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Martin Aliker and Uganda’s Presidents :: Uganda Radionetwork

Martin Aliker and Uganda’s Presidents

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22 Apr 2024 22:30
The late Dr. Martin Aliker
  Mourners gathered at Aworanga village outside Gulu City on Sunday to pay tribute and give a final send-off to Dr. Martin Aliker, a man who, over a long and distinguished career, served every president in Uganda. 

The veteran politician, businessman, diplomat and dental practitioner died in Kampala a week ago drawing the curtain on a long and illustrious life that leaves an indelible mark in both politics and business. 

Born in Aworanga, Gulu District, Aliker was a son of Lacito Okech, a local chief who ensured his children went to the best schools in Uganda. Aliker and many of his siblings, including Daudi Ocheng, went to Kings College Budo and then to Makerere University.   Aliker later went to the United States where he qualified as Doctor of Dental Surgery from Northwestern University, Chicago, in 1959. 

It was while in the United States that he met his future wife, Camille, and the two got married in 1959. She was to stay by his side throughout his life.   Back in Uganda around the time of independence, Aliker positioned himself at the intersection of politics, business and professional dental practice. This was to shape his life and career for decades. He would go on to succeed in all as an influential business leader and investor, sitting on boards of several organisations for decades.

Some of these included Uganda Breweries Limited from 1961 to 2001; Cooper Motor Corporation from 1962 to 1972 and again from 2000 to 2006; and Longman Publishing, Uganda from 1965 to 1987. Other organisations on he was director of, or on whose boards he sat are Phoenix Assurance Company of East Africa from 1969 to 1993; Coca-Cola Africa Region from 1991 to 2004; Nation Media Group from 2001 to 2011; and Heritage Oil, Uganda from 2003 to 2010.  

Aliker was also Chairperson, Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust Fund, Uganda Chapter from 2012 to 2013 and Chancellor of several universities including Gulu University from 2002 to 2014 and Victoria University among others.

This positioning, over several decades, enabled him to build a network friends at home and across the globe which came in handy when the rapidly changing politics forced him to play an active role. 

At home or in exile, Aliker found himself mixing his dental practice and business with some political activity. Along the way, Aliker met with almost all the presidents of Uganda and some in the region. In his 2018 memoir, “The Bell is Ringing: Martin Aliker’s Story”, Aliker documented his encounters with some of the leaders.  

In November 1963 Aliker was best man to Prime Minister and later President Apollo Milton Obote. This, however, would not be the last time the two were meeting, as fate brought them back together in December 1969 in an operating theatre and again in 1984 in State House. In both these meetings, it’s Obote who needed Aliker, not the other way round. 

Besides Obote, Aliker was advisor to President Yusuf Kironde Lule in 1979, advisor to President Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa from 1979 to 1980 and senior advisor in charge of special duties to President Yoweri Museveni when he came to power in 1986. In 1996, Aliker joined the cabinet as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and later as Minister for Parliamentary Affairs.  

Obote met Miria at my house   

Dr. Aliker writes that he had known Obote from their student days when Obote was at Gulu High School from where he went to Busoga College Mwiri after he failed to secure admission to Kings College Budo. Aliker attributes Obote’s failure to join Budo to “family name” recognition. On page 94 of his book, he writes that this failure to go to Budo created some sense of grudge in Obote.   

Their next meeting was at Makerere University. Aliker writes: “By then Obote had become eccentric. He walked around with an English language dictionary, trying to learn the meaning of words in the book.” After two years at Makerere, Obote left because he wanted to study law a programme the university college did not have at the time.  

The two met again in 1959 when Aliker was dental practitioner and Obote a firebrand member of the Legislative Council (Legco) whose members, according to Aliker, received a meagre stipend. “As a result, the four Legco members from northern Uganda often came to my house for drinks,” he wrote. Aliker’s wife, Camille, had made friends with some “university women” including one named Miria Kalule, who frequently visited the Alikers at their residence on Plot 2, Dundas Road, Kololo. It was here that Obote and Miria met one evening in 1963.  

Of those moments, Aliker writes on page 95: “I recognized that Obote was clever and shrewd, though unprincipled. I felt some sympathy towards him as a bit of an outsider from the Langi, a minority group from the north. When he married Miria…he asked me to be his best man. We were not especially close, but Obote valued his association with me as a prominent northerner in Kampala.” Obote and Aliker became neighbours in Kololo and their children always played together.  

Frosty relationship   

Aliker describes Obote as a man who lived simply and had no ambition to acquire wealth and that when he was overthrown in January 1971, he went into exile a poor man. The 1971 coup came just a year after an attempt on Obote’s life at Lugogo, Kampala, in December 1969. This incident brought Obote and Aliker back together, face to face, after years of what he describes as years of a frosty relationship. The events of 1966 in which Aliker’s elder brother, Daudi Ocheng was a central figure had created a wedge. “My friendship with Obote was put to the test when my brother Daudi brought a motion in Parliament to impeach him.”   The climax of these events was a May 1966 military raid, with Obote’s blessing, of the Mengo Palace. Kabaka Edward Muteesa, who was also President of Uganda, escaped and ran into exile in the UK where he died three years later. Ocheng, meanwhile, died just a week after the attack, on June 1, 1966. Aliker says that while his brother had been diagnosed with cancer of the stomach, the actual cause of his death may never be known.  

Aliker the surgeon   

On the evening of 19 December 1969, President Obote was shot and injured in an assassination attempt at Lugogo Stadium. The president was rushed to Mulago Hospital from where it soon emerged that he needed surgery. 

According to Aliker, Obote’s injuries were not critical but the bullet had damaged his mouth and teeth. “The professor of surgery at Mulago, Sir Ian McAdam, phoned me at home and told me and told me, ‘this is a job only you can do. Come straight away.’”  

Aliker and McAdam worked together in the operating theatre where they treated the president’s wound, saved most of his teeth and he was discharged within a week. Aliker quotes Professor McAdam as saying, after the operation: “If the British have done nothing else for this country but to produce you, then we have succeeded.” 

I have three portfolios, take one…   

This was not the end between Obote and Aliker. The rise of Amin forced both to live in exile, Obote immediately and Aliker from 1972. After the fall of Amin in 1979 both Aliker and Obote returned to Uganda.

In the 1980 elections, Aliker stood for a parliamentary seat in Gulu South as a Democratic Party candidate. He says that he won the election with a landslide but a Uganda People’s Congress candidate was declared winner instead. As Aliker returned into exile in Kenya, Obote formed a government. 

But the country was insecure as several groups opposed to Obote’s return and the rigging of the 1980 elections waged war.   Around 1984, according to Aliker, Obote contacted sent a personal letter to him through Chris Rwakasiisi, who was the security minister, inviting him to Kampala for a meeting. 

In the meeting, Obote told his old friend that he held three portfolios – President, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Finance. He writes on page 137 that Obote said he could not offer him the presidency, but was open to discussion on the other two portfolios. 

Calling it an ‘ambush’, Aliker says he thanked the president for the offer but politely declined to take it citing the fact that he had stood as a DP member in the 1980 elections and that some of Obote’s ministers did not like to work with him.  

On the conduct of some ministers, Obote told Aliker, ‘I can deal with them.’ Aliker eventually told his friend that he would not stand in the next elections. If Obote won, he would serve in the cabinet. “He seemed satisfied, but the elections did not then happen,” Aliker writes.

 Treating Amin’s mother  

Sometime in 1970, Major General Idi Amin Dada, the Commander of the Uganda Army, telephoned Dr. Aliker. The military man needed urgent treatment for his mother who had a toothache. Amin drove his mother to see Dr. Aliker. “She had been in great pain from a heavily swollen abscess in the jaw,” Aliker writes adding that it was a simple procedure of “to drain the pus without the need for an operation.” Months later, General Amin was on the phone again, this time with him in pain and needing urgent attention at home.

“He claimed that he had injured his leg and would not admit to gout from which he was obviously suffering. I explained that this was not my field, but called my friend, Professor John Tulloch…”

According to Aliker, the professor immediately discontinued the medication Amin was on saying that if Amin had gone on taking the pills he was taking, he would have been dead within a week.   Soon after Amin had grabbed power from Obote in January 1971, Aliker realized he was a marked man and had to run into exile. Earlier, in 1968, he had become the board chairperson of Consolidated Newspapers, publishers of the Uganda Argus, the biggest English language newspaper at the time.

Months after the 1971 coup, Aliker received information that he was on the list of those to be arrested and, with the help of one of the directors of the Uganda Argus, he escaped to Kenya. His family followed him shortly after. Life in exile had begun.

Five Presidents in one room   

The fall of President Amin in April 1979 after eight tumultuous years generated excitement among the Ugandans living in exile. In late March 1979 a three-day conference was organized in Moshi, Tanzania, to plan a post-Amin future for Uganda. By this time the war to remove Amin had entered the final phase with the rebel forces advancing towards Kampala.

Aliker traveled from Nairobi to join other Ugandans in Moshi. Unknown to the delegates at the conference opened on 24 March, was that at least five of the men at Moshi – Professor Yusuf Lule, Godfrey Binaisa, Paulo Muwanga, Tito Okello and Yoweri Museveni – would go on to lead Uganda. Aliker would interact with all of them at different times, three of them at the very venue of the conference.  

On page 124 of his memoir, Aliker says Tito Okello, a Colonel at the time but who would rise to the rank of General, approached him and delivered a message reportedly from the soldiers at the battlefront. The message was that when they returned home in Uganda, the soldiers wanted Aliker to be the next president of Uganda. He writes: “After some thought, I declined the offer. My principal reason was fear for my parents’ safety. What had happened to Daudi (Ocheng) had devastated them and Ugandan politics was a dangerous game.” 

Aliker says it was him who proposed to Okello the name of Yusuf Lule as the best candidate for the highest office, something the soldier accepted but Lule seemed to decline. He says it took him two days of talking as they walked on the streets of Moshi town for Professor Lule to accept the proposal. At the same time, Paulo Muwanga’s name had emerged as a potential candidate for the highest office in post-Amin Uganda. 

According to Aliker, Muwanga had turned up at Moshi in full military fatigues as proof that he was a “fighter”. “He never forgave me for pointing out that he had done no fighting.” Lule was overwhelmingly elected Chairman of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) and, in effect, sworn in as President of Uganda on 13 April 1979.

What post would you like? 

On page 127, Aliker writes that, once back in Uganda, President Lule invited me to join his government with an open-ended offer of whatever position he wished to be appointed to. For the first month Aliker was based at State House, acting as personal assistant to President Lule. He was later asked to take over the running of the Libyan Arab State Bank in Kampala. 

“Incidentally, I discovered that Amin had used the bank to transfer $11 million to his account in a Swiss bank via Libya. He had not, however, provided this bank with a specimen signature, so was unable to withdraw any of these funds when he fled Uganda."

Soon, Lule was gone, being toppled following disagreements with the National Consultative Council (UCC), the Parliament of the time. At the time of Lule’s removal, Aliker was in the UK having been sent by the president to lobby for financial support for the new government. This was to be Lule’s last major decision as President.  

You could not advise Binaisa   

After the collapse of the Lule government, Aliker returned home and was soon invited to meet the new president, Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa. 

Aliker describes President Binaisa as a genial person but one who failed at most of the things he lay his hands on. But he concludes, the former attorney general was never a tribalist during his time as president. 

Binaisa had traveled from the United States to Moshi for the conference but was denied entry under unclear circumstances. In office as Lule’s replacement, Binaisa had Tumusiime-Mutebile and Ben Dramadri as his private secretaries, and Aliker as an advisor but he never used their services, preferring to do things himself. “For example, when he wanted a pint of milk delivered each day to his parents, he wrote and signed the letter himself on State House stationery,” Aliker says.   

Aliker notes in the book that it was difficult to offer advice to the president because he did not see anything wrong. Binaisa had a way of telling one advisor what another had told him in confidence. Aliker continued serving as a presidential advisor, accompanying Binaisa to the Commonwealth conference in Zambia in August 1979 and going on another lobbying mission to the UK in early 1980.   

Aliker says he was leader of Uganda’s delegation to Zimbabwe in May 1980 to represent President Binaisa at the independence celebrations. On the delegation were Professor Dani Nabudere, Army Chief of Staff David Oyite Ojok and Yoweri Museveni. 

When they returned they went to meet President Binaisa and to brief him. “While I was telling the president our story, Museveni was looking at the bullet holes in the ceiling. He was not interested at all and made no effort to hide his contempt for the president.”   Later that week, the Military Commission led by Paulo Muwanga and Museveni as his deputy toppled Binaisa and grabbed power.  

Get me a Mercedes Benz  

Leaders kept rising and falling in post-Amin Uganda – from Lule to Binaisa; Binaisa to Muwanga and the Military Commission; Muwanga to Obote; and Obote to Tito Okello, in a July 1985 military coup. 

Aliker, who had returned to exile in Kenya and to his dental practice, was called once again to meet the new military leader. Okello reportedly wanted Aliker to become “financial secretary” but the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Olara Otunnu, opposed it. But something else happened which convinced Aliker to abandon everything and return to Nairobi.   

On page 138 he writes that after meeting with President Tito Okello, he also visited Bazilio Okello, the new Chief of Staff, at his house in Kololo. While there, he heard Bazilio give orders to one of his aides in Kiswahili, "Kwenda nipatiye gari ya Mercedes (Go and get me a Mercedes.)”   

Later that night, while watching the news on TV, the true meaning of the order became clearer. “I heard about the killing of a man named Lubwama at Najjanankumbi on the Entebbe Road. The following day I returned to Bazilio's house for a further meeting and there, in the drive, was Lubwama's red Mercedes Benz.

In the late 1960s, Lubwama's mother Jane had worked for us and we had paid for his secondary education. I was deeply shocked and this confirmed my view that I could not become involved in this government.”   

Aliker returned to Nairobi as the military government tried to talk peace with Museveni whose war was entering its fifth year.

In October, two months after his encounter with General Tito Okello, Aliker was back in Uganda, this time running to Gulu to see his ailing father, Lacito Okech. He flew from Nairobi to Entebbe but, because of the war, he could not risk going to Gulu by road. What did he do? 

“Museveni’s guerrillas had made the road from Kampala to Gulu impassable. Tito Okello was in power and he lent me his Canadian-piloted helicopter, which landed at Aworanga.”   

While one President was lending Aliker a helicopter, another was about to take over and he would look for Aliker. The peace agreement signed in December 1985 did not hold and fighting resumed. 

In late January 1986 Museveni and his rebel army marched into Kampala as the Okellos ran into exile. In an interview in 2013, Aliker summarized his encounter with yet another president of Uganda.   

"President Museveni sent for me in 1986. I went to see him in State House Entebbe and he gave me two hours of his time. I left with two thoughts in my mind: that this man is either very sincere or a superb actor.” I said to myself, ‘I will give him the benefit of the doubt and I will help him.’ And he exploited my contacts overseas by sending me on missions to which he could not send his ministers to. This continues to this day."   

On 15 April 2024, the sun set on this illustrious journey. At age 95 and more than six decades after his journey in public service started, Aliker died.

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