- New era. When Uganda’s first military coup took place 47 years ago, today, Edward Ochwo was a Clerk to Parliament, Charles Byekwaso was a civil servant with Radio Uganda, while Abasi Mukasa was a Primary One pupil at Nsambya Railways Primary School.
- The three share their unique recollections with Henry Lubega of what unfolded in Kampala on the day the Ugandan military, led by Gen Idi Amin, carried out a coup against the government of president Milton Obote on January 25, 1971.
In 1971, I was the Clerk to Parliament working under Speaker Narendra M. Patel. In the later part of 1970, tension developed within my staff from Lango and Acholi, bickering with those from West Nile. Towards the end of November, one of my staff – a Nubian called Ali Faruz, our chief door keeper, came to my office and said he felt he had to give me this information as Amin was now the president. I asked him “how come it’s not been announced?” He said: “No, you wait I just wanted to give you the information ahead of time.”
Two months later, the Speaker of Parliament sent me with his official car and driver Sebi Kelili to represent him in Karamoja at a conference organised by the Karamoja District Council. On the way back, Kelili said: “Mr Ochwo, I want to tell you that if you hear any loud bangs in Kampala one of these days, don’t be scared.” I [asked] why he told me not to worry.
Sometime in January – I don’t remember the date – I was in charge at the VIP lounge at the airport on the day president Obote left for Singapore. At the airport, Amin and all senior members of the armed forces were missing. A few minutes after the president’s plane was airborne, ministers started leaving. I was seeing off ministers Basil Bataringaya, (Joshua) Wakoli and (S.K) Okurut when Amin arrived at the airport tarmac in a military jeep and stopped close to the VIP lounge. He was accompanied by five other jeeps and an APC at the end of the convoy.
He beckoned me to the car and told me to tell the ministers who were leaving and those inside to wait [because] he was coming to talk to them. Wakoli protested but he was persuaded and he went back inside. It was about 7.30pm when Amin finally came in. About nine ministers were waiting. Amin asked for the president’s chair to be brought back for him; that’s where he sat as he addressed the ministers. He made a few jokes and then talked about the army, before asking each minister to make a statement about their ministries. He started with Bataringaya, who was the Internal Affairs minister. The meeting was dismissed at 11pm. He told all the ministers, including those who did not attend the meeting, to be in office the next morning.
The mood in the city the next morning was tense, soldiers in groups of four to five patrolled the streets. In each group, one soldier was armed, a few shops were open and there were few people on the streets. In the evening, at around 6pm, Kelili called my home and said: “My Lord, Amin has taken over government; don’t leave your home for now but you are not in danger.”
Early the following morning, there was heavy gunfire. At around mid-day, there was a loud bang that shook the ground and the gunfire stopped. An hour or more later, Radio Uganda announced the military takeover. At the end of the announcement, all ministers and civil servants were told to report to work the next day.
I had to report to work the next day. I walked from home on Lourdel road in Nakasero. Along the golf course, I met James Aryada, then working as inspector of schools at the ministry of Education. But it took courage that day for one to walk the streets.
At the Parliament entrance was heavy military deployment with all sorts of hardware. I showed my card as Clerk to Parliament and they allowed me in. As I approached the Parliament building, a military jeep came in, with Amin driving. He had several soldiers with him. As he drove towards the president’s office, one of the soldiers at the back waved at me only to realise it was a one Ojambo, a former schoolmate in Tororo.
Once inside the parliamentary building, I found chief door keeper Faruz with a group of soldiers. He introduced me to the leader, who in turn asked me to take them around from office to office. We reached an office whose keys we didn’t have, it was above the foyer. This was Obote’s private office, he called it ‘the factory’ were he used to do his writing. It was his security that kept the key. When I said I didn’t have the key, the soldiers threatened to shoot me. But they were persuaded to break the door, which they did. Once inside, they looted everything, including Obote’s suits and watches. That was the takeover!
On the evening of the coup announcement, the permanent secretary in the president’s office, Byagagaire, called me telling me that I was responsible for the preparations at Kololo airstrip for the swearing-in of the military head of state.
Following Byagagire’s phone call, I reached out to some of my staff and also instructed the sergeant-at-arms, superintendent of police to reach out to other staff members, who were to come and help with the swearing-in preparations. It was a rushed swearing-in ceremony done in the open. There was no time to put up a shade for the officials.
I was the master of ceremonies at the same time ushering in the VIPs. Amin arrived at Kololo in an open American Chevrolet. There were not much formalities, he took to the floor to be sworn-in. In the absence of the Chief Justice, (Serwano) Kulubya, who was the chief registrar of the high court, I was tasked to preside over the swearing-in.
After swearing-in, Amin refused to sign the book standing and asked for it to be taken to where he was seated. After Amin, some ministers were sworn-in as well, including Fabian Okware as minister of Agriculture, Wanume Kibedi for Foreign Affairs, among others.
On the morning of January 25, 1971, Charles Byekwaso was the morning shift’s announcer at Radio Uganda. He narrates what happened.
“I was ready by 4am as usual waiting for the station van to pick me. My shift was starting at 6am, meaning I was supposed to be at the station before that time. That morning, I waited in vain. A few minutes to 6am, I decided to walk to the station, not knowing what was happening in town. The streets from Rubaga where I was staying were empty.
It was not until I reached the CID offices (present day president’s office building) that I sensed something was happening. The place was full of soldiers. I was scared but kept walking towards the station. Even the soldiers did not bother me. At the station, less than five staff had reported, but the whole place was full of soldiers. Normal programming was not going on, instead it was martial music. Later in the day, an army officer called Aswa entered the broadcasting cubicle where I was to announce the takeover. After the announcement, martial music continued, there was no normal programmes. Later, Amin himself came and addressed the nation.”
“I was a Primary One pupil at Railways Primary School in Nsambya. At that age, I didn’t know what overthrowing the government meant. I left home for school and along the way, I met up with other pupils and we walked to school. We were about four boys. At school, the gate keeper refused to let us in; instead he told us to go back home [because] it was not safe, the president had been removed. Whatever he was saying was not making sense to us.
We were still at the gate begging him to open, thinking we had come late when we heard [gunshots]. He told us to run back home. As we ran back home, I was left alone and hearing the gunfire for the first time, I ran home crying, calling my mother and father. On reaching home in Kabalagala, my parents were all worried about me as the closer I got home the more intense the gunfire became. They were relieved to see me home, it was my first time to hear gunshots. I have never been scared like that in my life.”