The Rise of Milton Obote in Uganda Politics


Will Ugandans ever know the real truth about the character and personality of Apollo Milton Obote more especially his relationship with the Baganda? I know that Milton married a Muganda woman who is the mother of his children. NRM’s mobilization has always rotated around Obote. I still remember the bashing of Obote during Mchaka Mchaka lessons.


One of the little-known stories, especially to young Ugandans born in the last three decades, is the stunning manner in which Apollo Milton Obote, Uganda’s first post-independence Prime Minister, emerged out of nowhere to upstage better-placed political rivals.

Born December 28, 1925 in Akokoro village, Apac district, Obote had attended primary school in Lira in Lango land, in Gulu among the Acholi, before proceeding to Busoga College Mwiri among the Basoga  and then onwards to Makerere University in Buganda land.

Obote therefore, had a national outlook to politics, which first came to the fore at Makerere University where he was involved in a student strike, and in Kenya where he dabbled in the independence movement of that country while working petty jobs.

On his return to Uganda in 1957, Obote joined Ignatius Musaazi’s Uganda National Congress and returned to his home area of Lango where he immediately plunged into the local politics of the area.

Nurturing ambition a year later, Obote returned to Kampala after being elected to the Legislative Council, the colonial parliament of Uganda. In the segregated colonial city Obote settled into a small humble house at Naguru African Quarters. He renamed his house 10 Downing Street after the official residence and office of the British Prime Minister in London. If anything this was a clear signal of his burning ambition.

After Mengo in the name of Buganda boycotted the first direct elections in Uganda held in October 1958, the African representatives to the Legislative Council came together to form the Uganda People’s Union or UPU. The new body reflected a growing anti-Buganda sentiment in the politics of the day.

Historian Phares Mutiibwa in his book The Buganda Factor in Uganda Politics, notes that the UPU was formed by leaders from outside Buganda region, as a counterweight to the Mengo Establishment in Buganda, whose intransigence and non cooperation with other regions of Uganda had become an irritation to many.

Obote’s big break came in 1959 when the UNC broke up into three factions; one headed by himself, another headed by Jolly Joe Kiwanuka, and another by Ignatius Musaazi.

The three factions continued to clash for recognition as the legitimate remnant of UNC until March 1960 when Obote’s wing of the UNC merged with UPU to form the Uganda Peoples Congress under Obote’s leadership.

All the political parties up to that point had been formed in Buganda and headed by politicians from Buganda. Thus Obote had become the first politician from outside Buganda to lead a major political party in Uganda.

The rise of Obote was to turn the whole tribal structure of Uganda’s politics upside down, George Bennett later wrote in his book, Tribalism in Politics. 

Obote had learnt his politics in Nairobi during the time of the Mau Mau rebellion and had applied his lessons quickly, building up a grassroots political base upon which he was now contesting for national political glory.

Historian Mutibwa has marveled that Obote, the man with humble beginnings from the marginalized Lango sub region, who spent a couple of years in Kenya working as a laborer and later as a clerk, had fought his way up the slippery ladder of politics to become the leader of a major political party in Uganda.

Concludes Mutibwa: One must give credit where it is due. Obote returned to Uganda in 1957 and hardly three years later was the leader of a new political party that was to lead Uganda to independence; a remarkable achievement by all standards in the game of politics.

But rising to the head of a major political party was the easier part. Trying to propel that party to power would present for Obote the bigger challenge. Obote seized the challenged as a platform on which to display some remarkable political cunning and opportunism.

Apollo Milton Obote’s political calculations allowed him to rise out of oblivion to take center stage but it was a political empire built on sand and held together by the thin strings of convenience.

The behemoth of the political landscape was the Democratic Party which enjoyed support in Buganda and outside the kingdom and whose leader, Benedicto Kiwanuka, appeared a shoo-in for the top job when independence, now just around the corner, came round


The other major political player, potentially even more important than the DP was Mengo, the seat of the Buganda Kingdom, which was caught in the middle of trying to maintain its identity and position in a rapidly changing political environment.

Buganda had already shown its muscle through the riots of 1945 and 1949 as well as the return of the Kabaka from exile. Through the Uganda National Movement, a pressure group that under Augustine Kamya coordinated boycotts and forced the expulsion of Asian traders from the Buganda countryside, Buganda had already demonstrated its political might.

It was precisely this aggression by Buganda that led to the formation of UPU and later UPC as vehicles of anti-Buganda expression. 

Mutiibwa argues that it was the formation of the UPC that probably forced Buganda on that fateful day of December 31 1960 to declare unilateral independence from the British as a separate unit from the rest of Uganda. It was an act which was in the end futile.

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps few people would blame Buganda for having had the foresight of what would befall the kingdom in an independent Uganda, Mutibwa wrote.

When Buganda’s succession attempt failed, it boycotted the internal elections that followed in March 1961, but DP easily won these and Benedicto Kiwanuka became the chief minister.

Kiwanuka was on the verge of becoming first prime minister of independent Uganda and the Democratic Party was on the verge of becoming the party that led the country across the threshold and out of the colonial era


The officials at Mengo could not stand having the DP or Kiwanuka in power yet, having failed to secede, they now had to find allies in the wider political field. In order to protect Buganda’s interests, they found that they had to choose between the DP, which they hated, and the UPC, which had been founded mainly to oppose Buganda’s interests.

Waiting to receive them at the altar in this marriage of political convenience, in a black tuxedo was Milton Obote.