Thousands attend Obote state funeral

Thousands of government officials, diplomats, supporters and relatives gathered on Friday for the state funeral of Milton Obote, whose presidency was a brutal chapter in Uganda’s troubled history.

Police pallbearers carried the body to a tent and an officer called out Obote’s full name as thousands of people listened silently at the Independence Ground, where the former leader received the instruments of power in 1962 when this East African nation was granted independence from Britain.

“The former president did not answer, and that means that the former president Milton Obote is dead,” master of ceremony Mondo Kabonyera intoned in a funeral ritual. Kabonyera is also a minister of state in the prime minister’s office.

The state funeral, led by Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops and a Muslim sheik, was held a day after current President Yoweri Museveni laid a wreath on the casket of his former foe during a special session of Parliament. Museveni did not attend the funeral, but had called for national reconciliation on Thursday, saying the spirit of forgiveness could even be extended to Obote’s successor, the dictator Idi Amin.

Obote (80) died on October 10 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he had been hospitalised for several weeks.
He had been living in self-imposed exile in Zambia partly because Museveni had said if he returned home, he faced trial on charges that he was responsible for the deaths of as many as 500 000 people.

“My husband would have been given more respect as a former elected head of state. Instead, my husband has had to die far from home,” Obote’s widow, Miria Obote, sobbed at the service.

Call for reconciliation

“There is widespread desire for reconciliation and no one has expressed it better than President Museveni,” she said.

The funeral ended with a presidential salute for Obote and the national anthem. The casket, draped in the Ugandan flag, then set out on a tour of several towns across the country before Obote is to be buried at his ancestral home in northern Uganda on Monday.

“We reviewed the turbulent history of Uganda and we saw the need for reconciliation,” Museveni said on Thursday.

Museveni raised an army and fought a civil war against Obote from 1980 until 1985 and frequently insulted him in public.

When Museveni took power in 1986, he introduced “no-party” democracy, arguing that it was the antidote to tribal divisions that led to years of civil strife in Uganda. This year, however, he changed positions and campaigned for the yes-vote in a July referendum on multiparty politics. Many Ugandans had been demanding multiparty democracy for years, and the referendum passed easily.

Obote’s Ugandan People’s Congress represents a political constituency that will have to be reckoned with now that multiparty politics has returned. Obote had controlled his party from exile.

“Since the resolve of reconciliation is a lot stronger, we have to review the position of the late president Idi Amin,” Museveni added on Thursday.

Estimates of the number Amin killed during his 1971-1979 rule are as high as 300 000. Bodies were dumped into Lake Victoria and the Nile because graves couldn’t be dug fast enough.

Amin died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and is buried there.

Change of leadership

Obote was Uganda’s first prime minister following independence in 1962. In 1966, Obote staged a coup against King Mutesa II and declared himself president.

When then-army-chief Amin seized power in 1971 while Obote was at a Commonwealth meeting in Singapore, many Ugandans thought they had been delivered from dictatorship. They came to see Amin as worse.

During Amin’s tyrannical rule, Obote lived in neighbouring Tanzania. Tanzanian soldiers, supporting Ugandan rebels, helped drive Amin from power in Kampala in April 1979. Obote returned and won disputed elections in 1980, ruling until being ousted in a coup in 1985.

A year after the 1985 coup that ousted Obote, Museveni took power by force.

Obote never returned to Uganda after he fled first to Kenya in 1985 and then to Zambia.

“It is good the government allowed the body of the former president to be brought back to Uganda. He was a great leader of the nation,” said Jane Acen (33), a nurse who travelled 270km from northern Uganda to attend the state funeral in Kampala.

But John Mbaziira, a car mechanic in Kampala, was not mourning.

“This man killed many of my people, the Baganda. None of us is sad,” Mbaziira (39) said at the funeral. “I came here to see that he is really dead.”—Sapa-AP

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