John Okello

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John Okello
Died1971 (aged 33–34)

John Gideon Okello (1937–1971) was a Ugandan 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.[1]



Little is known of Okello's youth: he was born in Lango District, in what was the Uganda Protectorate, and was baptized at age two, receiving 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 did odd-jobs as he drifted around British East Africa,[2] living in various times in Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika.[3] He later went through training to become a bricklayer.[3] He was arrested in Nairobi, Kenya on allegations of rape and was incarcerated for two years, an experience that left him with an intense hatred of the British.[4] In 1959 Okello left for the island of Pemba, where he tried to find work on one of the farms. Okello joined the Afro-Shirazi Party of Sheikh Abeid Karume.[4] This party opposed the dominant position of the minority Arabs on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.[5] A charismatic man, Okello's speeches denouncing British imperialism, the South Asians from the Indian subcontinent who dominated the commercial life of Zanzibar and the Arabs who dominated the political life of the Sultanate of Zanzibar won a following amongst the African population of the sultanate.[4] In 1961, the Arab-dominated Zanzibar Nationalist Party won a rigged election, which convinced Okello that only a revolution achieved by violence would give the African majority political power in Zanzibar.[6]


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 strove 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, which gave a regular salary and allowed to move around the island, supposedly giving speeches at union branches, but in reality to organize a revolution to overthrow the sultan.[7] 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.[7]

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 find a revolutionary state on Zanzibar and Pemba. Okello also said that he received orders from God, when still in Uganda, by how he observed the position of stones in a stream. On the night before the revolution, 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.[7]


On 12 January 1964, with popular support from the island's 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.[8]

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 and would later escape to Britain. The prime minister and other ministers did not escape and were imprisoned for many years.[9][10]

The coup led to the little known blood bath of between 2,000 and 4,000 ethnic Arabs, South Asian and Comorians,[11][12] whose families had been living in Zanzibar for centuries, between 18 and 20 January.[7] In addition to the murders, followers of Okello carried out thousands of rapes and destroyed property and homes.[13] Within a few weeks, a fifth of the population had died or fled.[14]

Shoved to the side[edit]

Okello created a Revolutionary Council and was named the leader of the Afro-Shirazi Party; Abeid Karume was appointed President, and the leader of the (Arabic) Umma-Massa Party, Sheik Abdulrahman Muhammad Babu Prime Minister (later, Vice-President). Neither Karume nor Babu had been informed of the coup. Both resided 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.[15][16]

By 3 February Zanzibar was finally returning to normality and Karume had been accepted, almost unquestioningly, as its president.[17] 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.[18][19] In addition to Okello's violent rhetoric, his thick and dialectic English pronunciations and lango tribal English accent- typical of lango from Northern Uganda, and his Christian beliefs, alienated many in the largely moderate, Zanzibar and Muslim ASP.[20] By March many of his FMF had been disarmed by Karume's supporters and an Umma Party militia.[19][20] Okello was denied access to the country when he tried to return from a trip to the mainland and was deported to Tanganyika and then to Kenya before returning, destitute, to his native Uganda.[20] He was officially removed from his post as Field Marshal on 11 March.[21]

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) was formed by the government in April and completed the disarmament of Okello's remaining FMF troops.[20] On 26 April Karume announced that he had negotiated to enter into a union with Tanganyika to form the new country of Tanzania.[22] 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.[22][23] Despite this, many of the Umma Party's socialist policies on health, education and social welfare were adopted by the government.[24]

Speculations concerning his death[edit]

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; he vanished afterwards.[25] In the book Revolution in Zanzibar 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 arranged his murder. But regarding the joke, presuming "Field Marshall" Okello was killed in 1971 (he officially met with Amin in the same year of the coup), it was at least a couple of years later that Amin was promoted to Field Marshal. But Okello's ethnic group (Lango), his popularity and charisma, may well have been a factor in his mysterious disappearance.

Cultural references to Okello[edit]

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".[26]


  1. ^ Petterson, Donald. (2002). Revolution in Zanzibar : an American's Cold War tale. Boulder, Colo.: Westview. ISBN 0-8133-4268-6. OCLC 49395604.
  2. ^ "British East Africa".
  3. ^ a b Petterson 2002, p. 25.
  4. ^ a b c Petterson 2002, p. 26.
  5. ^ Petterson 2002, p. 11.
  6. ^ Lofchie, Michael (October–November 1967), "Was Okello's Revolution a Conspiracy?", Transition (33): 36–42, doi:10.2307/2934114
  7. ^ a b c d Petterson 2002, p. 27.
  8. ^ "An African Cuba? Britain and the Zanzibar Revolution, 1964". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History – via Taylor & Francis Online.
  9. ^ "Zanzibar Revolution : The Biggest Massacre in East African History". KenyaTalk. Retrieved 27 May 2020.
  10. ^ "Field Marshal John Okello, the forgotten hero". Daily Monitor. Retrieved 27 May 2020.
  11. ^ Conley, Robert (19 January 1964), "Nationalism Is Viewed as Camouflage for Reds", The New York Times, p. 1, retrieved 16 November 2008.
  12. ^ Los Angeles Times (20 January 1964), "Slaughter in Zanzibar of Asians, Arabs Told", Los Angeles Times, p. 4, retrieved 16 April 2009
  13. ^ Petterson 2002, p. 65.
  14. ^ Minahan, James, Encyclopedia of the Stateless Nations: S-Z, pp. 2088–2089, ISBN 9780313323843
  15. ^ Parsons 2003, p. 107
  16. ^ Speller 2007, p. 7
  17. ^ The Times (of London) (4 February 1964), "Zanzibar Quiet, With New Regime Firmly Seated", New York Times, p. 9
  18. ^ Speller 2007, p. 15
  19. ^ a b Sheriff & Ferguson 1991, p. 242
  20. ^ a b c d Speller 2007, p. 17
  21. ^ Conley, Robert (12 March 1964), "Zanzibar Regime Expels Okello", New York Times, p. 11
  22. ^ a b Conley, Robert (27 April 1964), "Tanganyika gets new rule today", New York Times, p. 11
  23. ^ Speller 2007, p. 19
  24. ^ Sheriff & Ferguson 1991, p. 241
  25. ^ Petterson 2002, p. 177.
  26. ^ DVD commentary to Aguirre, Wrath of God (Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2004), track 13