Gen Tito Okello returns from exile

Gen Tito Okello Lutwa swears in as president in Kampala in July  1985. PHOTOS/ FILE

What you need to know:

  • President Museveni went on to appoint Gen Tito Okello Lutwa a senior presidential advisor. He soon after named the General’s son, Henry Oryem Okello, a minister of State for Education and Sports, Isaac Mufumba writes.

Thirty years ago on Tuesday, November 21, Gen Tito Okello Lutwa, Uganda’s eighth president, returned from exile.

Gen Tito Okello, together with Gen Bazilio Olara-Okello, seized power in a July 25, 1985, coup that deposed Milton Obote for a second time. The first time that Obote was deposed was in January 1971 when he was sent packing by his former army commander, Gen Idi Amin.

Writing in the story, ‘The overthrow of president Obote and evacuation from Uganda’ which was published in July 2014 on the website of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST), an independent, non-profit organisation located on the campus of the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute at the National Foreign Affairs Training Centre in Arlington, Virginia, Irvin D. Coker, a former diplomat, revealed how ethnic tensions had built and fractured the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).

It was those ethnic tensions that boiled over and translated into the coup that brought the Okellos to power.

“President Obote, an ethnic Lango, was accused of favouritism at the expense of the Acholi, who mostly comprised the officer corps,” Coker said.

The diplomat revealed that in April 1985, UNLA conducted a major campaign aimed at wiping the NRA out of Luweero Triangle, but that NRA broke through the western flanks of the UNLA and made its way to the Rwenzori Mountains.

“From these mountains, and with the advantage of fighting from the high hills, the NRA was able to do a great deal of damage to UNLA. Many UNLA soldiers were killed,” wrote the diplomat.

He added that UNLA was so badly beaten that Gen Okello was forced to approach then president Obote on the possibility of entering into talks with the rebel army and movement. The idea was rejected.

During the same meeting, Gen Okello had raised the issue of favouritism towards the Langi officers. 

“That proposal prompted president Obote’s government and the majority of officers in it, who happened to be from the Lango area… to brand Okello and the Acholis as traitors. That resulted in fighting taking place in Kampala between the Acholi and the Langi components of UNLA,” he wrote.

Former Ugandan President Milton Obote. PHOTO/FILE

The fight between the two groups was what vice president Paul Muwanga later referred to as “uncoordinated troop movement”.

The Washington Post reported on July 30 that it was Obote’s decision to appoint Smith Opon Acak as the new chief of staff, replacing another Langi officer, Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok, who died in a helicopter crash on December 2, 1983, as the immediate cause of the coup.

“According to the diplomats, Acholi soldiers, traditionally the backbone of the army, have been increasingly restive and ill-disciplined since early last fall when Obote, a Langi, appointed another Langi, Smith Opon Acak, to be army chief of staff. Since then, Acholi soldiers had complained that members of their tribe were being disproportionately wounded and killed in front-line fighting against rebels in western Uganda, while Langi soldiers were receiving more than their share of promotions,” the paper reported.

It is not clear who of the Okellos wanted the post of chief of staff for himself.

“Tito Okello, a longtime ally of Obote’s, reportedly wanted the chief of staff job or, at the very least, wanted the job to go to an Acholi, diplomats say. The appointment of Opon Acak is believed to have caused a rift in Okello’s relationship with the president. The rift turned two weeks ago into armed conflict between Acholi and Langi soldiers,” The Washington Post reported.

It is, however, believed that it was Gen Bazilio who had wanted the job. 

Other sources have since indicated that the Okellos were open to having an experienced officer in the job. 

The most experienced high ranking officers of the UNLA at the time were brigadiers Sam Nanyumba and Zed Maruru. 

Nanyumba, a Sandhurst trained officer, worked as acting chief of staff following Oyite-Ojok’s demise.

It was after the confrontations and fighting that the Okellos ejected Obote and placed power in the hands of a Military Council under the leadership of Gen Tito Okello Lutwa.

They also formed a government of national unity and invited all warring parties to join a national reconciliation and nation building effort. 

The other armed groups like the Federal Democratic Movement (FEDEMU), Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM), Former Uganda National Army (FUNA), and the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF) heeded the call, but NRA did not.

Former NRA rebel leader Museveni

Mr Museveni and his rebels were a no show at the first round of talks that were held in Dar es Salaam, prompting Gen Tito Okello to draw then Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere into the talks.

Thanks to Nyerere, alternative arrangements were made for talks to be held in Kenya under the auspices of then Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. Negotiations commenced on August 26, 1985, and ended with the signing of the accord on December 17, 1985.

On his return to Kampala, Gen Tito, who thought that the accord was cast in stone, boasted that the document had rendered the venomous viper impotent. 

“Tume towa meno ya Salambwa,” (We have removed the fangs of the puff adder) he famously declared.

Gen Okello had earlier referred to Museveni as a “snake”, accusing him of “cheating” at war. It is not clear whether that was because Mr Museveni and his NRM/A had chosen to employ guerrilla tactics as opposed to conventional warfare.

The accord, however, started running into trouble almost immediately. 

A day after it was signed, Britain announced that it would not form part of the ceasefire monitoring team. The team was meant to have representatives from three countries including Canada and Kenya. 

Nine days after the document was signed, Mr Museveni, responding to reports of nationwide looting, arson and killings, declared that his forces would march onto Kampala in order to stop the mayhem. 

A month after the signing, NRM launched an offensive on several fronts, attacking many key government installations around Kampala. 

Early on the morning of January 25, 1986, Okello was forced to flee the country by helicopter as rebels of the NRA closed in. His aides crossed the common border of Uganda and Kenya at Busia. 

He lived in Kenya, Tanzania and a number of European countries before returning to Uganda after nearly eight years in exile.

According to the book Uganda’s Presidents which was published by Fountain Publishers in 2012, he returned “under a negotiated amnesty”. The book, however, did not say who was involved in the negotiations or the full details of the settlement.

The amnesty, however, meant that he could not be subjected to criminal prosecution or any other form of punishment. Had he committed any crimes? That we might never know.

Mr Museveni went on to appoint Gen Okello a senior presidential advisor. He soon after named the General’s son, Henry Oryem Okello, a minister of State for Education and Sports. Mr Oryem remains a member of Mr Museveni’s Cabinet.

On February 1, 1994, Gen Okello escorted the President on a tour of Gulu where he warned the Acholi against “ganging up with the same system and people” who killed “their sons Brig [Pierino] Okoya and Col [Wilson Owiny] Omoya”. The “system and people” that he was referring to remains a mystery.

Gen Okello passed away on June 3, 1996, after more than three months of a fight for his life. He had been admitted to Nsambya Hospital in March the same year. He was nearly 82 when he passed on. 

He remains only one of two former Ugandan presidents who returned and died in Uganda after being deposed by the military. The other one was Godfrey Binaisa who was deposed in 1979.