Why Yusuf Lule was removed from office after only 68 days

Friday April 17 2009

In part eight of our series on the fall of Idi Amin’s military government, Timothy Kalyegira explains why Yusuf Kironde Lule was thrown out of office after one of the shortest stints ever as president: -

When he was elected at the unity conference of the Ugandan exiles in the northern Tanzanian town of Moshi in March 1979, the former Principal of Makerere University College, Prof. Yusuf Kironde Lule, became the chairman of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) and therefore President of the Republic of Uganda after the fall of Idi Amin.

Having been welcomed by millions of Ugandans in an outpouring of emotion on April 13, 1979, Lule’s presidency appeared promising. He was the compromise candidate who would appeal to a broader cross section of the population than any other political leader at the time. Well-educated, soft-spoken, mild-mannered, Lule was the very antithesis of the rambling Idi Amin.

In late 1976, Lule had formed, with a dentist called Dr. Martin Aliker, an organisation named the Uganda Society, and based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. In their manifesto, the Uganda Society argued that Uganda had been destroyed by leaders who lacked education and personal wealth and so (lacking the latter), had been tempted to loot from the national treasury.

Lule and Aliker, in their manifesto, took a pro-Israel stance, promising that if the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, would help secure them weapons and financial support, any government they formed in the event of the fall of Amin would adopt “an economic bias to suit the Israelis.”

The Uganda Society was one of the lesser known of the Ugandan exile groups, so the fact that the openly pro-Israel Lule, inexperienced in politics, became president after the fall of Amin should raise the question of exactly who it was that funded the 1979 Tanzania-Uganda war.


According to the Kenyan scholar Bethwell A. Ogot, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania had put all his support behind his friend and the former president Milton Obote to succeed Amin in 1979.

Nyerere, according to Ogot, asked Obote and the Tanzanian Defence Minister Rashidi Kawawa to fly to Masaka town and get ready to enter Kampala with the Tanzanian army should it finally oust Amin.

However, Tanzania, a poor socialist-leaning country, was finding it almost impossible to meet the $200 million cost of the war against Amin (another version later put the cost at $500 million) and appealed to its former colonial master Britain to help meet the costs.

Britain accepted but only on one condition: that somebody else, anybody, could become president but not Obote.
Furthermore, a powerful lobbying effort by Baganda in Britain appealed to the British to block the return of Obote to power. When asked whom they would prefer to become president instead of Obote, the Baganda lobby in London proposed Lule. And so it became.

So crucial was the British financial role in the 1978-79 war and to the eventual rise of Lule to power that a telling and rather embarrassing symbol was missed by the tens of thousands of cheering crowds lining the Entebbe-Kampala highway to cheer on the motorcade bringing Lule and some of his supporters like the playwright Robert Serumaga for the swearing-in ceremony in Kampala on April 13.

The president-elect of Uganda was being driven in a Mercedes limousine that bore the British flag, the Union Jack. The Uganda flag was nowhere in sight.

As we have already seen, Idi Amin in his farewell radio broadcast to Ugandans had told them that they might be praying for his impending downfall, but what they were going to get after him was a return to a colonial state with western powers determining all essential policy.

As usual, nobody listened to Amin and so here we were witnessing the ridiculous sight of the British national flag – not the Ugandan flag – mounted on the limousine of the new Ugandan President Lule, 16 years after independence.

However, after becoming president, Lule showed that he too could be independent-minded. In a Radio Uganda broadcast in May 1979, President Lule voiced his opposition to growing suggestions that the British– and Asian-owned companies that the Amin government had taken over and given to indigenous Ugandans should be returned to their former owners.

In his Radio Uganda statement on May 19, 1979, reported in the Uganda Times edition of May 21, 1979, Lule said, “The Uganda government won’t de-Africanise premises and businesses taken over by indigenous Ugandans when Dictator Idi Amin declared his so-called economic war in 1972… President Lule explained that any policy that provided for de-Africanisation of such premises and businesses was ‘politically wrong and untenable.’”

Why was it “politically wrong and untenable”, according to President Lule, for the new UNLF government to return the nationalised properties to their former owners?

As we saw in part five of this series, the effect of Amin’s turning the Ugandan economy over to Ugandans, while at first chaotic with inexperienced Ugandan hands now running industry and commerce, had been dramatic. Black Ugandans had, by and large, taken up an active and visible role in their economy.

Despite all their anti-Amin propaganda before the war, the former exiles, now in power in Kampala, knew that Amin’s economic policies and so-called “economic war” had started Ugandans on the path to full, dignified independence.

That is why Lule, although essentially brought to power by the British, was not going to risk and take this newly-found economic control, created by Amin, away from Ugandans.

However, there were some other complicated issues facing Lule. It had never been absolutely clear under what terms Lule was to govern.

In Moshi, many argued that Lule or whoever was to become UNLF president would govern under the Moshi agreements that stipulated, among other things, that the president was not to make cabinet appointments without first consulting the National Consultative Council, which was Uganda’s de facto parliament.

Lule, for his part, argued that he had taken the oath of office as President of the Republic of Uganda under the terms of the 1967 constitution and this constitution stood above all other provisions, including the Moshi arrangement.

The Chairman of the National Consultative Council, Mr Edward Rugumayo, insisted that it had been agreed that the Moshi Constitution would govern Uganda and so Lule had no powers to make cabinet changes without first consulting the NCC.

As Lule himself wrote, rather eloquently, “The constitution of a state is different from that of a party which is in government, and clearly the front [UNLF] is quite analogous to a party in this regard. Failure to understand this basic distinction is faulty and could lead to confusion and unsatisfactory results.”

Both Lule and the NCC were right, depending on what their point of view was. But meanwhile, as all this jostling for power was going on, Uganda was rapidly turning into a failed state. Car robberies, murders of prominent and ordinary Ugandans by unknown gunmen, and a general state of breakdown.

For the NCC to remove Lule because he had made a cabinet reshuffle without consulting them was like a company losing $15 million a month, but the board of directors sacks the managing director because he bought a new office photocopier without first consulting them.

Politicians seemed more bothered by arguments about presidential powers than about the rampant armed robberies and murders in the country.

The truth of why Lule was ousted later became clear. In his first major statement as president, Lule’s successor Godfrey Binaisa said: “It was a shock to the National Consultative Council and the entire people of Uganda when Lule’s government began to make pronouncements accusing units of the UNLF [UNLA] of thuggery, killing, rape, robbery.”

That is significant. We now see that the real reason for Lule’s fall, as explained by Binaisa, was because Lule blamed the outbreak of this violence on the very liberators that Ugandans had so naively welcomed. The question is: what made Lule believe that elements within the UNLA were behind the murders?

When Lule became president in April, he contacted a former Police Special Branch officer, David Nsubuga Barlow, to become the Inspector-General of the new post-Amin Uganda Police force. Barlow had been in America in exile and agreed to set up the structures of the new force.

Barlow was one of the Special Branch investigators at the police headquarters in 1970 who had been asked to create a file on the murder of the Commanding Officer of the Masaka-based First Infantry Brigade, Brig. Pierino Okoya Okoya, and his wife Anna in January 1970.

From the beginning, as soon as he saw what was being presented as the evidence that suggested that the army commander Idi Amin had contacted six men to kill Okoya, the highly trained Barlow knew that this was concocted evidence and neither Amin nor the six men – Capt. Frederick (“Smutts”) Guweddeko, Patrick Mukwaya, Siperito Kapalaga, Fred Kyamufumba, Kalule L. Lutalo and Sebastiano Lukanga and two women who were girlfriends to two of the men, Milly Nantege and Mary Kajjansi – were guilty of Okoya’s murder.

Barlow refused to have any further part in the Okoya investigation, saying he was not going to condemn an innocent man (Idi Amin, that is) when all this was politically forged “evidence.”

President Lule was distressed by the appalling rise in violent crime and asked Barlow to investigate where this was coming from. Having seen the fact that Lule’s downfall was not because of his abuse of office but because he dared to accuse the UNLA of carrying out the murders of prominent Ugandans after April 1979, in the next part of this series we return to the wave of unexplained murders of prominent Ugandans, what Barlow uncovered and who else was in the Ugandan security and law enforcement apparatus at the time.