Obote began his political career with Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, after being denied an opportunity to study law in the United States by the British colonial government. Upon returning to Uganda, he founded the Ugandan National Congress (UNC) in 1955 and was elected to the colonial legislature in 1958. In 1959, the UNC split, and Obote became head of the newly formed Uganda People's Congress. After several years as head of the opposition, Obote formed a coalition with the Baganda royalist party and was elected prime minister in 1961. He assumed the post on April 25, 1962, with Sir Edward Mutesa, the kabaka (king) of the Baganda as president when Uganda gained independence in October 1963.
As prime minister, Obote was implicated in a gold smuggling plot, together with Idi Amin, then deputy commander of the Ugandan armed forces. When Parliament demanded an investigation of Obote and the ouster of Amin, Obote suspended the constitution and had several members of his cabinet arrested. Obote was eventually cleared of the charges but the episode created tensions between him and Mutesa, who was critical of Obote for suspending the constitution. Obote responded by staging a coup against Mutesa and having himself declared president on March 2, 1966.
Obote was Uganda's second post-colonial president. His rule was greatly destabilized by the military. In 1971 he was deposed by his army chief, Idi Amin.
After the fall of Amin in 1980, Obote was reinstated as president. It has been estimated that from 100,000 to 300,000 people died as a result of fighting between Obote's UNLA and several other military groups, most notably Yoweri Museveni's NRA. He was deposed in 1985 by Lt Gen Bazilio Olara Okello. A Military Council was established with Tito Okello as its head. Within a year, Yoweri Museveni took control of Uganda.
After his downfall, Obote fled to Tanzania and now lives in Zambia.