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November 15, 2007
29 years in exile

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 day

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.

1971 coup
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, without elaborating.

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 was gone.
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].

Sneaking away
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.

Liberation war
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 cheering.

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, Lango, Teso.

[Asked if the alleged rigging by UPC was also planned here]
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 us.

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 our Kabakaship.

Second exile
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 them.

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 me.

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 the future.
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 standstill.

Asylum denied
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 Zambia.
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 their marriage]-

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.

Tough life
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 involved.
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”.

Exile children
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 money from?
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 life.

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?



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