followed forced Bagaaya to reassess her future. In 1965 when Princess Margaret and her then husband, Lord Snowdon, had visited Uganda, they had invited Bagaaya to model in a British fashion show at Marlborough House in London in 1967. Now she accepted. After the show she opted for the modeling profession on the grounds that it would have been very difficult to make a breakthrough in the highly competitive legal business and she felt modeling would promote African culture. She thus signed up with a top agency in London and embarked on a modeling and acting career that lasted from 1967 to 1970 and was briefly resumed in 1984.
She modeled in Britain in several fashion shows that were featured in the British and American Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Queen magazines in 1967 and 1968. Through Lord Harlech and Jacqueline Kennedy, she embarked on a modeling career in New York between 1968 and 1970. She was featured in the American Vogue, Look, LIFE, and Ebony and became the first Black to appear on the cover of a top fashion magazine (Harper's Bazaar).
After taking acting classes in New York, she embarked on a new career when an American and German company requested her to play a role in a film based on Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease. Set in the lgbo (Ibo) region of eastern Nigeria, the film explored the impact of Western civilization on Africa. Despite the difficulties caused by the Nigerian civil war at the time, she flew to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1970, where the film was produced.
Political changes in Uganda in 1971 interrupted her career in acting, and it was not until 1984 that she returned to the profession. The publication of her African Princess in 1983 prompted Columbia Pictures to invite her to participate in the making of Sheena, a film portraying the indigenous culture of a people known as the Zamburis and their suffering at the hands of an alien.
Serving Idi Amin's Government
Bagaaya returned to Uganda when Idi Amin overthrew Milton A. Obote's government in a coup d'état in 1971. Although Amin's military government (1971-1979) later became synonymous with massive violations of human rights, economic decline, and social disintegration, it was initially well received, particularly by southern Ugandans. Prompted by the desire to serve her country and caught up in the euphoria that followed the military takeover, Bagaaya served Amin's government between 1971 and 1974.
In her first appointment as roving ambassador (1971-1973), she acted as Amin's envoy in times of crisis, conveying messages directly from one head of state to another. By getting direct access to various presidents, she avoided the normal red tape of having to go through the various foreign ministers of each country. Bagaaya's added advantages were her having been educated at Cambridge, having lived in Britain and the United States, and having been introduced through her acting and modeling careers to influential people all over the world.
As part of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Bagaaya participated in a campaign to dispel the prevailing international skepticism that Amin lacked the necessary sophistication to lead the country. It was not particularly easy to convince African countries, who prior to the Amin coup had agreed to hold the Organization of African Unity (OAU) meeting in Uganda with Obote as the host president. Amin's open advocation for a dialogue with South Africa's minority white government further exasperated the already delicate situation.
By 1972 it was becoming increasingly difficult to formulate a coordinated foreign policy as Amin's actions became erratic. The sudden expulsion of the Israelis, who had been his close friends, was followed later in 1972 by his declaration of the "economic war" that resulted in the expulsion of 50,000 Asian traders, many of whom held British passports. As Western influence declined, the Arabs took the upper hand, with Muamar Gaddafi of Libya becoming Amin's mentor. He also received a negative international image because of the internal political repression that forced Amin's brother-in-law and foreign minister (Wanume-Kibedi) to resign and flee Uganda in 1973. The murder in 1974 of Michael Ondoga, who replaced Kibedi as foreign minister, was further evidence of Amin's ruthlessness.
It was during this explosive international situation that Bagaaya was appointed foreign minister in February 1974. Short as her tenure was (February to November 1974), Bagaaya revived Uganda's tarnished image abroad, tried to soothe hostilities, and encouraged heads of state to visit the country. It was partly due to her policies that Arabs generously gave aid to Uganda; Gaddafi and Siad Barre of Somalia visited Uganda in 1974; and efforts were made to compensate the expelled Asian traders.
Bagaaya's peak as foreign minister came when she gave an eloquent and inspiring speech to the United Nations late in 1974. Avoiding any perception that she was defending Amin as an individual, her speech instead was a defense of the African continent in general and Uganda as a country in particular. The distinction she subtly made between Amin's personal idiosyncrasy and the general policies of the OAU was important in that she disarmed critics of Africa who portrayed Amin as an example of failed Black leadership. Her tours to Britain, Canada, West Germany, and France after the U.N. speech further helped in dispelling many of the misconceptions these countries had developed about Uganda over the years.
Ironically, the U.N. speech was one of the causes for the downfall of Bagaaya as a foreign minister. Viewing the speech as a personal success for Bagaaya and, therefore, further boosting her international image, Amin became envious, particularly since he felt that it was he who made her in the first place. It was under this illusion that Amin unsuccessfully proposed marriage to Bagaaya on her return from overseas. It was thus envy and not Amin's ludicrous claim that she had made love to a white man in Paris in 1974 that led to Bagaaya's dismissal as foreign minister.
Serving Yoweri Museveni
After a brief arrest on her return from overseas in 1974, Bagaaya fled Uganda, taking up political asylum in Britain. Aside from suing newspapers that sensationalized Amin's claims for dismissing her as foreign minister, Bagaaya generally kept a low profile during her exile years, 1975-1979. Bagaaya won all her legal suits and cleared her name.
She returned to Uganda in 1979 when Amin's government was overthrown by a combination of Tanzanian forces and Uganda exiles. Bagaaya's stay, brief as it was (1979-1980), turned out to be important: she met Wilbur Nyabongo, whom she married in 1981. Politically, Obote's return to power in 1980 after a rigged election forced Bagaaya to leave Uganda.
The formation of Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM) in 1980 with an objective of opposing Obote's second administration (1980-1985) offered Bagaaya an opportunity to register her dissatisfaction with Obote. While Museveni headed the military arm of the organization (National Resistance Army, NRA), Bagaaya and Wilbur Nyabongo worked with the External Committee (the civilian arm of the organization outside Uganda) to rally material and diplomatic support. From 1980 to 1986 Bagaaya provided the organization with valuable contacts which partially helped Museveni in his fight against Obote and in the defeat of the short-lived military government (1985-1986) that replaced Obote.
Museveni appointed Bagaaya as Uganda's ambassador to the United States between 1986 and 1988. Aside from her efforts to make the embassy in Washington function again, Bagaaya faced the difficult task of improving Uganda's negative image that had developed during the Amin and post-Amin eras. She had the difficult challenge of explaining to the United States government why President Museveni, who had assumed power in 1986, was perceived as a Marxist sympathizer and a friend of Gaddafi.
To fight back, Bagaaya used the mass media to educate the American public about Africa in general and Uganda in particular. Her appearances twice on the CBS 60 Minutes was particularly effective in explaining the misconceptions of Uganda. She highlighted Uganda's problems and made the important point that instead of giving labels to Museveni, he should be judged by what he achieved, particularly his human rights record. Bagaaya also used her contacts from previous careers to promote Ugandan causes. It was partly due to her hard negotiations and relevant contacts that it was possible for President Yoweri Museveni to meet Vice President George Bush and President Ronald Reagan in October 1987.
Due to the untimely death of her husband (Wilbur Nyabongo) in December 1986, the pressure of work caused by her efforts to reorganize the Uganda Embassy in Washington, and her desire to continue to live temporarily in the United States, she resigned her position as Ugandan ambassador to the United States on July 21, 1988. After her retirement, Bagaaya promoted African causes through television appearances and the publication of her Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess (1989).
Further Reading on Elizabeth Bagaaya Nyabongo of Toro
Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya Nyabongo's fortune may be followed in her two books, African Princess: The Story of Elizabeth of Toro (London: 1983) and Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess (1989), and in Henry Kyemba's A State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin (1977).