Obote, Apollo Milton
Obote, Apollo Milton 1925-2005
Apollo Milton Obote became the first prime minister of Uganda when the country gained independence in 1962. He later served as Uganda’s president from 1966 to 1971 and 1980 to 1985. Obote was born in the village of Akokoro in northern Uganda, and received his education in his home district of Lango, at Gulu High School in Busoga, and at Makerere University College in Kampala. Over time, Obote developed into an astute and progressive Ugandan nationalist. Overthrown by Idi Amin (1925–2003) in a military coup in January 1971, Obote went into exile for eight years in Tanzania. But he returned to Uganda in 1980 and was elected for a second term as president, only to be overthrown in yet another coup staged by Ugandan military officers Tito Okello (1914–1996) and Bazilio Okello (1929–1990) in July 1985. Obote again went into exile, this time in Zambia, where he died in October 2005 at the age of eighty. Obote’s demise brought to an end a long, colorful, and controversial political career spanning nearly half a century.
During his first term as Uganda’s leader, Obote supported domestic nation-building, a concept he understood to include a quickened pace of progress toward national unity in the face of Uganda’s deep social cleavages. Obote also called for economic and social transformation to uproot what he saw as the evil trinity of poverty, ignorance, and disease. On the international scene, Obote stood for East African cooperation, Pan-Africanism, and Uganda’s active participation in world affairs.
Obote managed Uganda’s external relations successfully, with the exception of a falling out with the United Kingdom in 1971 over Britain’s sale of military arms to apartheidera South Africa. During Obote’s tenure, Uganda became not only a respected, albeit small, member of the community of nations, but the country also benefited from its membership in numerous international institutions and the acquisition of new trade and development partners. But in the domestic sphere, Obote’s performance was mixed. He began well, with a remarkable record of achievements in education, health, agriculture, and the building of infrastructure. In general, government was managed on a pluralist or multiparty basis, with keen constitutional oversight, as evidenced by the numerous challenges to government actions that were presented to the courts.
The situation began to deteriorate with Obote’s handling of the so-called Lost Counties of Bunyoro, a part of Uganda that Britain had handed over to the kingdom of Buganda at the beginning of its period of colonial rule. Following a referendum, Obote returned these regions to Bunyoro, despite stiff opposition from Edward Mutesa (1924–1969), Uganda’s ceremonial head of state and the kabaka of Buganda. After a furious confrontation that culminated in the Battle of Mengo in May 1966, Mutesa fled into exile in the United Kingdom. Triumphant, Obote moved forward with a radical overhaul of the country’s political system. He abolished monarchism and federalism under his new republican constitution of 1967. Shortly thereafter, he declared what has been called his “move to the Left” by introducing socialist principles and work methods to guide the country’s development. Finally, he declared that his party, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), was the only legitimate party. In the course of this overhaul, however, Obote failed to give adequate attention to the army, and in the end it was his military commanders, first Idi Amin and later Tito Okello and Bazilio Okello, who booted him from power.
In his second term as president, Obote was an older and more mellowed politician, made perhaps wiser by the trials and vicissitudes of life in exile. He left behind the political excesses of his first term, including his commitment to socialism and to a one-party system, and he accepted the aid of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund toward the recovery of Uganda’s economy, which was left shattered after the reign of Idi Amin. By the time the two Okello generals staged yet another military coup, positive results had begun to be registered. Nevertheless, during Obote’s second administration, the country’s sharp social cleavages, particularly between the Bantu and Nilotic ethnicities and north/south regionalism, became politically relevant, and led to civil war.
Obote’s management of this conflict has been a major blot on his record, not just for his inability to resolve it quickly but because of the large number of civilian deaths and the human rights abuses that occurred. Rendered helpless as an exile in Zambia, the blame for all of these issues was laid at his feet by his chief antagonist during the conflict, Yoweri Museveni, who became president of Uganda in 1986. Obote died just as he was shaping his response to these accusations. Obote is survived by his political party, the UPC, and a large body of supporters in Uganda and elsewhere, who will, no doubt, contribute to a more profound appreciation or critique of his long political career.
SEE ALSO Amin, Idi; Kenyatta, Jomo; Museveni, Yoweri
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Gingyera-Pinycwa, A. G. G. 1976. Issues in Pre-Independence Politics in Uganda, 1952–62. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Literature Bureau.
Ingham, Kenneth. 1994. Obote: A Political Biography. London and New York: Routledge.
Karugire, Samwiri Rubaraza. 1996. The Roots of Instability in Uganda. 2nd ed. Kampala, Uganda: Fountain Publishers.
Milton Obote: My Story. 2005. Obote Focus (a series of articles by various authors.) Daily Monitor. http://www.monitor.co.ug/specialincludes/ugprsd/obote/index.php.
Museveni, Yoweri Kaguta. 1997. Sowing the Mustard Seed: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda. Ed. Elizabeth Kanyogonya and Kevin Shillington. London: Macmillan.
Mutesa, Edward. 1967. Desecration of My Kingdom. London: Constable.
Mutibwa, Phares Mukasa. 1992. Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Obote, Apollo Milton. 1969. The Common Man’s Charter. Kampala, Uganda: Consolidated Printers.
A. G. G. Gingyera-Pinycwa
Obote, Apollo Milton
A leader in the movement for Ugandan independence in the 1960s, Apollo Milton Obote presided over the withdrawal of the British colonial government in 1962 and became the country's first prime minister and later, its first president. Despite bold moves to improve Uganda's economy and modernize the country, Obote was not able to resolve tribal conflicts that threatened Ugandan unity, and in 1971 he was deposed in a coup led by Idi Amin, whose despotic eight-year-rule was marked by blatant human rights violations. In 1979, the Tanzanian military overthrew Amin, and in 1980 Obote was re-elected president.
Conditions in Uganda only grew worse under Obote's second administration. He continued Amin's brutal tactics against guerilla forces that opposed him. He also ordered the slaughter of civilians; an estimated 300,000 civilians were killed between 1981 and 1985, when Obote was ousted in another coup. Obote fled to Zambia, where he was granted political asylum and lived in comfort until his death in 2005.
Drawn to Revolutionary Politics
The third of nine children, Obote was born in the Apac district of northern Uganda. Because his father, a farmer, was a minor chieftain of the Lango tribe, Obote believed himself destined to become a leader and often proclaimed that "I was born of a ruling family." The young Obote attended missionary schools before entering Makerere University College in the capital city, Kampala, in 1948. After being expelled for leading a student strike, Obote finished his degree as a correspondence student.
Obote worked odd jobs as a laborer and a salesman in the southern Ugandan region of Buganda and then moved to Kenya, which was in the throes of a violent uprising against British rule that became known as the Mau Mau emergency. Obote joined the Kenya National Union, a political organization led by accused Mau Mau instigator (and later, first prime minister and president of independent Kenya) Jomo Kenyatta. Here Obote learned political skills that would help him go on to play a central role in the struggle for Ugandan independence.
Britain had ruled Uganda as a protectorate since 1894. Under this arrangement, Uganda—a sovereign but relatively small and vulnerable nation—signed a treaty accepting Britain as its protector. This meant that Britain provided diplomatic and military protection, organized government administrative functions, and imposed taxes. Many British policies benefited the Baganda, the largest ethnic group in Uganda, whose homeland of Buganda was a separate kingdom within Ugandan territory. But the British also favored Indian immigrants in Uganda, giving them a monopoly in the lucrative business of cotton ginning. By the early twentieth century, Ugandans were demanding an end to these and other policies that created division and injustice, and were growing increasingly impatient for full independence. After the end of World War II, Britain began planning the formal end of the protectorate.
Created Alliances and Enemies
On returning to Uganda, Obote focused his energies on political organizing. Of central importance was the need to reach out to traditional tribal leaders to bridge the divides among them and gain their political support. In 1955 Obote formed the Uganda People's Congress (UPC), which attempted to draw Uganda's various tribal interests together so that separate factions would not threaten the country's unity on the eve of independence. In 1958 Obote joined the Uganda legislative council, continuing to forge tribal alliances that would ensure a UPC victory in the country's first independent election, scheduled for 1962. Eager not to alienate the powerful and influential Baganda, Obote made a deal: if they voted for the UPC, he would see to it that their king, Edward Mutesa II (known as King Freddy) would become president—a largely ceremonial post—while Obote himself would take the more powerful position as prime minister. Obote's bargain paid off, and in 1962 he was sworn in as Uganda's first prime minister, under President Mutesa.
Relations between Mutesa and Obote, however, did not go smoothly. Mutesa continued to push for recognition of Buganda as a separate kingdom—an aim that Obote thoroughly rejected. At the same time, Obote angered other tribal leaders by pushing an economic agenda that was strongly pro-communist and that weakened their own governing powers. In 1966, amid accusations of involvement in an illegal gold smuggling ring, Obote suspended Uganda's constitution and declared himself president, with almost absolute powers. When Mutesa strenuously objected, calling this move illegal, Obote exiled him to England, where he died in 1969. Many Buganda never forgave Obote for removing their beloved king and for abolishing the traditional powers of Uganda's tribal leaders.
Uganda experienced a short period of political stability and economic growth in the late 1960s. In 1969 Obote announced a Common Man's Charter, which promoted classic socialist ideals such as workers' ownership of the means of production. This move immediately alienated western powers, who feared that Uganda, like some other newly-independent African nations, would form a strong alliance with the Soviet Union. In fact, Uganda followed a policy of nonalignment; its relations with the Soviet Union were friendly but not extensive or deep. Obote's policies, as described by Julian Marshall in the Guardian, were "a diluted form of socialism" that sought "substantial, but not majority, shareholding in foreign-owned businesses"—not the full-scale nationalization that was feared. Nor did Obote intend to decree such measures on his own—he expected to let Ugandans vote for his policies. Nevertheless, according to Marshall, Obote was seen by western countries as a kind of "socialist ogre of the emerging independent Africa."
Deposed by Amin
In 1971, while attending a conference of prime ministers in Singapore, Obote was overthrown by General Idi Amin and sought refuge in Tanzania. Many Ugandans supported this coup at first, but Amin's brutal tactics soon made him a hated tyrant. During Amin's eight-year rule, an estimated 500,000 Ugandans were tortured and killed. Obote repeatedly denounced Amin, gaining political support from the many thousands of Ugandans who fled Amin's regime for exile in Tanzania. In 1979 Tanzanian troops entered Uganda and deposed Amin, paving the way for Obote to resume power.
A general election in 1980 gave the presidency to Obote, but most observers believed the voting to have been rigged. Once in power again, Obote ordered Uganda's National Liberation Army to conduct a brutal campaign against the those who opposed him—chiefly the Buganda, the Acholi, and the especially the National Resistance Army, a guerilla movement in the western part of the country led by Yoweri Museveni. The National Liberation Army destroyed entire villages, killing thousands of civilians with impunity. Atrocities against civilians in the Luwero Triangle, a region north of Kampala, were especially notorious. Local officials reported that government forces killed between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians there, and detained and tortured several thousand others. At least 150,000 refugees from the region were forced to flee to International Red Cross refugee camps.
At a Glance …
Born on December 28, 1925, in Akokoro, Uganda; died on October 10, 2005, in Johannesburg, South Africa; married Miria Obote; four children. Education: Attended Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda, 1948-1950; completed his education through correspondence courses.
Career: Uganda National Congress, founder, 1955; Uganda legislative council, member, 1958-62; prime minister of Uganda, 1962-66; president of Uganda, 1966-71, 1980-85.
Obote was accused of imprisoning and torturing his political enemies and restricting basic freedoms throughout the country, making Uganda into a virtual police state. During his second administration, Uganda had one of the worst human rights records in the world. Makerere University law professor Sylvia Tamale, a teenager at the time, explained in a memoir published in African Gender Institute Newsletter that roadblocks, thievery, and rape were common throughout the country in the early 1980s. "Apart from the gang rapes that happened routinely in the war zone," she wrote, "there were many more horrendous stories: tales of mothers who were raped in full view of their children before being bludgeoned to death. Stories of machete-wielding soldiers who split open the bellies of pregnant women at roadblocks, ‘to find hidden rebels!’" Tamale also described roadblocks where "the infamous ‘panda gari’ exercises usually happened. An impromptu roadblock would be mounted with a big truck by the roadside, onto which young men would be ordered to climb. The men would then be taken to various frontlines in the war zone and literally turned into cannon fodder. Very few ever rejoined their families." In all, an estimated 300,000 Ugandan civilians died during this conflict. According to some analysts, the brutality of Obote's regime was even worse than Amin's record.
Ousted in second coup
By 1985 factions within Obote's own army strongly opposed him, and they organized a coup that July. Obote fled to Kenya and then found permanent refuge in Zambia. Museveni took over as president of Uganda. Though many Ugandans believed Obote would eventually return, Museveni warned him that if he did so he would face criminal prosecution for the deaths of thousands who had perished during his regime in the 1980s.
Obote lived comfortably in Zambia for 20 years. He died at age 80 on October 10, 2005, in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he had been hospitalized for treatment of kidney disease. To the surprise of many Ugandans, President Museveni ordered a state funeral for the deposed leader. "We reviewed the turbulent history of Uganda and we saw the need for reconciliation," Museveni said in remarks reported by BBC News.
For some Ugandans, Obote was a champion of independence whose downfall was due mostly to external forces beyond his control, or to the policies of subordinates who acted without his authority. For others, however, he remains the architect of corruption and misrule that almost tore Uganda apart and left lasting scars on a country struggling to find its place in a rapidly modernizing world.
Ingham, Kenneth, Obote: A Political Biography, Routledge, 1994.
Guardian, October 12, 2005.
New York Times, October 11, 2005, p. 9.
Washington Post, October12, 2005, p. B6.
"‘Duka-Duka!’: Memories of the Ugandan Civil War," African Gender Institute, http://web.uct.ac.za/org/agi/pubs/newsletters/vol9/duka.htm (September 10, 2007).
"Government of Uganda—Past Leaders," My Uganda,www.myuganda.co.ug/govt/obote.php (September 10, 2007).
"Ugandans Mourn at Obote's Funeral," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4363226.stm (September 10, 2007).