THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | On January 1st this year Peter Otai, the former minister of state for defense in the second Milton Obote government, died in London. On January 25th, a memory service in his honor was held in London. Then his body was flown to Uganda for burial in his ancestral home in Soroti on Febuary 1st. His family had initially refused to bring it to Uganda. I am reliably informed they yielded to his wish to be buried next to his mother. His life, death and burial tell a powerful story about the political development of Uganda, the personality of President Yoweri Museveni and especially the intricate connections of its political leaders.
I knew Peter Otai very well but learnt of his death long after he had been buried. This explains why I am writing his obituary long after his death. He became famous in the late 1980s as leader of the Uganda People’s Army (UPA), a rebel group that fought the government of Museveni in Teso region. He was also among the few Ugandan political exiles that refused to return to Uganda in spite of the many overtures government sent to him. And he did this largely out of principle, refusing inducements of money and jobs.
person in Toronto, Canada, through George Okurapa, a former guild president at Makerere University and a luminary of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC). It was during a get together of UPC members in the summer of 1998. We became instant friends. When I went to study in London in September 1999, Otai picked me from the airport and took me to his home where I stayed for three weeks before I got my own apartment. During this time, I spent many hours with him in long and intense discussions and got to know him deeply. Also he took me to visit other Ugandan political titans such as Akena Adoko, Akena P’Ojok etc.
My birthday of 1999 found me still staying with him. Otai, his dear and pleasant wife Margaret (one of the kindest and most generous persons I have met) and their beautiful daughters (Joana and Liz) organised and hosted a dinner for me and asked me to invite some of my friends and they invited theirs too. I have consistently refused to yield to the temptation of hosting birthday parties, which I consider bourgeoisie romanticism. But I could not refuse the generosity Peter, Margaret and their kids extended to me.
In my long and intense discussions with him: at home in his living room, in his study (which was piled with books from floor to ceiling), on the train to different parts of London (when going to visit friends or attend conferences) and the many walks we took, I got a close and intimate view of this giant of a man. Otai held strong liberal convictions. The 1995 constitution had placed restrictions on political party activity. So Otai sought to consistently hammer at this fault in the constitution. At every conference I attended with him on Uganda, he argued that our country should have a multiparty system of government and political space should be expanded for opposition parties and the press.
Otai was very critical of Museveni’s reliance on military power to buttress his politics, on the restrictions imposed on political parties and the press, of the sale of state enterprises at below basement prices, of unrestrained liberalisation that either stifled or displaced domestic capital. Yet what I found powerful about him is that he never went personal in his criticism. He kept his focus on the issues and argued with passion and conviction but never with anger and vitriol. He was also a jolly companion and generous friend deeply devoted to his wife and children whom he treated with utmost respect and love.
Otai lived in a large house on a large plot with a big garden in South East London. For many years, whenever I would visit London I would go and check on him. We would sit over a glass of wine and talk long and deep about Uganda and Africa. For many years I encouraged him to return to Uganda, advice he would listen carefully to and promise to think about. He never did. It is ironic that Otai, who loved Uganda so much, hardly ever lived in the country of his birth. He had left Uganda as a teenager to study on a scholarship in England in 1969. When Idi Amin overthrew the government of UPC government of Obote, he chose to stay in exile.
In exile, he kept a close relationship with Obote in Dar Es Salam and began organising for the overthrow of Amin. Obote was Otai’s hero. Indeed, it was Obote, as president, who had personally arranged the scholarship for Otai to go study in the United Kingdom. His love for and loyalty to Obote was to last a lifetime. When Amin was overthrown in 1979, Otai returned to Uganda. When Obote returned to power in 1980, he appointed Otai minister of state for defense.
During our many and long conversations, I learnt that the Obote 11 government had investigated the helicopter crash that killed Maj. Gen. David Oyite Ojok, the all-powerful chief of staff of the UNLA. The investigation had found that the helicopter fell due to a mechanical fault. I also learnt that it was Otai who helped Jeje Odongo get released from jail in 1983, having been arrested for collaborating with NRA when it attacked Kabamba military barracks on February 6th 1981. It was also through these encounters that I learnt that Otai and Museveni met in the 1970s. Indeed, Otai was among the few invited guests at Museveni’s wedding in London.
Perhaps this explains why, after his family agreed to bring his body to Uganda for burial, government got involved. His body was flown to Uganda at government expense, was received with full honors at the airport and a military helicopter flew it to Soroti. His funeral was attended by large numbers of people. Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda represented Museveni at the funeral. It was a revealing statement about the Museveni’s personality and how it influences his politics. Here was a political rival and military enemy. (He fought him as minister of state for defense and as rebel leader). But Museveni did not take this beyond politics and gave Otai full recognition in his death in spite of their political differences.