Neglected in life, lonely in death: Museveni's Kenyan spy
What you need to know:
- During his 16 years in the bush, from where he waged a guerilla war against the governments of Idi Amin Dada, Milton Obote and Tito Okello, Museveni benefitted from the kindness of many families residing on the Kenya-Uganda border.
At the peak of his career in Kampala in the 1970s, George Opah Oteba was a most valued ally and spymaster of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s – then a leader of a guerilla movement.
The former undercover agent was recently interred at a colourless ceremony at his rural home in Busia County before a small crowd. Neither Museveni nor any senior official from his office was at the burial in Kamuriai village, Amagoro Division, in Teso North.
Perhaps because of his famed military exploits in Uganda, there were no Kenyan government officials. There is a possibility, however, that the Ugandan leader may be unaware of the demise of his former comrade, whose father, the late Lawi Karani Oteba, hosted Museveni, who was on the run, for three weeks at their rural home on the Kenyan side of the border in 1971.
During his 16 years in the bush, from where he waged a guerilla war against the governments of Idi Amin Dada, Milton Obote and Tito Okello, Museveni benefitted from the kindness of many families residing on the Kenya-Uganda border.
Kenya’s ninth Vice-President, Moody Awori, and Mzee Oteba, are among those who, at one point or another, hosted Museveni.
George’s younger brother, David Imara Oteba, who was 16 when Museveni visited their home, recalls the mysterious activities of the then 27-year-old: “They lived in one of my brother’s mud-walled and grassthatched cottages. They stayed indoors most of the day, like prisoners, and only stepped out at night to run some errands before returning in the wee hours of the morning.”
According to David, now 65, Museveni’s presence was a heavily guarded secret. “Our father only informed us who the man was, and his mission, after he had departed.”
Museveni left for Tanzania accompanied by George’s two brothers, and a cousin. The three never returned home, and are believed to have been killed in the course of the military struggle to overthrow the Kampala government.
The Chairman of Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement’s Malaba-Uganda branch, Abu Akileng, notes that Museveni has made efforts to reach out to and reward all those who played a role in his military and political struggle in the 1970s and 1980s.
Akileng recalls, for instance, Museveni singling him out at State House, Kampala, where he had joined other leaders from Tororo District in a crisis meeting in 2018 following violent conflict between members of the Teso and Jopadhola communities.
“The President tasked me to locate a tall, slender, and generous man who hosted him around the border in the 1970s,” he told The Weekly Review.
The President’s desire to reunite with his comrade was hampered, however, by what Akileng refers to as “challenges of bureaucracy” and “administrative impediments” from both the Kenya and Uganda governments.
He explains that George’s nationality and his geographical location partly complicated efforts to find him. Akileng explains that poor coordination between Kenyan and Ugandan officers, as well as the initial assumption that George and his father, Oteba, were Ugandans, must have led to the delay in identifying them.
There is also the likelihood of the duo lying low for fear of victimisation by Kenyan authorities. Claims of existence of individuals in Uganda who deliberately frustrated Museveni’s efforts to reach out to the Oteba family are also widespread.
Noting that Museveni has a history of handsomely rewarding former comrades, including building houses for them and giving lucrative state jobs to family members, Akileng does not rule out foul play against the Kenyan family.
Nonetheless, high-profile individuals like Moody Awori were easily located and rewarded.
In July 2007, President Museveni travelled by road to the former VP’s rural home in Funyula, where he awarded him and his wife, Rose, with “Nalubaale medals” for their contribution to the liberation of Uganda from the Idi Amin regime.
Addressing guests in Gulumwoyo village, Museveni revealed that Moody’s family accommodated him several times.
On a light note, he poked fun at Moody’s younger brother, the late Aggrey Awori, who contested against him for presidency in 2001, describing him as “the bad one” and Moody as “the good one”. George, who missed out on Museveni’s medals, worked in Kampala from the mid ‘60s, where he gathered and shared information with his cousin, Rait Omong’in, who had introduced Museveni to the Kenyan family.
Any time things got hot in his home country, Omong’in and Museveni would dash to the border for refuge in friendly homes, including Oteba’s. George’s son, Elias Wandera, says the family has over the years tried in vain to get Museveni’s ear.
Elias believes that some powerful individuals connived to prevent his grandfather and father from accessing Museveni. Born in 1940, George was the second born in Oteba and Flora Nasike’s family of five.
He went to Kamuriai Primary up to Standard Five before proceeding to Kolanya Intermediate School, from where he left to look for work in Uganda. He secured employment with the Rayon Textile Factory in Kawempe and rose through the ranks to a fairly senior position.
It is while at this textile factory, where he served as shift supervisor, that Omong’in, who was a soldier attached to the office of then Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote, invited George to live with him in Kampala.
But when Obote was overthrown by Amin, Omong’in fled to his Malaba home in Kenya and then to Tanzania, teaming up with Museveni, a young political science university graduate keen to “rescue” his home country. George also left his job and volunteered to offer intelligence information and other logistical support to Museveni.
From the safety of his Kampala house, George gathered intelligence using his cousin’s contacts and delivered the information to Museveni and Omong’in, who were in Kenya and Tanzania.
When Museveni eventually became President, George was conflicted on whether to reach out to his comrade to celebrate and enjoy the fruits of his labour or go into hiding. He opted for the latter after failing to secure appointment in the government, hoping that the new leader would reach out to him. He never did, or his efforts were sabotaged.
Like his father, who housed Museveni when he was in the bush, the father of 16, who had three wives – two Ugandan and one Kenyan – has died poor. George’s is a unique tale of an unsung hero of a foreign country, within his home country.