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Today in History: Idi Amin Overthrows President Milton Obote in Uganda

On January 25, 1971, Idi Amin Dada overthrew the government of Milton Obote, the man who led Uganda to independence from Britain in 1962 and became the country’s first elected leader. (Appolo Milton Obote: What Others Say 87.) Less than a month after the coup, on February 20, 1971, Idi Amin issued an announcement in the name of the “Officers and Men of the Uganda Army and Air Force” in the Uganda Gazette in which he elevated himself from the position of a major-general to a full general and suspended elections “for at least five years,” stating:

In view of the very bad state of affairs left behind by the last regime we fully appreciate that our Government led by His Excellency Major-General Idi Amin Dada is faced with a great task. Public life must be cleaned up and the economy must be put on a sound basis. In addition the people of Uganda have to be educated to think in terms of Uganda as a whole and to love and respect one another in the spirit of brotherhood, unity and equality. We have therefore decided that our Government as led by his Excellency Major-General Idi-Amin Dada must be in power for at least five years. We believe that as the end of such a period national elections could be organised and held in a period of tranquility and mutual respect. From messages received by us we know that this proposal has the support of the great majority of Ugandans…. In Addition, due to the size of the army he is now heading, and his military responsibilities, we hereby appoint him full General.  (Declaration by the Officers and Men of the Uganda Army and Air Force made to the Nation on the 20th February, 1971, LXIV (8) THE UGANDA GAZETTE (Feb. 26, 1971).)

Amin’s tenure, which lasted eight years (1971-1979), was marked with brutality, with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed and tens of thousands of Indians and Pakistanis expelled from Uganda because Amin believed they were exploiting the economy. Despite the above statement, no elections were held. Ironically, one of the stated reasons for the coup was “[t]he failure of the political authorities to organize any elections for the last eight years whereby the people’s free will could be expressed.” (Statement to the Nation by the Uganda Army, § 7, LXIV (5) THE UGANDA GAZETTE (Feb. 5, 1971.).)

NSC, Congressional – JFK and Milten Obote (Uganda) (Warren K. Leffler, photographer, Oct. 22, 1962). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.41042.

Amin was part of a trend during Uganda’s independence era of people overthrowing the government or using undemocratic means of holding onto power. Obote himself suspended the Constitution after Uganda’s independence, arbitrarily detained his opponents, and refused to have elections. Having toppled Obote, Amin was subsequently overthrown in April 1979 by Ugandan rebels and forces from neighboring Tanzania, and Yusufu K. Lule was installed as president. Only 68 days into his presidency, Lule was removed from office in a coup led by the National Consultative Council for “allegedly making wide ranging appointments in government without consulting them.” In June 1979, Godfrey Binaisa was installed as President. His tenure only lasted eleven months after which he was removed “by a military clique that included Museveni [Uganda’s incumbent president].” Following Binaisa’s fall, the country was briefly placed under the control of a military commission and then the Presidential Commission of Uganda, both of which were led by Paulo Muwanga who served as the country’s de facto president until the elections of December 1980.

The 1980 election saw the return of Obote to the presidency. The parties that competed in the 1980 elections included the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) (led by Obote), the Democratic Party (DP) (led by Paul Ssemogerere), and the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) (led by Yoweri Museveni). (Omongole R. Anguria, supra at 93.) The UPC and DP won 74 and 51 seats respectively, while the UPM, which fielded 82 candidates, only won 1 seat.  Museveni lost his own contest to a DP candidate. (Keneth Ingham, Obote: A Political Biography 174 (1994).) Obote assumed the presidency and Museveni, citing election-rigging by Obote, launched a civil war in 1981. In 1985, General Tito Okell removed Obote and assumed power. In January 1986, Museveni overthrew Okell and became President.

Museveni, who is now 73 years old, remains in office. Having been re-elected in 2016, his current term ends in 2021. However, a recent amendment to the Constitution removed a requirement (section 102) that presidential candidates be under the age of 75, thereby allowing him to extend his rule beyond that time. The amendment also reinstituted a two-term cap on presidents (section 105), meaning that Museveni’s rule will come to an end by 2031 (unless, of course, the Constitution is changed again to eliminate the term limit, as happened in 2005).

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