Obote: Part 2- Forming Uganda People's Congress

Obote: Part 2- Forming Uganda People's Congress

The Prime Minister of Uganda

The man who leads the new independent nation was once a labourer on a building site.

Uganda Argus, 1962.

By John South
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First published: October 14, 2005

Click Here: Obote: Part 1- The Premier's Own Story

Highly political
He paused and said: "I decided then that I wanted to enter either law or politics." This was the first time that he had mentioned politics and I was interested to know just how he first took an interest. The answer is very simple. "My family has always been highly political and I grew up with politics. The fathers of Mr. Obote and his Minister of Information, Broadcasting and Tourism, Mr. Adoko Nekyon, are brothers and their mothers are sisters. And the Prime Minister's voice took on a rather bitter note, as he recalled the next part of his life story.

"I was offered a scholarship by Lango Local Government to take either a law course or economics, and was offered a place to study law by an American University. The Uganda Government turned it down, because it said American law would be no good for this country. Then I decided to go to London University to study law. This too was turned down by the Government on the excuse, that it was unnecessary expenditure as lawyers were not required in this country. So then I decided to change to economics and was offered a place by Gordon College, Khartoum. That one was turned down by the Government as well - because it said I could not make up my mind, where or what I wanted to study.

Job problem
"Then I gave up and took a correspondence course instead. I studied law, politics and a bit of journalism for a year." But some good came out of Mr. Obote's being refused a scholarship, because he went on: "I travelled throughout Lango telling the people of the great injustice I had received from the Government and selling to them the idea that the people of Lango should organise their own independent scholarship fund to award their own scholarships. The fun's now working well and about 20 scholars have gone abroad on the scheme from money raised by local Government taxes. I kept up correspondence courses until 1957, although I never took any examinations." But now 26-year-old Obote was faced with a problem, he had to get a job.

And he took one - as a labourer. "This was a deliberate decision,” he told me. "I had become interested in the trade union movement. And I decided the best way to learn more about trade unionism was to start at the bottom". One of the labourers toiling for Mowlem Construction Company Ltd. building the silo for the grain conditioning plant at Jinja, was the future Prime Minister. And as far as he can remember, his wages were 22/- a month. But for his first job, Mr. Obote went down to Kenya, joined the Kenya African Union and took a labourer's job at Miwa?? Sugar Works near Kisumu.

18/- a month
"It wasn't a very good job", he remembered. "It was very hard work. After three weeks at that I got a job with the treasury in Kisumu. I think I was getting then about 18/- a month. I had to leave the sugar works because there were a lot of Lango there. They objected to the son of a chief and ????? student at Makerere working as a labourer. When I took the job with the treasury I did not reveal my identity and told them I was a junior secondary man."

After a month with the treasury, Mr. Obote decided to move to Jinja, and although the treasury wanted him to stay on and he did in fact work another fortnight, he then went to Mowlems. This was before the days of trade unions in Uganda, but he began to organise the workers. But he could not conceal his education for long. "After two months the company found I was not an ordinary labourer and promoted me to office work", he said. "When a labour advisory committee was set up in Jinja, the workers nominated me as a member.

from the Uganda Argus

Too outspoken
"But here I made a mistake. At the first meeting I was a bit too outspoken for the D.C. and we never held another meeting. I thought the wage of 20/- a month were too low and thought I would put their case. But I spoiled it for them".

By the time Mowlems moved to Jinja Water Works, Milton Obote had been put in charge of all the paperwork, including finance. When Mowlems moved into Kenya to build a reservoir at Kabete, they took Mr. Obote with them. He became active in the K.A.U., but when the Mau Mau emergency was declared in 1952, the party was proscribed and the leaders arrested. And the Prime Minister told me the now famous story of how at Kabete he nearly lost his life at the hands of the Mau Mau. "I was in charge of large stores and used to receive large consignments of cement" he reminisced casually. "One day I decided to go with the driver myself to collect the cement. Three Mau Mau came up and offered me money for some of the cement. I told them they could not have any, so they immediately drew a pistol, said they would kill me and take the cement anyway".

Mau Mau beaten
The lorry driver was a local man who, Mr. Obote thinks, had been supplying the Mau Mau with materials, and who had no intention of getting involved. And there was no one else near to help him. But the Prime Minister told me he was not scared. "I had no intention of letting them take the cement, because I did not think anyone would believe me, that the men had taken it by force", he said. "I thought it was better for them to shoot me than for me to be accused of dishonesty." But his quick brain came to his rescue. "I told them I was a member of K.A.U and produced my membership card. I also said I was a member of Uganda National Congress and if they shot me, they would destroy the link between Uganda nationalism and Kenya nationalism." It worked and the Mau Mau went away leaving Mr. Obote alive - and still with his cement intact.

Mr. Obote moved next with Mowlems to the Kinango where he was very interested to see the European farms. But here too he was surrounded by Mau Mau in the forest, and the camp lived in constant fear of attack. And at this time Mr. Obote did the Kenya Africans a big service when he caused the oil companies to change their ideas about employing Africans. "An advertisement for an Asian clerk appeared in the "East African Standard" and I wrote a letter to the "Standard" saying the companies were wrong to advertise for only Asian clerks. The oil company wrote back to me saying that there were not enough Africans to do the job of clerk. I replied that the advert specifically stated "Asian" and there was then apparently an exchange of views between the oil companies, because they said they would employ Africans of good education." Mr. Obote chuckled and added: "I took the chance and when Standard Vacuum (now Esso) wanted Africans, I got a job with them. I think that was in 1955 and I worked for two years in the supply department."

Installation at Bugembe. The new Kyabazinga of Busoga, Mr. W.W.K. Nadiope (left) with the Prime Minister, Mr. Milton Obote, The Kenya Minister of State, Mr. Jomo Kenyatta and Mr. Peter Koinange, secretary general of Pafmeca at the installation of the Kyabazimnga at Bugembe, near Jinja.
from the Uganda Argus

At this time no political parties were allowed in Kenya, so social clubs were organised in all the Nairobi centres and Mr. Obote, who had met and become friendly with Jomo Kenyatta through K.A.U., became chairman of one of them. He laughed again as he remembered: "My club followed a policy of inviting European politicians to speak at the club. By doing this we were looked upon by the Government as a responsible club - and at the same time we talked a lot of politics."

But in their enthusiasm, Mr. Obote and his club ran into trouble at one time. They had formed the African District Congress and the president, Mr. Argwings Kodhek, made a speech advocating Africa for the Africans. "I was chairman at the meeting" said Mr. Obote, "and I said that if Uganda attained independence first, it would come to the rescue of Kenya. My speech was published in the Press. I was called before the registrar of societies to explain it. He decided not to withdraw our register".

Mr. Obote joined with others to publish their own newspaper and he became one of its columnists.

Then he helped form the branch of the Capricorn Africa Society with Mr. Kodhek as president. But, after a split, Mr. Obote became acting president and supported Tom Mboya in the Nairobi elections against Kodhek. Tom Mboya was elected. "I now decided I had enough experience of trade unions and politics to come back and try my hand in Uganda. I had achieved my aim of going to Kenya to learn political organising and I had deliberately been away from my family to devote a lot of my time to reading."

Milton Obote returned to Uganda in 1957 and was very soon nominated by Lango District Council as Lango's representative in the Legislative Council. He had begun his climb to the top of the political mountain and to his post as the most important citizen of Uganda.

The first elections to Legislative Council in Uganda were held in October 1958 and Apolo Milton Obote was the first of 45 candidates named for the 10 elected seats to be published in a list in the "Uganda Argus". Standing as a candidate of the Uganda National Congress, led by Mr. Joseph Kiwanuka, Mr. Obote took a hand as his symbol to vie with three other candidates for the Lango seat. In his manifest he said he was standing as a U.N.C. candidate "on its dynamic self-government now."

And he came out then with a policy that he still advocates now - "waging war against ignorance and disease", although he added then "and against inefficient producers of wealth". The U.N.C. won five of the ten seats and Milton Obote, in the only district where all four main parties had a candidate, polled 40,081 votes to the next candidate's 7,863 - the second highest majority in the country and the highest percentage of the votes.

Pelted with eggs
Officers of the party at that time were: Chairman, Mr. Joseph Kiwankuka, president, Mr. I.K. Musazi and deputy president, Mr. Milton Obote.

But first came a split between Mr. Musazi and Mr. Kiwankuka, when Mr. Musazi accused Mr. Kiwanuka of being a Communist. Young members of the U.N.C. went along to a meeting held by Mr. Musazi at the Tree of Liberty near Kampala bus park, pelted him with eggs and when his loudspeaker broke down, took over the meeting with their own loudspeaker.

Milton Obote became the new president, but then split with Mr. Kiwanuka over funds given to Mr. Kiwanuka by China for the U.N.C.

Together with Mr. George Magezi, Mr. William Nadiope and other Legislative Councillors, Mr. Obote formed a new party - the Uganda People's Congress, with himself as the first and so it has transpired, only president general.

Well in front
A boycott by Buganda of the general elections of 1960 gave the D.P. victory - but the Leader of the Opposition was a young and promising politician named Milton Obote.

And the general election of April this year, with no boycotts left the U.P.C. well in front.

Now Mr. Obote sees his party firmly wedded to Kabaka Yekka and says they have at least five years to work together in putting independent Uganda well on the road to prosperity.

"I see the U.P.C. becoming a very powerful political organisation outside Buganda. I would not like to encourage the U.P.C. to do the same thing in Buganda, and I would like to see the U.P.C. and the K.Y. come together as did the Tories and the Unionists in the United Kingdom".

Mr. Obote sees the need for a responsible opposition to the Government and recalled: "Some of my happiest days in politics have been spent in Opposition."

I asked him what he thought of the economic future of Uganda.

"The key to the economic future is that we should maintain a stable country", he replied. "That is fundamental. After that we need to workout schemes that we can sell to private enterprise. I am determined that the country shall remain stable and people can confidently invest their money in Uganda. I would like to see Uganda farmers changing from the hoe to better implements and using more mechanisation. I have been talking to the Minister of Agriculture and Co-operatives (Mr. M.M. Ngobi) on modern agricultural implements being provided for the next cotton season."

Eat more meat
"I want farmers to be encouraged to use this equipment on payment of a small fee or on short credit terms - where they pay for the service when they sell the crops - and the Minister is now working on this. He is also working on a scheme to improve the production of food crops. I also want to see a revolution in animal industry, which I think has a great potential. I want people to drink more milk and eat more meat and the Minister of Animal Industry (Mr. John Babiiha) is working on a scheme to attract foreign capital".

When we discussed the position of non-Africans in independent Uganda, Mr. Obote told me: "I am not colour minded. I don't care about colour and I am pretty certain the K.Y. has the same beliefs as ourselves."

Related Articles:
First Ugandan Prime Minister and Twice President Milton Obote Dies
1962: Obote and Uganda's Independence

By John South
more from author >>
First published: October 14, 2005
Special thanks to Sonja Winklmaier for sourcing the material. For more on Sonja Winklmaier and her descriptions and images of Uganda from the 1950s onwards, please click here to read the "Letters from Sonja."