Speakers at the Memorial Lecture at Sheraton spent too much time attacking government than on highlighting his legacy
On Oct. 10, I attended the Fourth Milton Obote Memorial Lecture at Sheraton Hotel’s Rwenzori Ballroom. There, I witnessed in silent wonderment the murder of the record of our founding prime minister, Apollo Milton Obote, by the very people who claimed to have inherited his legacy. In many ways, the present Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) and Milton Obote Foundation (MOF) offer little evidence of the organisational and administrative genius of the man who created both. And they reflect little of his ideas, values and aspirations. If Obote’s life’s achievements included building a well organised and articulate political party and an enduring Foundation in his name, then his death perhaps proves the fragility of his achievements.
The keynote speaker did not show up. So Obote’s closest friend I know, Chris Rwakasiisi, was asked to give an impromptu lecture on “The Obote I Knew.” I think Rwakasiisi did a commendable job in the circumstances, although he could have said in 30 minutes what took him one hour and ten minutes to say. After that, the lecture degenerated into petty partisan talk (by Patrick Mwondha) and irrelevant comments best suited for a headmistress to primary school students (by Christine Ovunji). Except for Rwakasiisi’s speech, there was little about Milton Obote – his beliefs, alliances, friendships, aspirations, values, actions, ambitions, works and deeds.
Mwondha used his speech as an opportunity to launch a partisan tirade against the government. But this was a moment to celebrate the life, ideals and work of one of the greatest leaders post independence Africa has produced, not to criticise the government. Uganda had marked 50 years of independence the previous day. Obote was the leader who received the instruments of power from the departing British colonial administration. So he is the founding father of our nation. The memorial lecture should therefore have been an opportunity to place our founding leader above partisan politics. But UPC leaders and activists who showed up lacked this sense of perspective. Like NRM did on Independence Day, they also treated the event as a party function and then failed to place the discussion about Obote’s legacy above UPC.
I have been a keen student of Milton Obote from childhood. From the age of seven, I read Obote’s speeches and pronouncements with dedication and crammed many of them. I can still recite some of them word for word. I have read most of his writings. I have interviewed or discussed with many people who knew him about his ideas and actions. Obote had an open heart and an intellectual spirit. I was honored to cultivate an enduring personal and professional relationship with him. He welcomed me into his home and family. So I spent many hours of discussions, interviews and debates with him. I therefore feel obliged to highlight at least a part of his legacy much of which has been tarnished by ill-informed and malicious propaganda.
Obote saw his role as a leader of a post-independence African nation from two vantage points – as a human being and as an African leading a country called Uganda. His work was, therefore, divided into two: foreign policy and national politics. I have written about his national politics before. Let me address his foreign policy credentials here. Obote’s foreign policy rotated around three ideals: First, Pan African unity (which included regional integration); second, the liberation of all oppressed peoples of the world (with special attention to the total liberation of Africa from colonialism, white minority rule and imperialism) and third, promoting world peace. Few leaders of post independence African leaders dedicated themselves to these ideals and were willing to sacrifice everything to realise them as Obote did.
We can tell Obote’s pursuit of these objectives from the speeches he gave and the writings he left behind; from the policies he pursued and the actions he took; and from the alliances he built and the friendships he cultivated. His Pan African credentials are best evidenced in the stimulating speech he gave during the All-African leaders’ conference in Addis Ababa in May of 1963 that led to the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). However, Obote’s Pan Africanism was not an end in itself. It was a means to an end – and that end was to fight the evils that bedeviled Africa and to improve the quality of life of its peoples.
“As a heritage from the colonial era, our people are disease ridden and poverty stricken,” he said. “This has led to a vicious cycle of malnutrition, disease and low productivity. A decision to agree and meet again is a decision which does not wage a continent wide war on the evils we have inherited… I am one of those who believe that this conference would be a failure is we are to return to our capitals having only stated principles and having only disclosed, however eloquently, our intentions in respect to the need of African unity. The time for high sounding words, slogans and clichés and good intentions has come to an end. This is the time for concrete proposals and for action.
“I hold the view that however nice one may feel as complete master in one’s own house, the time has come, indeed almost overdue, for African independent states to surrender some of their sovereignty in favour of an African central legislature and executive body with specific powers over those subjects where divided control and action would be undesirable. I refer to such subjects as the establishment of an African common market, economic planning on a continent wide basis, collective defense, a common foreign policy, a common development bank and a common monetary zone. This list is by no means exhaustive and I hope that the conference will agree to the appointment of a committee of experts who will investigate the matter of close economic and political union among African independent states within a period not exceeding six months.”