On July 27th 1985, angry Acholi generals who had retreated to Gulu returned to Kampala and overthrew the UPC government of Milton Obote.
They were angry with him for sidelining them in top appointments in the army yet it was their kin who were facing the brunt of the rebel NRA’s onslaught.
Obote had taken almost a year to replace his army chief Oyite Ojok who had perished in a helicopter crash and when he did he still picked a Langi Opon Acak whom several Acholi officers thought they were better qualified for the job. The tribal army had kept disintegrating until July 27th, exactly 35 years ago.
Disorganization or lack of preparation was evident from the outset.
The announcements of the coup indicated that no effort would be spared to avenge the lives of Acholi soldiers who had perished under the mismanagement of the forces.
The new rulers called on one Comrade Museveni to come out of the bush and join their government. They appointed the Vice President and defence minister of the very government they had overthrown as Prime Minister.
They entered peace talks with the NRA and signed a peace agreement that nobody believed in on December 17th. The NRA swept them from power 40 days later.
Although with Dr Obote quietly resettled in Zambia his UPC seemed to overtly start on a descending trend, the party spirit still burnt fiercely in the hearts of its adherents.
The geographical and community base of UPC was fractured as Langi elders were angry with the Acholi soldiers for betraying the party are said to have advised the Langi to be law-abiding and keep off the Acholi-led armed rebellion and preserve themselves for the future when the UPC would make “a constitutional comeback”.
When political party activity restricted to headquarters under the NRM broad-based government, the UPC put up a more spirited resistance to the no-party rule than the DP several of whose leaders were holding key positions in Museveni’s cabinet.
The vocal DPs led by one Michael Kaggwa were repeatedly clobbered by the police operating under the DP President General docket who was interior minister Paulo Ssemogerere. UPC leaders in the Movement parliament – National Resistance Council – were unyielding in criticizing the no-party arrangement.
But the strongest UPC at the time was Mama Cecilia Atim Ogwal, party deputy secretary general and de facto leader while the party president and founder Milton Obote was in exile. In 1995, the new constitution was finally enacted.
Two of its strongest safeguards against dictatorship were the limits on the presidency that put the presidential terms at a maximum of two and the age of presidential candidates at 75 years.
Several strategists in the NRM political high command believed that the limit on age would effectively lock out Dr Apollo Milton who had a cult following of UPC members, whose age was advancing.
After the death of Obote, there would be no need to for such strategists to support keeping the age limit in the constitution.
Most UPC supporters could not fathom the idea of their party fielding anybody other than Dr Obote to start for president. In the country’s first ever direct presidential elections of 1996, the UPC thus supported Dr Paulo Ssemogerere’s candidature.
UPC actually worked hard for Ssemogerere (ironically the man whose victory they are accused of cheating in 1980, which officially prompted Museveni to go to the bush) under the an inter political forces coalition called IPFC then headquartered at Kabusu. J
Just months before, the UPC delegates in the Constituent Assembly had also raised eyebrows by supporting Buganda ‘federo’ cause though it is UPC that violently abolished Buganda’s federal status in 1966. When the then Nyabushozi MP Elly Karuhanga said the Baganda were used (by UPC) as political condoms, UPC luminary Ekulo Epak admitted so, explaining that their party was so suspicious of the NRM that they could only engage (he used a blunt vulgar term) it while using the said “condoms”!
Supporting Ssemogerere in 1996 was the last serious political fight UPC ever put up at national level. After that it became a downhill journey to date.
Milton Obote died in 2005 and in 2006, UPC fielded Obote – Mrs Miria Kalule who holds the record of being Uganda’s first lady two times – for president.
But just like 2001, the race was between Museveni and Kizza Besigye and other candidates were just also-runs. UPC also lost its most credible fighter, Mama Cecilia Ogwal, who joined FDC.
In 2011, UPC’s presidential race was just a farce as their candidate Olara Otunnu did not even bother to vote for himself. Just before the polls, the remaining significant national UPC leaders defected en masse to NRM.
A bemused Museveni received the UPC heavyweight with apparent disbelief exclaiming, “These are really big fish!” Those who surrendered included Hajji Badru Wegulo, then chairman.
There followed intermittent unprincipled fights among the remnants for party supremacy that degenerated into physical blows until Olara Otunnu (a former UN under-secretary general) was physically bundled out of Uganda House for the last time, but not before being given a thorough physical beating.
Jimmy Akena, son of party founder Milton Obote emerged party president, on top of what was left of the party, as his dear wife jumped into the NRM government as cabinet minister.
But all is possible in politics and UPC even without Obote might one day become a national force again, but certainly not in 2021.