Speakers at the Memorial Lecture at Sheraton spent too much time attacking government than on highlighting his legacy
On Oct. 10, I attended the Fourth Milton Obote Memorial Lecture at Sheraton Hotel’s Rwenzori Ballroom. There, I witnessed in silent wonderment the murder of the record of our founding prime minister, Apollo Milton Obote, by the very people who claimed to have inherited his legacy. In many ways, the present Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) and Milton Obote Foundation (MOF) offer little evidence of the organisational and administrative genius of the man who created both. And they reflect little of his ideas, values and aspirations. If Obote’s life’s achievements included building a well organised and articulate political party and an enduring Foundation in his name, then his death perhaps proves the fragility of his achievements.
Mwondha used his speech as an opportunity to launch a partisan tirade against the government. But this was a moment to celebrate the life, ideals and work of one of the greatest leaders post independence Africa has produced, not to criticise the government. Uganda had marked 50 years of independence the previous day. Obote was the leader who received the instruments of power from the departing British colonial administration. So he is the founding father of our nation. The memorial lecture should therefore have been an opportunity to place our founding leader above partisan politics. But UPC leaders and activists who showed up lacked this sense of perspective. Like NRM did on Independence Day, they also treated the event as a party function and then failed to place the discussion about Obote’s legacy above UPC.
I have been a keen student of Milton Obote from childhood. From the age of seven, I read Obote’s speeches and pronouncements with dedication and crammed many of them. I can still recite some of them word for word. I have read most of his writings. I have interviewed or discussed with many people who knew him about his ideas and actions. Obote had an open heart and an intellectual spirit. I was honored to cultivate an enduring personal and professional relationship with him. He welcomed me into his home and family. So I spent many hours of discussions, interviews and debates with him. I therefore feel obliged to highlight at least a part of his legacy much of which has been tarnished by ill-informed and malicious propaganda.
Obote saw his role as a leader of a post-independence African nation from two vantage points – as a human being and as an African leading a country called Uganda. His work was, therefore, divided into two: foreign policy and national politics. I have written about his national politics before. Let me address his foreign policy credentials here. Obote’s foreign policy rotated around three ideals: First, Pan African unity (which included regional integration); second, the liberation of all oppressed peoples of the world (with special attention to the total liberation of Africa from colonialism, white minority rule and imperialism) and third, promoting world peace. Few leaders of post independence African leaders dedicated themselves to these ideals and were willing to sacrifice everything to realise them as Obote did.
We can tell Obote’s pursuit of these objectives from the speeches he gave and the writings he left behind; from the policies he pursued and the actions he took; and from the alliances he built and the friendships he cultivated. His Pan African credentials are best evidenced in the stimulating speech he gave during the All-African leaders’ conference in Addis Ababa in May of 1963 that led to the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). However, Obote’s Pan Africanism was not an end in itself. It was a means to an end – and that end was to fight the evils that bedeviled Africa and to improve the quality of life of its peoples.
“As a heritage from the colonial era, our people are disease ridden and poverty stricken,” he said. “This has led to a vicious cycle of malnutrition, disease and low productivity. A decision to agree and meet again is a decision which does not wage a continent wide war on the evils we have inherited... I am one of those who believe that this conference would be a failure is we are to return to our capitals having only stated principles and having only disclosed, however eloquently, our intentions in respect to the need of African unity. The time for high sounding words, slogans and clichés and good intentions has come to an end. This is the time for concrete proposals and for action.
“I hold the view that however nice one may feel as complete master in one’s own house, the time has come, indeed almost overdue, for African independent states to surrender some of their sovereignty in favour of an African central legislature and executive body with specific powers over those subjects where divided control and action would be undesirable. I refer to such subjects as the establishment of an African common market, economic planning on a continent wide basis, collective defense, a common foreign policy, a common development bank and a common monetary zone. This list is by no means exhaustive and I hope that the conference will agree to the appointment of a committee of experts who will investigate the matter of close economic and political union among African independent states within a period not exceeding six months.”
So powerful was Obote’s speech that Africa’s most illustrious leader, the Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, was so hypnotised by it, he did not travel back to Ghana. Instead, from Addis Ababa, Nkrumah escorted Obote back to Uganda. Even in those days, Obote clearly saw the dangers to Africa emanating from the attitudes towards our continent from outsiders. For example, once while speaking about the challenges to our continent, he said: “When we come to Africa, we find a situation where the rest of the world appears to be saying in unison that they have a natural right to come to our continent and share with us our natural heritage. I say that we Africans must rise up and exert our rights.”
You can tell a man’s ideas and ambitions by the company he keeps. In pursuit of African unity and regional integration, Obote proceeded to build close friendships with Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Sekou Toure of Guinea. These were the giants of Pan African unity. When Nkrumah was overthrown, Obote alongside Nyerere, Kaunda, Nasser, Toure and Madibo Keita of Mali were the first to send him messages of solidarity and refused to recognise the military junta that replaced him. When Obote was overthrown in 1971, Toure was the first to condemn the coup alongside Nyerere, Kaunda, Tesretse Khama of Botswana, Jaffer Nimeri of Sudan and Siad Barre of Somalia.
In pursuit of the liberation of all oppressed peoples, Obote build close friendships with leaders like Indian then-prime minister Indra Gandhi, and Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. He became a major player in the Non-Aligned Movement and a powerful voice in the OAU and the British Commonwealth. He was a passionate critic of white minority governments in Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Namibia and Apartheid South Africa.
In 1965, Ian Smith made the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of Rhodesia. Progressive African opinion was outraged. It is Obote and Nyerere who offered Nkrumah the strongest support to push Britain, which was the colonial master, to discipline its rebel clients in Salisbury (now Harare). In a speech on UDI, Obote said: “While Ian Smith and his regime and his supporters remain the principle accused persons in my estimation, I would not like to exonerate the policeman from the charge. The policeman in this particular case is the British government which has sovereign power and has both moral and legal duty and obligation to ensure that crime is not committed in a territory under its control and to ensure that those who commit a crime in its area of patrol do not become the beneficiaries of their acts and that the innocents are not victimised because of the crime of others.
“The duty of a policeman is to uphold the law and where the law is broken to apprehend the culprits and ensure that they are brought to justice. What do we see in the acts of the British government, which in this case is the policeman in Rhodesia throughout all these years? We see repeated actions of their failures to apprehend the criminal and to bring him to justice and further their collaboration with the lawbreakers. The “tiger” and the “fearless” negotiations tell only one story – that of the British government and the rebel regime. In this collaboration, the British government has conceded to the illegal regime on every point of principle, which was in the interest of the four million black Rhodesians.”
In 1970, Edward Heath of the Conservative Party replaced Harrold Wilson of the Labour Party as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Heath immediately announced that he was reversing Labour policy of not selling arms to Apartheid South Africa. British arms sales to the Apartheid regime were bolstering the capabilities of the regime to crack down on freedom fighters and civil protesters. There was an immediate outcry from progressive African opinion. Presidents Obote, Kaunda and Nyerere held an emergency meeting under the auspices of the Mulungushi Club to discuss Africa’s response. Mulungushi Club was an association of the ruling parties of the three countries. Each one of them travelled to the UK to try and dissuade Heath from this policy. They failed. In fact Obote even stormed out of a dinner meeting with an intransigent Heath when the prime minister refused to listen.
In January 1971, a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) meeting was going to be held in Singapore. Progressive African opinion was that African leaders should use CHOGM to force Heath to back down. The problem was that Uganda had national elections slated for April 1971 and Obote was deeply preoccupied with their organisation. Also, there had been simmering tensions in the army with allegations of coup plots organised by the army commander, Maj. Gen. Idi Amin. Investigations into the murder of Brig. Erinayo Okoya were leading to Amin’s doorstep. And a report by the Auditor General had found money had gone missing in the army and Obote had called Amin and given two weeks to explain himself.
Indeed, Obote had just reshuffled the army and kicked Amin upstairs and was trying to consolidate his position in the military. So he had decided not to travel to Singapore. However, Nyerere, Kaunda and progressive opinion in Africa felt that his voice would be important in bolstering the pressure on Heath to back down on selling arms to South Africa. It was in response to this need to help South Africa that Obote placed his presidency at risk and travelled to Singapore. And his travel was tragic as it gave Idi Amin legroom to engineer a successful coup. In fact Obote left behind orders for Amin to be arrested – orders that his lieutenants were unable to carry out in a timely fashion.
In Singapore, Obote gave a powerful speech opposing UK arms sales to South Africa. When he sat down to thunderous applause from other heads of government, an angry Heath retorted: “I wonder how many of you will return to your countries as presidents.” That was it. A few hours later, Obote learnt that there was an army mutiny in Kampala. A day later, Amin’s coup had been successful. Obote sacrificed his presidency for South Africa’s freedom.
Perhaps the most enduring words of Milton Obote were given during his speech on May 27, 1980 in Ishaka Bushenyi upon his return from exile. He warned Ugandans to recognise the need for self-sufficiency and to jealously guard our newly won freedom: “For whilst Amin and his bandits were plundering our material resources, desecrating our cultural heritage and carrying out what was tantamount to a genocide in Uganda, the world – except for Tanzania, Zambia, Somalia, Botswana and Sudan – just sat by and watched. It is ironic, that after all the pontifications of the so called civilized world about the horrors and atrocities committed by Hitler during the Second World War, no leader of any major power, felt compelled to bring an end to similar atrocities committed by the monster in Uganda in the last quarter of the 20th Century. Even when a small nation, Tanzania, with meager resources tried to fight and restore the conscience of the civilized world, it was left to fight and bear the costs on its own.”
The Obote memorial lecture needed to highlight this and other aspects of his legacy.