by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (March 6th 2015)
Milton Obote died in 2005 aged 80. Even in death he polarised opinion. To colleagues he was a great man. To others he was a ruthless and unrepentant tyrant, responsible for many deaths and brutal repression. His legacy is a complicated one. Obote played a huge role in Ugandaʼs post-colonial development and history.
He was an important figure in Ugandaʼs independence struggle, but so was his erstwhile ally the Kabaka (King) of Buganda, which was one of the Kingdoms that made up pre-colonial Uganda. Religious, regional and other divisions were left simmering beneath the surface when Uganda was colonised. They emerged again during the independence struggle and in post-independence Uganda.
Mutesa II, sometimes referred to as King Freddie (Major-General Sir Edward Frederick William David Walugembe Mutebi Luwangula Mutesa II) played an important role in Ugandan independence. He became the Kabaka in 1939 aged just 15. He was transformed into a pivotal figure of the independence movement by the response of the British Governor Sir Andrew Cohen to Mutesaʼs demand to separate Buganda from the rest of the protectorate of Uganda.
King Freddie opposed the British plan to unite its East African colonies into one country. The plan was abandoned. Mutesa II was unpopular until his demand resulted in his deportation. That made him a martyr and the failure to replace with a compliant leader resulted in his eventual return more powerful than he had been before he was ousted.
Independence – Divisions
Prior to colonisation, the country now known as Uganda was divided on political, tribal and religious grounds. These resurfaced after independence was obtained in 1962. Under British rule Catholics fared worse than the Protestant élite. There were economic, political and regional divisions as well – a far from unusual situation in the decolonisation process in Africa.
Post independence had three political parties. Obote emerged as the dominant force of a divided Uganda Peopleʼs Congress, while Kabaka Yekka (King Only) was Mutesaʼs vehicle and the Democratic Party represented Catholic interests. Despite winning the election, the Democratic Party was squeezed out of power by Mutesa and Obote allying to exclude them. Mutesa became the first President of Uganda with Obote the Prime Minister. The alliance within his own party was difficult, but Obote held the party together.
The Slippery Slope
A humiliating situation followed in 1964 when junior soldiers mutinied for better pay and conditions and took a Minister hostage, forcing Obote to seek the help of the British to restore order. He acquiesced with all the mutineersʼ demands too, including faster promotions. Another low point was his choice of protégé in the military – a young junior officer who was fast-tracked – Idi Amin.
Political patronage followed and the army became a significant power-broker – a lesson that Obote would learn the hard way as his protégé turned on him and unleashed Ugandaʼs killing fields. But that was still a few years away after the mutiny. Later that year Oboteʼs patronage of opponents paid off too as enough joined him to enable him to dispense with Mutesa II.
The price was a plebiscite on whether land annexed by the British to the Kingdom of Buganda should be returned to the Kingdom of Bunyoro, which was itself annexed to Uganda three years later. Civil war was avoided and Mutesaʼs attempts at intimidating the vote defeated. His party was no longer needed and recriminations followed, leading to defections from Kabaka Yekka; the Democratic Party weakened by defections was also no longer an effective opposition. It would not be long before Obote made his move.