Andrew Mwenda recently wrote: “Our country was handed over to persons who had grown up in grass thatched huts, shared their bedrooms with goats and chicken and who had no previous experience in leadership. When given power, they brought the worst of village habits to leadership. Botswana which got its main king, Sir Tsereste Khama, to lead it after independence bears testimony to the view that you needed grounded leaders to prosper.”
Thereafter he mourned that Kabaka Mutesa should have led the struggle for Uganda independence.
These remarks are clearly in reference to Apollo Milton Obote (RIP).
However, contrary to this opinion of Obote’s political skills, Obote has received very good reviews from people who know what they are talking about.
Ironically, the first good review came from the royal family of Buganda itself. This was in the period leading to independence. Professor Kenneth Ingham, who wrote a biography of Obote has recorded thus: “Obote’s speeches were to have repercussions in an unexpected quarter. Towards the end of the year, Obote received a telephone call from a nominated member of the legislative council, Ms Pumla Kisosonkole, the step mother of the wife of the Kabaka, inviting him to call on her in her office. When he did so she told him that a number of people had been impressed by the tenor of his arguments, among them the Kabaka himself. She thought that much might be gained if Obote were to have a private meeting with her son-in-law. Obote was excited by the prospect, but while recognising the need for a measure of secrecy at this tentative stage in the discussions, he was wary of becoming involved in any activity which might not have the approval of his party.”
More directly, Edward Mutesa was to write in his book, The Desecration of My Kingdom thus: “The opposition party (the Uganda People’s Congress always known as UPC), received more votes than DP, but secured only thirty-five seats. It was led by a man from the north named Milton Apollo Obote. At the time I had heard little of him, and certainly never met him. There were a number of stories about him.
He was said to have been a herd-boy and been wounded by a spear-throw. Deciding that life was too vigorous, he went to school, and followed that with a brief career of one year at Makerere. I do not know why he cut short his studies. A spell in Kenya as some sort of clerk under Kenyatta during the time of Mau mau came to an end, and it was on his return to Uganda that his fortunes began to mend. Up to this point his career had not been a conspicuous one. Elected to the Legco, he became the head of a powerful party, and even then I do not think his undoubted ability was recognised.”
Professor TV Sathyamurthy who wrote the encyclopaedic book on Uganda politics, Political Development in Uganda, had this to say about Obote’s political skills: “Obote’s political enemies, believed that it was a matter of time that he would return to Uganda to assume power. Despite the fact that Nyerere took great care not to be involved in Uganda politics as a partisan of Obote, Ugandan politicians knew that, in experience and organisation, Obote was unquestionably the best of them. While making sure that the interests of UPC were well represented in the UNLF, Obote had nothing to do with it personally. He was shrewd enough to realise that, within a very short time, such a heterogeneous unit was bound to hoist itself with its own petard, thus leaving the way clear for him to re-enter the Uganda political scene at the top. If ever there was a Pereto’s fox in African politics, it was Obote.”
Edward Sheehan, the New York Times correspondent who interviewed Obote in the mid 60s compared Obote’s skills to those of his colleagues, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta in the following words: “As yet he enjoys neither the prestige nor the personal fame of East Africans other Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Dr Julius Nyerere of Tanzania but he probably surpasses both as a tactician and as a pure political animal who posseses an almost mystical understanding of the mechanics and sources of power. He does not inspire the awe and reverence that Kenyatta’s charismatic history commands in Kenya. Nor, despite his intelligence and omnivorous reading habits, can he claim to possess the intellectual brilliance of Julius Nyerere, but then, neither is burdened with the excessive introspection, diffidence and indecisiveness which so often seem to have immobilised the President of Tanzania. “In the misty forests of Uganda’s tribal politics, however, Obote has proved himself a manoeuvrer whose foresight and cunning have invariably overturned the most ingenious stratagems of his enemies. When his political fortunes were at their lowest ebb, and just as it appeared he was losing his grip, not only did he surprise his opponents by creating the commission of inquiry, but he took the brilliant gamble that its composition was beyond his political control, free to scrutinise his personal probity as it pleased. Then he turned the attention of the country from the debate over his honesty to the controversy over his new Constitution.”
“In their repeated confrontations, Obote has consistently outwitted the Kabaka, who never really had the stomach for the power game in the first place. The Kabaka was under pressure from his own people to prove that he was running Buganda, and pushed by foolish advisers to take untenable positions from which there was no retreat.” (Edward Sheehan’s article, “Making of a President, Uganda Style,” in the New York Times issue of January 22, 1967). Another evaluation came from a contemporary who used the pseudonym, Andre de la Rue and published an article, “The Rise and Fall of Grace Ibingira,” in The New African–radical review,” published in Cape Town, March 1967. Andre de La Rue wrote: “Dr Obote, Prime Minister and now President, is an astute and exceedingly able machine politician and not a charismatic leader. He is a pragmatist and in social outlook a moderate–in African terms. Ideology is not of central concern to him; the maintenance, consolidation and use of power are. On the other hand, Dr Obote is deeply dedicated to the Uganda’s unity, social development, and economic progress.
“In political tactics, Dr Obote’s pragmatic idealism takes the form of cautious waiting and quick advances at times of his choice. He allows his opponents to muster strength, to let their aims become known, to build up internal factions within their own coalitions, to over extend themselves in grasping for power just out of reach. Meanwhile, he consolidates strength and removes minor weaknesses. At times he gives the impression of losing control over the situation. Then as rumours begin to herald his coming defeat, he moves rapidly and decisively. His immediate objective attained and the whole opposition thrown into disarray, he gains speedy adoption of major changes whose mere proposals could have cost him his office before the crisis.”
Mr Adhola is former editor-in-chief of The People newspaper and ideologue of UPC.