By Felix Osike
“New president for war–torn Uganda” was how BBC described the incoming president Yusuf Lule, three days after the overthrow of Field Marshal Idi Amin in 1979.
Cheering crowds greeted Lule when he arrived from neighboring Tanzania. The Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), a political outfit t, which was created with the support of the late president Julius Nyerere of Tanzania at the Moshi Conference, had chosen Lule as the interim president. He was selected because of his political neutrality.
The UNLF brought together 28 Ugandan organizations, working together to overthrow the regime of self-declared life president, Idi Amin. Lule gave a reconciliatory message to all the groups that had fought to remove Amin, Pledging to restore the rule of law. He had the difficult task to restore sanity, unity and prosperity in the country.
“We must not indulge in the evil acts of the regime we have just removed,” he said on the steps of Parliament, where he took the presidential oath on April 12, 1979. Uganda had witnessed extra judicial killings under Amin.
Lule equally called for an end to vigilantism and vandalism that had characterized the period preceding his ascension to power. This message struck a chord with the population because an estimated half a million people had died under Amin.
The crowd on Kampala streets, which included a large contingent from Makerere University where Lule was a student, teacher and principal, carried placards some of which read: “We support rule of law” and “To hell with tyrant Amin”.
Looting a la carte
Looting broke out as the Amin’s regime fell. Thousands of Ugandans poured onto the city streets and smashed shops and office windows, grabbing whatever they could get hold of.
In the swanky residential areas around the city, civilians broke into deserted houses, removing furniture, mattresses, clothes, lamps, television sets and other household property.
Most of the houses broken into belonged to Amin regime officials, who had fled. Foreigners, too, were not spared as the French ambassador’s home was looted. Plundering was extended to homes of the rich. Electronics were mostly targeted.
Surprisingly, the looters had the audacity to set up stalls to sell the looted items. Then the Government placed several announcements on radio and television, warning people against looting.
Out of fear of being arrested, some looters simply returned the items and abandoned them by the roadside. The country that had been heavily divided and lived under fear, welcomed the change.
With the fall of Amin, Ugandans had a sense of unity during the early days of Lule’s administration than ever before as he started what would, otherwise, have been a healing journey for a bruised nation.
It never was to be as Lule was to lead Uganda for only 68 days.
The challenges were vast and came fast: in-fighting and jostling broke out among the liberation forces in his 14–man cabinet. Matters were exacerbated by the shortage of essential commodities.
Lule tried to fix things.
A few essential commodities began trickling in. Veteran journalist, Hillary Nsambu, recalls that in central region, “there was a lot of excitement and the business community reduced prices of commodities in support of Lule”. A kilogramme of sugar cost about sh10, while meat was reduced from sh45 to sh20.
Described by some scholars as a “revolving door regime” because of its short life, Lule’s administration was sucked into quarrelsome and divisive politics. And it seemed short of the mental strength to tackle the challenges head–on.
Memories relived “Some of us who knew him well, Lule was an administrative bureaucrat, who would play by the rules and a bit inflexible. But being president at that time, it required flexibility,” points out water and environment minister, Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, when asked about the short-lived president’s fundamental mistakes. Prof. Kamuntu was Lule’s deputy minister for planning for only 48 hours.
Kamuntu says Lule also did not appreciate the role of the liberation forces that made him president. “He stuck to the 1967 Constitution. That was the source of his trouble. He thought the Constitution did not require him to consult Parliament,” says Kamuntu.
Kamuntu also says Lule appeared to be conservative on Buganda politics. “He felt he was made president to restore ebyaffe (Buganda Kingdom’s properties). He wanted to restore kingdoms, which was not appropriate at that time.”
President Yoweri Museveni, who was the then vice– chairman of the Military Commission, writes in his book; Sowing the Mustard Seed, that running the country then was difficult and it was compounded by the many competing forces in the coalition, owing allegiance to many political interests.
Museveni narrates that there was fighting for positions in the formation of government. The Tanzanians suggested Paulo Muwanga as defence minister, but Lule retained the portfolio himself. After haggling with the Tanzanians, Museveni writes, Lule agreed that he (Museveni) becomes defence state minister.
Prof. Edward Rugumayo, who was the chairman of the 30– member temporary legislature, the National Consultative Council (NCC), like Kamuntu, says Lule did not read the signs of what his intransigence would breed. Consequently, different camps emerged in the NCC, presenting Lule a big challenge.
Lule’s problems, according to Rugumayo, stemmed from his failure to listen to other political players and activists in the coalition that handed him the presidency on a silver platter. The different political players were also baffled when Lule appointed conservative Buganda politicians such as Robert Serumaga (commerce) and Andrew Kayiira (internal affairs) to key ministries.
Dealing with the army The security situation was also tense. Sporadic gunshots could be heard at night in the city centre. Lule tried a balancing act by proposing a quota system for recruitment to the army, which would have been based on the
population of the country’s ethnic groups. The national army, Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) was not unified:
FRONASA (under Museveni), Kikosi Maalum led by Oyite Ojok and Ateker Ejalu’s Save Uganda Movement were each recruiting to broaden and strengthen their base. Museveni had recruited about 9,000 fighters, largely from western Uganda, while Oyite Ojok and Basilio Okello recruited from northern Uganda.
Two months into the regime’s lifespan, defence state minister Museveni was to disagree publicly with his chief of staff, Brig. Oyite Ojok. Open hostility between the different military factions culminated into a spate of killings in Kampala and
Lule’s move to purge the incongruities was seen as undermining the key players in the liberation. It did not surprise many that his proposal to disband the UNLA and replace it with a national army was viewed as a malicious move to sideline those who formed the bulk of the liberation force, including Oyite Ojok and Museveni.
Museveni points this out in his book. “Prof. Lule went to the extent of writing a letter to me, requiring me to disband the FRONASA forces we had just recruited. This was ridiculous.” Kamuntu says this was another of Lule’s mistakes. “He wanted an educated national army.
He didn’t realise that those who participated in the liberation struggle were still fighting. He didn’t appreciate the forces that made him president.
The Nyerere factor Lule was Nyerere’s classmate at Scotland’s Edinburgh University. So, Lule was perceived as installed by Nyerere as president. He did not have an army, but he was one of the highly educated Ugandans, which gave him an edge, notes Kamuntu.
But Lule is said to have angered Nyerere when he proposed the disbanding of the fighting forces, which fought alongside the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces. Nyerere and the famous Gang of Four (Rugumayo, Omwony Ojwok, Yash Tandon and Wadada Nabudere) – the architects of the Moshi Agreement – therefore, played a pivotal role in the removal of Lule as they had done in putting him in power.
Lule had objected to the return of Obote to government until after elections which were to be held after the two–year transition period. Nyerere called Lule and members of his cabinet to Mwanza and told them to accommodate Obote as either vice–president or foreign affairs minister.
The question about Obote’s return continued to hang over Lule’s head. Obote rejected the proposed foreign affairs portfolio, which was held then by Otema Alimadi, saying he could not serve as minister having been president. He said
he could possibly serve as vice– presidency. However, Lule and his cronies objected, prompting Nyerere and the Gang of Four to plot his removal.
Both renowned scholar Prof. Ali Mazrui and Rugumayo agree that Nyerere was so keen on seeing Obote back in power that he helped oust Lule. Lule‘s last days On June 9, 1979, a motion was introduced in the NCC by Stephen Arica, requiring Lule as chairman of the National Executive Committee to submit to the NCC all political and ministerial appointments so far made for discussion and approval.
The meeting was chaired by Dr. Luwuliza Kirunda in the absence of chairman Rugumayo. The motion was carried by a vote of 15 to one.
On June 12, there was another meeting of the Council at State House, Entebbe, at which Lule was required to respond to the motion passed by the Council. Lule did not respond.
Instead, it is said, Lule argued that he would go by the 1967 Constitution, which gave the president executive powers and not the Uganda National Liberation Front ( UNLF) and the minutes of the Moshi Unity Conference adopted by the guerilla movements.
The NCC meeting gave Lule seven days in which to comply with the terms of the June resolution of the Council. At another meeting held by the NCC at State House Entebbe on June 19–20, there was only one item on the agenda; the compliance with the June 9 resolution by Lule.
Insiders say the reaction from Lule was that the resolution passed by the NCC raised a matter of constitutional nature, which were under study. That was the beginning of his downhill journey.
After a 12–hour marathon meeting from 3:00pm on June 19 to 3:00am, Lule had been stretched to the breaking point.
A member of the council, Paul Wangola, then moved a motion of no confidence in Lule as chairman and president. The motion was carried by 18 votes to 14. Lule’s presidency that began on April 13 had ended acrimoniously, 68 days later, courtesy of a power struggle.
NCC immediately appointed Godfrey Binaisa as president. Lule was exiled to Dar es Salaam, where he was placed under house arrest by the Nyerere government.
Scholarly analysis Samwiri Karugire in Roots of Instability in Uganda observes that the UNLF government could not function effectively from the start because there were no institutions such as the Police, civil service and the team, which
was to build the institutions was, “itself hopelessly divided without any sense of cohesion or direction”.
“Soon the liberation became a nightmare for people of Uganda as lawlessness mounted and the government appeared powerless to contain it,” Karugire wrote. He also noted that the army was loyal to Obote and hostile to Lule.
Kamuntu says all the fiasco could have been avoided if Lule had not become defiant. Makerere University professor of political history, Ndebesa Mwambutsya, says both Lule’s character and circumstances at the time contributed to his downfall.
“It was inevitable. The circumstances were not suitable for him. He did not resonate with the Moshi group. It needed somebody, who had connections and could resonate with that group,” argues Ndebesa.