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Today In History: Obote’s Gov’t Overthrown By The Okello’s

On 27th July 1985 Obote flees into exile and Uganda is going to be governed by yet another military commission chaired by Gen Tito Okello and whose members included Bazilio Olara Okello, Colonel Wilson Toko and many others.


As soon as Tito Okello and Bazilio Okello overthrew Milton Obote in July 1985, several soldiers while making their unplanned take-over announcements on Radio Uganda could not wait to call “Honorable” Yoweri Museveni to come out and join them. However, on the contrary, the “Honorable” rebel leader did not have any appetite to join anyone even after signing the Nairobi peace deal with the junta.
Days later General Tito was sworn in as the new ruler of Uganda while his clan brother Brigadier Bazilio Okello became the Chief of Defense Forces. However, their reign would not last long because six months later, on 26th January 1986 the Okellos’ military government and forces were obliterated and forced to flee Museveni’s NRA onslaught.
In the lead up to the Obote’s overthrow, the coup leader Bazilio Okello who was the brigade commander of northern region had smuggled in many former Amin fighters from Sudan to boost his strength and numbers. Secondly, the coup plotters also collaborated with NRA rebels in order to wedge a successful rebellion against Obote II.
Among other reasons for taking up arms against Obote II, the junta claimed Obote practiced tribalism and refused to negotiate peace with NRA rebels.
Brigadier Bazilio Okello alongside the Amin’s rebels, set off from Gulu and in quick succession without any significant resistance, swept many towns and military posts along the way before capturing Kampala within one week.
Of all the major towns they marched through, it is only Lira where they encountered a tough fight. Here, soldiers loyal to Obote regrouped after the town had fallen and recaptured it for a day before they were finally flashed out by mainly Amin’s fighters.
Reports said that as the Okellos marched towards Kampala taking town after town; many attempts were made to stop their advance. For instance Chris Rwakasisi who was the Minister of Security in Obote II mobilized over 100 soldiers he released from prisons and deployed them against the mutineers, but that was not going to stop the huge columns of soldiers coming towards them. Besides, many companies and groups of fighters set to stop the invaders were giving up and joining the rebellion in draws forcing any determined fighters to lose morale in putting up any resistance.
After over-running Bombo barracks, the last point of resistance, they headed for Kampala and at around 11 AM in the morning of 27th July 1985 Kampala fell in the hands of the mutineers. And for the next six or more months, Uganda would be plunged into a state of desperation characterized by intense war, looting and lawlessness almost everywhere in the country. This was then followed by a prolonged war in Northern Uganda that lasted more than 20 years.
The return of Amin’s soldiers helped Okellos to easily remove Obote. However, for the first time, the abusive name calling “Anyanya” which formerly was used to refer to Amin’s soldiers who were drawn mainly from West Nile tribes of Kakwa, Lugbara, Madi and South Sudan was widened. From that time on, the Bantu people in Southern Uganda derogatively baptized non Bantu people of Northern Uganda Anyanya. The word Anyanya had all sorts of negative connotations like killers, backwardness, dark ugly people etc.

The junta had believed that Museveni would join them to form a transitional government and organize elections within twelve months but weeks later they knew they had blundered. While the new regime in Kampala struggled to survive through their demoralized ill disciplined and disintegrated army, NRA rebels were instead gaining more grounds and bolstering their military strength.
On 26th August 1985 peace talks between Okello Lutwa’s government and NRA began in Nairobi and for the rest of their short stay in power, the junta were bogged down in peace talks in Nairobi and fighting rebels at different fronts in Uganda.
At first Museveni was reluctant to negotiate with the regime claiming they had hijacked his struggle for a revolution and denounced them as primitive and backward. But later under pressure from different sources, he accepted to participate in the talks while pressing on with military adventures against the military government.
The Nairobi peace talks which became popularly known as Nairobi Peace Jokes lasted 4 months and on 17th December 1985 a deal was signed but its terms were generally not implemented.
Peace Jokes indeed for the kick-off was so dramatic! When Museveni entered the hall, he refused to shake hands with the junta’s delegates. He ignored all of them including its leader and vice chairman Military Council and Minister of Defense Colonel Gad Toko and Minister of Foreign Affairs Olara Otunu; but singled out only the Minister of Internal Affairs Paul Semwogerere and shook his hands.
The Kenyan newspaper, The Daily Nation reported: “In the conference hall, Mr Museveni did not shake hands with Col Toko, leader of the government delegation…”
On 17th December 1985 the peace agreement was signed and General Tito Okello and Yoweri Museveni exchanged copies of the pact. After signing the agreement, Museveni praised the agreement but was quick to deliver a stern warning to Okello Lutwa’s side: “If you want peace, we are serious partners, if you want trouble, we are serious opponents”.
During and after the peace talks, there were constant counter accusations between the two parties so much that the deal simply flopped and the next option available was fight and take it all.
Terms agreed in the agreement like immediate ceasefire, immediate stop of arms purchase, no more recruitment of soldiers, no movement of troops, immediate prosecution of UNLA soldiers who had committed atrocities, etc; all fell on deaf ears.
When the peace deal stalled, soldiers got busy in the battle fields and after a few weeks Museveni’s NRA (National Resistance Army) were winning battles and rapidly advancing towards Kampala from different directions. With hundreds of Okellos’ soldiers surrendering to NRA, Museveni’s chances of toppling the junta militarily were increasing day by day.
On 25th January 1986, NRA took over Kampala after fierce battles in the city forcing thousands of government soldiers to flee desperately to the north with many trekking hundreds of kilometers for days on foot.

Many analysts agree that Okello’s military regime started falling from the beginning of their campaigns to capture power because of a series of mistakes.

(1) INCOMPETENT POLITICAL WING: Many people said that the Okellos were better off under Obote II and thus their move to unseat Obote was quite evidently catastrophic. A quick look at the composition of the coup leadership, it is clear there was a terrible lack of credible political leaders.
Unlike his counterpart Yoweri Museveni who was so experienced in political and military propaganda, General Tito Okello the head of the junta had no political experience to speak of. In fact NRM leaders usually claim that the fall of Obote II was a result of their sophisticated political and military maneuvers which also duped the Okellos to overthrow Obote. And judging by the play-outs of events during the six months of power struggle between the two parties, there were no doubts the rebels’ game plan dwarfed that of the juntas which was rushed and poorly executed.

President Museveni in his “Sowing the Mustard Seed” book wrote about his clandestine meeting with Paulo Muwanga in Germany where Muwanga revealed to him how he was collaborating with Okellos to remove Obote. “He told me he was working closely with Tito and Bazilio Okello but I emphasized because of their past behaviour, we could not accept a situation where their group played a principle role in reshaping politics in Uganda”.
This weakness was manifested at the beginning of the coup when the coup leaders handed territories to NRA. For instance, shortly before the coup, Major Pacific Okwera who was the UNLA commander Fort Portal and also part of the coup plotters, handed the barracks over to NRA’s Salim Saleh and afterwards they addressed a large crowd at Boma grounds Fort portal.
(2) TRIBALISM AND REVENGE: One main reason the Okellos staged the coup, they accused Obote of tribalism; however, they themselves would later exhibit a greater degree of tribalism. Upon capturing power they alienated Langi officers and yet Langi soldiers by tribal representation made the second biggest percentage of UNLA. Most experienced Langi soldiers like Colonel Ogole who had just had a successful military campaign against NRA in Luwero were forced to flee while others just abandoned the army leaving behind a much weakened UNLA in terms of numbers and performance.
There are reports that even Obote while in exile in Zambia, called the junta through Brigadier Lazarus Orwotho and advised them to overlook the disagreements they had with him and work hard to make sure Museveni did not gain an upper hand and take power but that was also in vain.
Besides, the some soldiers from the junta’s army were committing revenge atrocities in Lango sub-region, for example one prominent junta commander destroyed Ogole’s houses using a bulldozer in Loro Oyam District. Such an action led to a circle of revenge for instance many former Langi UNLA soldiers staged ambushes killing many Acholi soldiers fleeing NRA fire in 1986.
Time and again flare-ups between the two tribes have happened mainly due to political tensions; like the 2004 Acholi-Lango tribal attacks in Lira and Gulu towns, then there was Prime Minister Adyebo’s outburst against Acholi in a dispute about the location of the Northern University. Nonetheless, the good news is that less and less of such tribal fall-outs are being recorded today between Langi and Acholi.
(3) TITO OKELLO FACTOR: If you speak to many soldiers who worked in the Okello Lutwa’s army they blame him for the fall of the junta. They said he did nothing to control the unruly and poorly trained army besides he did not allow his soldiers to go on offensive against NRA. Because of Tito’s indecisiveness, they say, some determined soldiers like Colonel Eric Odwar were already planning a coup within a coup. Odwar would later resist NRA till he dropped dead in a battle in Amuru.
When NRA power fire raged on, the regime army fled en mass with some ending in Sudan while others surrendered to NRA. And for the next 20 years from 1986 Acholi land in particular and Northern Uganda at large would be at war with NRA and later on UPDF till 2006 when LRA of Kony was pushed out of Uganda into Congo and Central African Republic.

Published by MITKOM MEDIA

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