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Forgetting Obote: Uganda's first president, Milton Obote died five years ago in Zambia. But he is almost forgotten by the world because his native country, under President Yoweri Museveni, wants it so, reports Tom Oniro from Kampala.

Apollo Milton Obote has most of the attributes of a successful leader ... There is a cool consistency about him, from the calm expression on his face to the solid purposefulness of his political career" Drum magazine observed in the 1950s.

Obote became prime minister of the then self-governing British Protectorate of Uganda amid much jubilation in May 1962. Prior to this, his arch-rival, Benedicto Kiwanuka, president of the Democratic Party (DP), had become the first prime minister when Uganda gained internal self-government on 1 March 1962 and ruled for just one month.

At the time, Uganda was neither a federation nor a unitary state; neither was it a monarchy nor a republic; it was blandly described as "the sovereign state of Uganda".

"The elevation of the Kabaka [King of the dominant Buganda ethnic group located in central Uganda] to president of the whole country in 1963 didn't produce the kind of unity Obote had hoped for," Drum reported.

"But a month later, in the second election, which was to pick a government to lead Uganda into independence," Drum continued, "the DP was resoundingly defeated and out of parliament went Benedicto Kiwanuka. He suffered from being a native of Buganda."

Kiwanuka was later to serve as Idi Amines chief justice before his mysterious disappearance in 1972, which has lasted to date.

Drum's archive is very useful here, for establishing that on 9 October this year, Uganda celebrated its 49th independence anniversary.

Obote's anniversary

It is also exactly six years since the man who should have been celebrated as a hero and founding father of the nation, Milton Obote, died (on 10 October 2005) in exile in Zambia.

In the mould of Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda and Guinea's Ahmed Sekou Toure, Obote was among the 32 independent African heads of state who met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to found the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on 23 May 1963.

He was instrumental in establishing the Liberation Committee of the infant OAU. The Committee was charged with coordinating the liberation struggle in the parts of Africa that were still under colonial domination.

Indeed, Obote's strong Pan-Africanism and stinging criticism of continued white domination in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), together with apartheid South Africa, cost him two governments (in January 1971 and July 1985; he gained the unenviable record of being overthrown twice by military coups).

His criticism, especially of the British supply of weapons to South Africa, pained London dearly. The British did not forgive him as they went ahead to use Amin to overthrow him in 1971-

"The evil that men do lives after them," so wrote "William Shakespeare, "but the good is oft interred with their bones." This is precisely what has become of Obote in Uganda.

Although it is pitiable that a man of Obote's calibre can be so forgotten by Africa, the blame may first be heaped on what political analysts in Uganda prefer to call the "arrogance" of Ugandan society.

When the king of Buganda at the time, Sir Edward Mutesa II, doubled as the ceremonial president (from 1963-1966), his people wanted him to grab the executive powers that were bestowed upon Obote as prime minister at independence. In addition, Kiwanuka and his opposition Buganda-dominated DP gave Obote and his Uganda People's Congress (UPC) a rough time in parliament.

These two forces against Obote's government went a notch higher by demanding that he remove his administration from Bugandan soil. Kampala, the capital city, sits in the central region of the country which happens to be Buganda's home region. Obote was of Langi extraction, in northern Uganda.

Buganda wanted federal status. This, they thought, would give them special status compared to the rest of the country. They are still agitating for federal status to this day.

It is said that when the king, together with his subjects, realised that Obote's government was not relenting on their demands but determined to keep the country united, especially in regard to removing the government from their soil, they sought the assistance of a foreign country (which was obviously familiar with Ugandan affairs) to force Obote out of power. Caches of arms were suddenly discovered. King Mutesa was a colonel in the Grenadier Guards.

Although Obote several times denied asking his then army commander, Idi Amin, to storm the Lubiri, the king's palace, the Buganda have never forgiven him for the 24 May 1966 episode. The king had to flee into exile in Britain where he stayed until his death in 1969.

Just a month before the attack on the king's palace, Obote had expressed his reservations thus: "I personally think the Buganda are losing their chance of leading Uganda because of their inward looking policies," he cold Drum, April 1966.

"Leaders of the Lukiko [Buganda's monarchical parliament] and Mengo [the kingdoms headquarters in Kampala]," he went on, "call on the people to rise and talk and complain. This is what we call leadership from behind. They do not always want to tell the Buganda the truth."

Then too, ever since the current Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, captured power in a coup d'etat on 26 January 1986, he has never had kind words for Obote, his mentor when he was a youth.

While in power, Museveni has never had kind words for Obote. He has called him a ghost, swine, murderer and "dictator".

Even Idi Amin, who overthrew Obote in a 25 January 1971 coup, was not as vitriolic as Museveni has been about Obote.

Amin even said that his predecessor was free to return to Uganda, while when he first came to power he had imposed a bounty of one million Ugandan shillings on Obotes head.

Before Obote's death in 2005, Museveni had promised to shoot him dead on sight as soon as he stepped on Ugandan soil. A man of eloquence and great oratory, Obote's words were feared by his opponents who thought he would bewitch his audiences in Uganda if allowed to come into the country.

And Obote had solid achievements to back up his words. Whereas he established at least 22 hospitals - which are now at the mercy of inadequate staff and insufficient medicinal supplies - his successors don't have much to show for their long years in power.

Government-aided primary and secondary schools with fully stocked materials mushroomed during Obote's two governments, and qualifying students received scholarships and free education to university level.

Still swept under the carpet is the fact that Obote tried his best to represent the totality of Uganda in his cabinet, judiciary, police, army, civil service, and parastatals.

Revered abroad

In sharp contrast to how Uganda sees Obote, Zambia's second city of Living-stone has a street named after him: Obote Avenue.

When Museveni shot his way to power, he pulled down Obote's statue that stood in front of Parliament House in Kampala. Again, a secondary school then called Dr Obote College at Boroboro in northern Uganda was renamed Boroboro College; simply to strike out his name from public circulation.

In the 10 December 1980 general elections, Obote is said to have rigged the vote that returned him to power for the second time following Amin's downfall on it April 1979. Museveni claims that it was the result of this rigging that sent him into the bush to launch a five-year war against Obote. Today, there is voter apathy in Uganda, ostensibly because Museveni "will always win!"

Obote may have had his faults, but he let a certain Mohammed Sebaduka, who attempted to assassinate him on 3 December 1969 during a rally at Lugogo, Kampala, walk the streets free.

As Obote's admirers and supporters remembered him on the fifth anniversary of his death on to October, they agreed that the man who brought honour to Uganda in the infant years of independence deserves better recognition from Uganda, Africa, and the world than he has been accorded so far.



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Title Annotation:Uganda
Author:Oniro, Tom
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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