Milton Obote, Ben Kiwanuka and Uganda’s independence

Thursday October 10 2019


By Karoli Ssemogerere

Milton Obote remains unfairly vilified as a fluker to the title “father of modern Uganda.” He was the first prime minister of independent Uganda, second president and only Ugandan to serve twice as head of State (1966-1971 and 1981-1985). These were both crucial times in the country’s history.

From his early days as a member of the Legislative Council to a brisk three years, Obote rose to the challenge and became prime minister in 1962 at age 37. This record remains unbroken so far.
Obote’s early days were frustrated by the British directly and through the colonial administration, first by his expulsion from Makerere University where he had finished the first two years (equivalent to a diploma) in geography and political science, and cancellation of his Lango administration scholarship when he opted to study Law in Khartoum.

Reading Obote’s writings and the copious notes the British took of him in their diplomatic papers, you get a feeling that there had been a curious epiphany in Obote’s mind where he was promised the ultimate crown if he played ball with the British plans for modern Uganda. This was to essentially maintain a vassal state, source of cheap materials and a capitalist hegemony.

For all the outward appearances, the British felt they had been humiliated by Kabaka Muteesa II and Labour Party under Harold Wilson (1964-1970) did nothing to ameliorate his plight or press Obote to pay his benefits as a former head of State.

On the contrary, the British High Commissioner in Uganda did not push further when he asked if Muteesa could access some of his assets in Uganda for his upkeep.

Obote fortunately lived 20 more years after he was forced from power by Gen Tito Okello and Brig Basilio Okello in 1985. He had enough time to absorb the lesson of short-circuiting constitutional law using the trap the British had created for him, a military with which he shared a common ethnic background but little else.


The Uganda Army had a few elite officers, but was dominated by a rank and file with little or no education at all, a deliberate gap that made them prone to manipulation, mutinous conduct and set the stage for military rule in Uganda in a short time.

This set up mirrored British policies in other colonies at the time. For Obote, the natural politician, eloquent to a fault, this put him both in the chair, but also made him hostage to the guns that installed him.

Setting aside Obote for a minute, one must compare him with Ben Kiwanuka whose DP was in certain respects cheated out of power in 1962. Kiwanuka eventually made up with Kabaka Muteesa II, a significant development lending his significant legal expertise to attend to his personal affairs. Kiwanuka, unfortunately, did not live long enough like Obote. He was murdered aged 50 as Chief Justice, probably through either the action of Ugandan émigrés or false intelligence through official channels that implicated him in an attempt to overthrow Idi Amin.

The British do not say much officially whether they missed Kiwanuka. But when plans first designed by Obote to nationalise the economy were implemented by the Move to the Left and later Idi Amin, the British were not shy to express displeasure. Obote records this as his biggest regret that cost him power in 1971, and it further cost Idi Amin, his successor, power and image in 1979.

Infact, upon his return, Obote shifted rightwards, adopting all the medicine IMF and the World Bank prescribed and served as his own minister of Finance.

After 33 years, we have context to use Independence Day to appreciate more these founding fathers. Kiwanuka in his grave has the last laugh. His meek and humble Democratic Party has 18 seats in Parliament, three times UPC’s six seats. UPC is officially in cohabitation with NRM. So even Kiwanuka won something over his arch foe Obote.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.