The 1980 election was a seminal event in the political history of Uganda. Meant as a return to democratic civilian rule, the election was marred by widespread irregularities and, although it hurtled Milton Obote back to power, it led to the country’s most devastating civil war.
Before digging through the events of the election itself, it is important to step back and take stock of the events and the power play that preceded it and which, in many respects, made it an accident waiting to happen.
As this series has noted before, the National Consultative Council had earlier endorsed plans to hold elections under the umbrella of the Uganda National Liberation Front. The coup against President Godfrey Binaisa, however, and the accumulation of power through pro-UPC militias however paved the way for the usurpation of the umbrella framework and opened the door for the return of Milton Obote.
These events, which put power into the hands of the Military Commission, were not inevitable but were propelled forward by a combination of fate and opportunistic political calculations. For instance, Yoweri Museveni, who had some fighters in Fronasa, and who had struck some form of alliance with Binaisa could, in theory, have prevented or opposed the coup. However, Binaisa had removed him from the Defence Ministry to that of Regional Cooperation and when Museveni returned to Uganda from Tanzania after the coup, he sided with the Military Commission where he deputised Paulo Muwanga.
The ‘Gang of Four’ in the UNLF; Professors Yash Tandon, Edward Rugumayo, Omwony Ojok and Dani Wadada Nabudere were considered the most powerful quartet in the umbrella but their fierce intellectualism was no match for the military power held by the Military Commission or the power that Tanzania’s Nyerere held over the various factions.
Leaders held in Tanzania
Like Museveni, the Gang of Four were also in Tanzania for political consultations with President Nyerere when Binaisa was ousted. Their host immediately put them under detention, ostensibly to prevent them from returning to incite any form of populist political action against the coup.
By the time they were released they too had fallen victim to the power grab by the Military Commission.
“After their release they felt too insecure to return to Uganda as the Military Commission had started branding [them] confusing agents and security risks,” lawyer and politician Francis Bwengye recalled in his book, ‘The Agony of Uganda: From Idi Amin to Obote.’
“So if they attempted to re-enter the country they would obviously have been placed in detention ‘for security reasons’ mostly known by the Military Commission. For the time being, therefore, the role of the [National Consultative Council] seemed to have been cast overboard.”
The only other group with the organisational ability to oppose the Military Council was the Democratic Party. DP had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at Independence and had suffered defections and malaise since but it had grassroots structures and mobilisation capacity.
DP leaders Paul Ssemogerere, Boniface Byanyima and Bwengye had been briefed about the coup before it took place. After the coup, the members of the Military Commission needed the party’s buy-in as the country prepared to hold elections.
In his book Bwengye recalls a meeting that he and other senior DP officials (Ssemogerere was away visiting his family in the US) had with members of the Military Council in room 220 at the Nile Mansions in Kampala.
Meeting of parties
“We found Paulo Muwanga coiled in a chair like an Arab sitting on the floor, Major General Tito Okello snoring in another, Col. Zed Maruru holding a pen as if he was taking minutes, and Oyite-Ojok very alert in a chair seated by Muwanga’s side. The table in their midst teemed with all brands of alcohol.”
After pleasantries, the meeting delved into the real business.
“Paulo Muwanga explained to us what had taken place and wanted us to give them support in the interest of the security of our country,” Bwengye later wrote. “He promised that, unlike Binaisa, they were prepared to allow the DP, UPC and any other party to prepare for the forthcoming elections in their entities as political parties. Of course this is what the DP had been clamouring for all along.”
Thus a country that was emerging out of almost two decades of political instability was going to attempt to hold elections organised alongside political parties that represented tribal and religious interests! Those who had preferred to hold elections under an umbrella had been cast aside and the ring had been thrown open for those who wanted to compete to do so. After consultations in the room next door, the DP delegation presented a list of its demands to the Military Commission, including a demand that the elections are “free and fair”.
Among other demands, DP also asked for positions in the new cabinet and assurances that the coup was not a trick to pave the way for the return of Dr Obote and the UPC to power. DP should have known that it was in no position to demand when out of the 10 positions it expected, it was only given three in the new cabinet; Lawrence Ssebalu, Dr Benjamin Obonyo and Anthony Ocaya. The likes of Ssemogerere and Andrew Adimola had not even been considered.
UPC, on the other hand, took 18 ministries, including the key ministries of Defence, Internal Affairs, Information, Public Service, Foreign Affairs, and Cabinet Affairs. “The DP met again and debated whether to take up the ministries or not,” Bwengye recalled. “At the end of our debates we agreed that our members take up the ministries as the change was a fait accompli. In the interest of our country and to avoid.
exacerbating the insecurity situation in the country, we agreed to participate. Fundamentally the DP’s hope for the future of Uganda lay in a free and fair election which the Commission had promised in quite unequivocal terms.” The DP had opted to work with the status quo but as events would later reveal, it was a decision taken in faith rather than belief.