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Obote: The father of tyranny in Uganda


ARTICLE SUMMARY: Part of Uganda’s most durable and most enviable infrastructure was set up by Milton Obote. But in his attempt to build a modern and strong nation, Obote was frustrated by his own primitive and savage background, his hatred for prosperous and intelligent people like the Baganda, and his piggish greed for power.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY: Yahya Sseremba is the publisher of The Campus Journal current affairs website.

If the roots of cruel and dictatorial rule can be traced back in colonial policies, why then should Milton Obote be chastised as the father of tyranny in Uganda? The answer is short and simple: Obote had the opportunity to choose between cutting or at least weakening the roots of tyranny on the one hand and nourishing them on the other. Not only did he choose the latter option, he reloaded the problem and established a regime whose cruelty dwarfed that of the imperialists and whose legacy continues to wreak havoc on Ugandans. At his hands tyranny was born again.

Taking advantage of an army composed of his kinsmen, Obote seized dictatorial powers for himself and unleashed unrestrained repression against even the slightest expression of dissent. The British colonialists, as part of their divide and rule policy, left behind armed forces constituted exclusively of members of northern tribes, especially the Acholi and Langi and their cousins from the West Nile.

As for the tribes of the south, the British had given them schools, jobs and lucrative cash crops that highly improved their standard of living. The prosperity of the south, especially of Buganda, instilled jealousy and consequently resentment in the hearts of her northern neighbors whose illiteracy could bring them little beyond petty jobs.

Besides the socio-economic marginalization that the tribes of the north suffered during colonial rule, the northerners were generally a backward and primitive people compared to their southern counterparts. They lived in stateless albeit not entirely lawless communities, lacked a history and heritage to guide their present and future and engaged in no meaningful economic enterprise. By no means were they anywhere near even the remotest semblance of civilization. It is in the midst of this darkness that Obote was born and bred and it is from this wilderness that he emerged to become Prime Minister.

As he travelled to the south to pursue an education and attain a living, Obote, like his fellow northerners who moved southward, must have envied the development that defined Buganda compared to the poverty and starvation that was the lot of his community back home. This must have contributed significantly to the ill-feeling that he had against Buganda.

That Obote harbored hatred against Buganda is evident in his alleged vow to crush the community long before he assumed power. Kabaka Muteesa II writes:

Obote had said that he meant to crush the Baganda, and [Michael] Kintu [the Katikkiro then] would not forgive or trust him. We waved it aside as an impetuous remark made to please crowds. Now we thought him reformed, the obvious and best ally against [Benedicto] Kiwanuka and the hated DP.[1]

Blinded by his own religious prejudices against his fellow Baganda in the Catholic Democratic Party, Muteesa II assumed that Obote had overcome his anti-Buganda sentiments. As soon as he assumed power with the full backing of the Baganda, Obote went on to execute his threat of destroying Buganda.

To realize his mission Obote needed absolute power, which he pursued by hook or by crook. As executive Prime Minister he intensified the old colonial policy of building a sectarian army, recruiting exclusively from his kinsmen, the Langi and their Acholi cousins. G. S. K. Ibingira (1980) quotes a Member of Parliament:

…when they (recruiting teams) go to the north, they spend two or three months recruiting, but when they come to Kampala, they spend here one day and they recruit mainly those whom they have directed to come to Kampala because they failed to recruit them in the north. When they go to Masaka, they spend half a day to recruit only about three people – two of them probably those Northern people who are living in Buganda. When they go to Mbarara, they spend half a day to recruit only three people…[2]

If promotion in President Museveni’s army today is based on tribe rather than merit, it’s Obote’s legacy. After building an army of his tribesmen, Obote set out to subjugate members of other tribes, especially the Baganda. He particularly targeted the Baganda not only because he harbored hatred against them for their prosperity, but most importantly because they posed the greatest threat to his dictatorial ambitions.

The Baganda and many politicians from other southern tribes had by 1965 joined the Uganda Peoples Congress en mass to undermine Obote from within his party.[3]In the 1965 party election Grace Ibingira’s faction, supported by the Baganda and other Bantu people, defeated Obote’s faction in all regions except the north, greatly alarming the northern-dominated government.[4]

The plan to oust Obote through democratic means appeared to make progress when parliament passed a motion to suspend Col. Idi Amin, Obote’s right-hand man, from the army for reportedly engaging in a Congolese gold scandal in which Obote himself was implicated. Aware that the suspension of Amin would be a significant step toward his own overthrow, Obote reacted by committing treason. He suspended the Constitution, fired the president and vice president and appointed himself executive president, and jailed five of his cabinet ministers.[5]He surrounded parliament with “heavily armed troops and armored personnel carriers” and forced parliamentarians to adopt a Constitution they had not seen.[6]By doing so Obote became what Uganda’s finest historian Samwiri Karugire has called a fascist of impeccable credentials.[7]

If Museveni has rendered parliament impotent today through threats and bribes, he is simply following in the footsteps of Obote. To consolidate his newly-acquired dictatorship the post-independence tyrant mounted an “epidemic of dismissals” in the civil service, replacing perceived opponents, especially the Catholics who were presumed to be supporters of the Democratic Party, with his own allies, particularly criminals, hooligans and political failures.[8]If Museveni today is appointing political failures as Resident District Commissioners and as ambassadors, he is applying Obote’s model of administration.

With merit totally disregarded, Obote surrounded himself with incompetent politicians and technocrats, further driving the country into the abyss to which it was already headed. What Karugire says of post-independence politicians is a perfect description of the people with which Obote decided to work:

It was almost the rule in practice that if you possessed no visible qualification for anything, you were the right material to enter politics: the political system came to be dominated by the unemployables, the master opportunists and other kinds of undesirable characters whose perception of public affairs was limited to manipulation and intrigue. In other wards, politics had become the profession of the less reputable members of society.[9]

It is with this quality of leaders that Obote decided to attack the Kingdom of Buganda in 1966 in the name of national unity. By unleashing the military against a barely armed opposition in the Kabaka’s palace, Obote dragged the military into the political affairs of Uganda. A few years later he would himself become victim of the dangerous precedent he set when army chief Idi Amin overthrew his government. The military has to date refused to get out of politics.

Obote’s invasion and consequent abolition of Buganda Kingdom said a lot about him beyond his quest for absolute power. As a savage brought up in a backward village of Akokoro in a region that had known no civilization, Obote could not notice the value that kingdoms like Buganda added to Africa. It did not make sense to him that such kingdoms embodied the rich heritage of African civilization, a heritage that disproves the arrogant Eurocentric view that considered Africa a ‘Dark Continent’. Obote equated kingship to feudalism probably because, as Karugire observes, he didn’t know the difference between the two.[10]

The Swahili saying, asiyekujua hakuthamini – loosely translated as he who doesn’t know you, cannot value you – perfectly fitted Obote: he had no idea about civilization, and he could not see value in the body of civilization that Buganda Kingdom represented. He would shortly later go on to remove any reference to Buganda from the map of Uganda. He accused Buganda of tribalism, a charge that history refutes with numerous examples of the kingdom’s accommodation of huge communities of immigrants, from the Banyarwanda to the Banyankore to the Lugbara. On the contrary, the Banyankore who had settled in parts of Obote’s Lango region were massacred and their cattle looted following the 1979 war.[11]

The invasion of the Lubiri (Palace) and the ruthless anti-Buganda campaigns that followed constitute the confluence of Obote’s three aspects of his character: his savage and primitive nature, his ethnic hatred and his greed for power.

It is nevertheless important to consider the big picture by asking a question: Would the 1966 crisis and the military intervention in politics have occurred without Obote? For sure any politician from the northern tribes would have been tempted to exploit the northern dominance in the military to try to seize power. It is also highly likely that any other primitive northerner would find it proper to ruthlessly crush all forms of opposition, including abolishing kingdoms, to meet his political interests. But it is not likely that such a northerner would have the cunningness of Obote to orchestrate and execute such a grand scheme. Given Obote’s special talent in plotting and executing wicked schemes, without him the 1966 crisis – and its destructive legacy – would have taken a less dangerous angle if it occurred in the first place.

To ensure that his schemes go unchallenged in the courts of law, Obote eroded the powers of the judiciary. He, among other designs, misused the prerogative of mercy to free convicted criminals and practically demoted judges who convicted his allies.[12]Museveni’s defilement of the judiciary in our time has precedent in Obote’s behavior.

Obote’s contribution to the destruction of Uganda didn’t end with his first regime. He returned from exile in 1980 only to introduce new dictatorial practices. With the help of his henchmen in the Military Commission, he orchestrated one of the most blatant electoral frauds in the history of Africa. Karugire’s invaluable book, Roots of Instability in Uganda, extensively documents in Appendix I the shameless tricks that Obote’s hooligans employed to rig the election, from doctoring voter registration forms to abusing nomination procedures to altering results. Today’s politicians have revisited many of these tricks. 

There should by now be no question that Milton Obote played no small role in laying the foundation for most of Uganda’s persistent political problems, including repression. He made irrefutable positive contributions to Uganda, but the country would possibly be a better place to live in if he had never lived.    



[1] Muteesa II, Desecration of My Kingdom. Constable 1967, pp160

[2] G.S.K. Ibingira: African Upheavals since Independence. Westview Press, 1980 pp84 cited Samwiri Karugire, The Roots of Instability in Uganda. Fountain Publishers 2003, pp 67

[3] Phares Mutibwa, The Buganda Factor in Uganda Politics. Fountain Publishers Kampala, 2008 pp89.

[4] Karugire pp55

[5] Ibid pp57

[6] Ibid pp58

[7] Ibid pp54

[8] Ibid pp62-64

[9] Ibid pp53

[10] Ibid pp58

[11] Ibid pp73


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Now I know why the Baganda are fools and will remain fools for good including you. Your utter failure to rule the country for all this time should not be blamed on every one...........N o wonder Buganda is leading in illiteracy.
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