The coup was the 27th in Africa and the second in Uganda. When it happened, Obote and his entourage of about 30 government officials were in Singapore attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
Several theories have been advanced to explain why the coup occurred and who plotted it. Authors have indicated that the immediate cause was because Obote had collided with then British prime minister Edward Heath and Israel over Uganda’s attempt to expel Indians as well as Israeli military expatriates from Uganda.
However, others have indicated that then army commander Maj Gen Idi Amin was the master planner and others have also claimed that Felix Onama, then minister of Defence, was the architect and involved Amin to execute the plot.
What caused the coup, who plotted it?
Last September, Sunday Monitor spoke to some of the former Uganda Army (UA) soldiers from Arua and Koboko districts who participated in what began as a mutiny and ended in a coup. And according to them, it was not planned. Neither Britain nor Israel was involved. Not even Amin or Onama had plotted it. In other words, the coup was accidental.
Former UA captain N0 U0:671 Suleiman Taban was born on June 12, 1949, in present day Koboko District, West Nile sub-region, and joined the army on May 17, 1967, at the military garrison in Jinja.
By January 1971, he was a corporal stationed at Malire Barracks in Mengo, Kampala. In April 1971, he was appointed Officer Cadet and on June 3, 1971, went to Mons Cadet School in Britain for a six months course.
‘Division in the army caused the coup’
It was divisionism in the army that led to the coup, according to the former soldiers.
Divisionism and nepotism, they say, sowed in the army by politicians in 1962 as Uganda got independence led to the coup that toppled Obote.
The division was largely between soldiers from northern and West Nile sub-regions.
“I first knew about it [divisionism] when Amin came in a pair of shorts to Malire in 1969 escorted by then Maj [David] Oyite-Ojok who was the assistant adjutant court master general. He went on to appeal to soldiers that while there was a wrangle in the army, he did not want bloodshed,” Taban recalls.
“He said if soldiers did not want him as the army commander, they should tell him and he goes away. The soldiers told him that they wanted him and were ready to die with him.”
Taban told Sunday Monitor that all this was done because there was a hidden agenda to eliminate Amin as they were later to learn.
Attempt to eliminate Amin
From 1962, Obote and Amin were allies who diplomatically opposed the link between army commander Brig Shaban Opolot and president Edward Muteesa II.
But when Obote became suspicious of Amin in 1967, a row slowly started emerging between the two.
The same year, “the Lango development master plan” was designed for the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) to rule Uganda for 50 years.
The document with details of the alleged plan was said to been revealed by former minister of Internal Affairs Basil Bataringaya after he was captured and tortured on the day of the coup. This was while he was making a telephone call to Singapore from Sheraton Kampala Hotel.
Worth to note is that the Lango development master plan was a proposal authored by the UPC supporters and elders from Lango sub-region to president Obote. Published in January 1967, the letter, among other things, suggested the immediate promotion of soldiers and police officers from Lango.
“We are well aware that there are more Acholi in the army, police and prisons than Langi. We should like more Langi to be recruited in the above Forces and this should be implemented immediately,” the document read in part.
“We note with great concern and fear that if Lugbara and Madi unite they might overthrow the government and therefore we must see that these Langi army officers (Arach Marcella Misesera, Oboma, Ogwang and Elyak) should be promoted quickly so that they take charge of the Uganda Army. As we do not trust other tribes, Marcella Arach should be Major General; Oboma and Elyak should be chief of staff.”
They also proposed that Odongo and Samson Ochen should be Inspector General of Police and Commissioner of Prisons respectively.
“We must be careful about Idi Amin. Although he is not bright, he might unite with the bright Lugwara who might overthrow the government,” the document added.
Mutiny at Malire ends in coup
Amin as army commander was popular and respected by the soldiers. Obote was aware of that but still wanted him eliminated.
But attempts to isolate Amin from the soldiers failed. Attempts to ambush him too failed since Amin knew that he was wanted dead. He often moved with some of the best trained escorts.
Finally, a plan was hatched to have him arrested by force. And if he was to resist arrest, he was to be shot dead in the “exchange of fire”, according to the plan.
To attack Amin from his command post at Kololo, the planners had plotted to first arrest all officers and soldiers in Malire Mechanised Reconnaissance Regiment (MMRR) in Lubiri who hailed from West Nile.
Malire garrison had the best trained and equipped soldiers and many were from West Nile. And in an event that Amin was entrapped in anyway, they would come to his rescue.
Col Akwangu locks up
soldiers from West Nile
At around 7pm on the evening of January 24, 1971, Lt Col Augustino Akwangu, the MMRR commanding officer who hailed from Acholi sub-region, had instructed Lt James Lokolomoi, who hailed from Karamoja sub-region, to withdraw all the 24 keys to the Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) and tanks from their drivers and lock them in the Orderly Room mannered by a sergeant who also came from Acholi.
Another orderly sergeant had been ordered to withdraw all guns from the sentries and tell the officers to go for an evening rest.
Meanwhile, Lt Col Akwangu had called an impromptu meeting of senior officers of MMRR at Officers Mess (Basima House) at Mengo. The meeting was to start at 8pm.
However, none of the invited officers knew that the purpose of the meeting was to lock them up inside the mess so that they could not command soldiers to rescue Amin.
When about 200 officers had entered, Col Akwangu, accompanied by his adjutant, Lt Ngarombo and WOI Jacob Ojok locked them inside.
Lt Col Abdul Kisule, then a Lieutenant, was one of those who were locked inside the Officers Mess.
“I remember we were called to attend a meeting in the Officers Mess. But when we arrived and asked why the meeting had been called, Lt Col Akwanga and some soldiers started telling us that some of us will never leave that room alive,” Kisule says.
“They locked us inside and put soldiers outside the building to guard us.”
While Kisule does not know who opened for them, he recalls that there came a message saying they should go and rescue Lt Col Akwanga who was being beaten by the soldiers.
“When we reached the court-guard from the Mess, there were gunshots. It was night so we were not able to tell which direction they were coming from,” Kisule adds.
He says he ran and hid in the nearby bush where he stayed until the following morning.
Asked who planned the coup, Kisule says: “I can say it was a counter coup. The ‘coup’ to arrest Amin failed and in the confusion, soldiers stage a coup.”
Taban told this reporter that: “Around 9pm, Corporal Philip Ayiko, who hailed from Moyo District, went to buy beer from Johns Mess (lower ranks Mess). He found only soldiers from Acholi and Lango being addressed by Lt Col Akwangu and he was not allowed to enter.
He got suspicious and ran back to the barracks to inform soldiers from West Nile, his home area. But from the officers mess, Lt Elly Aseani, a relative of Idi Amin, had been able to send a radio call to Corporal Michael Akonyu inside Malire Barracks.
Aseani asked Akonyu to tell soldiers from West Nile to use any tool, including machetes, knives and axes to defend themselves and come to their rescue.
When soldiers from West Nile assembled and accessed the situation, they decided to fight. Unfortunately, all the guns had been locked in the armoury: Its walls, doors and padlocks were too hard to break.
Corporal Moses Galla used a beef opener to start the APC engine and rammed the APC into the armoury door, forcing it to open.
Having secured guns from the armoury, soldiers from West Nile then went to the Johns Mess and arrested about 300 soldiers being briefed by Lt Col Akwangu to go and arrest Amin.
Angry soldiers beat up Lt Col Akwangu and he was rushed to Mulago Hospital where he died later. His adjutant, Lt Ngarombo, escaped to Tanzania. Ngarombo, an Alur from West Nile, colluded with Akwanga to arrest Amin.”
Asked who took Akwangu to Mulago hospital, Galla said: “That I cannot answer. But I know that he was put on a Land Rover driven by Corporal Henry Odama who took him to Mulago.”
The arrested soldiers were taken to Luzira prison the following morning.
Mission to rescue Amin
During interrogation, Lt Col Akwangu was tortured and he revealed how he got the order from president Obote to arrest Amin.
Since there was no communication with Amin, there was fear that he could have been already arrested.
WO II Musa Yauga from present Yumbe District, who had taken the command of tanks and APCs, sent one tank and two APCs to rescue Amin in case he was trapped at the command post at Kololo Hill.
Asked who drove the APCs and a tank to the command post, Lt Col Galla said Corporal Juma Doka was the commander and driver of the tank, while one APC was driven by Sergeant Andrew Yeka and the another sergeant, Ambrosio Adroki.
When the soldiers reached Amin’s compound, he was scared, according to captain Taban and Galla. He thought the soldiers had gone to arrest him at night. It was not until Corporal Doka, his former driver, came out that Amin got out of the house.
It must be noted that during the mutiny, Juma Doka, Moses Galla, Sulaiman Taban and Musa Yauga took a central role. While they had done that to defend themselves, after tempers had cooled, they realised that they were in danger.
“We were scared. We said it seems we have caused a coup,” Taban says. “And we decided to involve Amin to defend us for what we had done. And the only way to protect us was for him to be president, but at first Amin refused.”
Amin told them that he did not send them to do what they had done and that he did not want to be involved to the mess.
Soldiers force Amin to be president
When Amin on January 25, 1971, said it was the soldiers who asked him to president and promoted him from Major General to General, many doubted him.
But Capt Taban, then a Corporal, said at first Amin refused to listen to them.
“We said if you don’t want to be president to protect us, we will kill you as well. We were very scared for what we had done. And knew only Amin could save us from going to prison,” Taban says.
From the intimidation, Amin accepted the soldier’s plea and WOII Sam Aswa from the record office in Mbuya Barracks was called in to draft and read the document which gave the famous 18 reasons why Obote had been toppled.
The 18 reasons given why Obote was toppled
1. The unwarranted detention without trial and for long periods of a large number of people, many of whom are totally innocent.
2. The continuation of a state of emergency over the whole country for an indefinite period, which is meaningless to everybody.
3. The lack of freedom in the airing of different views on political and social matters.
4. The frequent loss of life and property arising from almost daily cases of robbery with violence and kondoism (thuggery) without strong measures being taken to stop them.
5. The proposals for national service which will take every able bodied person from his home to work in a camp for two years could only lead to more robbery and general crime when homes are abandoned.
6. Widespread corruption in high places, especially among ministers and top civil servants.
7. The failure by the political authorities to organise any elections for the last eight years whereby the people’s free will could be expressed.
8. Economic policies have left many people unemployed and even more insecure and lacking in the basic needs of life.
9. High taxes have left the common man of this country poorer than ever before.
10. The prices which the common man gets for his crops like cotton and coffee have not gone up whereas the cost of food, education, etc., has always gone up.
11. Tendency to isolate the country from East African unity.
12. The creation of a wealthy class of leaders who are always talking of socialism while they grow richer and the common man poorer.
13. The Defence Council, of which the president is chairman, has not met since July, 1969, and this has made administration of the Armed Forces very difficult.
14. The cabinet office, by training large numbers of people (largely from the Akokoro County in Lango District where Obote and Akena Adoko, the chief general service officer, come from) in armed warfare, has been turned into a second army.
15. The Lango development master plan written in 1967 decided that all key positions in Uganda’s political, commercial, army and industrial life have to be occupied and controlled by people from Akokoro County, Lango District.
16. Obote, on the advice of Akena Adoko, has sought to divide the Uganda Armed Forces and the rest of Uganda by picking out his own tribesmen and putting them in key positions.
17. It is a shock to us to see that Obote wants to divide and downgrade the army by turning the Cabinet Office into
18. We all want only unity in Uganda and we do not want bloodshed. Everybody in Uganda knows that. The matters mentioned above appear to us to lead to bloodshed only.