Uganda: July 27 Is Special For Me—The Date My Father Passed, and Date Obote Overthrown

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Obote visited with President John Kennedy as prime minister weeks after Uganda's independence in 1962. He was deposed in 1971 and 1985. Photo: Kennedy Library. 

Harold Acemah

July 27 reminds me every year of two significant events. One event is personal and the other event is political in nature.

On July 27, 2006, my dear father, Rev. Canon Enoka Yada (RIP), went to be with the Lord. Although 15 years have elapsed since that sad day, at the back of my mind it seems like yesterday. I thank God for my father, for comforting and watching over us since 2006.

I am grateful to my father for his love for us, his children and grandchildren, his example which has guided and inspired me throughout my life and, above all, for his witness as a Christian leader of the Church of Uganda. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

The political event of July 27 that I refer to occurred in 1985. This year marks the 36th anniversary of that event—the violent overthrow of the second Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) administration led by President Milton Obote (RIP) who is the first, the best and most patriotic Head of State and government of post-colonial Uganda.

The reactionary and ill-advised military coup d’etat which took place on July 27, 1985 was led by Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa (RIP) and Gen. Bazilio Olara Okello (RIP), both of whom were from the Acholi ethnic group from the northern part of Uganda. The coup divided and weakened the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), the national armed forces, whose commander was Gen. Tito Okello and the chief of staff was Brigadier Smith Opon Acak of the Lango ethnic group, also also from the northern part of Uganda. The Acholi and Lango people speak the same Lwo language.

UNLA was dominated by the Acholi and Lango people. The registration number plates of military vehicles in the 1980s bore two letters “LA,” which opponents of the UPC government cynically said reflected the fact that Uganda’s national army of that time was in reality a “Lango/Acholi” army.

Allimadi, shown with Mrs. Lamunu Alice Allimadi, opposed coup against Obote. Photo: Family collection.

From 1986-1995, Uganda’s national army was called the National Resistance Army (NRA) and registration number plates of military vehicles bore two letters “RA,” which opponents of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime cynically allege meant that the national army was actually a “Rwanda/Ankole” army which is of course not true.

July 27, 1985 began as a bright, normal and peaceful Saturday, but it ended in chaos and turmoil. It’s a day I will never forget and lives in my memory as if the events of that tragic day occurred only yesterday. It was a day things fell apart in Uganda.

That Saturday in 1985 was a shopping day for my family and we planned to go to Nakasero market and Kololo shopping center to buy groceries and household items for the following week. Just before we left home, my then young daughter Ms. Brenda Adoch Acemah who was playing with her friends outside rushed to me and said, “Daddy people are running” and what I saw confirmed rumors which had been making rounds for weeks about an impending coup. The rest is history.

The events of that infamous day paved the way for another military coup which took place on January 25, 1986 and brought to power the corrupt, decadent and incompetent NRM regime which has done enormous and lasting damage to the body politic, economy, moral fiber and nation-building efforts of Uganda.

Lessons learnt

The underlying cause of the July 27, 1985 military coup was not ideological, but ethnic chauvinism. According to records of a stormy meeting of elders convened by President Obote at Nile Hotel—now Serena Hotel—in June 1985 to reconcile senior UNLA officers, it was clear that the ruling elite of that day was sharply divided along ethnic lines.

Only two Acholi officials at the meeting sided with Obote, namely then Prime Minister Otema Allimadi and then Minister of Power, Mr. Akena p’Ojok. Before the meeting broke up acrimoniously, Obote warned of dire consequences for the Acholi people and region if Acholi officers overthrew what he called “the UPC government.” I believe the 20-year insurgency in the northern part of Uganda from 1986 to 2006 was the dire consequence Obote feared. My friend and colleague, Ambassador Olara Otunnu, has openly called it “genocide.”

If the 1985 coup had not happened, the original NRA would never have grabbed power in 1986. Ethnic chauvinism and discrimination is a curse which must be eradicated urgently for the sake of good governance, political stability, national unity and economic prosperity in Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa. I tell you, African leaders who are shamelessly fanning the flames of ethnic-discrimination, nepotism and division are playing with fire. May the Lord have mercy.

Arua, Uganda.

July 27, 2021. 

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