How Okello-Oculi narrowly survived Amin’s death trap
Publish Date: Sep 02, 2008
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By Denis Ocwich
and Geoffrey Odyek

TO most Ugandans in this ‘Movement’ generation, the name Okello-Oculi does not ring a bell. But to the Obote and Idi Amin-era crop of academia and political actors, this man is one of the great intellectuals Uganda has produced.

Now in his late 60s, Okello has lived nearly half his life in Nigeria, where he has become an icon in the academia and political cycles. There are stories that he has been a senior adviser to Nigeria’s political leaders, including ex-president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

“He is a well-known figure in Nigeria and cannot come back to Uganda. In any case, he is a Nigerian, not a Ugandan anymore, and we love him,” says Yohanna Gandu, a lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria, where Okello was a long-time (1977-1990s) professor of political science and public administration.

Okello shifted base to Abuja, the political capital, where he does private consultancy and heads Africa Vision 525, a pan-African NGO.

“He is a level-headed intellectual and gentleman; that is why he has comfortably settled in the troubled waters of Nigeria. For us, Nigerians, the concept of ‘foreigner’ is not in our vocabulary,” adds Gandu, who was taught by Prof. Okello in his first year class of public administration at Ahmadu Bello.

A Langi, Okello is one of the very lucky Ugandans who narrowly escaped being killed by Amin’s government (1971-1979), a few months after Amin toppled Obote’s first government through a military coup.

In January 1971, Amin’s soldiers raided the Faculty of Social Sciences, Makerere University, where Okello was a tutorial fellow (equivalent of today’s assistant lecturer) and was whisked away.

In those days, once you were picked up by the uniformed men, you would have to be so lucky to survive the death chambers. Okello was one such lucky citizen, thanks to his head of Department of Political Science, Prof. Ali Mazrui, who was then a confidant of Amin. (see sidebar for Prof. Mazrui’s recollection of how he saved Okello’s life).

Despite being freed, Okello and Mazrui sensed that it could be just a “Mickey mouse” freedom; the young scholar could be re-arrested or kidnapped anytime.

He was safer leaving the country. Fortunately, a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship was secured and Okello left in 1972 for the University of Wiscons in the US for a fellowship and subsequently a doctorate in political science. In his student days at Makerere (1963-1967), Okello was an active member of the National Union of Students of Uganda (NUSU), which, though academic-oriented, ended up piggybacking political activism.
President Milton Obote often capitalised on NUSU networks to expand and expound his manifesto. Probably that explains why Okello, as an ex-NUSU member, would later get on Amin’s blacklist. After getting his PhD in 1977, Okello preferred not to return to Uganda because Amin was still in charge. So he found a detour to Nigeria.

For three decades, he never set foot in Uganda until early 2004 when he had a two-week visit that took him to his birthplace of Dokolo and Lira districts. On that visit, the tall, soft-spoken and dark-skinned senior citizen was awed by how things have changed in Uganda.
“But the roads are so bad, and the displaced people in northern Uganda are living like goats,” he remarked then, during an interview in Lira.

To him, the people of northern Uganda have never got any ‘development’ from the Government. And he does not harbour any desire to return to Uganda.

From his Abuja base, Okello has become a renowned socio-political analyst. He has published a number of books and several newspaper articles in different countries — all focusing on socio-economic or political affairs in Africa.

He married a Nigerian woman who operates a media production studio in Abuja. Not much is known about his private and family life. Even his close relatives do not know his offsprings. “He probably has one or two children,” says Gandu. The online Britannica Encyclopedia describes Okello as a “Ugandan novelist, poet, and chronicler of African rural village life.

His writing is filled with authentic snatches of conversation, proverbs and folk wisdom that confirm African values and denounce European imitations.”

As proof of his anti-Western doctrines, he never pre-fixed any alien (Christian) name to his family name — much in the same manner of pan-Africanists like Okot p’Bitek, Chinua Achebe, Murindwa Rutanga, Ngugi wa’Thiongo, Anyang Nyong’o and Wole Soyinka.

Writing in one of his then The New Vision columns in June 2006, pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem described Okello as one of the radical and influential Pan-Africanist refugee scholars “lost to Uganda but gains to many generations of African students in other countries.”

As Tajudeen wrote, Okello had become “more Nigerian than many of us whose only claim is that we were born there.”

Okello-Oculi’s biography

  • 1942: Born in rural Abakuli village, Dokolo

  • 1949-1954: Abakuli and Alanyi primary schools, Lango

  • 1955-1956: Soroti College (Junior Level)

  • 1957-60: St. Peter’s College, Tororo (O’ level)

  • 1961-1962: St. Mary’s College, Kisubi (A’ level)

  • 1963-1967: University of East Africa, Makerere College (B.A)

  • 1964-1965: Stanford University, US (exchange student)

  • 1967-1968: Essex University, England (M.A)

  • 1972-1977: University of Wisconsin, US (PhD)

  • Published books

  • 1967: Orphan (dramatised poetry)

  • 1969: Prostitute (novel)

  • 1972: Kanta Riti (novel)

  • 1975: Imperialism, Settlers and Capitalism in Kenya

  • 1976: Kookolem (novel)

  • 1976: Malak: An African

  • Poems

  • 1985: Rural Underdevelopment in Nigeria

  • 1987: Food and the African Revolution

  • 1986: A Political Economy of malnutrition

  • 2000: Song for the sun in Us

  • 2000: Discourses on African Affairs: Directions and Destinies for the 21st Century.

  • How Okello-Oculi survived
    By the second half of 1971, the political atmosphere in Uganda under Idi Amin had become particularly dangerous for members of Milton Obote’s ethnic group, the Langi. Okello-Oculi was also a Langi. Hundreds of Langi soldiers had already been killed.

    One day at the Faculty of Social Sciences, my secretary Anna Gourlay, entered my office (as head of Dept of Political Science) and said anxiously: “They are taking Okello-Oculi away!”
    “Who is taking Okello away?” I asked in puzzlement rather than alarm.
    “A couple of soldiers!” she replied.

    I emerged from my office to face the two soldiers holding Okello. I enquired on whose authority they were picking up a member of my staff.

    “Ask Captain Ochima!” one of the soldiers replied. Ochima was the soldier who had announced Amin’s coup in January, 1971, on the radio.

    When I failed to reach Ochima on the phone, the soldiers took Okello away. I next tried desperately to connect with Amin’s powerful private secretary, Henry Kyemba.

    In 1971, my own standing with Amin’s regime was high. I was also a high profile Muslim intellectual in post-colonial Uganda. We waited anxiously for feedback. Finally, Amin’s private secretary called me to say Okello-Oculi had been located and would be returning to Makerere within an hour. To our very great relief, we were reunited with Okello in reasonable time.

    I then started negotiating with the Rockefeller Foundation to get a post-graduate fellowship for Okello in order to get him out of Uganda to the US, as soon as possible.

    A Langi intellectual in Amin’s Uganda would continue to be at risk unless we got him out of reach. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, we succeeded in transferring Okello to a major American institution. Okello’s talent was definitely worth saving. He has combined political sensitivity with poetic sensibility.

    What does Okello Oculi have in common with Ali Mazrui?

    Okello and I were two political scientists who combined political concerns with literary pursuits. We both sought academic refuge in the US.

    We both reconnected with Africa through affiliation with Nigerian universities. We both got married to Nigerian women and promoted Pan-Africanism. We both became East Africans in exile who met more often abroad than in East Africa. Okello has been more than just saved. He has now triumphed as a poet and as an academic in Nigeria.

    Excerpts from Mazrui Newsletter, Spring 2006, a publication by Prof. Ali Mazrui, Professor and Director of the Institute of Global and Cultural Studies at Binghamton University/State University of NewYork

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