Amin sets free 55 Obote political prisoners

Former presidents Milton Obote (left) and Idi Amin. PHOTOS | FILE

What you need to know:

  • In his first address to the nation on January 25, 1971, on Radio Uganda, Amin promised to release all political prisoners. Besides being presumed innocent by the law until found guilty, the 55 political prisoners were never convicted by any court.

On January 28, 1971, Uganda’s new President Idi Amin released 55 political prisoners at Kololo Independence Grounds in Kampala. 
Some of the prisoners who had been incarcerated at the Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Kampala included five former ministers in the Independence Cabinet who were arrested on February 22, 1966.
Others included the former vice president, prime minister, members of parliament and members of the Buganda Kingdom royal family who had earlier been arrested in December 1969 after a failed attempt on the life of President Milton Obote at the Lugogo Indoor Stadium in Kampala.
On February 24, 1966, Uganda’s first President, also the Kabaka (king) of Buganda, Edward Muteesa was overthrown by then Prime Minister Obote, who was then overthrown by army commander Maj Gen Idi Amin on January 25, 1971.

Why Obote detained his ministers 
The feud between President Muteesa and Prime Minister Obote that started in early 1964, reached a boiling point in late 1965 after Muteesa plotted to overthrow him. 
In an address to Parliament on April 15, 1966, the day the Independence Constitution was abolished and a new made, Obote – who had on February 24, 1966, usurped the power of President Muteesa – said the plotters of the coup had planned to have him arrested on February 4, 1966, on his way to Kampala from State House. And that while he was in detention, a new government was supposed to be formed.  
“I have no doubt at all that those who accused me in this manner immediately after February 24 [1966] were the very people who were trying to cover up attempts which were made in my absence in the northern region. Not only to overthrow the government, but also to cause chaos in the country,” Obote said. 

Prisoners set free
Prominent among the 55 released prisoners were former minister of Justice Grace Ibingira, former Works minister Balaki Kirya, former minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister George Magezi, former minister of Health Emmanuel Lumu, and former minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives Matthias Ngobi. They were arrested on February 22, 1966.
Also released was former minister of Regional Administrations, and later minister of Justice, Cuthbert Obwangor, who was among the politicians arrested in the December 1969 swoop after the attempt on Obote’s life at Lugogo.
Others set free on that day were former Prime Minister Benedicto Kiwanuka, former vice president, and also Kyabazinga (king) of Busoga, Sir William Nadiope, former Member of Parliament representing Mubende North J.W Kiwanuka, and an Asian woman, Sugra Visram, who was the Member of Parliament representing Kibuga Constituency which covered most of the former Mengo Municipality. Former Uganda Army commander Brig Shaban Opolot as well as members of the Buganda royal family were also set free.

Why Amin released them
In his first address to the nation on January 25, 1971, on Radio Uganda, Amin promised to release all political prisoners.
Besides being presumed innocent by the law until found guilty, the 55 political prisoners were never convicted by any court. But also, Amin wanted to win support for his government both locally and internationally.
On Wednesday, January 27, 1971, Amin announced on radio the names of the prisoners and ordered that they be brought to Kololo airstrip the following day at 9.30am. 
“Although the announcement came at about 10pm and people were about to go to bed, and although it was made inside the curfew time and people were officially restricted to their homes, everyone was overjoyed that they rushed out of their houses and began singing ‘Amin oyee, Amin oyee,” the newspapers reported at the time.
“The people in Kampala suburbs did not sleep that night. They spent the night drumming, celebrating and waiting for the morning to go to Kololo airstrip to witness the release of the political detainees. By 6am, Kololo airstrip was overflowing with cheering people who came to witness the historic event of the release of the 55 political detainee. Hundreds came dressed in bark cloths, carrying branches of trees and chanting, Amin oyee.” 

Amin warns detainees
While welcoming the former detainees to a free world, Amin told them: “You are joining the other free Ugandans at a time of great excitement and joy in the country since the military takeover. I am pleased to meet you this morning. As announced on January 25, when the Uganda armed forces seized control of the civilian government, the purpose of this meeting is to afford me an opportunity to release you from detention. Before I release you, however, I wish to address you and the nation about a few but important issues.” 
He continued: “I have no doubt you will be joining in this great jubilation. I want to repeat what I said in a statement two days ago that the festivities should not at all interfere in anyway with people’s freedom of movement, disturb anyone’s work or damage in anyway the property of any citizen of this country. You and the rest of the people in this country must also ensure that none of you causes a breach of any nature or break any law. My government will not tolerate any form of lawlessness. 
“I wish to end this short address by reminding you and the rest of the country how I have repeatedly emphasized that there is no room in Uganda for hatred and enmity.”
He also promised that his government would not victimise anybody. 
There was relative peace, security and tranquillity in the country from January 1971 until September 1972 when Tanzania-based Ugandan exiles, including supporters of Obote (Kikosi Maalum) and the Yoweri Museveni-led Front for National Salvation (Fronasa), attacked Uganda but were defeated by the Uganda Army. 
From that time, killings and disappearance of prominent Ugandans started and did not stop until April 1979 when Amin’s government was toppled in the liberation war by the Tanzanian and Uganda rebel forces.


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