AUGUST 1, 2010: 25 Years Since the 1985 Coup d'état

25 Years Since the 1985 Coup d'état

SOURCE: The Monitor

By Timothy Kalyegira

Kampala — On Saturday morning, July 27, 1985, unrest in the Ugandan army that had been building up since late 1984 reached its climax in an unexpected military coup. This week marks 25 years since that date.

The four-and a half-year-old government of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) party was overthrown and President Milton Obote started his second period in exile. That coup provided the catalyst for the National Resistance Army (NRA), main guerrilla group opposed to Obote, to re-organise and eventually become a force at par with the government army. The coup resulted in a six-month period more uncertain and disruptive than any other in Uganda's post-independence history. The coup continues to cast a shadow over northern Uganda and mostly in Acholi.

Bitter realisation

The bitter realisation that it was the naivete of the senior Acholi military leaders who entered a working agreement with the NRA that led to the great betrayal and their ouster from power only six months later, is the sentiment that led to 20 years of civil war against the Museveni government.

Much of the impetus behind the insurgency against the NRM government was to make up for that perceived historic blunder, in much the same way a football player who scores an own goal or misses a penalty spot kick usually fights 10 times harder to make up for the blunder.

The main strain of resentment against the current UPC president Olara Otunnu in Lango and among a section of UPC loyal to the Obote family, is the belief that Otunnu was part of the coup and that was why he was named Foreign Minister in 1985 by Gen. Tito Okello

Looking back 25 years now, it is easy to see why this was one of the greatest political and military blunders ever. What were the coup plotters thinking when they decided to initiate an alliance with Museveni's NRA? Going just by Uganda's history shaped by tribe and religion, the natural allies of the Tito and Bazilio Okello junta would have been Andrew Kayiira's Uganda Freedom Movement.

Like the Okellos and most other senior Acholi military officers, the UFM was dominated by Roman Catholics like Kayiira and it had the active backing of the then head of the Catholic Church in Uganda, Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga.

Alliance of forces

With just a little patience and thought, an alliance between the Okellos Military Council and the UFM would have produced a military force strong enough to remove the NRA as a factor on the battlefield. By the time of the coup, the UNLA's head of counterinsurgency, Lt. Col. John Ogole, had successfully defeated the NRA guerrillas who then started a long trek towards the Rwenzori mountain area in western Uganda. Museveni was in Gothenburg, Sweden with his family.

If it was a blunder by the Okello group to appeal to Museveni to join them in forming a government, it was equally a mistake for the UFM, once Tito Okello had been deposed in January 1986, not to have read the signals.

Andrew Kayiira should have grasped the implications of this. He should have been able to monitor the progress of the Nairobi peace talks that started in August 1985 and how the NRA deliberately stalled it for time and made demands that it knew the Military Council government could never fulfil.

This should have caused the UFM leaders to wonder what type of people the NRA leaders were. They did not and shortly after Museveni came to power, the UFM formally gave up their fight and agreed to integrate their fighting units into the NRA, now the new national army.

What had happened to the Okello junta soon befell the UFM and leaders of another guerrilla group, the Federal Democratic Movement of Uganda (FEDEMU). Several UFM and FEDEMU officers and men were arrested and detained. Many simply disappeared without ever being heard from again.

Captain Godfrey Nsereko, the chief bodyguard of Lt. Col. George Nkwanga of FEDEMU, was arrested in Fort Portal in 1986 by the NRA and sent to Luzira Prison. The UFM's Capt. Kamya Nkima was arrested on the streets of Kampala, tied in the NRA's trademark kandoya style and detained. Major Aloysius Ndibowa went into hiding after three of his FDA (the armed wing of FEDEMU) bodyguards were arrested and sent to Luzira.

Arrested officers

Other UFM and FEDEMU officers who were arrested in 1986 included: Major Edward Gowa, Capt. Robert Kalyango, Capt. Jjingo, Lt. Ssozi, Lt. Moses Ntaalu, Lt. Sam Kasozi, Lt. Wamala, Major M. Kamya, Lt. Jack Lyaazi, Lt. Yahaya Mulindwa, Lt. Ssebuliba, Private Kasasa and Private Karati.

By October 1986, senior UFM, FEDEMU leaders and Democratic Party supporters like Kayiira, Anthony Ssekweyama; Evaristo Nyanzi, UFM vice chairman Francis Bwengye; Dr Charles Lwanga, an obstetrician at Rubaga Hospital, Joseph Mukasa-Mubiru, a businessman had been arrested and accused of treason. By March 1987, Kayiira had been shot dead in still-mysterious and disputed circumstances.

According to a senior official at the UPC party headquarters, during the 1985 talks in Nairobi, Obote now in exile in Lusaka, Zambia, got on the phone and made a frantic calls to a home in Nairobi. He urged the UNLA's Brig. Orwotho and others to get over their differences with his ousted UPC government and instead focus on marshalling their efforts to making sure Museveni's NRA did not gain the upper hand and take power in Uganda.

Obote, according to this source who was with Obote at the time, made the phone calls, warned Orwotho that Uganda faced a great threat should Museveni ever rise to state power. One of the lessons of that military coup 25 years ago was in how little most people understood Museveni and underestimated him. Museveni, steeped in Machiavellian politics and military doctrine since his university days at the University College Dar es Salaam, knew all about betrayal.

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