John Gideon Okello (1937, Lango District, Uganda – 1971?) was an East African revolutionary and the leader of the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964. This revolution overthrew Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah and led to the proclamation of Zanzibar as a republic.
Little is known of Okello's youth although he was baptized at age two and given the baptismal name of Gideon. He was orphaned at age eleven and grew up with other relatives. When he was fifteen, he left and set out on his own and found work in several places within East Africa. At various times, Okello was a clerk, manservant, gardener, and in odd-jobs. He later went through training to become a bricklayer. He was arrested in Nairobi, (Kenya) for unclear reasons and was incarcerated for two years, during which time he became interested in revolutionary ideas.
Police officer on Pemba
In 1959 Okello left for the island of Pemba, where he tried to find work on one of the farms, but became a police officer instead. Okello joined the Afro-Shirazi Party of sheik Abeid Karume. This party opposed the domineering position of the minority Arabs on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.
Okello left for Zanzibar in 1963, where he contacted the leaders of the Afro-Shirazi Youth League, the youth organisation of the Afro-Shirazi Party. The Youth League strived for a revolution in order to break the power of the Arabs. On Zanzibar, Okello was also a member of the Painters Union, being a house painter. In his free time he built up a small army of determined African nationalists. This army was required to hold themselves to the strict rules of Okello: sexual abstinence, no raw meat and no alcohol.
The highly religious Okello was convinced he had been given orders in his dreams by God to break the powerful position of the Arabs and to found the revolutionary state on Zanzibar and Pemba. On the night before the “revolution”, rumor has it that Okello gave his men the order to kill all Arabs between 18 and 25 years of age, to spare pregnant and elderly women, and not to rape virgins.
On January 12, 1964, with popular support from the island's oppressed native African majority, Okello and his men fought their way to the capital of Zanzibar, Stone Town, where the sultan lived. Even though they were poorly armed, Okello and his men surprised the police force of Zanzibar and they took power.
During a speech on radio, Okello dubbed himself the "field marshal of Zanzibar and Pemba". He gave the sultan an order to kill his family and to kill himself afterwards; otherwise, Okello would do so himself. However, the sultan had already brought himself to safety later to be harboured in Britain. The prime minister and other ministers also managed to escape.
The coup led to the poorly-known massacre of between 5,000 and 20,000 Arabs, whose families had been living in Zanzibar for centuries, between January 18 and 20. Footage of the massacre can be seen in Gualtiero Jacopetti's film Africa Addio, a 1966 exemplar of the Mondo film genre.
Shoved to the side
Okello created a Revolutionary Council and named the leader of the Afro-Shirazi Party, Abeid Karume, as president and leader of the (Arabic) Umma-(Massa) Party, sheik Abdulrahman Muhammad Babu as prime minister (later: vice-president). Both Karume and Babu had not been informed of the coup. Both residing in Tanganyika, but returned to Zanzibar, where they were welcomed by Okello. However, neither Karume nor Babu wanted anything to do with him. Afterward, Okello appeared to be too unstable to play any role in government of the new country and was quietly sidelined from the political scene by Karume, who allowed him to retain his title of Field Marshal.
By 3 February Zanzibar was finally returning to normality and Karume had been accepted, almost unquestionably, as its president. Okello formed a paramilitary unit, known as the Freedom Military Force (FMF), from his own supporters which is known to have patrolled the streets and become involved with looting. In addition Okello's violent rhetoric, his thick and dialectic English pronunciations and Acholi tribal English accent- typical of Acholi from Northern Uganda, and his Christian beliefs alienated many in the largely moderate, Zanzibari and Muslim ASP. By March many of his FMF had been disarmed by Karume's supporters and an Umma Party militia. Okello was denied access to the country when he tried to return from a trip to the mainland and deported to Tanganyika and then to Kenya before returning, destitute, to his native Uganda. He was officially removed from his post as Field Marshal on 11 March.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) was formed by the government in April and completed the disarmament of Okello's remaining FMF troops. On 26 April Karume announced that he had negotiated to enter into a union with Tanganyika to form the new country of Tanzania. Karume's reason for doing so may have been to prevent the radicals in the Umma Party from taking over the country or to reduce the possibility of increasing communist influence in East Africa. Despite this, many of the Umma Party's socialist policies on health, education and social welfare were adopted by the government.
Speculations concerning his death
Okello then stayed in Kenya, in Congo-Kinshasa and in Uganda. He was incarcerated multiple times and was last seen with the Ugandan president Idi Amin in 1971 and vanished afterwards. In the book “Revolution on Zanzibar”, written by Don Petterson, it is more or less assumed that Idi Amin saw him as a threat (after Amin promoted himself Okello reportedly joked that "now Uganda has two field marshals") and had arranged his assassination. This remains speculative, however.
Cultural references to Okello
The black slave played by Edward Roland in Werner Herzog's 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God is named "Okello". In his commentary to the DVD version of the film, Herzog also says that the character of Aguirre himself was partly modelled on John Okello, with whom the director had been in contact. (Okello had wanted Herzog to translate a book he had written.) Herzog explains: "I chose the name Okello because I owe his craze, his hysteria, his atrocious fantasies quite a bit for this film".
- Plekhanov, Sergeĭ, A Reformer on the Throne: Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said, Trident Press Ltd, p. 91, ISBN 1-900724-70-7
- Parsons 2003, p. 107
- Speller 2007, p. 7
- The Times (of London) (4 February 1964), "Zanzibar Quiet, With New Regime Firmly Seated", New York Times: 9
- Speller 2007, p. 15
- Sheriff & Ferguson 1991, p. 242
- Speller 2007, p. 17
- Conley, Robert (12 March 1964), "Zanzibar Regime Expels Okello", New York Times: 11
- Conley, Robert (27 April 1964), "Tanganyika gets new rule today", New York Times: 11
- Speller 2007, p. 19
- Sheriff & Ferguson 1991, p. 241
- DVD commentary to Aguirre, Wrath of God (Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2004), track 13
- Bakari, Mohammed Ali (2001), The Democratisation Process in Zanzibar, GIGA-Hamburg, ISBN 3-928049-71-2.
- Clayton, Anthony (1999), Frontiersmen:Warfare in Africa since 1950, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 1-85728-525-5.
- Kalley, Jacqueline Audrey; Schoeman, Elna; Andor, Lydia Eve (1999), Southern African Political History, Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 0-313-30247-2.
- Okello, John (1967), Revolution in Zanzibar, Nairobi: East African Publishing House.
- Parsons, Timothy (2003), The 1964 Army Mutinies and the Making of Modern East Africa, Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 0-325-07068-7.
- Plekhanov, Sergey (2004), A Reformer on the Throne: Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said, Trident Press Ltd, ISBN 1-900724-70-7.
- Sheriff, Abdul; Ferguson, Ed (1991), Zanzibar Under Colonial Rule, James Currey, ISBN 0-85255-080-4.
- Shillington, Kevin (2005), Encyclopedia of African History, CRC Press, ISBN 1-57958-245-1.
- Speller, Ian (2007), "An African Cuba? Britain and the Zanzibar Revolution, 1964.", Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 35 (2): 1–35.