After Amin

Victoria Brittain

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

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.

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