President Milton Obote, a powerful political figure in Uganda since the days before the East African nation became independent from Britain, was overthrown Saturday in a coup led by rebellious elements of the army, a radio broadcast from the capital of Kampala announced.
The broadcast--by an army officer at 11:30 a.m., local time--proclaimed that the military had brought a “total end of Obote’s tribalistic rule.”
The announcement triggered gunfire and looting in the center of the capital, according to reports reaching neighboring Kenya by telephone and radio. By nightfall, the sporadic shooting had abated, and the rebel forces appeared to have established control, news agency reports said.
May Have Fled Country
Obote, 60, who was overthrown once before by his then-chief of staff, Idi Amin, in 1971, was reported to have fled the country. His whereabouts, however, were not known. Vice President Paulo Muwanga and half a dozen Cabinet ministers were also said to have fled.
Armed soldiers, apparently intent on looting, assaulted the building housing the U.S. Information Service’s offices in Kampala, according to reports here and in Washington. For a brief time, the agency’s director, Steadman Howard, and four Ugandan staff members barricaded themselves in their second-floor offices, the reports said. Later, the White House and State Department said that all U.S. government personnel were safe.
The announcement of Obote’s overthrow said that power had been seized by forces under the command of Brig. Basilio Olara Okello, who for the last week has been leading a mutiny of army units in northern Uganda. It was not immediately clear whether the general or his superior, Gen. Tito Okello (the two are not related), is in control.
Appeals to Rebel Forces
Tito Okello, the commander of the army, reportedly met with his top officers during much of the day Saturday. Radio announcements appealed to rebel forces headed by former Defense Minister Yoweri Museveni, who has waged a long-running guerrilla war against the Obote government, to lay down their arms and join forces with the army officers.
(United Press International reported from Stockholm that Museveni welcomed Obote’s overthrow but warned that his forces will have to be included in any solution to the nation’s ongoing state of crisis.
(“The guerrilla force will be part of any solution,” he said on a Swedish radio broadcast. “If anyone tries to block that, we shall smash him, like that which smashed Obote.”)
One unofficial report said Obote had fled across Uganda’s eastern border to the Kenyan city of Kisumu. Another report, from a usually reliable Ugandan source in Nairobi, said the ousted leader left in his presidential jet late Friday night or early Saturday morning, and that his destination was unknown.
The same source said he had learned that Obote withdrew a large sum of money from Uganda’s central bank during the day Friday, apparently anticipating that his remaining hours in office were limited.
Wife in Seclusion
Obote’s wife, Miria, who has been attending the U.N. Decade for Women conference here in Nairobi, remained in seclusion Saturday at the home of the Ugandan high commissioner (ambassador) and could not be reached for comment. Kenya police were posted at the gates of the envoy’s residence.
Kampala radio, which spent most of the day playing disco music and other hit tunes, announced that the country’s borders had been sealed, that Entebbe airport was closed and that a dusk-to-dawn curfew was in force.
Political disintegration in Uganda--a continuing fact of political and economic life even as Obote sought to restore order lost during Amin’s bloody rule--accelerated over the last week.
On Wednesday, the nation’s Roman Catholic cardinal, Emmanuel Nsubuga, urged Obote to resign and turn the government over to a caretaker commission. The prelate, in an open letter to the nation, charged that during Obote’s regime “there is not a single Ugandan who has not lost a relative or a close friend. There are widows and orphans everywhere in the country.”
His criticism was lent emphasis by reports of an army mutiny by Acholi tribesmen in units in the north. Okello, commanding the rebellious troops, called for the resignation of Obote’s Cabinet. At the same time, rebel Museveni’s Uganda National Resistance was reported to have taken control of two major outlying towns, Fort Portal and Tororo--at opposite sides of the country.
Army Base Overrun
On Friday night, diplomatic and relief-agency sources said, the rebellious military units overran the Uganda army base at Bombo barracks, about 30 miles north of Kampala, and on Saturday morning advanced to the capital, which fell easily.
Obote has headed an embattled regime since the day he resumed power, in bitterly disputed elections, in December, 1980.
A member of the Langi tribe from northern Uganda, Obote, 60, has long been a power in Uganda politics, serving as prime minister from 1962 to 1966, then as president until his ouster in 1971.
Though widely respected as a black African patriarch, he was not popular at home. A would-be assassin once fired a bullet through his jaw. Critics complained he was high-handed. In January, 1971, when Amin, the man he appointed to head his army, took over the country as Obote was attending a Singapore conference, crowds danced in the streets.
Obote at that time went into exile in Tanzania to the south, while Amin presided over one of the most preposterous and tragic regimes in post-independence Africa, styling himself “Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada, Conqueror of the British Empire.” He murdered hundreds of thousands of political opponents and decimating the country’s intelligentsia and British-trained bureaucracy.
Thousands in Exile
While thousands fled into exile, Uganda’s once-bright economic fortunes collapsed. Formerly regarded as “the pearl of East Africa,” Uganda--a nation with such rich soil that, legend had it, almost anything could grow--became a nightmare of violence, dictatorial whim and economic decay.
Amin was ousted in 1979 by an invasion of Tanzanian and Ugandan opposition forces, spurred in large part by the loyalty to Obote of Tanzanian President Julius K. Nyerere, Obote’s host in exile. The dreaded tyrant fled to exile in Saudi Arabia, where he lives in Jidda.
After the brief interim presidencies of Yusufu Lule and Godfrey Binaisa, Obote returned from Tanzania and led his party, the Uganda People’s Congress, in the 1980 elections, which were characterized by the tribal strife that has gripped Uganda for generations.
The Baganda tribe--whose monarch, Sir Edward Mutesa II, known as “King Freddie,” was banished by Obote in the 1960s--voted as a bloc for the opposition Democratic Party. Charges of election irregularities were widespread.
Rebel leader Museveni, who had run for the presidency, took to the bush with a band of Baganda insurgents. In the last 4 1/2 years, these rebels have mounted scores of successful attacks on police outposts and military installations.
The government’s campaign against the rebels, never very effective, turned largely against the rural civilian population, who were assumed to be supporting the insurgents. The result was more nightmarish repression of Uganda’s nearly 15 million people.
Journalists, diplomats and workers for international relief organizations in the country reported that thousands of civilians were killed. In the Luwero Triangle alone, an area where the government army was most active, U.S. sources and relief agency representatives last year estimated that 100,000 to 200,000 people were killed, including women and children.
A year ago, the U.S. government broke what amounted to a long official silence on the human rights situation in Uganda, when Elliott Abrams, then the assistant secretary of state for human rights, described conditions in Uganda as “horrendous.”
Obote’s government angrily denied the accusations, but the reports of murder and torture in Ugandan prisons, and of soldiers running on killing rampages against unarmed civilians, continued without interruption.
In May, a man who identified himself as a former Ugandan secret policeman said he had killed 350 people and tortured others on orders from the government before fleeing to exile in England.
On June 19, Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, released a report detailing torture in Ugandan prisons. The report included findings by two physicians who had examined former prisoners and eyewitness accounts of civilians being beaten or burned to death. The former prisoners described regular beatings with hammers, rifle butts, iron bars and pieces of wood with protruding nails.
Rape and sexual abuse were described as frequent in Ugandan prisons. Thousands of Ugandans, the report said, have simply disappeared.
Through all of this, Obote seemed lugubrious and taciturn. Persistent reports in the diplomatic community spoke of his heavy drinking, his growing isolation, his constant fear for his safety. He moved around the capital in a curtained limousine with a caravan of soldiers as guards.
In the meantime, the country’s poor economic state sagged even further. With help from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and foreign aid programs from friendly Western governments, the country seemed for a time to be making a comeback under Obote’s rule. But the security problem--and then the human rights situation--began to deteriorate, and confidence in the regime’s ability to survive steadily eroded.
The tribal conflicts in Uganda are deeply entrenched and may not be easily overcome in the aftermath of Obote’s rule. The tribal schisms in the army were exacerbated when Obote promoted one of his own Langi tribesman to the position of chief of staff, thereby alienating Acholi tribesmen in the army, who make up almost half the military.