I think people who believe that Olara Otunnu took part in planning the coup against Obote will be very difficult to convince. However, the coup was actually the result of longstanding complaints by Gen. Basilio Okello. I knew Gen. Basilio very well, and I spoke with him frequently when he was the Brigade Commander of Northern Brigade, based in Gulu. I knew about the coup plan sometime in 1984. Although I did not believe that Gen. Basilio could pull it off ( I actually told him so). I talked to Gen. Basilio Okello many times before and after the coup. From what I know Mr. Olara Otunnu had absolutely nothing to do with the coup against Obote. Simmilarly Gen. Tito Okello also had nothing to do with the coup although he later became the President. Infact after the coup Gen. Basilio told me that he had at first “house arrested” Gen. Tito Okello, for failing to take “atuah”. Atuah is swahili word meaning “ACTION or STEP” against president Obote.
According to Gen.Basilio Okello when he arrived in Kampala following the coup Gen. Tito Okello had already fled to Kenya by helicopter and was in Kakamega, western Kenya. That Gen. Tito was later persuaded to return back to Uganda by some elders. He said the (same) elders asked him to make Gen. Tito Okello the president, otherwise he should have arrested Gen. Tito Okello for failing to stop president Obote from misusing the national army and dividing the army.
Based on what know through my conversations with Gen. Basilio Okello before and after the coup of 1985 his reasons for toppling Obote were:
1. Gen. Basilo complained that President Obote was wrongly using the Army to solve political problems. He cited in particular the war against soldiers of deposed president Amin who where then waging a war on Uganda from Sudan across the border in West Nile. According to Gen. Basilio, president Obote needed to find a political solution to the West Nile insurgency but not to use the army to fight fellow Ugandans.
2. Gen. Basilio Okello believed that the political difficulties which president Obote was having with the Baganda was bad for the Acholi people, in the sense that the Acholi, through their sons who were serving in Uganda army where getting a bad name nationally and in particular with the Baganda, for fighting Obote’s political wars in Luwero. Gen.Basilio Okello was so anxious about this and always said that “time is going to come when we Acholi will pay for what we are being ordered to do by president Obote”. He urged that the Acholi should ” try everything in their power to resist getting entangled in president Obote’s political difficultiees which the former wanted to solve militarily using “sons of Acholi” soldiers.
3. One day in early 1984 Gen. Besilio Okello complained to me that “Right now the UPC have started recruting soldiers into the national army”. He said that there were about 200 recruits who were sent to Gulu army barracks by the UPC office in Gulu, however, he did not know how these people were recruited in the army and he was therefore refusing to give them army rations. The general said that he was going to “eject” the recruits out of the army barracks. It was on this same day that he told me that “Obote has to be replaced by a military council”. I asked him whether it was possible to topple president Obote and he replied very affirmatively saying “ofcourse”.
4. Gen. Basilio Okello also believed strongly that Obote rigged the 1980 election. I remember one day, in fact it was at night, when I was seated with the general in a hotel belonging to the Chairman UPC Gulu West, who was president Obote’s strongest supporter in Gulu, Gen. Basilio remarked that ” Even Museveni who is fighting in the bush, he has a cause”.
5. Gen. Basilio believed that president Obote was planning to arrest him at any time, as early as January 1984. Sometime in the year (1984) the governement cited Gen. Basilio’s name in allaged confession of Lt. Olake, who was a rebel UNLA soldier who had fled to Kenya but was subsequently captured in Nairobi and brought back to Uganda. It was alleged that Lt. Olake confessed that Gen. Basilio supplied arms to rebels fighting president Obote’s government. The general was so spooked by this incident thought that the government were going to come for him at any time. Infact he told me that he had laid his own “roadblocks” to counter any soldiers who might be sent from Kampala by president Obote to arrest him. The general later asked me to arrange a meeting with the UPC officials in Gulu so that he could explain to them that he was not supporting the rebels.( At that time I was the chairman of NUYO Gulu district, and I was also working closely with Hon.Otema Allimadi, although some people always (wrongly) accused me of being a “DP infiltrator”.) I duly arranged the meeting and it took place in the UPC Gulu East Constituency offices. The meeting was attended by the Chairman and the Secretary of UPC Gulu East Constituency, also present was my vice chairman of NUYO Gulu district. This particular man (RIP) was a very staunch UPC youth activist. During the meeting Gen. Basilio Okello said that he wanted the UPC officials to know that he was not supporting the rebels. I remember him saying ” you always see me here in Gulu if I was planning anything against the government you people would surely be the first to know about it”. The UPC chairman replied rather sarcastically that ” you are a soldier and we are civilians, there is no way we can know whether or not you are planning to topple the government”. Gen. Basilio tried to propose at this meeting that the UPC officials should arrange a meeting from the grassroots in Gulu so that he could meet with president Obote to iron out things, however the officials declined.
6. An interesting incident happened when President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia visited Uganda and went to Gulu in 1984. During the reception for president Kaunda at the presidental lodge, Gen. Basilio turned up for the occassion dressed in smart casual civilian clothes. There was a ring of people formed by plain cloth security and UPC youth activist all round were the two presidents and other guest were seated, so that one had to pass through them before going to take their seats. when Gen. Basilio Okello arrived he was detained as he tried to walk through the security ring and searched by security and UPC youth wing. The general’s pistol was removed from him and he was held up for a long while and everyone turned around to see what was happening. It was a tense and awkward situatuion and very embarassing to Gen. Basilio. At this point Hon. Apiliga who was a government minister came to Gen. Basilio’s rescue and led him away to be seated. It was later alleged by some people that Gen. Basilio had planned to kill president Obote during the reception.
7. Gen. Basilio Okello was very angry for the alleged killing of Lt. Col Peter Oboma and Lt. Apire Olok. These two were alleged rebel UNLA soldiers who had fled to Kenya and who had then allegedly come back to carry out some covert military actions in Uganda against president Obote’s governemnt and were subsequently captured. The two were later summarily executed and their bodies apparently dumped somewhere in Mabira forest. Gen. Basilio never blamed president Obote personnally for the death of the two former UNLA Acholi officers because according to him the two were killed by fellow Acholi’s who were in the army. According to the general when the two renegade officers were captured he “pleaded with their fellow Acholi captors not to kill them”. However, somehow the general held the government of Obote responsible for what he called “extra judicial killing of Acholi by the Obote governement”.
Further more the general always cited the killing of Gen.Pyerino Okoya in 1971 by unknown gun men from his residence in Gulu. Gen. Okoya’s wife (who happens to be Lango) was also killed. The killer or killers were never brought to justice. However, Gen. Basilio held the Obote (I) government responsible. This was a constant source of resentment and anger which I know for sure that Gen. Basilio felt so strongly about and which he somehow wanted to avenge.
8. As the casualties from the war with Yoweri Museveni’s then NRA rebels mounted, with several bodies being brought home nearly every other day, Gen. Basilio became so anxious that many sons of Acholi were dying for ” a meaningless war”. The General even said on one ocassion during the funeral of a slain UNLA soldier who was the son of a very prominent Acholi professor, that a way had to be found of stopping these death. According to Gen. Basilio the only way to stop Acholi from dying in a meaningless war was to topple Obote himself, if Obote will not talk to Museveni in order to end the war.
9. Gen. Basilio was against the government of president Obote for supporting the SPLA rebel group of Southern Sudan. His main arguement was that as the immediate neighbours with Sudan, any repraisal by the Sudanese government on Uganda for its support of the SPLA would foremost affect Acholi. Accordingly the general refused arms to pass through his brigade area onwards to the SPLA. He also told me of an incident involving millions of dollars which was supposed to be air dropped to the SPLA in Southern Sudan but which landed instead in Acholi area. When villagers found the money and eventually Gen. Basilio came to know about it the later sent his soldiers who collected the money. I think for sometime the general refused to release the money to the government authorities until he found assurance that Uganda government would not aid the SPLA through Acholi area again.
10. Gen. Basilio wrote a letter to president Obote just immediately before the coup in 1985, in which he told the president that he the general had henceforth stopped his soldiers from fighting against the so called former soldiers of Iddi Amin rebels based in Southern Sudan. In the letter the general argued that “When I took the oath of my army office I swore to defend the territory and the people of Uganda. The people who are in Southern Sudan whom your governement want me and my soldiers to fight are Ugandans. Therefore, as per my oath I cannot fight fellow Ugandans whom it is my duty to protect.”. The general concluded that president obote must find a political solution to his political problems since the army was now not going to be involved in fighting and killing fellow Ugandans.
As far as I know these are some of the reasons why Gen. Basilio Okello toppled the government of president Milton Obote.
Pilipo Oruni Oloya