By Moses Walubiri
Dr. Apollo Milton Obote, seen by many as a political genius, was president of Uganda twice. After he was toppled in 1971, he returned to power in 1980 through a controversial ballot.
To gain power before independence, Obote engineered the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) alliance with Kabaka Yekka (KY) and went on to back the election of Sir Edward Mutesa II as president, an act that ushered a traditional ruler into national politics.
But Obote abrogated the 1962 Constitution, triggering off the 1966 crisis whose effects are still felt in Uganda’s politics. He also propped up Idi Amin, who later toppled him.
In life as in death, Obote the man and his stewardship of this country, first as executive prime minister, and later, as a two–time president, has received both rave reviews and condemnation in equal measure across the political divide.
At independence in 1962, Obote was a 37-year-old budding politician, with no proven leadership experience save for a stint in Legislative Council (LegCo).
And like all trail blazers, Obote, who was twice toppled by the military made mistakes as he learnt on job, but registered enduring success in different arenas. What was the social, political and economic terrain like during the 12 years of Obote I and II (1962–1971 and 1980–1985) regimes?
On the political front, Obote inherited a minefield. Prof. Phares Mutibwa in his book, Uganda Since Independence; A story of unfulfilled Hope enunciates Obote’s political challenges, which included uniting the various communities of the country into a modern nation–state called Uganda.
“No other East African Commonwealth leader faced such an unenviable task at independence.
“That he survived as long as he did, is a tribute to his political skills. That he fell when he did was a bitter irony,” Mutibwa notes.
It is imperative to note that although Buganda’s ‘privileged’ federal arrangement in an independent Uganda was a negotiated position at the Lancaster conference in 1961, which preceded Uganda’s independence, it proved to be both a future constitutional tangle and cause of discontent among other regions.
And then there was the marriage of convenience between Obote’s UPC and the Mengo–leaning KY.
These contradictions and competing interests turned the political milieu into a tinder box, which was bound to explode, depending on how Obote juggled them. The UPC/KY coalition faced a big challenge two years after independence, thanks to the referendum on the fate of lost counties of Buyaga and Bugangaizi.
The referendum was to enable the people of the two counties decide whether they wanted to revert to Bunyoro or remain part of Buganda.
Mutesa, as Kabaka of Buganda and president of Uganda was faced with an egg and chicken riddle. But as Kabaka of Buganda, he listened to his heart and opposed the referendum.
When this failed, Mutesa unsuccessfully tried to settle Baganda ex-servicemen in the two counties to influence results in Buganda’s favour.
The two counties voted to revert to Bunyoro, upsetting the tenuous UPC/KY alliance and becoming, according to Mutibwa, the epicentre of Uganda’s future political woes.
When Obote signed instruments transferring the counties to Bunyoro following Mutesa’s refusal to do so, the stage was set for the most tumultuous period in post-independence Uganda.
In 1966, KY MP Daudi Ochieng implicated Obote, Idi Amin and ministers, Felix Onama and Adoko Nekyon in smuggling gold and ivory from the Congo.
This was part of a well-orchestrated palace coup intended to throw out Obote.
However, Obote acted fast and nipped the scheme in the bud, arresting five of his ministers; Grace Ibingira, Balaki Kirya, Mathias Ngobi, George Magezi and Dr. S.Lumu, who were in cahoots with the conspirators.
Obote also dismissed president Mutesa and vice-president William Wilberforce Nadiope and annulled the 1962 Constitution, replacing it with the ‘Pigeon hole’ Constitution.
However, in their futile attempt to oppose a shrewd Obote, Mengo played into his hands.
Although opposed by then Katikkiro, Mayanja Nkangi, the Buganda Lukiiko (traditional parliament)passed a motion giving the central government a 10 days’ ultimatum to vacate Buganda.
The result was a confrontation, which saw the attack on Lubiri in 1966 and the subsequent exile of Mutesa in Britain, where he died in 1969.