Uganda's first prime minister dead at 80

Milton Obote, Uganda’s first prime minister and two-time president known for his brutal repression that led to the deaths of 500 000 people, died on Monday at a South African hospital, officials said.

Henry Mayega, secretary general of the Ugandan People’s Congress, said Obote (80) died on Monday afternoon after being hospitalised for several weeks. He had been living in self-imposed exile in Zambia.

“He had a series of illnesses over the past three weeks. We received the information and we are in the process of getting it to the people of Uganda tomorrow, but we do not yet have a clear programme,” Mayega said.
He declined to give further details.

James Rwanyarare, a senior congress official and a long-time Obote friend, said the former salesman was flown to South Africa with severely swollen legs and had been in intensive care. He said the country has lost one of its founding fathers.

“This man built our nation and he has been keeping us together since independence in 1962,” he said.

But his feelings were not shared by everyone in Uganda, where Obote’s control of the Ugandan People’s Congress from exile was often used as a spectre to discourage support for multiparty politics.

“That man is better dead, he killed many people,” said George Ssali, a Kampala resident. “The nation should not remember him. It is a good riddance.”

Obote, the son of a chief and farmer in the Langi tribal area of northern Uganda, won his first legislative seat in 1958. A year later, he formed the Uganda People’s Congress.

He served as Uganda’s first prime minister following independence in 1962. At the time, Uganda was ruled by King Mutesa II. In 1966, Obote staged a coup against the king and declared himself president.

But anger over Obote’s decision to disband Uganda’s four traditional monarchies and institute a socialist system caused his popularity to plummet. He relied on arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial executions to maintain power.

Obote escaped possible death or imprisonment in 1971 because he was at a Commonwealth summit meeting in Singapore when Idi Amin, an army commander and a trusted aide, seized control.

Obote once observed: “I believe that soldiers who venture into the art of government are agents of corruption. They lack the public opinion and image needed to carry the masses in achieving a development goal.”

Amin placed a $143 000 price on Obote’s head. During Amin’s tyrannical rule, Obote lived in neighbouring Tanzania, protected but kept publicly silent by his friend, then-president Julius Nyerere.

Nyerere’s soldiers, supporting Ugandan rebels, helped drive Amin from power in Kampala in April 1979, paving the way for Obote’s return.

Following a disputed election in 1980 that returned Obote to power, current President Yoweri Museveni raised an army and fought a civil war against Obote from 1980-1985, another period in Ugandan history known for brutal repression and mass executions of innocent civilians.

Obote was ousted in another coup in 1985. Museveni took power by force in 1986. Museveni’s government estimates more than 500 000 civilians died from 1980-1985 alone when Obote tried to force everyone out of rural areas and into cities.

Onapito Ekomoloit, Press Secretary for Museveni, said the president is aware of Obote’s death, but is awaiting an official communiqué from the Ugandan People’s Congress.

Obote never returned to Uganda after he fled first to Kenya in 1985 and then to Zambia, where fellow independence leader Kenneth Kaunda granted him exile.

In 1999, Museveni said he would never ask Obote to return to Uganda because of the former president’s negative influence on the country. He said he would not stop Obote from returning, but neither would he stop Obote from being charged with crimes against humanity if he did.

“I did not, I could not and I will never invite Obote,” Museveni said. “This is because Obote is someone who made a lot of mistakes in our history.”

Obote was married with four children and had another child by a mistress.—Sapa-AP

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