In his book on the early years of Uganda’s independence, historian A. B. K. Kasozi notes the tragicomedy that the first president of the country found himself in, on his narrow escape into a second exile, after Milton Obote—as he is most popularly known—sent out his commander of the armed forces, Idi Amin Dada, to demolish the presidential palace. The latter character who became the most popularly known of Ugandan presidents, came from a minority social group, and it seems his excesses, which included the bombing of the presidential palace, the Asian expulsion, and his love for Scottish pipes and decorum, were already evident in the philosophy that Milton Obote put forward in his presidential address on the occasion of Independence in 1969.
Obote said, “One of the pillars of the type of government the people of Uganda wish to establish is that the government must be run by the majority with safe guard for the minority.” Ideally, Obote’s politics was all about minorities. It is no surprise, then, that minorities have continued to hold power in the country since its Independence from Great Britain in 1962.
The example of Idi Amin Dada is more streamlined in this regard because he seemed preoccupied with raising the profile of minority groups, from the Nuba army officers that led his army, to the Muslims who had suffered great marginalization during British colonialism. It was in Amin Dada’s regime that a black market came about in Uganda, and a class of uneducated business-owners emerged. This was partly due to Amin Dada’s expulsion of the Asian community, which he argued dominated the trade market, and economy at large. Amin Dada was only promoting Obote’s nationalist ideas for the country when he claimed to focus on economically marginalized Africans and muslims.
However, it is ironic that Milton Obote, who named himself after the great English poet, imagined a government of minority, ownership of minority, affluence of minority would be a success, but failed to imagine that the governance of majority, ownership of majority, and vote of majority would be his Achilles heel. In this sense, the dialectic of minority and majority was already implanted within the political discourse based on ethnic classifications, and in the late 19th century history that produced the Buganda Agreement, which described the Baganda as a majority group.
The dialectic within Milton Obote’s argument for minority-ownership and national sovereignty was based on a political construction that went back to the letters exchanged between Muteesa I, King of Buganda, and the Christian missionary delegation of the 1860s. For Obote, national sovereignty steered clear of European imperialism, and what he described as majority domination.
Going back to the tragicomic episodes that A.B.K Kasozi refers to in his book, the intention to decentralize was not only about decolonizing Uganda’s Constitution or federalizing the various kingdoms in Uganda, but Obote’s intention was clearly about destroying and erasing what he thought of as the stumbling block to Uganda’s national sovereignty, the colonial hierarchy of Buganda. In this sense, the book delves into questioning of the mysterious death of the first president of Uganda, Frederick Edward Muteesa II. In his discussion, Kasozi frames the death of the first president by narrating his tragicomic exile.
One of the anecdotes I enjoyed is when Kasozi describes that King Freddie, as he was fondly called by his friends and colleagues, lived on a diet of tea and biscuits in his last days. In another anecdote, Kasozi says that King Freddy couldn’t take up any real work, since all he had known was the life of a king. It seems that despite living an impossible life the first president wrote, during his last days, an incredible book, The Desecration of My Kingdom.
The Obote government banned the book in Uganda, and later regimes did not bother to bring it into circulation, despite Idi Amin Dada’s returning King Freddie’s body home. Most know next to nothing about the ingenious political strategies that the first president orchestrated in his tenure during the transition from the protectorate to the independent nation. As is the case, every later regime has always covered the achievements of a previous regime. Like a palimpsest, each new president’s ideology covers the previous one; older ideologies start to disappear. This disappearance doesn’t signal the hiding of something, but rather the emerging of another complex thing. A web of evidence.
This photograph is one example of the latter. It doesn’t tell us what is actually missing within the picture. We look at this photo like any other presidential brigade. When I first saw it, it brought to mind The Beast, the presidential Cadillac, in which America’s president Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Yet the web of evidence is there, so clearly. The driver facing Obote, who is speaking to him while facing the window. The moment’s significance, for me, is in the luxury of the car that the photographer, Malcolm McCrow, captures. The shiny velvet blue on the car, the red velvet seats on the inside. The chauffeur taking dictation, and slowly driving into the parade on Kampala road. In the other photographs that go with this one, a parade proceeds further down Kampala road, and banners following Grace Ibingira’s design of the national flag, hang above the street like the palm fronds of Palm Sunday.
We do not immediately see the murderous undertones evoked by the ideology of subverting power. How Milton Obote as president 7 years after this shot was taken would emphasize that his government would do everything in their means to see the ideal put in place: “And I can promise you that the government of Uganda will do everything possible to see that the idea is implemented.” (1969)
How did Obote do this? One of the prominent ways, that many have told and written songs about, and recall as bright as day, is the coup on the palace in Mengo.
In Song of Wankoko, an outsider guest from the North visits the Buganda palace, and makes acquaintance with the king; but no sooner than a mutual agreement is reached than the visitor starts making his own plans to obfuscate and secede power in the kingdom. The play bears the lyric: Birds act like birds, animals act like animals, but people act like people.
The play premiered at FESTAC in Nigeria, where it’s loaded meaning would not only point to Milton Obote’s burning of the palace, but of Amin Dada’s carrying forward the ideology of safeguarding the minority to extreme levels. In Nigeria, Murtala Mohammed, the military commander, was assassinated only one year before the festival.
The circumstances in which the play was written were extraordinary. Uganda, it seems, was moving towards a steady leadership by its minority groups—which is the case today. However, quite like a stranger in a dream, the violence that visited the country became so ingrained that the lyricist and playwright Byron Kawadwa could only describe ethnic difference with inhuman violence as the mode du jour.
What was happening to the country was that Obote’s ideology became the basis for further radicalization. King Freddie died before anyone could save him from a diet of tea and biscuits. Massacres would happen both in the North and South, and skulls would be dug up from mass graves and ferried away on trucks. There are evidences of things unseen in this photograph.
Photography courtesy Malcolm McCrow, 1962.