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The passing of a legend


How the death of Peter Otai and the response of government of Uganda reflect our political maturity

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | On January 1st this year Peter Otai, the former minister of state for defense in the second Milton Obote government, died in London. On January 25th, a memory service in his honor was held in London. Then his body was flown to Uganda for burial in his ancestral home in Soroti on Febuary 1st. His family had initially refused to bring it to Uganda. I am reliably informed they yielded to his wish to be buried next to his mother. His life, death and burial tell a powerful story about the political development of Uganda, the personality of President Yoweri Museveni and especially the intricate connections of its political leaders.

I knew Peter Otai very well but learnt of his death long after he had been buried. This explains why I am writing his obituary long after his death. He became famous in the late 1980s as leader of the Uganda People’s Army (UPA), a rebel group that fought the government of Museveni in Teso region. He was also among the few Ugandan political exiles that refused to return to Uganda in spite of the many overtures government sent to him. And he did this largely out of principle, refusing inducements of money and jobs.

I first met Otai in person in Toronto, Canada, through George Okurapa, a former guild president at Makerere University and a luminary of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC). It was during a get together of UPC members in the summer of 1998. We became instant friends. When I went to study in London in September 1999, Otai picked me from the airport and took me to his home where I stayed for three weeks before I got my own apartment. During this time, I spent many hours with him in long and intense discussions and got to know him deeply. Also he took me to visit other Ugandan political titans such as Akena Adoko, Akena P’Ojok etc.

My birthday of 1999 found me still staying with him. Otai, his dear and pleasant wife Margaret (one of the kindest and most generous persons I have met) and their beautiful daughters (Joana and Liz) organised and hosted a dinner for me and asked me to invite some of my friends and they invited theirs too. I have consistently refused to yield to the temptation of hosting birthday parties, which I consider bourgeoisie romanticism. But I could not refuse the generosity Peter, Margaret and their kids extended to me.

In my long and intense discussions with him: at home in his living room, in his study (which was piled with books from floor to ceiling), on the train to different parts of London (when going to visit friends or attend conferences) and the many walks we took, I got a close and intimate view of this giant of a man. Otai held strong liberal convictions. The 1995 constitution had placed restrictions on political party activity. So Otai sought to consistently hammer at this fault in the constitution. At every conference I attended with him on Uganda, he argued that our country should have a multiparty system of government and political space should be expanded for opposition parties and the press.


  1. Andrew, kindly shade more light on how your headline, “How the death of Peter Otai and the response of government of Uganda reflect our political maturity”, related to our political maturity of the regime so afraid of even its own shadow? I mean in a society where there is ‘rule by law’ as opposed to ‘rule of law’ and you call that political maturity? Just look at all archaic laws being enacted that specifically target any opposition such as POMA, routine assault on the constitution etc. just to favor only one man!

  2. Rita Nabukenya was killed today as the state continues to suppress dissent. Moreover, we often reconcile with our opponents after they have passed on e.g. Obote, and now Otai. To me, this looks like the extent of our maturity. To be truly mature we would have to give equal voice and expression to everyone and chance to return home alive without fear of recrimination. This is still lacking

  3. WHEN M9 writes an article, as when most people do, especially journalists , one sometimes has to read between the lines to fully understand what the writer is trying to say.

    First and foremost, the thing that attracts to any particular article, if one is not say a regular reader of any particular column is the heading. This, as we all know is many times misleading and many times is full of sensationalism especially with hard copies, all for purposes of attracting the reader.

    ON this particular occasion I doubt that the purpose of this article was for M 9 to pay tribute to PETER OTAI, whose he did not get to know til after his was in his grave. NB; contrary to M 9s statement that “PO was sent to study in the UK in 1969 as a teenager” ; POwas born in 1941 so would have been at least 28 in 1969.

    Most of us know which side of M 9 s bread is buttered and I think even he most of the time has made no secret about it. The purpose of this article can be gleaned from his last paragraph, appropriately “THE LAST WORD” and it was more with praising M7 for his MAGNANIMITY than as a tribute to “his dear friend PETER OTAI(rip).

    “It was a revealing statement about the Museveni’s personality and how it influences his politics. Here was a political rival and military enemy. (He fought him as minister of state for defense and as rebel leader). But Museveni did not take this beyond politics and gave Otai full recognition in his death in spite of their political differences.”

    That is “THE LAST WORD” of this article.

  4. I totally agree with Ejakit comments above. I will only add one thing that has surprised me: M9’s claim that he did not know about PO death until after his burial. PO’s death was covered in the pages of major news papers in Uganda. It also made headlines on all the major Tv and radio stations. This media coverage lasted about a week. Whether m9 was in Uganda or not during that time, there is no way he would have failed to know in this IT era that we are in. Except if M9 was very sick and bedridden to the extent that he could not listen to the radio or watch TV. But if not, M9 might be the kind who does not follow what happens in his country and therefore writes about his own experience of Uganda but not the factual or the realities of many Ugandans.

    • It is almost inconceivable that M 9 did not get to hear about PO’s death until after he was buried.

      IN this day and age, even if you are on MARS, you will get to know what is happening on earth.

      And more so if he claims to be as close to family as he would want us to believe. Unless ones relationship to someone is secretive, many times people who know about your relationship to someone will always be the first to tell you what has happened to them.

      IN this case it is even more surprising M9 being a newspaper person , considering that all other newspapers carried articles about the said passing. How his paper did not is something one wonders at.

      BUT, being M 9 , one has to look beyond certain things to understand what is going on. M9 is one of those people who always want to appear different from everyone else, even when they have no reason for doing so. People who put their watch on the right hand, as it were.

      Here, it looks like M 9 is trying to create the impression that PO’s death was such a small issue that it simply passed him by. AT the same time, it may be that wanting to have “THE LAST WORD”, he wanted to hear what everyone else wanted to say.

  5. “How the death of Peter Otai and the response of government of Uganda reflect our political maturity”

    NOTHING could be further from the truth, than this statement from M 9.

    AS I said before, the main purpose of this article was more to heap praise on M7 than to pay respects to PO who M 9 claims was a close friend.

    MOST of us in life seek to maximise returns on whatever it is that we do.SO if you can invest very little or nothing and get a very big return, you have made your day.

    THE action of bringing back the remains of PO by the government(read M7) was not because of political maturity or of love for the OTAI family, but rather an action of political OPPORTUNISM.

    IN the first instance, the money used to bring back PO was taxpayers money (OPM).IT is not money that came out of M7s pocket, and this being run up to the election year, he has everything to gain by being seen to be politically mature, not that he wins through the ballot in any case.

    BY the same token, was the IDI AMIN government politically mature when they brought back Kabaka MUTEESA’s remains.

  6. 1.I cried when i read the bit of Birthday party….. ladies love birthday surprises and bouquet of flowers.
    2.UPC stalwarts are known for being so rigid they think that they are holier than thou.When you ask Ugandans who were alive during the Obote and Amin erra; they will tell you that the UPC and Amin’s regimes were bad news.
    3. M7 has always offered an olive branch to all his enemies.
    4. Obote’s army was trained by Russia but M7 was so shocked to have a field-day during the liberation war.
    5.Do to others what you them to do unto you;its unfortunate that most of the people from Northern and Eastern Ugandan are not loved by the Bantu simply coz of what their leaders did while in power.
    6.Most of the Baganda and the Luo are in the diaspora you will rarely find Bakonzo,Basoga,Banyankole in the diaspora coz of the Colonial establishment that trusted the two ethnic tribes.
    7.I read Adhola’s article about revolutions you realize that he is obsessed with Ideology,the fall of the Berlin wall,the fall of Communism he feels thats what matters to the world.(By the way Adhola failed to complete his PhD studies and somehow he thinks its M7 responsible for it)
    8. For prosperity;the Baganda are found of believing in witchcraft and sacrifice. I hope Bobi Wine is not sacrificing the youth in his quest to be President.

  7. “How the death of Peter Otai and the response of government of Uganda reflect our political maturity”

    YET again like I have said before, nothing is further from the truth.

    POLITICAL maturity is where we have systems, and order in place.

    THE decision to bring the remains of of OTAI was a ONE man decision; much as say the VP or the PM Ruhakana Rugunda a former UPC or any high ranking official would have wanted , none would have been in a position to make that decision, and I am sure the relatives must have made their appeal or request to M7.

    IF M7 had been away, say like our dear M9 was away and never got to hear of POs death til the burial, the relatives would have had to wait til M7 came back.

    There exists no system and I do not think any criteria exists as to who can be brought back or given assistance towards their funeral so that one is in a position to know their eligibility or otherwise to such a facility.

    THIS in any way does not reflect political maturity.

  8. IF there was any system, sanity and maturity to talk about, it would not have been possible for a situation such as what happened to BIRAARO(rip) , a general at that , for news of his illness to reach M7 , only when he was on his death bed.

    Chances are that he probably knew, but because of his so called , or assumed crimes especially speaking truth to power and daring to stand against the one and only, he was deliberately left to rot and die..

    AND then when they are sure that they are dead and can cause no more trouble, then you can give them a lavish funeral and say all the nice things.

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