People & Power
How we sneaked out Obote
Posted Sunday, March 16 2014 at 02:00
Flashback. Dr Henry Opiote was former president Milton Obote’s personal physician. It was at his house that the escape plan was hatched after the 1985 coup. He narrates to Sunday Monitor’s Henry Lubega the events leading to Obote’s exile.
I first met Dr Obote through my father who was his close friend, but I had heard about him from school. I again met him in 1962 when he came to Boroboro College - now Dr Obote College - during the campaigns, by then I was a supporter of UPC. In 1964 I started electronic training with City and Guilds before joining Radio Uganda as a technician trainee and had also become a member of the UPC youth league.
While at Radio Uganda I got two scholarship offers; one from the central government and another from the party (UPC). The government was sending me to Canada for electronics while the party was sending me to Czechoslovakia to study general medicine. I decided to go for medicine at Chance University in Prague, Czech Republic.
When Idi Amin took over power in 1971 my studies were interrupted: Amin wanted me back home. I pleaded with the authorities in Prague and after some time I was allowed to stay until 1977 when I completed and I was given a ticket to any African country. I opted to go to Tanzania.
In Tanzania, I had a relative working with the former East African Railways. He took me to Muhimbili Medical Centre, which was also a teaching hospital, where I was immediately given a job at the causality and orthopedic department.
Before starting work I visited Obote at Msasane Bay and explained to him the predicament I went through after the fall of his government.
Becoming Obote’s doctor
While at Muhimbili, I was attached to Msasane Bay as the family’s medical contact person but not on full time basis as I was also working at the University hospital. Other doctors also went to Muhimbili.
However, when the campaign to remove Amin started, most of the doctors went to the frontline to provide services and that is when I fully took charge of Mzee (Obote)’s health and that of his family.
After the 1979 liberation war I was called to Mzee’s residence and he told me: “Doctor you are going to escort me to Uganda”. The trip was planned to last two weeks.
When we arrived in Bushenyi there was a huge crowd to receive us and the scene was repeated when we came to Entebbe. Before the end of the two weeks, party members decided that Mzee should go on a countrywide tour. The tour was to dispel rumors circulating that Obote died or was being held captive by Julius Nyerere. I was with him throughout the tour and everywhere we went was marvelous.
The reception contradicted earlier statements that people did not want him back. As we prepared to leave after the tour, members of the party told him to inform Nyerere that he was not going back because it was time to start reorganising and re-building the country.
They told us later that Nyerere’s response was: “It’s okay you can stay and organise but in case of anything your home is here”. He started reorganising the party from grassroots to the delegates’ conference in September 1980 and the general elections three months later.
The election was actually very controversial not because it was done so badly but because people could not appreciate that we could not have perfect elections under the circumstances we were living in.
There were pockets of Amin’s men still putting up resistance and parties had not yet re-organised themselves. These played a part in not having a perfect election and that is why the Commonwealth Observer Team said “there had been some rigging but considering the situation under which the elections were conducted this was the best and therefore we are giving it a backing”.
In 1981 when the newly-elected government of UPC started functioning, those who claimed to have lost because of rigging started working with Amin’s clique and Libyans camouflaging as liberators. But in actual sense they wanted to liberate their stomachs. That is what led to the confusion which started in February 1981 when they started attacking the government.
As a result, we lost many important people. It could not be that we were killing our own people in order to enjoy; someone was responsible. Obote said: “I know myself. This election was not perfect we couldn’t have done better than we did”.
As the party started to gain momentum, people claiming to have lost the election ran to some countries asking to have an embargo on Uganda. This made the economic situation more difficult.
Certain roads [including Kampala-Gulu highway] were made impassable, we tried as much as possible to expose these people but nobody was listening to us.
With that sort of frustration, some members of the party tried to undermine the party indirectly by infiltrating the military. That’s why when the proper opponents of the government – the National Resistance Army rebels - were almost being defeated they (members of the government) walked out and staged a coup of 1985.
You cannot blame the coup on NRA or Democratic Party directly; the two did not want us in government but never staged a coup. The language they were using was “our things”. Unfortunately they were outmaneuvered; they thought they had got what they wanted.
The last hours in Uganda
Before the Tito Okello coup occurred, we were aware that the army had been infiltrated. Two days before the coup, the president called a meeting at Nile Mansion and said: “we have come through a difficult situation but there are some people who have been deceived to think they can take over but this sit is not soft, it’s hot”.
A day later, Obote summoned the chief of Staff Smith Opon Achak and directed him to address soldiers at Nakasongola base. We later learnt that Opon never addressed them. On the advice of [Chris] Rwakasisi, Mzee agreed to send some ammunition to Nakasongola, unfortunately they were never delivered due to deteriorating situation.
I had been with Mzee and Rwakasisi in his office at around 10pm on July 26, we moved the coordination office from Parliamentary Buildings to the Nile Mansions. Four hours later, we decided to take the president to a safer place he would least be expected to be in by the advancing forces. At around 2am, we left Nile Mansions for my house in Kololo.
Our forces at Summit View were still loyal and wanted to hit Bazillio Olara’s men as they advanced to Kampala, but Mzee said: “If these people want the chair it is there, I don’t want blood spilled because of me, I am prepared to die here”. Rwakasisi said: “No sir”. Mzee continued: “If they want to kill me let them kill me from here”. Rwakasisi answered back: “Those people don’t reason they are not like you”. After Rwakasisi insisted on leaving I asked him which way to go.
The western route was not possible because of the NRA rebels, Gulu road was cut off by the advancing Bazillio’s men, and the remaining alternative was Jinja Road. But we had heard Bazillio’s men on radio, saying they were going to shoot any car that goes that route from Kampala. But Rwakasisi insisted we had to move. I walked out of the house with Mzee and sat in the lead car as Obote sat in his official car.
Since I was in the lead car my plan was to go up to Soroti. However, there were obstacles on the way. At Mukono we encountered a roadblock. They wanted us to return to Kampala, I gave my card to the escort in the lead car with a story that we had been sent by Obote to Malaba border to collect maama (Miria) who was coming from a women’s conference in Nairobi. The impression we gave was that Mzee was in Kampala. The second roadblock was at Jinja [Owen Falls Dam Bridge] and we repeated the same story and they let us through.
Towards Bugembe [just outside Jinja Town], I realised that there was no convoy behind me and I stopped. After some time it came and Mzee called me to his car and asked me: “How have you been going over these roadblocks.” I told him sir it’s difficult to explain. He asked me whether I knew the shortcut to Busia branching off on the right before Magamaga barracks. I did not know but luckily the escort in the lead car with me called Saaga knew the route. This is the one we took up to Busia.
We were at the border slightly after 5am, some soldiers did not want to open the gate, but there were some who were still on our side and they helped us go through.
We parked in the no man’s land before I waked over to the Kenyan side. I told the authorities that my president was on his way to see their president. One officer saluted me, came over to the car and saluted to Mzee before letting us go. We left all the guns mounted on our escort cars at the border and drove off into Kenya.
We were running low on fuel, and had no money. I had just returned from America and had something like $50, which the pump station gladly accepted.
When we got to a town near Nakuru we rested and contacted State House in Nairobi. We stayed there overnight and the following day proceeded to Nairobi.
Continues next Sunday
Even in exile obote kept tabs on uganda
After his second removal from power by his own soldiers - Brigadier Bazilio Olara-Okello and General Tito Okello - Obote fled to Tanzania and later to Zambia. For some years it was rumoured that he would return to Ugandan politics.
In August 2005, however, he announced his intention to step down as leader of the UPC. In September 2005, it was reported that Obote would return to Uganda before the end of 2005 but did not make it. On October 10 2005, Obote died of kidney failure in a hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa.