Uganda honors controversial former leader Milton Obote

Is state funeral for Obote a chance for reconciliation?

Not everyone in the nation Milton Obote first guided to independence 43 years ago will be mourning during his state funeral Friday.

When Mr. Obote died in a South African hospital last week, he had spent the past two decades of his life in exile.

So when current President Yoweri Museveni - the former guerrilla leader who helped oust Mr. Obote from office in 1985 after a brutal civil war - approved a state funeral for Obote in the capital, many Ugandans were surprised. Even in death, Obote is proving to be as divisive as ever.

To his supporters, he was Uganda's best president, one whose anticolonial stance influenced his peers and their successors.

"Across the African continent, many of the founding fathers have left us. He is simply one of the greatest of those," says Joseph Ochieno, a senior member of Obote's party, the Uganda People's Congress.

Yet many Ugandans not loyal to Obote see things differently.

"We don't like [Obote] because he chased our king and killed my grandmother and grandfather in Luwero," says aspiring young writer Vincent Sekitoleko of Kampala.

Obote's army killed between 300,000 to 400,000 people, many of them in the Luwero district north of Kampala, as it tried to crush Museveni's rebellion.

Uganda has never experienced a significant peaceful transition of power. It has endured four military coups and one civil war, and two of its three main presidents have died in exile, making it a prime example of the winner-take-all political cycle that has hampered the progress of many African nations. So there was a certain amount of optimism that allowing Obote to have a state funeral would be a positive step toward reconciliation.

"The fact that [Obote] has died, the fact that Museveni has always used Obote as a boogeyman, now that Obote is no more, means there is an opportunity for us, as a country, to start afresh," says Mr. Ochieno.

But most observers say politics, not altruism, lurks behind Museveni's forgiveness.

"Museveni has nothing to lose by graciously accepting. He's facing an election after all...." says Dr. Nelson Kasfir, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. That election is scheduled for March 2006, and he's already amended the Constitution to lift presidential term limits. Dr. Kasfir says Museveni's party wants to contest northern Uganda, where Obote is from.

"If [Museveni] wins, he has to rule the whole country," says Kasfir.

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