The 1971 coup through the eyes of Obote’s principal private secretary

Former president Milton Obote (C) arrives in Singapore to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting of 1971. PHOTOS | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Jonathan E. Ekochu, then former president Milton Obote’s deputy principal private secretary, was in the entourage that accompanied Obote to Singapore to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting of 1971. Before he passed on, Ekochu narrated his experience of the trip to Singapore to his son Paulo Ekochu.

Jonathan Engulu Ekochu was the head teacher of Ngora High School in the 1950s, then became the first Black teacher at Teso College Aloet in 1960. In 1964, he joined the civil service of Uganda as an administrative officer. He was appointed assistant district commissioner, Busoga territory and in the same year he was promoted to acting district commissioner. He was later transferred to Bugisu region.

In 1967, he was appointed as senior assistant secretary in the Cabinet Affairs Department and posted to Entebbe. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed as private secretary to President Milton Obote. In 1970, he was promoted to principal assistant secretary to the President and later to deputy principal private secretary.

It was in this latter capacity that he was in the entourage that accompanied Obote to Singapore to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting of 1971. Before he passed on, Ekochu narrated his experience of the trip to Singapore to his son Paulo Ekochu.

“We left for Singapore on January 11, 1971, with His Excellency AM [Apollo Milton] Obote. The conference was due to open and start on January 14, 1971. Obote was scheduled to make a keynote address at the conference, which we had spent some time preparing with him. We arrived at Paya Lebar International Airport, Singapore, in the evening hours of January 11, 1971, and were taken to the Hilton Hotel where we were to stay through the conference.

The conference went well and Obote had several meetings with other presidents, particularly with Kenneth Kaunda [of Zambia] and Julius Nyerere [of Tanzania].

On January 23, after the conference, we started hearing disturbing news coming from Kampala to the effect that the military was planning something sinister. Our flight back was due on January 24.

Jonathan E. Ekochu (left), former President Idi Amin (centre) and Pope Paul VI  at the Vatican. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Late in the afternoon on January 24, I was summoned by my immediate boss, Henry Kyemba, to his room where I found him with Mr Ntende, the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They were discussing events unfolding in Kampala. Something was afoot, but only a few were to be privy.

Anyhow, we took the flight out of Singapore via Jakarta, Indonesia, to Bombay, India, on January 25 and it is on this flight that the coup was finally confirmed on the news networks. The pilots who were tuned in informed us.

Obote was stoic when he received the news and told us to be calm. Indeed, all through these developing events he remained calm on the surface and continued to carry himself like the President.

From Bombay, we then had to rethink the flight plan and we were rerouted to Nairobi, Kenya, where we were met by a minister and whisked to a hotel. We stayed for one night.

The next day, an official from the president’s office of Kenya came to our hotel and told us we could not stay in Kenya. We were given a plane by Mwalimu Nyerere to take us to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Upon arrival, we were all taken to State House Dar es Salaam as guests of the president.

I stayed in Dar es Salaam for a week. We were told by state house officials in Tanzania that we as civil servants were free to go back to Uganda if we so wished and those who chose to stay would be taken care of.

Obote met with each one of us and told us it was our choice, but warned us of possible harassment we faced when we returned to Uganda.

The government of Tanzania organised a plane to bring the first lot back. They were an unfortunate group because on arrival at Entebbe airport they were harassed and some badly beaten by security officials who did not understand that they were simply civil servants, prominent among these was Ntende, the hitherto permanent secretary Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We got the news of this unfortunate happening and were quite apprehensive about returning home.

My family was in Entebbe at the time. It was really difficult to imagine living in exile when my family was in Uganda. So I decided to go back home and face whatever consequences were there.

I went and met Obote in his apartment and told him I had decided to go back home to my family. It was a very emotional moment, this was a man I had worked for and been at close quarters with for a time.

He faced me and said, “Jonathan it is your decision, I wish you the best of luck.”

I was of the opinion that it would not be safe to go to Entebbe by air, so I called my ‘Musangi’, the late engineer R. Dronyi who was then managing director of East African Railways, and sought his help. We were of the view that travel by rail was not heavily monitored since most people were expected from Tanzania and would probably arrive by air.

I left Dar es Salaam by train to Nairobi where I spent a night at Ronnie’s. The next day, Ronnie got me onto a first class coach to Kampala.

The train travelled all night and we had arrived early in the morning. I was met at the railway station by my cousin, Mr Mackay Elesu, who was then a commissioner in the Ministry of Education.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my family had been taken to his home for safety.

Once I had settled and finished with the homecoming pleasantries, I called Mr Justus Byagagaire, then permanent secretary in the President’s Office. He was a friend and an old schoolmate from Kings College Budo.

He informed me that new president Idi Amin had ordered that all civil servants who had gone to Singapore should report his ‘Command Post’ on Prince Charles Drive Kololo on a date I don’t quite recall. He advised that I get there by 10am.

On that day, I found several military officers milling around the place. There were also other civil servants of similar circumstance as myself who were there to meet the new president.

I arrived at the venue at 10am and one of the first people I saw was Wanume Kibedi, the president’s brother-in-law. We sat at the Command Post until 4pm when finally Amin came out to address us.

All he said was that we as civil servants had no problem and were only carrying out our duties, we should all, therefore, report back to work in our respective offices immediately.

The only order he made was that we should all make written reports as to what we were doing in Singapore and hand them over to Col Ochima. I reported to work the next day at the President’s Office in Kampala and dictated a report to one of the secretaries in my office and duly handed it over to the said officer.

A day later, I was again summoned to the Command Post by Amin and after the meeting he told me in Kiswahili, “Ekochu we endlea naa kazi yako huna shida.” (Ekochu, carry on with your work. You have no problem)

For the next eight years, I worked in the President’s Office/State House without a problem. In 1973, I was promoted to principle private secretary to the president, a position I held until the government fell on April 11, 1979.

I must make note that other than myself, almost all the workers at State House and President’s Office who were there prior to the coup, were retained and continued their work uninterrupted.”

Ekochu’s background 

(a) Appointed full time member of the Public Service Commission from June 1, 1987.

(b) Appointed member of the Advisory Committee on Prerogative of Mercy with effect from February 5, 1987 (3 years).

(c) Member Uganda National Examinations Board, November 21, 1988, served for six years.

(d) Permanent secretary, Ministry of Supplies, Kampala, July 31, 1980-1985.

(e) Principal private secretary to the President, December 22, 1973 - 1979.


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