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.