By Andrew Irumba
Republic of Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa. It is bordered to the east by Kenya, to the north by South Sudan, to the west by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the south-west by Rwanda, and to the south by Tanzania. The southern part of the country includes a substantial portion of Lake Victoria, shared with Kenya and Tanzania. Uganda is in the African Great Lakes region. Uganda also lies within the Nile basin, and has a varied but generally a modified equatorial climate.
Uganda takes its name from the Buganda kingdom, which encompasses a large portion of the south of the country, including the capital Kampala. The people of Uganda were hunter-gatherers until 1,700 to 2,300 years ago, when Bantu-speaking populations migrated to the southern parts of the country.
Beginning in 1894, the area was ruled as a protectorate by the British, who established administrative law across the territory. Uganda gained independence from Britain on 9 October 1962. The period since then has been marked by intermittent conflicts, including a lengthy civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Northern Region, which has caused hundreds of thousands of casualties.
The official languages are English and Swahili, although “any other language may be used as a medium of instruction in schools or other educational institutions or for legislative, administrative or judicial purposes as may be prescribed by law.” Luganda, a central language, is widely spoken across the country, and several other languages are also spoken including Runyoro, Runyankole, Rukiga, and Luo.
Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who came to power in January 1986 after a protracted six-year guerrilla war has been president for now 31 years.
According to oral tradition, the Empire of Bunyoro Kitara covered an important part of the great lakes area, from the Northern Lakes Albert and Kyoga to the Southern Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika.Bunyoro-Kitara is claimed as the antecedent of the Buganda, Toro, Ankole, and Busoga kingdoms
Some Luo invaded the area of Bunyoro and assimilated with the Bantu there, establishing the Babiito dynasty of the current Omukama (ruler) of Bunyoro-Kitara.
Arab traders moved inland from the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa in the 1830s. They were followed in the 1860s by British explorers searching for the source of the Nile. British Anglican missionaries arrived in the kingdom of Buganda in 1877 (a situation which gave rise to the death of the Uganda Martyrs) and were followed by French Catholic missionaries in 1879.
The British government chartered the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) to negotiate trade agreements in the region beginning in 1888. From 1886, there were a series of religious wars in Buganda, initially between Muslims and Christians and then, from 1890, between ba-Ingleza Protestants and ba-Fransa Catholics. Because of civil unrest and financial burdens, IBEAC claimed that it was unable to “maintain their occupation” in the region. British commercial interests were ardent to protect the trade route of the Nile, which prompted the British government to annex Buganda and adjoining territories to create the Uganda Protectorate in 1894.
In the 1890s, 32,000 labourers from British India were recruited to East Africa under indentured labour contracts to construct the Uganda Railway. Most of the surviving Indians returned home, but 6,724 decided to remain in East Africa after the line’s completion. Subsequently, some became traders and took control of cotton ginning and sartorial retail.
From 1900 to 1920, a sleeping sickness epidemic in the southern part of Uganda, along the north shores of Lake Victoria, killed more than 250,000 people.
Uganda gained independence from Britain on 9 October 1962 as a Commonwealth realm with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. In October 1963, Uganda became a republic but maintained its membership in the Commonwealth of Nations.
The first post-independence election, held in 1962, was won by an alliance between the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and Kabaka Yekka (KY). UPC and KY formed the first post-independence government with Milton Obote as executive prime minister, with the Buganda Kabaka (King) Edward Muteesa II holding the largely ceremonial position of president.
Uganda’s immediate post-independence years were dominated by the relationship between the central government and the largest regional kingdom – Buganda. Indeed, an understanding of this relationship is critical to understanding the current political and social elements that have forged and continue to shape Uganda.
From the moment the British created the Uganda protectorate, the issue of how to manage the largest monarchy within the framework of a unitary state had always been a problem. Colonial governors had failed to come up with a formula that worked. This was further complicated by Buganda’s nonchalant attitude to issue. Buganda never sought independence, but rather appeared to be comfortable with a loose arrangement that guaranteed them privileges above the other subjects in the protectorate – or a special status when the British left. This is best demonstrated by the battle between the British Governor Cohen and the Kabaka and his subjects prior to Independence.
Within Buganda there were divisions – between those who wanted the Kabaka to remain a dominant monarch, and those who wanted to join with the rest of Uganda to create a modern secular state. The split resulted in the creation of two dominant Buganda based parties – the Kabaka Yekka (Kabaka Only) KY, and the Democratic Party (DP) that had roots in the Catholic Church. The bitterness between these two parties was extremely intense especially as the first elections for the post-Colonial parliament approached. The Kabaka particularly disliked the DP leader, Benedicto Kiwanuka.
Outside Buganda, a quiet spoken politician, Milton Obote, from Northern Uganda had forged an alliance of non-Buganda politicians to form the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC). The UPC at its heart was dominated by politicians who wanted to rectify what they saw as the regional inequality that favoured Buganda’s special status. This drew in substantial support from outside Buganda. The party however remained a loose alliance of interests but Obote showed great skill at negotiating them into a common ground based on a federal formula.
At Independence, the Buganda question remained unresolved. Uganda was one of the few colonial territories that achieved independence without a dominant political party with a clear majority in parliament. In the pre-Independence elections, the UPC ran no candidates in Buganda and won 37 of the 61 directly elected seats (outside Buganda). The DP won 24 seats outside Buganda. The “special status” granted to Buganda meant that the 21 Buganda seats were elected by proportional representation reflecting the elections to the Buganda parliament – the Lukikko. KY won a resounding victory over DP, winning all 21 seats.
KY held the balance of power, and the bitterness with the DP in Buganda walked the Kabaka to seek an alliance with UPC, further enhanced by Obote’s promise to keep Buganda’s “special status” and grant the Kabaka the ceremonial presidential role.
The UPC and KY thus entered a coalition, and were boosted further by the nine seats allocated by parliament (six to UPC and three to KY). An additional seat was allocated to the Attorney General which was given to a Buganda UPC supporter – Godfrey Binaisa. The UPC now had 44 of the 92 parliamentary seats as Uganda celebrated independence, still short of a majority and dependant on KY to rule. Obote became Prime minister, and as promised the Kabaka became ceremonial president.
This arrangement had an almost immediate impact on the opposition DP – especially among its MPs who after all shared many of the values that were espoused by the UPC. Just two years after independence in 1964 a trickle of defections from the DP meant that the UPC had achieved an absolute majority in parliament, and no longer needed the support of KY. Without any formal announcement, the coalition arrangement ended, although the Kabaka remained president.
The UPC reached a high at the end of 1964 when the leader of the DP in parliament, Basil Bataringaya crossed the parliamentary floor with five other MPs, leaving DP with only nine seats. The DP MPs were not particularly happy that their leader Benedicto Kiwanuka’s hostility towards the Kabaka that was hindering their chances of compromise with KY. The trickle of defections turned into a flood when 10 KY members crossed the floor when they realized the formal coalition with the UPC was no longer viable.
Obote’s charismatic speeches across the country were sweeping all before him, and the UPC was winning almost every local election held and increasing its control over all district councils and legislatures outside Buganda. The response from the Kabaka was mute – probably content in his ceremonial role and symbolism in his part of the country. However, there were also major divisions within his palace that made it difficult for him to act effectively against Obote. By the time Uganda had become independent, Buganda “was a divided house with contending social and political forces”
There were however problems brewing inside the UPC. As its ranks swelled, the ethnic, religious, regional and personal interests began to shake the party. The party’s apparent strength was eroded in a complex sequence of factional conflicts in its central and regional structures. And by 1966, the UPC was tearing itself apart. The conflicts were further intensified by the newcomers who had crossed the parliamentary floor from DP and KY.
The UPC delegates arrived in Gulu in 1964 for their delegates’ conference. Here was the first demonstration as to how Obote was losing control of his party. The battle over the Secretary General of the party was a bitter contest between the new moderate’s candidate – Grace Ibingira and the radical John Kakonge.
Ibingira subsequently became the symbol of the opposition to Obote within the UPC. This is an important factor when looking at the subsequent events that led to the crisis between Buganda and the Central government. For those outside the UPC (including KY supporters), this was a sign that Obote was vulnerable. Keen observers realized the UPC was not a cohesive unit.
The collapse of the UPC-KY alliance openly revealed the dissatisfaction Obote and others had about Buganda’s “special status”. In 1964 the government responded to demands from some parts of the vast Buganda Kingdom that they were not the Kabaka’s subjects. Prior to colonial rule Buganda had been rivaled by the neighboring Bunyoro Kingdom. Buganda had conquered parts of Bunyoro and the British colonialists had formalized this in the Buganda Agreements. Known as the “lost counties”, the people in these areas wished to revert to being part of Bunyoro.
Obote decided to allow a referendum, which angered the Kabaka and most of the rest of Buganda. The residents of the counties voted to return to Bunyoro despite the Kabaka’s attempts to influence the vote.Having lost the referendum, KY opposed the bill to pass the counties to Bunyoro, thus ending the alliance with the UPC.
The tribal nature of Ugandan politics was also manifesting itself in government. The UPC which had previously been a national party began to break along tribal lines when Ibingira challenged Obote in the UPC. The “North/South” ethnic divide that had been evident in economic and social spheres now entrenched itself in politics. Obote surrounded himself with mainly northern politicians – A. A. Neykon, Felix Onama, Alex Ojera – while Ibingira’s supporters who were subsequently arrested and jailed with him, were mainly from the South – George Magezi, B. Kirya, Matthias Ngobi. In time, the two factions acquired ethnic labels – “Bantu” (the mainly Southern Ibingira faction) and “Nilotic” (the mainly Northern Obote faction). The perception that the government was at war with the Bantu was further enhanced when Obote arrested and imprisoned the mainly Bantu ministers who backed Ibingira.
These labels brought into the mix two very powerful influences. First Buganda – the people of Buganda are Bantu and therefore naturally aligned to the Ibingira faction. The Ibingira faction further advanced this alliance by accusing Obote of wanting to overthrow the Kabaka.They were now aligned to opposing Obote. Second – the security forces – the British colonialists had recruited the army and police almost exclusively from Northern Uganda due to their perceived suitability for these roles. At independence, the army and police was dominated by Northern tribes – mainly Nilotic. They would now feel more affiliated to Obote, and he took full advantage of this to consolidate his power. In April 1966, Obote passed out eight hundred new army recruits at Moroto, of whom seventy percent came from the Northern Region.
It is true that at the time there was a tendency to see central government and security forces as dominated by “Northerners” – particularly the Acholi who through the UPC had significant access to government positions at national level. In Northern Uganda there were also varied degrees of anti-Buganda feelings, particularly over the kingdom’s “special status” before and after independence, and all the economic and social benefits that came with this status. “Obote brought significant numbers of Northerners into the central state, both through the civil service and military, and created a patronage machine in Northern Uganda”.
However, both “Bantu” and “Nilotic” labels represent significant ambiguities. The Bantu category for example includes both Buganda and Bunyoro – historically bitter rivals. The Nilotic label includes the Lugbara, Acholi and Langi who have bitter rivalries that were to define Uganda’s military politics later. Despite these ambiguities, these events unwittingly brought to fore the northerner/southerner political divide which to some extent still influences Ugandan politics.
The UPC fragmentation continued as opponents sensed Obote’s vulnerability. At local level where the UPC dominated most councils discontent began to challenge incumbent council leaders. Even in Obote’s home district, attempts were made to oust the head of the local district council in 1966. A more worrying fact for the UPC was that the next national elections loomed in 1967 – and without the support of KY (who were now likely to back the DP), and the growing factionalism in the UPC, there was the real possibility that the UPC would be out of power in months.
Obote went after KY with a new act of parliament in early 1966 that blocked any attempt by KY to expand outside Buganda. KY appeared to respond in parliament through one of their few remaining MPs, the terminally ill Daudi Ochieng. Ochieng was an irony – although from Northern Uganda, he had risen high in the ranks of KY and become a close confidant to the Kabaka who had gifted him with large land titles in Buganda. In Obote’s absence from Parliament, Ochieng laid bare the illegal plundering of ivory and gold from the Congo that had been orchestrated by Obote’s army chief of staff, Colonel Idi Amin. He further alleged that Obote, Onama and Neykon had all benefited from the scheme.arliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of a motion to censure Amin and investigate Obote’s involvement. This shook the government and raised tensions in the country.
KY further demonstrated its ability to challenge Obote from within his party at the UPC Buganda conference where Godfrey Binaisa (the Attorney General) was ousted by a faction believed to have the backing of KY, Ibingira and other anti-Obote elements in Buganda. Obote’s response was to arrest Ibingira and other ministers at a cabinet meeting and to assume special powers in February 1966. In March 1966, Obote also announced that the offices of President and Vice President would cease to exist – effectively dismissing the Kabaka. Obote also gave Amin more power – giving him the Army Commander position over the previous holder (Opolot) who had relations to Buganda through marriage (possibly believing Opolot would be reluctant to take military action against the Kabaka if it came to that). Obote abolished the constitution and effectively suspended elections due in a few months. Obote went on television and radio to accuse the Kabaka of various offences including requesting foreign troops which appears to have been explored by the Kabaka following the rumours of Amin plotting a coup. Obote further dismantled the authority of the Kabaka by announcing among other measures:
The abolition of independent public service commissions for federal units. This removed the Kabaka’s authority to appoint civil servants in Buganda.
The abolition of the Buganda High Court – removing any judicial authority the Kabaka had.
The bringing of Buganda financial management under further central control.
Abolition of lands for Buganda chiefs. Land is one of the key sources of Kabaka’s power over his subjects.
The lines were now drawn for a show down between Buganda and the Central government. Historians may argue about whether this could have been avoided through compromise. This was unlikely as Obote now felt emboldened and saw the Kabaka as weak. Indeed, by accepting the presidency four years earlier and siding with the UPC, the Kabaka had divided his people and taken the side of one against the other. Within Buganda’s political institutions, rivalries driven by religion and personal ambition made the institutions ineffective and unable to respond to the central government moves. The Kabaka was often regarded as aloof and unresponsive to advice from the younger Buganda politicians who better understood the new post-Independence politics, unlike the traditionalists who were ambivalent to what was going on as long as their traditional benefits were maintained. The Kabaka favoured the neo-traditionalists.
In May 1966, the Kabaka made his move. He asked for foreign help and the Buganda parliament demanded that the Uganda government leave Buganda (including the capital, Kampala). In response Obote ordered Idi Amin to attack the Kabaka’s palace. The battle for the Kabaka’s palace was fierce – the Kabaka’s guards putting up more resistance that had been expected. The British trained Captain – the Kabaka with about 120 armed men kept Idi Amin at bay for twelve hours. It is estimated that up to 2,000 people died in the battle which ended when the army called in heavier guns and overran the palace. The anticipated countryside uprising in Buganda did not materialize and a few hours later a beaming Obote met the press to relish his victory. The Kabaka escaped over the palace walls and was scuttled off into exile in London by supporters. He died there three years later.
In 1966, following a power struggle between the Obote-led government and King Muteesa, Obote suspended the constitution and removed the ceremonial president and vice-president. In 1967, a new constitution proclaimed Uganda a republic and abolished the traditional kingdoms. Obote was declared the president.
After a military coup on 25 January 1971, Obote was deposed from power and General Idi Amin seized control of the country. Amin ruled Uganda as dictator with the support of the military for the next eight years. He carried out mass killings within the country to maintain his rule. An estimated 80,000–500,000 Ugandans lost their lives during his regime. Aside from his brutalities, he forcibly removed the entrepreneurial Indian minority from Uganda. In June 1976, Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France flight and forced it to land at Entebbe airport. One hundred of the 250 passengers originally on board were held hostage until an Israeli commando raid rescued them ten days later. Amin’s reign was ended after the Uganda-Tanzania War in 1979, in which Tanzanian forces aided by Ugandan exiles invaded Uganda. Museveni has been president since his forces toppled the previous regime in January 1986.
Political parties in Uganda were restricted in their activities beginning that year, in a measure ostensibly designed to reduce sectarian violence. In the non-party “Movement” system instituted by Museveni, political parties continued to exist, but they could operate only a headquarters office. They could not open branches, hold rallies, or field candidates directly (although electoral candidates could belong to political parties). A constitutional referendum cancelled this nineteen-year ban on multi-party politics in July 2005.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Museveni was lauded by western countries as part of a new generation of African leaders.
His presidency has been marred, however, by invading and occupying the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Second Congo War, resulting in an estimated 5.4 million deaths since 1998, and by participating in other conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa. He has struggled for years in the civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been guilty of numerous crimes against humanity, including child slavery, the Atiak massacre, and other mass murders. Conflict in northern Uganda has killed thousands and displaced millions.
Parliament abolished presidential term limits in 2005, allegedly because Museveni used public funds to pay US$2,000 to each Member of Parliament who supported the amendment. Presidential elections were held in February 2006. Museveni ran against several candidates, the most prominent of them being Rtd.Col.Dr.Kizza Besigye.
On 20 February 2011, the Uganda Electoral Commission declared the incumbent president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni the winning candidate of the 2011 elections that were held on 18 February 2011. The opposition however, were not satisfied with the results, condemning them as full of sham and rigging. According to the official results, Museveni won with 68 percent of the votes. This easily topped his nearest challenger, Besigye, who had been Museveni’s physician and told reporters that he and his supporters “downrightly snub” the outcome as well as the unremitting rule of Museveni or any person he may appoint. Besigye added that the rigged elections would definitely lead to an illegitimate leadership and that it is up to Ugandans to critically analyze this.
The European Union’s Election Observer Mission reported on improvements and flaws of the Ugandan electoral process: “The electoral campaign and polling day were conducted in a peaceful manner. However, the electoral process was marred by avoidable administrative and logistical failures that led to an unacceptable number of Ugandan citizens being disfranchised.”