Dr Martin Aliker, a veteran dental surgeon, politician and businessman says he was approached twice to be president of Uganda, each time turning the offer down.
The 90-year-old presidential advisor and former minister says it was him who nominated Professor Yusuf Lule and convinced him to become president of Uganda in April 1979, after the fall of the government of General Idi Amin Dada.
Today marks 39 years since a combined force of Uganda exiles, with support from the Tanzanian army – the TPDF, overthrew Amin, the climax of a five-month brutal war that had started in October 1978 when Amin invaded Tanzania.
In his 2018 autobiography, “The Bell is Ringing: Martin Aliker’s Story”, Dr Aliker reveals that, long before the war and Amin ouster, he had been approached by two religious leaders who asked him to consider becoming president of Uganda, after Amin.
The second request came in March 1979 during the Moshi Conference, when Col Tito Okello Lutwa, a commander of Kikosi Maalum, one of the fighting groups; walked up to Aliker and told him the “fighters” wanted him (Aliker) to be president. Okello would become a General and commander of the post-Amin army, the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).
In July 1985, Okello, with support from his friend and tribesman, Lt-General Bazilio Olara Okello, toppled the second government of Apollo Milton Obote and became president.
Aliker’s book details an illustrious journey that starts in Gulu in Acholi in 1928, takes him to affluent schools such as Kings College Budo and later Makerere University. The journey would later take him to the United States on a scholarship from where he qualified as a dental surgeon.
Returning to Uganda in 1959, after seven years abroad, Aliker established himself as a dental surgeon and businessman among other roles until October 1972 when he ran into exile in Nairobi, Kenya. It is here that he reestablished himself, both in business and his profession as a dentist, but also played part in different activities to overthrow Amin.
Meeting religious leaders
On page 118, Aliker narrates a story that happened in 1977, the year Archbishop Janan Luwum was brutally murdered alongside two government ministers – Charles Oboth-Ofumbi and Lt. Col. Erinayo Oryema – on the pretext that they were plotting to overthrow Amin’s government.
Later that year, according to Aliker, he received two “unexpected visitors.” These were Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga, the head of the Catholic Church in Uganda at the time and Bishop Dunstan Nsubuga, of Namirembe Diocese.
“They were two archbishops, the head and acting head of the Catholic and Anglican churches, both coincidentally called Nsubuga, who were attending a conference in Nairobi,” Aliker writes.
It would appear Bishop Dunstan Nsubuga was acting archbishop in the interim, after the death of Archbishop Luwum in February 1977 and before the election of Bishop Silvanus Wani as substantive archbishop later in the year.
The two religious leaders reportedly asked to meet Dr Aliker privately. “I invited them to my surgery after working hours. They came straight to the point. Recognizing that Amin’s regime was unlikely to survive much longer, they asked me to consider becoming the next president,” writes Aliker on page 119.
The prelates, according to Aliker, saw him as the best person to heal ethnic wounds, build consensus and rebuild the run-down country.
“I listened attentively, but they did not convince me. One of the archbishops asked me to say after him: “Lord, if this be the cup from which I must drink, then Lord, let it be so, Amen.”
Little-known plans to remove Amin
On page 120 of his book, “The Bell is Ringing”, Aliker mentions taking part in or being aware of, two secretive plans in 1977 to remove General Amin by force. In one of the plans, hatched in early 1977, Aliker’s friend named Carl Ziegler, a banker from Chicago, the United States at the time, introduced him to another man identified as Peter Sprague.
Aliker quotes Sprague as telling him: “I cannot sleep at night while Amin is alive.” Aliker says Sprague provided 30,000 US dollars for an assassination attempt code-named “Luzira.”
“Although the planning was thorough and careful, two attempts failed,” Aliker says without giving details of where and when the two attempts were made.
On June 18, 1977 officers and men of the Uganda Air Force staged a coup plot against Idi Amin code named ‘operation mafuta mingi‘. The plot, which eventually failed, was headed by Major Patrick Balati Kimumwe. The officers hoped to assassinate General Amin at Abayita Ababiri along Entebbe road, after he chaired a cabinet meeting at State House, Entebbe.
Under unclear circumstances, however, the plan leaked to the operatives of the notorious State Research Bureau (SRB) and some of the plotters were arrested. It is not clear if this is one of the two failed attempts Aliker alludes to in his book.
International media reported at the time that Amin had gone into hiding for over a week after the June 18, 1977 incident, only to resurface and say he had been on a belated honeymoon with his youngest wife, Sarah. However, while attending the 14th Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in July 1977 in Libreville, Gabon, Amin confirmed there had been an attempted coup in Uganda. As had become his custom, Amin accused the West of complicity.
Amin was quoted by the Desert Sun newspaper of July 4, 1977, saying: “I captured some of the people who tried to assassinate me. I have got them, and that will be debated later at the present meeting. The whole Western press knew what was going to happen to me. They were sending people to Uganda to kill me, to Angola to kill President Agostinho Neto, to Benin to kill President Mathieu Kerekou and to Guinea to kill President Sekou Toure.”
Meeting former Governor Sir Walter Coutts
Aliker mentions another plan to remove Amin in early 1978 by force of arms. He says he was approached by Bruce Mackenzie, a former minister of agriculture in Kenya, who asked him to fly to London urgently for an important meeting, “the purpose of which was undisclosed.”
“On arrival at Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge, the former governor-general of Uganda, Sir Walter Coutts, phoned and told me to take a taxi to an address just behind Piccadilly Circus,” he writes on page 120.
Other people he met there included David Sterling, the founder of Special Air Service who was also known for setting up and running private military companies and another person named Andrew Nightingale, who Aliker believes was using a pseudo name.
Sir Coutts is the man who handed the instruments of power to Apollo Milton Obote in October 1962 and stayed on as governor for one more year before the election of Sir Edward Muteesa as president of Uganda.
The veteran dentist, politician and businessman quotes Sir Walter Coutts as saying: “The situation in Uganda is intolerable. The country that we know and love is being destroyed. A benefactor has offered 10 million Pounds to secure a change in the regime…”
According to Sir Coutts, the plan to remove Amin had been discussed with the full cooperation of the Kenyan government at the time.
The meeting discussed strategy and tactics and a military training camp was established in northern Kenya. The plan, according to Aliker, was abandoned in October 1978 when Amin invaded Tanzania and the war, which would end his rule on April 11, 1979, started.
By the time the details of the training got underway, however, Bruce Mackenzie was already dead. On May 24, 1978, Mackenzie flew from Nairobi to Uganda for a meeting with General Amin. On his way back, his plane crashed in Ngong Hills near Nairobi and killed all on board.
There are reports that a bomb was planted by Amin’s agents on the plane as revenge for Mackenzie’s role in helping Israel during the July 4, 1976, military raid on Entebbe. This account is supported, among others, by Major Bob Astles in his 2012 book “Forty Tribes: A life in Uganda”.
In early 1979, when the war entered another phase and it became clear that the Amin government would fall within weeks, Uganda exiles under different fighting groups gathered in the northern Tanzanian town of Moshi to discuss the post-Amin Uganda. It was at the Moshi Conference – held from March 24 to 26 – that the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) was born. The different fighting groups were merged to form the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) which would become the national army after the fall of Amin.
The fighting groups that formed UNLA included Kikosi Maalum led by Milton Obote and commanded by Tito Okello Lutwa and David Oyite Ojok; Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) led by Yoweri Museveni; Save Uganda Movement led by Akena p’Ojok, William Omaria and Ateker Ejalu; and Uganda Freedom Union with Godfrey Binaisa, Andrew Kayiira and Olara Otunnu as its leaders.
Okello approaches Aliker
On page 124 of his book, Aliker says that while at the Moshi Conference, Okello walked up to him and said: “When we reach home, we – the fighters – want you to be the president of Uganda.”
Aliker says that he declined the offer after careful thought, the key reason being, that he knew his parents would not have approved of it. Up until this time he had avoided playing a direct role in politics.
His elder brother, Daudi Ochieng had entered politics at an early age, becoming a Member of Parliament in 1962 on the Kabaka Yekka ticket, and playing a key role in the events that eventually tore the country apart in 1966. It was Ochieng who moved a motion in February 1966 to have Obote, then army commander Idi Amin and several ministers investigated for their role in plundering mineral resources in Congo.
On May 24, 1966, Obote sent the army, commanded by Amin, to attack Muteesa’s palace at Mengo. The president, also Kabaka of Buganda, escaped into exile in the United Kingdom where he died three years later.
Ochieng, meanwhile, was pronounced dead on June 1, 1966, just a week after his closest friend, Muteesa, was exiled. Aliker says Ochieng had been battling cancer of the stomach, but the cause of death, at that particular time, was questionable and it left their parents devastated.
It was on this consideration that Aliker politely turned down Okello’s request.
“What happened to Daudi had left them (parents) devastated and Ugandan politics was a dangerous game,”
Aliker says he proposed to Okello that Professor Lule should become president of Uganda after the fall of Amin. While Okello agreed, Aliker says Lule was reluctant. “It took me two days walking the streets of Moshi with him to persuade him to accept the job. At the conference I was his strong supporter,” he writes.
This would create long-term enmity between Aliker and Paulo Muwanga, who too wanted to become president. “Muwanga had bought a military uniform and appeared in military fatigues. He never forgave me for pointing out that he had done no fighting.”
It was partly because of this reason that Aliker ran back into exile shortly after the 1980 elections in which he says he was robbed of victory in Gulu in favour of a Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) candidate.
After the fall of Amin, Lule invited Aliker to join his government. In a 2013 interview with Dr Sue Onslow from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Aliker quotes President Lule in a conversation between the two: “What do you want to be?” And I said, “I just want to help you. And so I stayed with him in State House, in Entebbe, as his advisor.”
In the book, however, he explains that he was also appointed to run the Libyan Arab State Bank in Kampala as well as going on different missions in the United Kingdom to lobby for funding for the new government. While in London on one of these lobbying trips, Aliker got the news that the Lule government had fallen, only 68 days after becoming president.