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Tito Okello: The President who was kept on his toes

By Vision Reporter

Added 25th January 2012 12:40 PM

For Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa and his military junta, power was never a bed of roses. From the day Tito and his henchmen Bazilio Olara Okello

By Titus Kakembo and Joel Ogwang

For Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa and his military junta, power was never a bed of roses. From the day Tito and his henchmen Bazilio Olara Okello and Col. Gad Wilson Toko toppled Dr. Apollo Milton Obote from power in a military coup on July 27, 1985, they literally remained on their toes until January 26, 1986, when they were overthrown by President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA).

In his writings, Revolution 1979-1986, Maj. Gen. Pecos Kutesa, describes the Lutwa regime as the most turbulent in the country’s history. Food supplies to the city centre were cut off; banks were being robbed, trucks hijacked, the economy was crumbling and each part of Kampala City was under the control of different fighting groups.

Museveni who had since 1981 fought against Obote’s regime refused Tito’s public calls to join the military junta and simply intensified his guerilla warfare when the Nairobi peace talks failed. Six months down, Lutwa’s regime was no more.

Early life
Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa was a man of no mean achievements. Born in Nam Okora, Kitgum district around the First World War in 1914, little is known about his educational background. However, as fate would have it, he joined the King’s African Rifles on May 16, 1940 and like former president Idi Amin Dada, he battled the Mau-Mau in Kenya on the side of the British colonial masters in 1957.

Tito later joined the Uganda Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant in 1962 and Colonel by 1968. When Amin toppled Obote in 1971, He fled in exile in Tanzania. In 1978, he commanded the Kikoosi Malum, a faction which fought alongside the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces to topple Idi Amin in 1979. Consequently, he became part of the Military Commission that led the country in 1979. By 1980, he became the army commander and hence, was part of the ruling Military Commission.

He was decorated Lieutenant General in 1984. His wife Esther was rarely seen in public. One of their children, Henry Okello Oryem is the current foreign affairs state  minister.

Ascend to the presidency 
Author of Post Independent Uganda, Phares Mukasa Mutibwa narrates that, Gen. Okello swept into power on the crest of a military mutiny as a result of bad blood between Acholi and Langi soldiers.

The appointment of Brig. Smith Opon Acak, a Langi, as chief of staff to replace Maj. Gen. David Oyite Ojok did not go well with the Acholi who had expected one of their own, Brig. Olara Okello, a more experienced officer, to be appointed.

By 1984, the LRA war had intensified, taking advantage of the divisions within the army while anarchy reigned.
It was only a matter of time before an army mutiny took place.

Trucks laden with ammunition and soldiers went to Gulu and on July 27, 1985, the BBC announced the fall of Obote’s regime in a bloodless coup followed by a second exile.“Fellow citizens, it is time to reconcile,” boomed Okello Kolo the first man to announce the coup.

“Dr. Milton Obote has been over thrown by the UNLA,” added Kolo, a businessman then supplying the army.
What followed were truckloads of UNLA soldiers wielding guns driving through Kampala streets.  Obote had taken off into exile by road via Kenya on his way to Zambia where he died in October 2005.

Aware of the tense political mood in Buganda, Lutwa and his junta tried to win support from Buganda by punching the wind with clenched fists (Democratic Party symbol) while singing DP egumire! DP egumire! Aata leo – egumire! Ata kesho egumire. Buganda then was DP’s strongest base, having won all the parliamentary seats during the 1980 election. But the reception in Buganda was cold. This time round there were no thunderous drums or traditional ululation in Buganda to celebrate Obote’s fall.

Tito then announced that Uganda would be governed by a Military Council led by him for 12 months before general elections.

Attempts at unity, reconciliation

Lutwa inherited a divided army that was battling several rebel groups. For their own survival, he tried to forge a coalition government with the various political parties and warring factions comprising Federal Democratic Movement Uganda National Rescue Front, the Uganda Freedom Movement and Museveni’s (NRA). The NRA, however, thwarted the move and continued fighting the UNLA.

To forge reconciliation on the political front, Lutwa brought on board Obote’s henchman Paulo Muwanga as the Executive Prime Minister. Others in the cabinet comprised Paul Kawanga Semogerere, the then DP president general and the Conservative Party’s Mayanja Nkangi and Jabeli Bidandi Ssali who was the UPM secretary general.

Lutwa’s administration also included Dr. Olara Otunnu and Col. George Nkwanga, the commander of the Federal Democratic Movement who was killed at the Nile Hotel in the final days of the junta.

By November, the US which had reduced its representation in Uganda to Charge de Affairs up graded it to full ambassadorial status. Zaire followed suit. Countries like The Netherlands, Israel and Belgium were reportedly used to beef up Okello’s ammunition to foil a potential overthrow.

Museveni wanted certain conditions met before joining the military junta. The botched Nairobi Peace Talks brokered by then Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi failed to attain the purpose for which an accord was signed due to lack of mechanisms to implement the agreement. With the failure to enforce the peace, Museveni remained a thorn in the flesh of the Junta, taking more territory while getting closer to Kampala. Roads to Masaka, Mubende, Mbarara and Katonga were closed.

The fall

In Uganda: 30 Years James Tumusiime writes that: “Towards the end of Lutwa’s rule, insecurity had reigned in the country with unscrupulous soldiers robbing cars and fuel stations.

” The ghastly evidence of anarchy, he says, was written all over the city. He sums it up: “ Okello’s term of office were six eventful months that remain engraved on the memories of those old enough. He did not finish the 12-month period stipulated as a milestone for general elections.”

On his overthrow, Lutwa fled into exile where he died on June 3, 1996 aged 82. His remains were repatriated and buried at his ancestral home in Kitgum district. At his funeral, Museveni described him as a great man who was dedicated to the service of this country and would be remembered for his efforts in brining peace to Uganda. 

In January 2010, he was posthumously awarded the Kagera National Medal of Honour for fighting against Idi Amin in the 1970s.

Tito Okello: The President who was kept on his toes

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