UPC President, MIRIA KALULE OBOTE, deserves
the title 'Mother of exile' having lived for 29 years (1971-1980,
1985-2005) in exile in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia.
Her deceased husband, former president Apollo Milton Obote,
was overthrown by the military in 1971 and in 1985, on both
occasions fleeing to exile with his family.
In the second part of our new series on life in exile, Miria
Obote tells MICHAEL MUBANGIZI how after
the 1971 coup, the Kenyan government, acting on Idi Amin's
request, repatriated her and children from Kenya where they
had taken refuge, leading to their detention at CPS in Kampala.
She also reveals a plot by Amin to kill her and her children
and blame it on the Langi, Obote's tribe.
I come from a simple, humble family. My father has never
been a leader of any sort, he worked with Uganda - Kenya
Railways that later became East African Railways and Harbours.
He wasn’t a politician and ours wasn’t a political
family at all.
| Miria Obote on her wedding
But as a young person, I was interested in politics but
never thought I would be part of it until I got married
to a politician in 1963.
Once you are married to a politician, definitely you get
interested in politics, becoming a politician in your own
right. I did not actively participate in politics, but as
an observer. I watched what went on, although I had no say.
I couldn’t influence anything. But even before marriage,
I was interested in local politics, like Buganda politics.
For instance, when Kabaka Sir Edward Muteesa returned from
deportation [in 1955], we were students [at Makerere College]
and we went to Lubiri and did some activities, like cleaning
up to prepare for his return. We went in groups such as
Baana ba Buganda that existed at the time.
I had earlier attended the wedding of the Kabaka, I think
in the late 1940s. By then I was in Buloba Demonstration
Primary School on Mityana Road. We walked from Buloba to
Namirembe to attend the wedding.
After the coup, I was planning to stay around as long as
possible and raise my children, hoping that things would
get well, but then I got worried about my security. So many
people advised me to get out. I had to listen.
I was right here (Obote’s Kololo house where the
interview was held) when the coup unfolded. I had a small,
young family and I did not know exactly what was going on
because people who would have told me were all out.
But I remember the then Internal Affairs minister, Bazil
Bataringaya [RIP], had rung and warned me that things weren’t
well. “Mama, things aren’t very good, but don’t
worry, we are trying to sort them out,” he had said,
I remained here, not knowing what was going to happen
until I started hearing gunshots at night. Bataringaya called
me on Sunday or Saturday and then guns started, I think,
Sunday night and Monday morning.
That is how I knew of the coup. That was my first time
to experience a coup, and it wasn’t nice at all; it
was very difficult and rough.
A soldier is a soldier, once he puts on his uniform and
has a gun, they can be very rough. I cannot stand gunshots,
up to now!
Some people who were [guarding our home] ran for their
dear lives. It was soldiers manning the gate, so our security
Later, they (soldiers) called me in the house and searched
it. They found photos of my late husband, myself and a few
friends in the bedroom. They pulled them down saying that
I was not supposed to put them up.
“How can you put them up?” They asked. I said
this is my private bedroom and these are private photos.
It was very frightening, but they did not beat me up. They
later left. It took sometime for me to hear from my husband,
but we later linked up. By then he was in Sudan.
After some time, I tried to return the furniture I had
bought to people who had sold it to me, but then somebody
reported. I knew I could not stay, so I was trying to dispose
of some of these things.
When they (soldiers) were told that I was removing furniture,
a lorry full of soldiers came. “How can you remove
furniture?” they said.
I said this is private not government property. I had a
file with all the receipts and I showed it to them. But
they said, “you can’t do that”, so I had
to leave the furniture [alone].
After this incident, I got worried about my security. I
eventually ran away quietly, leaving everything in the house.
I first sent away the children, then sneaked out to Nairobi.
Any one can have a child, so it is easier for them to flee,
but it was more difficult for me.
I stayed in a friend’s home [in Nairobi] for about
one month, until one morning security people came, put my
children in one car and put me in another with two Kenyan
security officers guarding me. They drove straight to Malaba
border, handed us to Uganda Police and went back.
They (Police) were waiting for orders. I think they had
planned to take me to Lira, through Soroti. I think there
were some plans to kill me and the children, and then blame
the people of Lango. I was supposed to be taken to Lango,
on the way there anything could have happened and they would
say, “the Langi hated this Muganda woman. They must
have killed her.” Luckily, something went wrong.
There was no hatred between me and the Langi, but the
impression they wanted to give was that I came back, went
to Lango and people there finished me. People in Kampala,
and my parents, knew I was [in exile], so we were going
to disappear quietly without a trace.
The officers at the border were supposed to get instructions
from Amin on what to do with us. But they were unable to
get to him. So we stayed there for the night. The following
day, a Police Landover brought us to CPS Kampala where I
was able to contact my people, like my sister. They were
taken aback because they thought I was in Nairobi.
On the way to CPS, between Malaba and Tororo, one of my
sons - [Edward] Engena, kept asking me, “Mum, mum,
are these the people going to kill us?”
I said, “I don’t know”. If I said no
and they are killed in the end, they would say I lied to
them. From CPS, we were taken to meet Amin at Kololo [command
post]. Amin was angry that we had run away. He asked my
children whether they wanted to see their father. They went
with my sister to Dar-es-Salaam. Me I went back to my father’s
home in Kawempe and started planning the next [escape].
Of course I was under surveillance but with the help of
some friends I escaped again through Malaba to Nairobi.
My life was in danger. You could die any time. The word
was ‘disappear’. You could simply disappear
anytime in thin air.
I was worried about the Kenyan government that [had] earlier
brought me back. With the help of friends, I moved stealthily
to Dar-es-Salaam where my children were. My husband found
us there. He had been in Sudan. A lot of things had happened,
but he was happy [to see us]. He was planning to fight and
come back to Uganda and all the years in Tanzania he was
working on coming back.
It was busy everyday because of the many people who visited
us and those that stayed with us. People in exile are usually
frustrated, so it feels better when you meet, talk and discuss.
I played my part in some small way, especially when it came
to receiving messages from people who spoke Luganda.
State House treatment
In Dar-es-Salaam, we had the best treatment. I can’t
complain. We were part of State House -comfortable, well
treated. It was like moving from State House to State House.
We ate the same food as President Julius Nyerere. He treated
us very well and we were neighbours; the president gave
us Musasani next to his and he used to visit us.
We had no income but we did not worry about rent, power
or water being cut because they were catered for by the
government. I remember one time the Prisons tailor made
some clothes for the children.
We got other things from friends and relatives; say people
sending mzee a shirt, a piece of material… and life
went on. We had a simple life as long as we were alive.
We however had to look for school fees because our children
weren’t attending government schools.
Among the people we stayed with in exile was mzee Muntuyera,
the father of [Former Army Commander], Maj. Gen. Mugisha
Muntu, before he passed away in Nairobi. Others, like former
East African Legislative Assembly MP, Yonasani Kanyomozi
and Oyite Ojok, were in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam respectively.
While in exile, we never came to Uganda, we never even stepped
anywhere near the border. Then, Amin attacked Tanzania to
annex part of its land to Uganda. The Tanzanian government
responded by saying, we are going to send you up to Kampala,
and that is what they did.
They passed through Mutukula and fought their way to Kampala
until the Amin government fell [on April 11, 1979]. I remember
the day Kampala fell. Oyite Ojok’s wife bore a son
who was named Kampala.
There was the UNLF first, but we came later towards the
elections [on July 25, 1980] when we went to Bushenyi for
a rally. It was UPC everywhere as people were shouting and
After all those years away, getting such a reception was
encouraging. We came in an aircraft sent by Mzee Kenneth
Kaunda (then president of Zambia) because we wouldn’t
fit in one.
But me, I just accompanied him (Obote) and thereafter went
back to Tanzania. The family was still there and I had to
sort out a few things, like ensuring that the children finish
the school [term] before coming back.
I don’t remember when exactly I came back, but it
was before the December 1980 elections because I actively
participated in that election. This house was the headquarters,
the hub of everything.
You would wake up and find the house full of people asking
for campaign materials, like posters and T-shirts.
I only went to a few rallies, I never accompanied my husband
to distant rallies. But the few rallies I attended were
promising. Of course we had our strongholds and weak areas.
You know very well that in Buganda we are not popular, so
you couldn’t expect the same support as in Bugisu,
[Asked if the alleged rigging by UPC was also planned
We never rigged. What happened is that Kampala or Central
area is near, so results of Kampala and nearby areas came
in first. By that time, people in places like Bundibugyo
were still climbing mountains to take ballot boxes, and
as such had not voted. Because this area is nearer, the
results were already out and these results were all against
I think we did not win a seat in Buganda and in Kampala.
So, [initial results] were putting DP ahead. It was very
easy to think DP was winning, since it was winning all these
seats, forgetting that there are other areas where results
were [yet] to come. Winning Kampala and surrounding areas
doesn’t mean you have won the election.
People who say we rigged base themselves on the initial
Kampala results which were “No UPC, no UPC, no UPC”.
But by the time we collected all the results, UPC had won,
although we were defeated in Kampala and Buganda.
Of course you know the history of our country, the people
of Buganda had not forgiven UPC and mzee for removing the
Kabaka. They still had the feeling that it is UPC that destroyed
The [second coup that led to the] second exile happened
when I was out of the country. I was spared hearing gunshots.
I had led the Ugandan delegation to the United Nations End
of Women’s Decade conference in Nairobi, attended
by women from all over the world.
Our delegation included [now Minister of Education, Namirembe]
Bitamazire, [former Ethics and Integrity Minister, Miria]
Matembe, Prof. [Victoria] Mwaka, and Ms [Joyce] Mpanga.
The conference ended on a Friday. On Saturday, I was more
or less alone because people had gone to buy things as we
were coming back on Sunday. That is when I got a call that
there had been a coup in Uganda.
I believed it because even before I left, things had not
been so good politically. You see in government, you go
through shaky, difficult times and you overcome them. Even
when I left, I thought it would be overcome.
But when it comes to security, you can’t do much.
You leave everything in the hands of those in charge.
Lost in Kenya
I was in a foreign country, not knowing what was going to
happen, what the future held and where to start. It’s
terrible, especially if you are a parent. If you break down,
you don’t give other people strength. So you must
be strong, even if you have your feelings. You must not
show it, you have to put on a brave face to show children
that irrespective of what has happened, life has to continue.
Before leaving [Uganda], I had made arrangements for my
youngest son who was here [at Kololo], with three of his
friends, to receive me at State House in Entebbe on Sunday
[when I was scheduled to come back].
My eldest son Tony was at Namasagali College, the second
and third were in Nairobi, and I was with Akena in Nairobi.
Those in Entebbe got stuck in Entebbe, but our house-keeper,
an Indian lady, ran away with them looking for shelter in
Entebbe where a good gentleman, one Walusimbi, looked after
The Indian High Commission evacuated the Indian lady,
leaving my children there for a few days until the mother
of their friends sneaked them into Nairobi where they found
The Namasagali kid was protected by [the headmaster] Fr.
Grimes. Fr. Grimes talked to Paulo Muwanga, took Tony to
Mzee Muwanga’s house and later worked out how to bring
him to Nairobi.
During the conference, I was staying at the [Deputy] High
Commissioner’s residence. I stayed there for an extra
week or two after the coup because I had no where to go.
After the call, I immediately lost touch with my late
husband. I did not know whether he had been killed, but
later I was told that he had crossed to Kenya. He found
me at a friend’s home where I was.
[Asked what he told her they met in Kenya]-
At that time what do you talk about when things have gone
wrong? It is a difficult time, you are [not even sure] about
Having been overthrown twice, all I can tell you is, it
is bad, you feel bad. You feel as if life has come to a
The Kenyan government refused to give him (Obote) asylum,
that is why he went to Zambia. Me I remained in Nairobi
with the children in schools, but I used to visit Zambia
during holidays, so I was between Uganda, Nairobi and Zambia.
I had moved fast and got a resident permit which he was
denied and that is how I managed to stay in both Kenya and
Nairobi was closer home. But also for strategic reasons
it was important to have a different base not to put all
eggs in one basket.
We needed different bases in case something went wrong.
[Asked if staying in different countries did not affect
It was okay. Even Mzee had to agree because I was also
doing a good job here. My being there also helped the struggle.
I was the link between home and Zambia; people used to come
to me if they wanted Mzee to know something.
In Zambia we had a refugee status. In Kenya I had to keep
a low profile. They allowed me to stay but I wasn’t
allowed to work or do anything.
Surviving was tough, we had to struggle. Life in exile
is not luxurious, it’s tough, but by hook or crook
you have to survive. You become a beggar here and there.
People who enjoy exile are those who are rich, or the
professionals, say if you are a professor in a university.
These go out looking for greener pastures, but for ordinary
politicians, it’s very tough. People suffer. Some
of us were forced into exile to save dear life. Mine was
political because I felt insecure, my life was in danger.
[Asked if there were attempts to talk to them out of exile]-
There was a time in Lusaka, but Hon. [Jimmy] Akena (her
son) can give you exactly what happened because I wasn’t
Somebody started a rumour that mzee wanted to come back.
It gave a false impression that he wanted to talk to Museveni.
One time Museveni was in Zambia and mzee was invited to
go and talk to him but he instead sent other people. Akena
can tell you what exactly happened.
[Asked if she ever advised Obote to come back since she
says exile wasn’t a luxury]-
It wasn’t easy, but it shouldn’t have been
easy here either. He [Obote] was fighting for a cause -
multiparty democracy. He had said he would never come back
as long as Uganda was under a military dictatorship and
a one party system.
When the political space was open and we were going to
have elections under a multiparty system, Mzee was preparing
to come back.
The plan was that from South Africa where he had gone for
a medical check up, he would go back to Zambia and work
on coming back because elections were coming.
Not that he was going to stand, but even if you are at
home, in a wheel chair, as long as the head is working,
you can still help your party. But before making it, he
passed away in South Africa. It was a sad day because really
he wanted to come back alive. Even if he were to pass away,
it would have been better to pass away in his country because
that is what he wanted, but it wasn’t to be.
I had come not prepared for anything and was planning
to go back, sort out a few things before coming back [completely].
We had nothing, the house here was vandalised, it needed
a lot of repairs, so I had hoped to go back while organising
where to stay.
But that is when I was caught up in elections after being
elected UPC Party President. So I couldn’t go back.
I continued staying with my relatives for sometime until
this place (Kololo home) was made habitable.
Home is best
Coping with conditions after all those years in exile has
not been easy at all. I came with nothing, I found nothing,
but some how we have coped.
I am happy we are at home. There is nothing like home.
There is something you feel when you are at home and something
you miss when you are not at home. We have to struggle;
it’s going to be a long struggle but it’s better
to struggle at home rather than in exile.
[And even when you come back after many years in exile],
you need time to adjust because everybody seems to be a
stranger, which makes you feel you are in a foreign country.
You don’t know how things are done because things
and people will have changed.
In exile there is always uncertainty. Because of your status,
people can take advantage of you; “who are you anyway,
you are a refugee, you are not supposed to have this, you
have no license …that kind of thing”.
In Kiswahili they say you are mukimbizi - a refuge. So,
all the time you are made to feel that you don’t belong
there. But I also learnt a lot of things, like how to survive.
I leant to accept things as they come, and things I can’t
change, like my refuge status.
Many refugees want to work and you have to first pay to
get work permits, but as a refugee where do you get that
And if you borrow money, how long will it take you to pay
back that loan if you are earning so little?
In the end, it is useless because you can’t do anything
to survive. You resort to asking relatives, friends, “Please
send me this, please help me here,” it’s a difficult
I don’t want to compare [life in Zambia, Tanzania
and Kenya] because each place has its good and bad things.
But Tanzanians have respect for people, especially elders.
A young person cannot pass by without greeting you. Zambians
are also very polite.
[Asked if exile affected the way she has raised her children]
That is one of the worst things that happened, my children
have suffered. Their education was disrupted, they go to
school there and you stop them, they start here and you
stop them again.
Changing schools affects them, sometimes they lose interest
and you have to beg them to continue because they are having
to change everyday. We have also lost out on culture and
language. Somebody was blaming me why we did not teach our
children our languages - Langi and Luganda. In exile we
have always lived with people from all over Uganda and the
common language was English.
People in exile are very sensitive; once you start talking
in another language, one thinks you are backbiting them.
To avoid that, we used English and in so doing you cannot
follow your culture.
The trials and tribulations one goes through make you better
person. You learn to appreciate everything, little things
like kindness mean more to you. We could have been on the
street, begging. If someone was kind to welcome you to his
home, [you learn to appreciate.]
Exile exposes you to many cultures and these teach you a
lot. I now can get on with anybody and I call myself an
internationalist - I have been in Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania.
I hope factors that force people to go to exile are ending
because nobody wants a coup. I want to change government
legally, through elections, and I hope nobody will start
fighting to change government. Unfortunately, I am not the
one to say that it should never happen again. But this running
and running doesn’t help. Exile life is not good at
all, especially for the children and family.
You lose everything, me I have lost twice, what ever I
had the first time [was lost], I came back and started again.
Again everything goes, how long will you continue starting?