A year before his death, Milton Obote told Daily Monitor’s Andrew Mwenda about his life and times. In April, Daily Monitor published a biographical series based on those interviews.
I was born on 28th December 1925. I grew up in Akokoro City in Lango. My father was Stanley Opeto and my mother was Priscilla Aken Opeto.
I began school at the age of eleven when I joined catechism class. After one year, I went to Ibuge Primary School, 16 miles from Akokoro and then to Boroboro Primary School near Lira.
After Boroboro, I went to Gulu High School. I performed very well because I was on top of my class every term. Even in primary I was always on top of my class every term.
I passed on top of my class at Gulu High and went to Busoga College Mwiri in 1946 up to 1947. I went to do intermediate at Makerere and studied political science and geography. I was given a scholarship by Lango Local Government to do law at Khartoum University. I left Makerere voluntarily, although some people say I was dismissed because of a food strike. I was a participant in the food strike, but I did not lead it. When Makerere begun in March I did not go back because I was waiting to go to Khartoum. However, I got a letter written by the former DC in Lango saying that my scholarship could not be entertained. The British did not want me or someone from Lango to go and study law at that time. I rebelled. I went to Kenya.
Remember that in 1952 the Uganda National Congress (UNC) was formed. We from Jinja under Lubogo went to Kampala as Busoga delegation. I was therefore a founder member of UNC.
I was later transferred to Nairobi and I later got a job with an oil company called Stanbak. By this time, I had a grudge with the British government. They refused me to take my scholarship in Khartoum. So I joined the Kenya Africa Union (KAU).
I decided to leave Kenya in 1956 because there was a movement in Uganda on land. The British government wanted to change land tenure in Lango from communal to private ownership. People and UNC in Lango opposed to it. UNC got in touch with me and they said they had organised protests in Lira.
They asked me to join in the demonstration. I left Nairobi suddenly, and arrived in Lango after the demonstration had taken place the previous day. Before I could even settle down, the colonial police on accusation of leading the demonstration arrested me the next day. Later the British released me and I joined politics in Lango where I began preaching Self Government Now. I became a key leader within UNC! The UNC had a good policy of “Self Government Now; One Man One Vote”.
Formation of UPC:
When I joined the Legislative Council (Legco), it was a timid talking shop. I immediately set out to make it an effective assembly to voice the concerns of the African people. My first task was to link the members of the Legco with the wider community in the districts.
We started mobilising for a constitutional conference. Although I was new in the Legco, I immediately stood out because I had a message: Self Government Now! It was the Uganda National Congress (UNC) message, but my job was to exploit it, and I became its voice and people wanted to hear it. Problems began within the UNC. Ignatius Musaazi was the leader, but Jolly Joe Kiwanuka did not respect him. Kiwanuka went to Moscow and Cairo and got some money. Musaazi made a mistake when he said that is communism money. This gave Kiwanuka an excuse to break up the party.
I had made a good impression in the Legco, so the elected members elected me to be their leader in 1958. The next year, the UNC called a delegates conference in Mbale. It turned out that the delegates did not want Musaazi because of the propaganda by Kiwanuka. On election, day I was elected president of UNC in absentia. When I went to Mbale, the first thing I told Jolly Joe was: “I want to talk to Musaazi first.” I was loyal to Musaazi and I respected him. I asked him if he approved me replacing him and he said he was happy about it but warned me against working with Jolly Joe. I went to the conference and accepted the post.
I immediately set out to organise the UNC from being a party of members of the Legco into a party of the people. Sometime in 1960, a decision was taken to merge the UNC with the Uganda Peoples’ Union. A decision was made and the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) was born. I was elected president of the new party in absentia, and began to prepare for elections leading to self-government. When we went into elections, Buganda boycotted and less than 10 percent of the registered voters turned up. Although DP won the election with a majority of seats and formed government, UPC polled more votes and formed a vigorous opposition.
I regret to say that DP failed to make itself an effective government. I was determined that UPC should lead the next government. But first we had to ensure that there is another election before independence. I realised that we had to listen to Mengo demands if we were to ensure a united Uganda into independence. Ben Kiwanuka said, “Look, the Kabaka knows where I am, if he has got any problem he should contact me.” He said this to Uganda Argus Reporter. So we picked it up and said “A commoner saying Kabaka should go to him.”
The UPC-KY alliance was a matter of discussion between Muteesa and me only. Even UPC central executive committee did not discuss it. I used to report just the outcome. UPC and Mengo had a common cause: we both wanted DP government out of office. Our dilemma was how we get rid of DP. In the April 1962 elections, UPC got 37 seats, DP 24 and KY had 21.
Warned about Amin:
I had been prime minister for only a few months when Governor Sir Walter Coutts asked me go to State House. He told me the story of the murder of the Turkana by one Lt. Idi Amin.
Sir Walter told me about the inquiries made by the Kings Africa Rifles (KAR) in Nairobi about these killings and the case against Idi Amin. He was found guilty and faced dismissal but Sir Walter sought my opinion. I advised that Amin be given a severe reprimand.
I regret to say to say that part of Uganda’s suffering today can be traced to the opinion I gave Sir Walter. After I had given my advice, Sir Walter told me that an officer like Lt. Idi Amin was not fit to be in the KAR. He said: “I warn you this officer could cause you trouble in the future.” I did not order attack on Lubiri in 1966.
On February 9th, Muteesa called the British High Commissioner and asked for massive military assistance. When I asked Muteesa why, he said it was a precaution against trouble. I asked him, “Trouble from whom and against whom?” He just waved me to silence. Although he was president, head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, Muteesa did not have powers to order for arms. Later, I sought the advice of my Attorney General, Godfrey Binaisa QC. He told me that given what Muteesa had done, I had to suspend him from being president of Uganda, the only way I could was to suspend the constitution itself.
I told Binaisa, “That constitution was my very child. I cannot become its killer”. “You do not have to kill it,” Binaisa advised, “it is already dead, as dead as a door nail, killed by Muteesa when he asked for arms from the British government unconstitutionally. All you have to do right now is to burry your dead child as decently as possible.”
There was no constitutional way out, so on February 24, 1966 I called the press and suspended the constitution and hence the posts of president and vice president. On April 15, 1966, I introduced the 1966 constitution in parliament whose only difference from the 1962 constitution was to merge the office of the prime minister with that of the president. There were 55 votes for it and only four votes against.
Events were moving fast at this time because six of the 21 members of KY in parliament refused to swear allegiance to the new constitution.
On May 20, the Lukiiko met and passed a resolution saying that, “This Lukiiko resolves not to recognise the government of Uganda whose headquarters must be moved away from Buganda soil.” I retained calm amidst this extreme provocation from sections of Mengo. On May 23, we arrested three chiefs – Lutaaya, Matovu and Sebanakita and detained them for organising rebellion against the state.
Later in the day, I was having lunch and we heard gunshots. Oryema came and said that Amin was shooting at the Lubiri. Amin told me there were reports that there were a lot of arms inside the Lubiri and when he sent an army contingent to verify the reports, they were shot at and they responded. I ordered him to stop immediately, but by this time Muteesa had fled.
To be continued….
Source: Daily Monitor.