Obote: The Premier's Own Story

Obote: The Premier's Own Story

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 13, 2005

The Premier's Own Story - as told to "Argus" Reporter John South

The European secretary came into the small office at 3 p.m. carrying a tray on which was a pot of tea and three cakes. “This is my breakfast, lunch and possibly my dinner", said the Prime Minister as he ate the three cakes.

For 37-year-old Apolo Milton Obote, Prime Minister of Independent Uganda, is a man who does not believe in sparing himself, and such trivial things as eating go by the board with Mr. Obote when there is work to be done. He frequently comes into his office in the morning, and works through, without bothering with food, until his work is done.

And National Assembly secretaries will tell how they have worked with him until the small hours of the morning when the rush is really on.

This is typical of Mr. Obote and is only one of the many facets of the man who is now the Prime Minister of Uganda.

The man who is known as plain "Milton Obote" by all his followers was born the son of a chief, went to Makerere College in Kampala - and then took a job as a labourer in order to gain trade union experience.

He has been speared in the back, clubbed by a thief, and has faced unarmed three Mau Mau intending to shoot him, two snakes and a leopard.

Milton Obote is one African politician who does not need to wear a funny hat or wave a flywhisk to make himself noticed - he relies on his speeches. True, he never goes far without his hefty walking stick, and he uses a cigarette holder when he smokes. But these are more practical than a fad with a man who, at the moment, is not enjoying the best of health.

The Prime Minister of Uganda, Mr. Milton Obote, presenting the Uganda flag to the captain of Uganda's Commonwealth Games team Lawrence Ogwang at the boxing at Nakivubo on Friday night, October 5th, 1962 "London v. Uganda at Nakivubo Stadium. During the interval the Prime Minister presented the flag to the Uganda team, which is to take part in the VIIth Commonwealth Games at Perth, Australia in Nov.
from the Uganda Argus

Walking stick
Every day that the National Assembly sits, the doorman's office is now filled with walking sticks - deposited with him by National Assembly members.

And it is not uncommon to see a labourer in bare feet, and perhaps with a ragged shirt, proudly carrying a walking stick.

And the famous Obote walking stick was placed along the front of the desk as we talked in his small office in the National Assembly building. The office was used by Mr. Obote when he was Leader of the Opposition before the U.P.C.-K.Y. swept the power in the last elections.

A much more sumptuous Prime Minister's office was up on the next floor. But it was typical of Mr. Obote, that, when he became Prime Minister, he decided he had become so used to his small office that he would keep it.

So now the Prime Minister receives visitors in his small office, while the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Basil Bataringaya, receives his visitors in style upstairs.

Mr. Obote paces up and down energetically as he talks to you in his deep and authoritative voice.

Nine children
Born in 1925 - he doesn't know the date - in Akokoro, a little village in Maruzi County, Lango - he is the third of nine children of Stanley Opeto, a Lango chief, and his wife Pulisikira.

"I think I was my father's favourite, and he didn't want me to go to school, but wanted me to stay home with him", he said. "I stayed at home while my younger brothers went to school".

When his father was transferred about 33 miles from his home, some of the family went with him and some stayed at home and young Milton went to stay with his maternal grandfather.

"I used to look after my grandfather's goats", recalled the Prime Minister. "Crowds of us boys would take the goats to a small hollow where they would graze. We would carry spears with us and, before we got to the hollow, would throw spears into it, hoping to hit one of the birds that used to settle there.

One morning I went out early, and, being quite skilful at throwing a spear, I managed to kill a bird in the hollow.

"Then I decided that a better way to catch the birds would be by setting snares. I was bending down in the hollow, setting some snares, when another boy arrived. He did not know I was in the hollow, and he threw his spear down into it. It went into my back. It was a deep wound and I had to be carried by foot 50 miles in a snare net to hospital at Aduku. I was in hospital five or six months."

When he came out of hospital he started his first schooling - at a catechist class. But young Obote was to go through more narrow escapes before he began his serious education.

"One evening I was standing with my sister in the doorway of our house", he recalled. "I felt something like water pouring onto my< head and shoulders. It was dark and I could not see what it was. But when I went inside, my neck and shoulders began to irritate and I started scratching myself. My father noticed this and, when he had a look at my shoulders, he saw they were all white. He said it was a snake which had been over my head and had been squirting its poison down on to me. I was too small for it to reach down to me, but if I had looked up the poison would have blinded me. "My father went out and killed the snake".

Milton Obote was not much older when he was walking alone along a track at dusk - and found a leopard in his path. “We just stood looking at each other", he said. "I thought that if I tried to run, the leopard would jump on me, so I just stood still and hoped it would think I was a tree or something. I knew that a little while before a girl had been killed by a crocodile and her family said, if she had kept still it would have released her. "As I stood there someone else came along the path and to my relief, the leopard disappeared into the grass".

As Mr. Obote recounted this incident, it reminded him of another lucky escape before he was even big enough to carry a spear. "I saw a small animal in the cotton field near our house, and as I was too small to throw a spear, I took a knife from the house to throw at the animal. I started to crawl towards the animal and as I was about 10 yards from it, I saw something else - a python very near me. I knew I could not run, because it could move too swiftly for me. But fortunately the python too had seen the small animal, which had its back to us. I lay and watched as it wriggled to slowly, so slowly up to that little animal - and wound itself round it. I ran towards home and the cries of the animal brought people running to the field. They found the snake, which had by then killed the animal, and they killed the snake. But I am positive that little animal saved my life.

Only a few years later young Obote was clubbed by a thief. "We were having a lot of trouble with thieves in the cassava fields, and so organised night patrols to keep them out.

Never behind
-"One night, we surprised some thieves in a field, and as one of them ran towards me, I tried to catch him. Of course he was much bigger than me and he promptly knocked me unconscious with his stick."

So it was back to hospital again for a short time. His education started at Ebuye Primary School, Lira, and went on to Gulu High School. "From Primary I to Primary 6 I was never behind anyone in examinations", he told me. "In my last exam in Primary 6 I was second by two marks, and it disappointed me terribly. I was always top through Junior Secondary." Then the young scholar went on to Busoga College at Mwiri, near Jinja. "I was never on top in the first year, but I was in the first four. The second year I think I was second, and in the third year, always first or second". Came the time to leave school and young Obote wanted to go to South Africa to study agriculture. His parents had other ideas and he sat the entrance exam to Makerere College. Two out of 18 boys from Mwiri passed for Makerere - and one of them was Milton Obote. In 1948 he began to study English, political science, economics and geography. "I was not happy at Makerere and I left after two years, before completing my course,” he recounted.

Click here to continue to "Obote: Part 2- Forming Uganda People's Congress"

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 13, 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."