Milton Obote

First prime minister - and later President - of independent Uganda
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The Independent Online

Milton Obote was one of the last survivors of independent Africa's founding fathers. Having spent nearly half his life in exile, he died on Monday in a Johannesburg hospital. He will be remembered as Uganda's first leader after independence who was overthrow by Idi Amin in 1971, but also as the man who returned as President in 1980 to lead one of the most murderous governments of modern Africa. It is a tragic tale that encapsulates the problems that Britain's retreating empire would leave its inheritors.

A pan-Africanist and a socialist, Obote was an unlikely candidate to become the first leader of an independent Uganda. He was from a small northern ethnic group, the Langi, but the Ugandan state - created by the British with no regard to local geography or politics - was formed around the Baganda ethnic group.

In the scramble to grab political power in the lead-up to independence in 1962 it was unthinkable that the Baganda, the largest ethnic group and favoured by the British, would not lead the new country. The northerners were regarded as primitive and uneducated but Obote, one of the lucky ones who had received an education, was a shrewd politician with great charm, and had served as a member of the colonial legislature from 1957. He outsmarted the dominant Baganda by building a coalition of non-Baganda parties - the Uganda People's Congress - and then splitting the Baganda between those monarchists who wanted a separate Ganda state and those prepared to join a united democratic Uganda.

Cynically, Obote then formed an alliance with the monarchist Baganda party, allowing the Kabaka (king) - Mutesa II - the ceremonial presidency so that he could be the executive prime minister. But, although his father had been a Langi chief, Obote had no personal authority, unlike the Kabaka in front of whom all visitors (except white ones) had to prostrate themselves. Immediately on becoming Prime Minister, he passed a law making it a crime punishable by life imprisonment to insult him.

In 1966 Obote suspended the constitution and arrested half his cabinet. He then overthrew the Kabaka in a bloody attack on his palace, and drove him into exile. Hundreds of ordinary Baganda died trying to defend their king and there was talk of mass graves filled by truckloads of bodies.

On assuming the presidency, Oboto announced a "move to the left", and established a one-party state with a strong socialist element, issuing the "Common Man's Charter". The socialist element was not motivated by any love of equality. In Uganda, as in many of Africa's new socialist experiments, the new rulers wanted to create a strong state and nationalisation was simply a way of extending the power of the ruler through the state. But, in threatening to nationalise companies, many of them British-owned, Obote lost the support of Britain.

While he used draconian methods to stay in power at home, he preached the cause of a free Africa internationally. He took the lead in denouncing the Heath government's decision to sell arms to South Africa, thus further antagonising Western powers.

But Obote, unpopular as he was outside his own political and ethnic groups, was not overthrown by Uganda internal political dynamics but by international concerns. By narrowing his powerbase and trying to rule through military power, Obote had laid the seeds of his own destruction. The army commander in the attack on the Kabaka in 1966 was Colonel Idi Amin. In January 1971, Amin, with the help of Israel and almost certainly the knowledge of MI6, deposed Obote in a coup. Israel's interest was simple. Obote was trying to bring an end to the civil war in Sudan, Uganda's northern neighbour, but Amin was secretly supplying Israeli weapons to the rebels. Israel wanted to keep the civil war going to weaken Sudan, a supporter of the Palestinians, and so put their man in power.

Obote, then at a Commonwealth conference in Singapore, fled to Tanzania, where he received the support of his friend President Julius Nyerere. In 1979 the Tanzania army invaded Uganda and drove Amin out. Obote was restored as President after a fixed election but the country was traumatised and fragmented after nearly 10 years of Amin's rule.

One of the losers was Yoweri Museveni, who had also fought to overthrow Amin. He now launched his own guerrilla struggle to overthrow the new Obote regime. His strategy was to gain the support of local people and launch well-targeted attacks - mainly in the Buganda area. The government responded with the slaughter of tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of villagers in the conflict zone. Uganda now witnessed death and destruction on a scale that far outstripped Amin's crimes.

In 1985 Obote was overthrown by his own army commanders, who themselves were defeated by Museveni's guerrilla force the following year. Obote fled to Zambia, where he remained in exile until shortly before his death. He tried to influence Uganda politics from afar but to most southern Ugandans he remained a worse tyrant than Idi Amin.

Richard Dowden

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