On January 25, 1971, Africa experienced its 27th coup and a second in Uganda when the then army commander, Maj. Gen. Idi Amin toppled President Apollo Milton Obote.
Obote and his entourage of over 30 officials had gone to Singapore to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
The Nile Post caught up with Henry Kyemba, the then Principal Private Secretary to Obote, with whom they were in Singapore to talk about the events on the day.
Leaving Uganda for Singapore
According to Obote in his book: My Story, he did not want to go to Singapore, because there was a lot taking place in the country including; upcoming elections in April.
However, when the British Prime Minister Edward Heath announced that they were going to resume sale of arms to South Africa, the Pan African spirit in Obote arose, prompting him to draft a presentation to rebuff the proposal.
A well written proposal it was, and his President colleagues requested that he present it at the Singapore conference since only he could delve the details in it.
On the day he was leaving to Singapore, Kyemba narrates, he called Oyite Ojok and Idi Amin to his office, but let in Ojok first whom he briefed for minutes.
“Ojok was an adjutant to Amin and as the PPS, I smelt something wrong with this, so I went to Milton (Obote) and asked him if I should get Idi Amin to join the meeting. He told me he will have him briefed later after he was done with Ojok,” Kyemba said.
According to Kyemba, the meeting between Amin’s junior and Obote could have given Amin a certain amount of restlessness, given the previous flow of events in which he was highly suspected of having masterminded the assassination attempt on Obote at Lugogo.
Amin on the day Obote was shot in Lugogo had gone suspiciously missing for two days, yet he was the army commander. He only showed up several days later after Obote had recuperated, and since then he had started looking over his shoulder.
Obote in his own book states that he had started suspecting Amin of something, as well he had been warned of Amin by several people.
While in Singapore, Kyemba says they were joined by Permanent Secretary in the president’s office, Chris Ntende who had come to brief the president on the situation in Kampala.
“There was no hotel room left since every place was fully booked, but I had a double room next to the President’s room. I offered space to Ntende,” Kyemba recalls.
“Ntende had to brief the president late in the night because that is the same time when it would be day time in Uganda. The two had to make calls to different offices in Kampala for feedback,” Kyemba adds.
Kyemba narrates that during the conversation between Obote and Ntende, he overheard a call made to the Central Police Station in Kampala to one Commissioner of Police, Collin Anywar asking about the situation in Kampala.
“The person on the other side of the phone said the army was on the move but that police were on standby. I realised things had gone bad. Why would the army be on the move but the police are just on standby?”
Obote went ahead with his presentation, lambasting imperialists and Britain, when he was done, British Prime Minister Edward Heath made a statement that caused him to think.
“Those who are condemning the British policy to sell arms to South Africa, some of them will not go back to their countries.”
Obote claims he knew the statement was meant for him, he immediately rang the Vice President Johm Babiha and Internal Affairs Minister Basil Bataringaya who told him there was a minor army movement but they had taken care of it.
“They said Amin had planned to assassinate me upon arrival at the airport but they had taken care of that. Secondly they said they had alerted loyal army officers. I told them that was very little, too late,” Obote said.
Kyemba narrates that Obote summoned his entourage to the room and explained to them the situation.
“He told us we are going to Kampala, but the situation is tricky.”
The group left Singapore aboard a chattered aircraft by East African Airways.
Kyemba narrates that since it was his duty to always report to the president on a number of things, it was also his role to listen in to the different current affairs and report appropriately.
It is for this reason that he was allowed access to the pilot’s cockpit where he would listen in to the BBC radio service and divulge the details to Obote.
“While we were flying, I went to the cockpit and the news was not good. BBC was announcing the overthrow of our government by Amin. I asked the pilot to communicate the matter to the President but he refused and said, no you go and tell him.”
Kyemba says this is the hardest news he had had to deliver to Obote in all his time, and after moments of gathering the energy, he walked to where Obote was seated, in a low and very cautious voice said:
“It is not good news on your side (Obote was anxious to know, sitting upright in his First Class seat). Idi Amin has overthrown you.”
Kyemba says that the moment Obote got the news, he threw himself back in his seat and he immediately developed silence.
Additional contribution from Nelson Bwire Kapo
Tomorrow,we look at Obote’s response after recovering from the silence .