Uganda: A Modern History 
by Jan Jelmert Jorgensen.
Croom Helm, 384 pp., £13.95, May 1981, 0 85664 643 1
Show More
Imperialism and Revolution in Uganda 
by Wadada Nabudere.
Onyx Press/Tanzania Publishing House, 376 pp., £14.25, March 1981, 0 906383 06 4
Show More
Show More

Two years after the overthrow of Idi Amin in Uganda three governments have come and gone, and the fourth presides over a country whose British-created institutions are empty shells and where the only authority is violence. President Milton Obote returned to power after nine years in exile by means of an election so flawed by violence under the veneer of respectability provided by Britain and the Commonwealth that thousands of Ugandans have died, fled abroad, been detained without trial or gone underground in the wake of what should have been the country’s rebirth. Pockets of the country have reverted to local control wielded by tribal warlords. The members of the educated élite have mostly decided there is no place for them in a context of pre-colonial fragmentation: Uganda was a British creation and it has not produced a strong enough sense of nationalism to entice these people to exchange London, Washington and Nairobi for the Herculean task of rebuilding Uganda. They are permanent exiles now, educating a new generation of privileged, rootless international civil servants and businessmen.

Both these books trace the original economic considerations which brought Britain to colonise Uganda in the 19th century. Lord Salisbury, Queen Victoria’s Conservative Prime Minister, put it like this:

Administration of the country is not the sole or the main object that should interest us. It is our business in all these new countries to make smooth the paths for British commerce, British enterprise, the application of British capital at a time when other paths, other outlets for the commercial energies of our race are gradually closed by commercial principles ... and I confess that not wholly but in a great measure this great undertaking of England with respect to Uganda has been taken for the reason that it is a country of enormous fertility and has what many countries of fertility have not.

The story of the building of the railway from Mombasa, of the forcible introduction of cash crops to recoup the capital costs, and taxes to administer the venture, by an alliance of British business, church and government interests with local chiefs, is well told in both books from a similar, anti-British point of view. For the average peasant the benefits were ‘negligible’, according to Jorgensen: ‘Integration into the world system was accompanied or preceded by epidemics, wars of pacification, forced labour, increased taxes and rent, conscription for war service and a sharp drop in population as well as by higher incomes for some, more consumer goods and the introduction of schools and hospitals.’ Nabudere supplies a wonderfully revealing 19th-century quotation to show British church and business interests united in the transformation of patterns of Ugandan life. Sir Charles Eliot:

If the African Christian was to abandon his place on the old ladders of economic prosperity and social prestige by practising monogamy, he must be compensated by learning a trade or new methods of agriculture which would open the way to new ambitions. If his children were to sleep at home and live a Christian family life, he must have a house with two rooms instead of one. If he was to read his Bible his house must have windows to admit the light and therefore it must be square and not conical. If his children were to be educated he must learn to do without their services on the farm and yet earn enough to pay their school fees. Again, to pay the government tax and his church tithe he must have ready money; and if he were not to leave his family to work on a railway or a plantation he must produce not only for himself but for the market.

For Sir Charles, what distinguished Ugandans from other Africans was their rapid assimilation of European ideas and the resulting keenness to buy European goods.

In the last twenty years, the attraction of successive Ugandan élites to European models – in schools, in the Army and in Parliament – has been among the factors tending to divide independent Uganda: this was the case under Obote in the 1960s, under Amin, under the brief rule of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), and is again so today. The lust for European goods in an economy which cannot provide them has led to corruption at all levels of society, and this in turn has helped break the economy and allowed the black market to become the ‘real’ economy. Huge container crates of imported goods addressed to Cabinet Ministers who have risen and fallen in the last two years are still stacked embarrassingly in the warehouses of European firms operating in Kampala.

The history of the last year, which brought Dr Obote back, has shown that class, religion and tribal interests divide Uganda today as deeply as they have done at any time since Independence. First, class: the growth of the cash economy and Uganda’s integration into Britain’s pattern of world-wide trading could only be achieved by the creation of a powerful class benefiting from changes which did not, as both books show, have much to offer the masses. The class divisions between the élite and the masses were institutionalised in the great British schools of Uganda, which, being run either by Protestants or by Catholics, also encouraged religious divisions. Each inculcated maximum rivalry with the other religion. The impact of the religious secondary schools on individual members of the élite was so strong that in the early Sixties an English lecturer at Makerere University said that within minutes of meeting a freshman student he could distinguish a product of the Catholic schools (conservative, polite, unimaginative) from his Protestant counterpart (assertive and ready to question all authority). The religious difference was translated into party affiliation in the early years of Independence: Dr Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress Party represented the Protestants and the Democratic Party, led by Benedicto Kiwanuka, the Chief Justice later murdered by Amin, the Catholics.

Although the religious/party lines are more blurred twenty years on, last December’s election showed that the old stereotypes are still extraordinarily relevant, with the hopelessly gentlemanly and inept Democratic Party out of the race from the start, even though all the pre-election arithmetic indicated that they held an easy majority in the country. In February this year, in one of the sad postscripts to the election, Makerere’s student leadership fled to Kenya after a violent confrontation on the campus with the Army. In shabby pinstripe suits and old school ties they looked like typical Catholic Democratic Party losers.

The third strand of division central to present-day Ugandan politics is the tribal animosity between the large Baganda tribe of the south (who are Bantus) and the Langi and Acholi tribes in the north (who are Nilo-Hamitic). (There are also important splits within the Acholi between the Catholic and Protestant areas.) Over the centuries the Bantu have been spreading their territory across Africa northwards, while the Nilo-Hamitic people spread south. They stopped each other’s progress in Uganda. The problem of the Baganda’s place in Uganda goes back to the British, who secured their own ruling position by favouring the Baganda to the point of giving them a slice of Bunyoro tribal territory in return for their help in subduing Bunyoro rebels. Britain administered Uganda through the Baganda, who were kept out of the Army, but educated well above the standard of other tribes: in 1922, Baganda students made up 79 per cent of Makerere students, and even in the early Sixties Baganda held 47 per cent of Civil Service posts. President Obote spent the early years of Independence trying to get the Baganda to be just part of Uganda. He gave back the lost counties, reduced the Baganda position in the Civil Service to a mere third of the posts, and entered into an alliance with Asian business and administrative expertise to reduce the state’s dependence on Buganda – a process full of contradictions interestingly traced by Jorgensen. The new division in the body politic created by the UPC/Asian alliance is an important element today, when President Obote has given two key diplomatic posts – London and New Delhi – to Asians and is courting Asian business interests. Obote’s original failure to arrive at a modus vivendi with the Baganda culminated in the Kabaka’s flight into exile in Britain after the shelling of his Palace at Mengo in 1966 by Amin under Obote’s orders. Although Obote’s wife, Maria, is a Muganda, nothing in subsequent history has reconciled the Baganda to him, and the violence of the mainly Baganda Uganda Freedom Movement and Uganda Freedom Fighters which started armed opposition to his regime in February appears to be backed by many of Kampala’s citizens and by the villagers in the surrounding Buganda countryside.

The threat of Baganda supremacy had already become an issue in the first government after the overthrow of Amin. President Lule, an archetypal old-style Ugandan gentleman academic, closeted himself in State House, Entebbe, overlooking Lake Victoria. Surrounded by less able Baganda advisers, he made a number of ill-judged appointments without consultation with the new and experimental democratic structures set up at the meeting of Ugandan exiles in Moshi, Tanzania during the war against Amin, and then found himself to his great surprise voted out of office by those new democratic forces. He now lives in exile in London. Professor Dan Nabudere was one of the architects of Moshi and a key organiser of Lule’s removal when he threatened Nabudere’s basic conception of the UNLF: to make Uganda a model political state in Africa – an Athenian democracy in which class, tribe and religion would have no divisive power.

Nabudere was a participator in the turbulent first year of the UNLF, as Minister of Justice, then as Minister of Culture and Secretary of the Front’s Political Commission, and his version of that confusing period is far better than Jorgensen’s better-written, less academic history. Nabudere is a Marxist. He was detained in the Sixties by Obote, ostensibly for being chairman of the Uganda-Vietnam Solidarity Committee. It is generally thought that it was more for his activities as a lawyer in the eastern town of Mbale, where he specialised in taking land cases for poor peasants against landlords, ran a small bookshop full of left-wing literature, held seminars and study groups. His theme was, as it still is, the dictatorial nature of the Ugandan government. ‘Obote was afraid of us,’ he said, talking of the UNLF period, ‘we trusted the people and gave them power.’ It was indeed a utopian period in Uganda. A collective exhilaration seized the people with Amin’s ignominious flight to Libya, although the scenes of frenzied looting and destruction by their own inhabitants in Kampala and other towns were a grim foretaste of the political self-destruction in store, which culminated in last December’s election. In a typical Ugandan political paradox, faith in the election was such that virtually everyone voted, even if they had to queue for a day to do so, but the results read over Uganda Radio were simply not believed in many areas, which chose instead to believe the DP claim that they had won.

To understand the election process which returned Obote to power last Christmas needs a knowledge of his election record during the Sixties. Jorgensen is ‘puzzled’ by ‘the regime’s fear of elections’. He cites the national elections postponed from 1967 to 1971 (never held because the Amin coup intervened), and the elected seats on the councils of Kampala, Jinja and Mbale either eliminated or reduced to half or a third of what they had been. Nabudere paints a picture of a regime whose dictatorial methods had made it so unpopular by 1966 that Obote dared not hold even local elections. However, despite Dr Obote’s personal reservations, there had to be elections in the reborn Uganda. Tanzanian troops had overthrown Amin at great cost to the Tanzanian Treasury. Several important African countries, notably Nigeria and Sudan, accused Nyerere of imperial designs over Uganda. If Nyerere were to have installed his friend Milton Obote by force as President of Uganda, the parallels with the Vietnamese installation of Heng Samrin in Cambodia would have been unbearably embarrassing. Obote had to be elected.

Dr Obote bided his time in Dar es Salaam for a full year after the overthrow of Amin. The crucial issue which forced him to act was the National Liberation Front’s decision in March 1980 that elections for the first permanent post-Amin government should avoid the acrimonious party divisions of the Sixties by having individuals standing against each other under the Front umbrella. But Obote knew that he needed his Party machine if he was to make a come-back in Uganda: no doubt, he remembered the dancing in the streets of Kampala when he was overthrown by Amin. On sheer personal appeal Dr Obote stood no chance, not even against the jovial but ineffectual President of the UNLF Government, Binaisa. In mid-May, Obote’s key supporters inside the Front, who included the Army Commander, seized power, put Binaisa under house arrest and announced that the country was being run by a Military Commission chaired by Dr Obote’s friend and old Vice-Chairman, Paulo Muwanga. The death of the Front was not immediately apparent to many people, who accepted Mr Muwanga’s declarations of the Military Commission’s impartiality. In fact, the administration then passed into the hands of UPC. The Military Commission announced party elections, and Dr Obote arrived back in Uganda to be greeted as a returning Head of State, while repeating over and over again that he was just an ordinary citizen. Ex-President Lule was refused permission to return by the Military Commission.

Jorgensen describes Obote’s style in 1970 as ‘pageantry and hoopla’ backed by coercion: it was the same in the 1980 election campaign, with its Mercedes and its beer trucks, and with both Uganda Radio and the ill-disciplined ranks of the Uganda National Liberation Army on the side of Dr Obote’s UPC. The two non-UPC parties, the Democratic Party and Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), strongly urged by British diplomats and Commonwealth observers to accept the in-built bias which no one could do anything about, preoccupied themselves with such issues as the locks on ballot-boxes, the number of papers printed and where exactly the counting would take place: all of them issues which presupposed a fair election on the day. In fact, the old Ugandan exile who had said in September, ‘The only issue in this election is who controls the radio station,’ was proved right in the end.

The Military Commission and the UPC did as much as they could beforehand to make sure of winning: they gerrymandered constituency boundaries; illegally declared 17 seats uncontested UPC victories; killed one DP candidate and beat up at least half a dozen others in an effort to stop them getting either registered or nominated; illegally removed 14 returning officers who were not known UPC men; and intimidated the judiciary by sacking the Chief Justice and other officials. On election day, with the Commonwealth observers in place, the first results indicated that the Democratic Party was winning. As crowds danced in the streets outside the DP headquarters in Kampala, Radio Uganda announced that all the results would be vetted by the Military Commission and broadcast only by Paulo Muwanga. Immediately before the public announcement, the key electoral offical liaising with the Commonwealth observers, the Secretary of the Electoral Commission, went to Dr Obote’s house: he emerged to flee the country in fear of his life. The Commonwealth observers left before many of the results were announced (for two constituencies results were not announced for weeks). The crowds outside the DP office more than once welcomed a candidate back from a remote constituency and cheered his victory, only to hear it announced as a UPC victory on Uganda Radio. The Army was used over the next days and weeks to destroy evidence of how the voting had gone in those places where Obote considered it necessary to do so. The flight over Lake Victoria, or on foot through the bush, of terrified middle-aged men was a painful reminder of the waves of exiles unleashed by Amin at various times.

Ex-President Binaisa, who had not been allowed to contest the election, was eventually released from house arrest and shown to the international press: a free man dancing with Mrs Obote to celebrate her husband’s victory. Later in the evening he discovered that his ‘freedom’ did not include a telephone. He was under military guard too. In the only light note of the whole grim story Mr Binaisa organised Christmas festivities, including turkey and alcohol, for his guards and had himself driven solemnly to church. Avoiding all the road-blocks between Kampala and the border, the rather unathletic ex-President escaped through the bush to Kenya. He is now in New York, where he had practised as a lawyer in exile from Amin, and has attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade the world to listen to him.

The Commonwealth observers’ interim report, written in haste when members of the team believed the DP had won, said the election was valid and reflected the freely-expressed choice of the people of Uganda. The election did, but did the results? Within weeks, the DP gave up all talk of bringing 24 contested results to court and many supporters of the Party and part of the leadership took up arms instead: the Government responded with detentions and, in Buganda, military terror. Britain’s involvement in Uganda had left another miserable legacy.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences