Dear Ugandans, On Friday, former president Apollo Milton Obote will be given a state funeral.
Instead of celebrating the life of the leader who, for better or for worse, was instrumental in shaping the foundation of modern Uganda, some Ugandans are reportedly celebrating his death.
While such actions go against the very moral grain of every single culture in Uganda, it is important to acknowledge that they are the expressions of deep anger and frustration. After all, in pre-colonial times, during the colonial period and from the inception of the country in early 1962, a section of Uganda has always been on the outside looking in.
The atrocities against the Banyoro and the Bakiga are well documented. In February 1966 when Obote suspended the constitution that would later lead to the crisis on May 24, 1966 that caused the head of state, Sir Edward Mutesa to flee into exile, the people of Buganda were orphaned, their voices muted in silent anger. And the restoration of the monarchy in 1993 has not exactly healed those weeping wounds.
Five years later, when General Idi Amin came to power in the January 1971 coup that overthrew President Milton Obote, many Ugandans, particularly the Luo-speaking citizens, became pariahs.
Thousands perished, never to be seen again. Uganda Asians who grew up on the land and knew no other country were thrown out without as much as a toothbrush.
However, when Amin fled in 1979 ahead of the combined forces of Tanzanians and of Ugandans in exile, the violence engulfed innocent Ugandans of Lugbara and Kakwa ethnicities who were accused of collaborating with Amin, hunted down like animals, and in many instances murdered without a chance to clear their names. Those lucky enough to flee to Sudan and elsewhere around the globe live awfully in squalor. Many are still waiting to come back home.
Meanwhile, the divisive election that returned Milton Obote to power in 1980 and the subsequent war against the rebel group led by Yoweri Museveni left unspeakable suffering, especially in the Luweero Triangle where countless citizens were wounded or killed and children orphaned. Many, including this writer, fled into exile out of fear for their lives during Obote II.
Unfortunately, the ping-pong politics of retribution did not stop there. Since 1986, Ugandans in the north have felt the sting of war that has continued in one form or another for the past 19 years. The UPDF is on record for committing atrocities in Acholi where many innocent people lost their lives and livelihood.
There are many in exile and in Uganda who remain extremely angry with President Yoweri Museveni, blaming him for these events. They are waiting for the chance to turn back the hand of time.
The reality is that time cannot be turned back, not for the wrongs that were committed in Buganda, Bunyoro, West Nile, Acholi, Lango, Teso, Karamoja and elsewhere in Uganda. But it is crucial to acknowledge the mistakes that were made, stop the cycle of vengeance and recrimination that keeps cutting the country in half, and move forward.
The death of Obote provides the perfect moment to pause to contemplate our collective history, before moving beyond our collective anger toward our collective destiny. As Sri Swami Sivananda, the 19th century Indian sage once said, â€œAnger is a great force. If you control it, it can be transmuted into a power which can move the whole world.â€
Indeed, we have a model adopted by angry black South Africans toward those who committed grievous crimes during the apartheid era. Instead of pointing accusing fingers or even poking the eyes of the accused, the South African government instead created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu to channel that anger into nation building. Today, South Africa is slowly moving into the future while burying the past.
To this end, credit should go to President Yoweri Museveni for standing up when it most counted and saying clearly, â€œI forgave Oboteâ€, and allowing the former president to be accorded a state funeral. Though many might cynically argue that this is too little too late, it is an act of leadership where the mistakes that the former president made during his time is not held against him in death.
By according the former head of state a decent burial, Museveni chose reconciliation thereby demonstrating the road Uganda must take to begin to finally let go of the past. Still, the president must go even farther by formally inviting all who, for one reason or another, continue to live in exile to come back home. Part of this invitation must involve the granting of amnesty to all who fled Uganda after Amin was overthrown, Obote II and with the Okellos.
Meanwhile, the people who are currently holed up in IDP camps should be allowed to go back to their homestead. At some appropriate time, just like the South Africans did, if Ugandans choose to, truth commissions may be created to allow for the airing of all the events that left bloody marks on the country.
Whether history judges Obote kindly or harshly with the passage of time, his job is done. The choice is ours to go to sleep with anger, or reach across to each other in sincere embrace of understanding, forgiveness and national unity. For as the American philosopher James Thurber once said, â€œLet us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.â€
Let Oboteâ€™s death be a turning point for us all