- President Milton Obote’s Negligence Contributed 80% To The 27th July 1985 Coup
- The Acholis Never Knew That They Were Overthrowing Their Own Government
- The late Col Walter Ochola Says That They Did Not Overthrow the UPC Government But simply ‘Buried it because It was Already Dead’
It’s exactly 37 years and six days today, since the Ugandan military led by Gen Tito Okello overthrew President Milton Obote’s government. The author of this article had the privilege of interviewing many actors within the UPC government and managed to get a clear view of what exactly transpired. Many analysts have so many versions about what led to the 1985 coup, which we have since gathered was avoidable. Under normal circumstances this coup could not have taken place.
But one account that explains the whole episode was the practical negligence of President Milton Obote. According to some senior UPC members I managed to interact with at Uganda House in 2007, President Obote had the problem of underestimating his political opponents and procrastinating, when faced with immediate challenges.
In 1971, he underestimated Gen Idi Amin by reasoning that he (Amin) had no brains to plot a coup. In 1985 he thought that a senile Gen Tito Okello had no capacity or even ambitions for power that would push him into staging a coup. At that time, Gen Tito Okello and Brigadier Bazilio Olara Okello were not in perfect health. Gen Tito was suffering from diabetes while Brig Bazilio was suffering from prostate cancer.
President Obote himself revealed that when Gen Tito fled to Sudan, he had gone to seek for treatment. But when he (Obote) sent brigadier Bazilio Olara Okello to bring him (Tito) back, they both came back to overthrow the government. Obote laments that he should never have allowed the two old men (the Okellos) to remain in the army since they had even reached retirement age.
But he kept them long enough to plot a nasty coup against him. According to Dr James Rwanyarare whom I interviewed extensively from his Nakasero home in 2008, he revealed that President Obote knew that some senior Acholis within his government were plotting something but he never took action. These Acholis used to sit in Kampala club, Apollo Hotel (now Sheraton) to plot what they used to call “let Acholis also try” agenda. But the president was told about it and he simply ignored the information.
Actually, another senior UPC functionary by the names of Chris Opoka revealed to me in 2008 that it was a case of negligence that the coup took place in the first place. He said that the whole leadership of the UPC government knew that there was some little bit of chaos in the army but they believed it wouldn’t amount to much.
“Of course there was a case of some chap called Okello Nangayi turning tanks in Mbuya, in what Paulo Muwanga termed as miss-coordination of troops, but we didn’t expect it to get to an extent of a coup.’’
Opoka, who sat at his office in Uganda House, revealed that he individually tried to reverse the coup by approaching the Korean military attaché to reverse the plotters who were moving from Kitgum and driving towards Kampala. Opoka says on 25th of July 1985, he had learnt that some UNLA junior officers were organizing ‘something’ in Kitgum. ‘’Brigadier Bazilio had recruited a militia to fight the Karamojong cattle rustlers. He had managed to recruit quit a number of young Acholi boys. In late July, they started getting uniforms and guns and got integrated in the army. Soon after, they got ideas of moving to the Capital City’’
According to Dr. Opiote (President Obote’s personal Doctor who was part of the convoy which took the President to exile on the fateful day of 27th July 1985), he said that those Acholi boys never knew that they were moving to overthrow their own government. Opoka said that on the morning of the 27th July, he heard gunshots. He went to the Koran military attaché to tell him about the matter. Opoka’s intention was to get a military backup from the Korean military attaché and move in a big convoy and takeover over radio Uganda upon which, he would announce information on the radio that would confuse the plotters so that they stop within their tracks.
But by the time the Korean attaché bought into the idea at around 11am, it was already too late as incessant gunshots were now ‘raining’ within the whole of Kampala. UNLA soldiers and Kitgum militias donning military fatigues had reached the city center and were already celebrating as they shot in the air. They flashed a fist in the air, one of the party symbols of the Democratic Party.
Opoka says that he managed to flee with the North Korean military attaché back to the embassy in Kololo. Ugandans were shocked the same UNLA that was known to be embedded with the UPC was now showing allegiance to DP. President Obote’s government was no more. The soldiers were trying to play a sentimental game with Ugandans who had voted enormously for DP but were reportedly rigged by UPC.
According to Mr. James Mwondha, who had worked as minister in the UPC government from 1982 up to the time of the coup in 1985, the coup found them trying to reconstruct the country that had collapsed after the fall of President Idd Amin. Mwondha revealed that after the 1980 elections, Obote had assumed power, but was faced with a protracted civil war in most parts of central and northwest Uganda.
Almost over ten rebel groups were fighting to overthrow the UPC government. In central Uganda, Yoweri Museveni’s rebel group had dug in the inner-most parts of Buganda and made life impossible for the UPC machinery. Another rebel group known as the Uganda Federal Movement (UFM) led by Andrew Kayiira was operating less than ten miles from Kampala city. In West Nile, a number of rebel groups formed by former soldiers of President Idi Amin were operating on the flanks of the Sudan and Congo borders.
On his part, President Milton Obote was still trying to assemble army and police since the previous army had been destroyed by the Tanzanian invaders in 1979. Matters were compounded by the fact that Obote inherited an economy which was literary on its knees. Mwondha insists that fighting an insurgency and rebuilding the economy was an uphill task that couldn’t be easily balanced.
What Obote needed to do was to first build the army to stabilize the country and then embark on the reconstruction phase. But he chose to concentrate all his efforts on the economy and left the army to fend for itself. In the end, it was no surprise that the same army overthrew him. According to the late major Walter Ochola, who was a UNLA officer that literally announced the coup on radio Uganda, ‘’the UPC government was already dead’’. The late Ochola, who was a 27-year-old lieutenant at the time in 1985, revealed that they actually never overthrew Obote’s government. ‘’What we did was to bury it.”
President Obote never learnt anything from the Idi Amin tragedy of 1971. He thought that he could run the army in auto-pilot and let things sort themselves out. Secondly, the notion of people of the same ethnicity clashing for power doesn’t help. As Dr Opiote revealed that the Acholis never knew that they were overthrowing their own government, came to pass after the fall of the Obote government, because it’s the Acholis who bore the brunt for almost 30 years of civil war in their own backyard. In the end it’s the Acholis themselves who suffered the most from the after effects of the 27th July 1985 coup. If they had known they should never have embarked on such a dangerous project.
- Fred Daka Kamwada is a seasoned journalist, blogger and political analyst for over a decade in Uganda
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