When Obote outfoxed Kabaka Mutesa to survive a Parliamentary Coup

Late Dr. Apollo Milton Obote; File Photo

The year was 1965 and the disagreement between the two principals in the new independent Uganda -Prime Minister Dr Milton Obote and the President Sir Edward Muteesa, had reached it’s peak.

The disagreement between the two former allies at independence had been exacerbated by the 1964 signing off to Bunyoro Kingdom, the two contested counties (Buyaga and Bugangaizi -known as the lost counties), by Obote, following a referendum election which Buganda had lost and therefore losing the counties it claimed belonged to it.

At the same time, the ruling party, Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) to which Dr Obote was leader had developed internal rivalries and power struggles with one group led by Secretary General Grace Stuart Ibingira, plotting to take over the party leadership from Obote. These internal party rivalries were to later attract the attention of the Kabaka (also President) wanting to exploit the situation to settle a score against Obote. A plan was hatched to oust Obote through parliament.

Before independence, the two (Mutesa and Obote) had entered into a negotiated lose alliance to edge out Democratic Party (DP’s) Ben Kiwanuka in the April 1962 General Elections which saw Kiwanuka kicked out of government and Obote receive instruments of power from British colonial masters and Kabaka Mutesa assuming the presidency but with less executive powers.

Grace Ibingira’s group had rallied fellow ethnic Bantu (non-northerners) and ex-Kabaka Yekka (KY) ministers from Buganda and powerful UPC members such as Sir William Wiberforce Nadiope (King of Busoga and Vice President), George Magezi from Bunyoro and Balaki Kirya from Eastern Uganda to their group. Also, the group later found an ally in the Army Commander Brig Shaban Opolot. They all thought they had their man cornered.

Mutesa’s association with coup plotters is said to have been bolstered by his decision to correct the 1961-62 mistake of ditching Ben Kiwanuka who advocated for Buganda’s direct involvement in Uganda’s politics as the only way of retaining the Kingdoms privileges with a Muganda in full control of national leadership. It is also alleged that it was the same reason why Mutesa and his advisers including his uncle Prince Badru Kakungulu, worked out plans to get them political friends outside Buganda as well as encourage fellow Baganda to join UPC.

The strategy was to penetrate the UPC with the aim to out-vote Obote in his party when time comes. The Ibingira-Mutesa axis also gained another formidable ally in Daudi Ocheng, an Acholi who was a firm and trusted friend of Mutesa and a member representing the Buganda’s Kabaka Yekka (KY) in parliament. Ochieng later turned out to be the man who was picked to cast the dice against Obote when an opportunity showed up. Unexpectedly, the D-Day arrived after leaked Bank documents implicated Obote and his trusted army commander Idi Amin into acts of corruption.

On 4th February 1964, while Prime Minister Obote was on a tour in Nothern Uganda, Daudi Ochieng introduced a motion in the national assembly which sought the probing of Colonel Idi Amin who was the Deputy Commander of Uganda Army, and other government officials for fraudulently receiving large sums of money and gold from Congo. The allegations were that payments from gold and ivory from Congo had been made into Idi Amin’s bank account in Ottoman Bank, in what was later known as the ‘Gold Scandal.’

In reality, this a censure motion against Obote because the plotters alleged that Amin received money on behalf of Obote. The motion was tabled, debated and passed by parliament with less resistance since the Mutesa-Ibingira group had also courted the Acting Prime Minister Balaki Kirya who was in charge of government business in Parliament. It was triumph for Ibingira-Mutesa group but they had forgot one or two things; Obote had the General Service Unit (GSU) -a highly meticulous and efficient intelligence machine under the control of his cousin -Akena Adoko.

Obote had also consolidated his base within the army which was under the effective command of Idi Amin. Though Mutesa had counted on the military backing through the good offices of Shaban Opolot, he didn’t realize that Opolot lacked loyalty within the army and had less authority as the coup plotters believed. While Grace Ibingira and others were celebrating, Obote, always a shrewd and institute political tactician, struck.

On February 22, when cabinet purportedly met to appoint the proposed Commission of Inquiry and to study the charges in connection with the gold scandal, Obote had the five minsters arrested there and then. The ministers were Grace Ibingira, Balaki Kirya, Dr Fred Lumu, Mathius Ngobi and George Magezi. The following day, Obote promoted Idi Amin to Army Chief of Staff, giving him full control of the army. Shaban Opolot was made CDF and no longer in command of the army.

On 24th February 1966, in resolve to send his point home, Obote suspended the Independence Constitution and the post of the president who happened to be the Kabaka of Buganda, was one of the provisions that were scrapped. Justifying the course of action, Obote said he acted “to save the bad situation from becoming worse” saying Mutesa was plotting to overthrow the Constitution and an elected government by unconstitutional means.

The next day, Obote summoned parliament to receive a new 1966 Constitution under tight security. He had Military vehicles surrounding parliament with the military and police aircraft hovering over the house. MPs had not had the opportunity to to see or read through the new constitution which was grudgingly termed as the “Pigeon-Hole” Constitution. The new constitution provided for executive president and strong powers  for central government. The new Constitution was tabled by Obote himself, passed and adopted.

The toying between Mutesa and Obote went on. Water and Electricity supply at State House Entebbe where Mutesa lived was repeatedly cut off and restored until the disgusted former president left the premises and permanently returned to his palace in Mengo. Mutesa made a frantic appeal to the Secretary General of United Nations Organization for military support claiming Obote wanted to assume presidential powers through unconstitutional means. The UNO’s response however remains unclear up to today.

On 21st May 1966, the assertive Buganda Kingdom great Lukiiko passed a resolution telling Obote to remove his central government from Buganda soil, a resolution that was massively supported and embraced by Mengo ministers.

A month later on 24th May 1966, troops on orders of Obote and commanded by Idi Amin, stormed the Kabaka’s palace at Mengo leading to what was later termed as the Mengo Crisis which culminated into Mutesa fleeing to exile in Britain where he died from in 1969. The five ministers (coup-plotters) stayed in Luzira prison until the fall of Obote I regime in the 1971 coup engineered by Idi Amin.

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