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Meeting Mama Miria

By Andrew M. Mwenda

On June 17, President Yoweri Museveni visited the family of his arch-rival, the late former President Milton Obote, and held talks with the widow, and former presidential candiate Miria Obote. This visit has since been a source of speculation.

What has not been said is how and why, over the last two years, President Museveni has been on a quiet journey to reconcile with former friends turned foes.

His best known reconciliatory effort has been with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda over the last one year. However, over the same period, Museveni has made up with former security minister in Obote II, Chris Rwakasisi. In 2011, Museveni also had one of the most emotional reunions of his life, with his former teacher and guardian, Mzee Boniface Byanyima, the father of Winnie, opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye’s wife.

In a four-part series, The Independent brings you the behind the scenes manoeuvrings, discussions and arrangements that made these reconciliatory meetings possible and what perhaps they say about Museveni’s future plans.

President Yoweri Museveni and Miria sat right next to each other in leather sofas at her home on Impala Avenue in Kololo, the upscale suburb of Kampala city. Museveni looked relaxed and was nostalgic. Miria, still trying to overcome the shock at the unexpected arrival of the President in her compound, looked pleasantly surprised. The President was wearing a white shirt, brown trousers and his trademark military boots; Mama Miria was in a light pink kitenge and sandals. Both smiled constantly.

“Andrew,” Miria chided me, “Why do you bring the President without notifying us?” As I fumbled for an answer, Museveni intervened, apologising for his unexpected visit: “You should blame me,” the President said, “I am the one who asked this Mwenda to accompany me here without invitation.” I regained my ground and added: “Well, we wanted to surprise you.”

At 11.30 am on Sunday June 17, we were arriving at the home of former President Milton Obote, Museveni’s arch-rival. The visit was a top secret between the President and me. No one at State House was informed. No one in the Obote family had been informed. I had only told Obote’s last born, Ben Opeto, that I would be visiting the next day at 11am with a special guest and that he should be home alongside Miria. Ben had called me at 11am to ask whether I would turn up. I was inside State House Nakasero and the new rules had forced me to leave my phone in my car. When I could not pick, Ben decided to go for other pressing business.

Over the last 15 years of my journalism career, I have been a constant guest to the homes of both presidents even as they engaged in constant verbal and other duels. Obote always treated me as if I were his own son. When I hosted a radio show, Andrew Mwenda Live on KFM, Obote was a constant guest on it. Museveni has, in spite of our tumultuous relationship, always treated me with a similar attitude. So, I felt greatly honoured to be there when Museveni visited Obote’s home.

A few weeks earlier, I had told Museveni that Miria was ill and had gone to Nairobi for treatment. She was treated, recovered and returned to Uganda. I therefore talked to the President about the possibility of meeting Obote’s family as the country moved to celebrate its 50th Independence Anniversary. “Obote is the leader to whom the departing British colonial government handed the instruments of power,” I said to the president, “therefore, regardless of your personal feelings towards him; the historical role he played in Uganda’s independence cannot be ignored.”

Initially, I suggested that the President sets an appointment and I bring Miria and her children to visit him. There would be a lot to discuss, for example, any role they might play in independence celebrations. Besides, many foreign journalists would be coming to Uganda and seeking their views on this historic moment and sharing ideas with them would be useful. And of course the Obote family has claims against the government of Uganda, which occupied their homes in Kololo and Lira for decades without paying rent. Finally, is the issue of the proposed gratuity for former heads of State.

After a couple of meetings and discussions about setting the right date for me to take the deceased president’s family to State House, I was pleasantly surprised when Museveni suggested that he would be the one to visit Miria at her home instead. “That is more than I have bargained for,” I replied, adding that it would be a great gesture towards the family of Obote. The date was set and I had to cancel my flight to accompany him.

Thus, on June 17, we drove from Nakasero in just two cars – Museveni’s and mine. All the police and other security cars were left behind. When we reached Obote’s house on Impala Avenue in Kololo, I hooted but no one was opening the gate, so I opened it myself. As I drove into the compound, Dr. Opiote came out to see who had forced themselves through. Behind me was the president’s car complete with its Court of Arms. Everyone looked stunned at this most unexpected visitor. We were soon joined by Miria who led us to the living room where the three of us sat.

Historical interractions

Museveni constantly referred to Miria affectionately as “Mama” (mum); the other person I have seen the president refer to as Mama is his wife, Janet. Miria constantly referred to Museveni respectfully as “Mr. President”. They talked about their days in exile in Dar es Salaam especially those days when Museveni would visit to talk to Obote.

I calculated that Miria was 27 years old when she married then-prime minister Obote in November 1963. People who knew her at the time recall Miria as intelligent, beautiful, and very graceful.

Even back then, Mama Miria, who would in 2006 make history as Uganda’s first presidential candidate after being elected to lead her husband’s party, UPC, on November 28, 2005 was already involved in  politics as a member of the Uganda embassy staff in New York.

The daughter of Bulasio Kalule and his wife Malita, she had studied Gayaza High School and later Makerere University, where most of post-independence leaders were groomed.

President Museveni, whose official birthday is 1944, was probably just a teenager then. Fate would, however, throw Museveni and Miria together in exile in Tanzania when her husband was toppled by Gen. Idi Amin in a military coup in 1971. Museveni and Obote became involved, albeit in different factions, in the liberation movements that sprung up in Tanzania to topple Amin.

“Mama here would cook for us lunch, we would sit with her and Obote to eat, then she would leave us to enter our political discussions,” the president told me. Miria agreed but added that sometimes she would eavesdrop on their discussions.

Apparently, Museveni revealed, the last meal he ate in November 1978 as he left Dar es Salam to join the battle against Idi Amin alongside Tanzania troops was cooked by Miria. Museveni had gone to discuss the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda with Obote. He said with nostalgia that that meal was essential to him because it gave him the blessings to go through the war unharmed. Miria took the compliment with characteristic humility.

“Remember Mr. President even when you were going to fight in Mutukula in 1972, you had a meal at our home before you departed from Dar es Salam,” she said. “Yes,” the president added, “that is also true.” Then turning to me, Museveni said, “You see Mwenda, Mama here has always been good to me. I have always separated our political battles from my personal associations. My battles with Obote were political.”

I sensed that Museveni was keen to absolve Obote of many things. He told Mama Miria that each time they discussed with the former president, they arrived at a common position. “But each time I left, his colleagues in UPC would come and say that I cannot be trusted, or I am lying. Then Obote would change. It was these UPC people who always separated us.”

Miria chipped in saying that there were also real differences between Obote and the president, UPC and FRONASA over issues such as strategy and ideology. I was surprised by this since I had felt Museveni was just being polite by reducing the differences between him and Obote to rumours and jealousies by UPC functionaries. But the president insisted that in all his meetings with Obote, they always arrived at a mutual agreement which always collapsed when other UPC functionaries came and talked to the former president about him.

It is clear that by the time Amin was deposed in 1979 and they returned, Obote and Museveni were clashing more often in the political arena and the rift between them had widened. It was not long before Museveni formed a rebel group to fight Obote’s government after the 1980 general elections. Six years later, in 1986, Museveni took power and Obote and Miria were in exile again; this time in Lusaka, Zambia.

Previous episodes

Museveni also talked of an incident when, upon Obote’s return from exile in Tanzania in 1980, he went to visit the former president in his suite in the then Nile Mansions (now Serena Hotel). The president reminisced that he had just began a conversation with Obote, welcoming him back to Uganda from exile, when some UPC functionaries began abusing him. “I just walked out of the meeting,” Museveni said adding, “and that is the last time me and Obote saw each other.”

The President and the former First Lady also talked about the aborted meeting between Obote and Museveni in Lusaka in 2004. The Ugandan president was in Zambia on a state visit when an Indian businessman and friend to Museveni and Obote arranged the meeting. Neither Museveni nor Miria seemed to know the details of how it failed to take off. Obote’s family physician Dr. Opiote, was called in to explain. Apparently, after the aborted meeting with Obote, State House Lusaka had organised for Opiote, Obote’s son Jimmy Akena and UPC stalwart Peter Walubiri to meet Museveni.

Opiote told the President that Obote had been looking forward to the meeting and had sent a message to State House Lusaka to know the arrangements. But there was poor communication. For example, Museveni had postponed his departure by an extra day to meet Obote. However, Obote, on the other hand, had thought Museveni had left the country. Although the meeting itself was organised to take place at the intercontinental Hotel where Museveni was staying, the president of Uganda had been taken to State House Lusaka to meet Obote there.

“I spent an entire morning at State House waiting for Obote to come and he did not,” Museveni told Miria and Opiote, “It would have been a great thing if we had met. But all now is past. We can look to the future.” Opiote said that they did not know of the meeting at State House and when Obote sent his contacts to Intercontinental, they were told Museveni had left already. That is why when Museveni returned to the hotel; Obote could only send a delegation, not show up himself.

“I was told Obote refused to see me…” Museveni said, “Now I understand.”

At this point, the President told me to excuse them and leave him and Miria to hold private talks. This private discussion between the two of them lasted another 40 minutes. By the time Museveni left Obote’s home, he had spent one and a half hours there.

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