He caused a stir in a foreign country. But many Ugandans barely talk about him. Sunday Monitor’s Henry Lubega profiles the military adventurist
As the debate on Uganda’s involvement in South Sudan goes on, on the Island of Zanzibar last month the locals were remembering the heroic action of a Ugandan who overthrew the last Arab government on the Island. The Ugandan’s Zanzibar mission was a sole adventure but over the years, Ugandan troops have gone on to have boots on the ground in countries like Rwanda, Zaire now DR Congo, Tanzania (1978), Central African Republic (CAR) Sudan and now South Sudan.
So in many ways, Uganda’s first military adventurist was “Field Marshall” John Gideon Okello who at only 27 years toppled the government of Sultan Seyyid Jamshid bin Abdullah in January 1964 in what is now famously known as the Zanzibar Revolution.
Who is Okello
Born on October 6, 1937, in Anino village in Lira, he was the fifth of the 13 children. Aged seven years he was intrigued by the returning King’s African Rifles KAR from the First World War, who formed his interest in the military service.
Due to hardship that befell him after his parent’s death when he was still young, he never completed Primary education. Okello decided to join the army when he escaped from his home in Anino and walked 45km to be recruited in KAR.
In 1952 Okello got a job at Otuboi Cotton Ginnery in Teso where the following year he led a strike by workers demanding a better pay. Because of his uncompromising stance on issues he earned the nickname “the burning Spear”.
After the strike, Okello relocated to Mbale where he learnt carpentry and being a mason, while developing his militant and pan African outlook.
In October 1954, he moved to Nairobi, where he got a job with Mowlem Construction Company, the same place where Uganda’s first president Milton Obote had worked four years earlier.
During his stay in Kenya, he took part in the Mau-mau rebellion making him an enemy of the colonial government, leading to his arrest and spending 32 months in detention. After his release he fled to the coastal town of Mombasa where his hatred for whites developed further.
In his Memoirs Revolution in Zanzibar published in 1967 Okello recalls thoughts of his first visit to Fort Jesus in Mombasa, the former slave market on the East African coast.
“I wept as I knelt near the walls of the Fort, a place that Africans, pure black Africans in skin and heart….. As I knelt there, I vowed that the end must come soon for the direct and indirect slave trade still being carried on in Africa by the Portuguese and South African governments”.
While in Mombasa in 1958, Okello had a dream in which someone said to him “You will go across to the island in the Indian Ocean where you must take heed, you will be at great trouble at the hands of strangers”. His role models included Winston Churchill and Nikita Krushechev of USSR (Russia).
Like Amin, the only other Field Marshall to grace the Ugandan military, Okello was comical in his statements, saying he wanted to meet his heroes Churchill and Krushchev. .
Moving to the Island
In June 1959, he set off from Mombasa to Pemba where he immediately got involved in the island’s politics by joining the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, becoming a branch secretary in Pemba.
However, a year later he crossed to the Afro-Shirazi party because according to him its members were pure black Africans.
When he settled on Pemba he kept doing his work as a carpenter and painter.
On January 12, 1964, Okello with his followers stormed police stations taking them over with ease. The nine-hour revolution according to his memoirs was carried out by 600 men armed with bows and arrows, pangas, and axes; it had taken a 14-man committee to organise the rebellion. When the men attacked the police stations they met no resistance, it was a surprise attack.
He handed power to Abeid Karume of the Afro-Shirazi party as president and Sheik Abdulrahman Muhammad Babu, leader of the Umma Massa party, as prime minister.
The two men had not been privy to the “revolution” on the island as they were by the time residing on the Tanganyika mainland. They only returned to the island on the invitation of Field Marshall Okello.
Less than a month after the rebellion, he left Zanzibar to visit his family in Lira. In Kampala, the man who had left Uganda as a nobody, was treated as state’s guest driven around with police escort and housed in the former Grand Hotel now Grand Imperial Hotel.
When he tried to go back to Zanzibar the Karume government, which had quietly begun to sideline him, denied him entry even refusing him to disembark from the plane. They ordered the plane which had brought him from Tanganyika to fly him back to the mainland.
From that moment Okello went on to live a life of a journey man staying in Nairobi, Kinshasa and finally back in Uganda.
When he returned to Uganda in early 1964, he was a regular guest in the cells, his public appearance was in 1971 when he appeared with Amin and he was never seen thereafter. According to Don Petterrson’s book Revolution on Zazibar he says Idi Amin saw Okello as a threat and he promoted himself to the rank of Field Marshall not wanting to be below any other person. The book goes on the say that after Amin promoted himself Okello joked “Uganda now has two Field Marshals.
Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, in East Africa. It is composed of the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 25–50 kilometres off the coast of the mainland, and consists of numerous small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar), and Pemba The islands gained independence from Great Britain on December 10, 1963 as a constitutional monarchy.
A month later, the bloody Zanzibar Revolution, in which hundreds to 20,000 of Arabs and Indians were killed in a genocide and thousands more expelled, led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba.
In April 1964, the republic merged with mainland Tanganyika. This United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar was soon renamed (as a portmanteau) the United Republic of Tanzania, of which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region.
As a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, Zanzibar has its own government, known as the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar. It is made up of the Revolutionary Council and House of Representatives.