Tended his father’s goats before going to Lira Protestant Mission school in Lango, then Gulu High School and Marina College in Jinja. Graduated with an arts degree from Makerere College. Denied the chance by the British colonial authorities to take up a scholarship abroad, Obote turned to politics.
After five years in Kenya, working first in Nairobi District African Congress and then with the rival Peoples’ Convention Party of Tom Mboya he returned in 1955 to set up the Lango branch of the
Uganda National Congress. He entered the Legislative Council by winning the Lango seat in the first democratic elections held in November 1958. When the UNC split in 1959 he led his following into the Uganda Peoples’ Congress and became president of the party.
He formed an alliance with the Kabaka Yekka (King Only) party to unite his strength in the rural areas with the Baganda at the centre. The coalition defeated the Democratic Party and brought him to power as Prime Minister on April 30, 1962. His next aim was to erode Buganda traditionalism from inside the alliance. On October 3, 1963, he argued his party caucus into accepting the Kabaka as President of Uganda. The real power was soon shown to be in Obote’s hands as Prime Minister. Gradually Kabaka Yekka and Democratic Party supporters crossed over to the UPC. But the rivalry between the Baganda and other tribes spread into the UPC, making Obote himself insecure in the resulting tension.
The first challenge to Obote came in February 1966 from Daudi Ocheng in a parliamentary attack accusing ministers of smuggling gold from the Congo. Obote on tour in the north was implicated. Parliament passed a motion with only one dissenting voice demanding an enquiry. The cabinet, in Obote’s absence, agreed. Obote returned to Kampala on February 22, suspended the constitution and had five ministers detained. He promoted the man, Colonel Idi Amin, who was later to oust him as commander in chief. An independent enquiry into the smuggling cleared the government of the most serious charges. But the Kabaka continued the challenge, contesting Obote’s right to suspend the constitution. Obote answered with force, sending in the army to storm the Kabaka's palace on May 24 and setting the country on the road to revolution.
Under his new constitution of June 1967 the four old kingdoms were abolished, detention could be imposed without a state of emergency, and Parliament’s life extended for a further five years. The new socialism was proclaimed on October 9, 1969, in his speech setting out his “Move to the Left” and his “Common Man’s Charter” both adopted by the UPC conference on December 19, 1969. The conference decided on a one-party state. On his way from the conference Obote was shot in the mouth. Several politicians were detained, including Benedicto Kiwanuka. A new economic policy laying down a 60-40 partnership with foreign firms was announced by Obote on May 1, 1970. Ministers complained they had not been consulted and serious confusion followed. With less and less regard for democratic procedures the UPC resolved in August 1970 that its president should be President of Uganda so that Obote would be returned unopposed.
By the end of the year there were still no preparations for the elections promised in April. In an atmosphere of uncertainty about his willingness to face the electorate Obote left for the Commonwealth Conference in Singapore in January 1971. Colonel Idi Amin learned of Obote’s instructions to remove him as commander in chief and staged a coup on January 25 while Obote was in Singapore. After waiting in vain for the coup to founder, Obote sought refuge in Tanzania. Though normally resident near Dar es Salaam he frequently visited Sudan where his sympathisers were allowed to train until the February agreement between the Khartoum government and the Southern Sudanese. His troops then left for Tanzania. They were largely responsible for the abortive invasion of Uganda on September 17, 1972. Obote decided the strategy but did not take a personal part in the invasion.
A professional politician renowned for his skill in political infighting. With subtle persuasion and infinite patience Obote overcame the opposition of the Kabaka (King of Buganda) and his traditionalist supporters, first by offering them an alliance and then by outmanoeuvring them. Winning power was his achievement; putting his socialist leanings into concrete form was more difficult. Once in power he found himself isolated, relying upon a few kinsmen and handicapped by illness. Although not personally acquisitive he gradually succumbed to the political temptations of absolute rule.