The 1966 Crisis

A deep political crisis arose in Uganda in the early part of 1966. The events surrounding this crisis culminated in the Uganda Army attacking the palace of the king of Buganda, the late Kabaka Fredrick Walugembe Muteesa II (affectionately known as King Freddie) on May 24th. The army was intent on capturing and killing King Freddie. After a day long battle in which the army deployed tanks and heavy artillery, it became evident that the Kabaka and his defenders with their small arms could not hold the palace against the attacking force. Fortunately, the Kabaka was able to elude capture and with the help of several loyal supporters was able to escape into exile. For the first time in Uganda's short history, the state had deliberately and systematically turned its guns on its own people. This attempt to destroy the Buganda kingdom and the culture of its people was truly momentous in the country's history.

Here is some background information that will help put the crisis in context. Prior to the 1962 elections, the main political parties in pre-independence Uganda were the Democratic Party (DP) and the Uganda People's Congress (UPC). The UPC itself was born of a coalition of smaller parties that came together under the leadership of Apollo Milton Obote. The Kabaka Yekka (KY) party was hurriedly formed shortly before the elections mainly as a political movement to advance the interests of the Buganda Kingdom in the emerging new nation of Uganda. A political alliance was formed between UPC and KY at the time of the 1962 elections to defeat DP. After the elections, UPC and KY formed a coalition government and Obote, head of UPC became the Prime Minister. A year later, Obote nominated the Kabaka of Buganda to serve in the largely ceremonial position of President of Uganda and parliament concurred. This political marriage of convenience quickly soured however in 1964 when Obote championed a parliamentary bill providing for a referendum in the Buganda counties of Buyaga and Bugangazzi, which led to those counties seceding from Buganda and reverting to Bunyoro.

The relationship between UPC and KY was never smooth after that. Naturally, Obote feared that his support in the Buganda region was eroding. He ordered the security forces to react with maximum force to any perceived sign of opposition. This new policy was starkly demonstrated on November 10, 1964 following a minor domestic scuffle at Nakulabye on the outskirts of Kampala. Thinking it was an anti-government riot, the police went on a rampage that covered a radius of up to three miles from the scene of the original incident. Six people were shot dead by police including two school children. Three were shot point-blank inside their own homes. The incident was investigated by Chris Kantinti, a senior margistrate whose report concluded that the people had been the victims of a deliberate, violent and unprovoked attack by armed policemen. Despite the official government condemnation of the incident, the officer in charge of the operation was later promoted to regional commander for the Eastern region.

Meanwhile, some divisions had developed within the ranks of UPC. Some prominent party members accused Obote of having dictatorial tendencies, and of fostering tribal rivalries within UPC and the national army. Obote's position as head of the UPC had become tenuous and it was apparent that he would face a formidable challenge at the party's Delegates' Conference due to be held before the next national elections in 1967. Obote was anxious to forestall any opposition.

Another problem bedevilling the country at the time was the widespread corruption at various levels of government, so much so that Obote himself was personally implicated. He was alleged to have been involved in the smuggling of gold, ivory and coffee from Zaire (then Congo Kinshasa) with the collaboration of Col. Amin. On February 4, 1966; Mr. Daudi Ochieng, a KY member of parliament, introduced a bill calling for a commission of inquiry into these activities and the suspension of Col. Amin until such inquiry was completed. Obote's response and retribution came on February 22, when he had five of his cabinet ministers (Ibingira, Magezi, Lumu, Kirya and Ngobi) arrested during a cabinet meeting and held without trial; suspended the constitution, and assumed all executive powers. Needless to say, all this was a direct violation of the constitution. On February 26, rather than suspend him, Obote appointed Amin as his army commander. On March 3, Obote dismissed the President and Vice- President and assumed the functions of the presidency. On April 15, the constitution was abrogated formally during a parliamentary session in which Obote was surrounded by troops and a 'Revolutionary' constitution was adopted by MPs who had not even seen it beforehand let alone debated its contents. This constitution later came to be known as the 'pigeon-hole' constitution.

The creeping coup had thus reached its zenith. Obote, now with the support of the senior ranks of the army saw himself as the only power in the land and he would brook no opposition. Any pretense at democracy was snuffed out throughout Uganda. The Buganda Kingdom was one of the few political institutions left that could speak out against this undemocratic turn of events. The crisis came to a head in May when on the 19th, the Buganda Lukiiko (regional parliament) passed a resolution requesting the government of Uganda to depart from Buganda soil. This was Buganda's response to the abrogation of the constitution that formed the basis on which Uganda had become independent. Obote seized the opportunity to crash Buganda. On May 24th, under the command of Col. Amin, the Uganda Army staged a bloody attack on the palace of the Kabaka of Buganda on Obote's orders ostensibly to forestall a coup. Security forces were deployed in Kampala and other areas of Buganda. The troops killed thousands of unarmed civilians and there was extensive looting, raping and torture by soldiers. Many royalists were arrested and imprisoned without trial and a state of emergency was declared in Buganda. The palace was set ablaze, and many centuries old cultural treasures were destroyed. All of this earned Obote the undying hostility of the people of Buganda who had always looked to the Kabaka as their leader and as a symbol of their ancient culture that stretched back over six centuries. The Kabaka had no army to resist Obote's putsch let alone stage a coup and he fled into exile in Britain where he died in suspicious circumstances three years later.

A judicial commission was set up to investigate the 'Gold Scandal' and Mr. Ochieng returned from an overseas trip to testify before the commission. Curiously, he took ill with "stomach pains" and was admitted to the government hospital at Mulago where he died on June 1, 1966 at the age of 41. The explanation of stomach pains leading to his death was not believed by most people.

In September 1967, Obote imposed a new 'Republican' constitution on the nation, and declared himself President without first calling an election. All kingdoms were abolished formally in the new constitution. Yet in a move typical of the man and intended to spite the Baganda, the abolition of The Kingdom of Buganda was made retroactive to May 24, 1966; unlike the other kingdoms whose abolition was effective with the coming into force of the 1967 constitution! The spirit of the 1967 constitution is captured in this quotation from article 118 which abolished the kingdoms: "No action may be instituted in any Court of law in respect of any matter or claim by any person under this article or under any provision made by Parliament pursuant thereto." Buganda's resilience however was clearly demonstrated when, after Obote was overthrown, the monarchy was restored by an Act of Parliament in 1993 and institutionalized in the new constitution of 1995.

The events of 1966 unleashed a repressive regime which in turn spawned an army coup in 1971 led by Amin. The killings and terror that were first perpetrated in Buganda in 1966 were now extended to other parts of Uganda. Since then, more than 1 million Ugandans are estimated to have lost their lives because of politically inspired violence perpetrated by the state or those revolting against the state. In retrospect, it is clear that the violent and unconstitutional system imposed on Uganda in 1966, which is symbolized by the events of May 24, 1966; was a watershed in our nation's history that needs to be remembered perpetually. A special prayer service to remember the victims of these tragic events was held on May 24, 1996. His Majesty Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, the new Kabaka of Buganda, gave this talk at the service.

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