Uganda’s New Men

Victoria Brittain

‘Mustafa Adrissi, Idi Amin’s Vice-President, recently appeared before the Human Rights Commission in Kampala. In response to a question about the constitutional violations over which he had presided in Amin’s violent years, he asked: ‘What is this constitution? We never heard of such a thing before.’ This is the man who, told that foreign exchange was a serious problem, said: ‘Just shoot the fellow.’

Amin’s successors were little different, although the killings were less blatant: they took place in the countryside, and the victims had no one to speak for them. On a visit to Uganda earlier this year, Kenneth Kaunda broke the long public silence about Milton Obote’s second regime, saying that on his previous visit he had wept and prayed at the spectacle of the leadership’s heavy drinking habits. No one spoke up at the time, just as they knew but kept quiet about the gross corruption of the leadership and the brutality of the Armed Forces.

Amin and Obote have left Uganda indelibly marked by barbarity, debauchery and ignorance. And when, in the mid-Eighties, the Aids plague was reported to have hit Uganda with a special virulence, echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness resounded from a country which, for many non-Africans, has come to symbolise the continent’s spiral of poverty, violence and death. Aids is part of every life, every family, every conversation. Ed Hooper, a journalist who writes extensively about his own sex life and secondarily about Aids in Uganda, describes his relations with the Uganda of Obote and with the current regime as an instant and unhappy love-affair which had him hooked despite two bitter expulsions.[*] Hooper is one of many Westerners who are apocalyptic about Aids in Uganda – in contrast to most Ugandans, who describe it as ‘certainly less terrible than the slave trade’. The best part of his account of life in Uganda in the Eighties describes the Southern villages he found desolated by Aids. But he misses the chance to put this in the context of Uganda’s extraordinary transition from barbarism to a new kind of government – a government based on reconciliation and stripped of ideology. The unexpected success of the last four years in bringing together old enemies set a political trend which is being followed by independent Namibia and by Mozambique, and may soon be pursued by Angola and South Africa.

The inescapable memories of violence make it hard to believe in the present sense of security. Entebbe Airport evokes the pointless murder of the elderly Israeli hostage, Dora Bloch; Lake Victoria those of the four Scandinavian joumalists who set out from Kenya by boat to scoop their media colleagues with reports of the fall of Amin in 1979; the forests by the side of the road to Kampala saw countless executions of unknown men by the thugs of Amin’s State Research Bureau – once omnipresent in their dark glasses and sharp suits. Now the young soldiers at the rare roadblocks are the products of a very different military culture: during the war that brought this regime to power, hundreds of children attached themselves to the guerrillas because they meant security in a world ripped apart by the casual state terrorism of Obote’s men.

The bitter history of the post-Independence years is unmistakable. Families were torn apart by death, terror and exile. Schools, hospitals, the university at Makerere collapsed – as did any economy except that driven by black-market deals. Uganda’s middle class accepted that the old order was over and opted out, sending their children to schools in Nairobi or Europe, while they moved in droves to professional careers in other African countries or international organisations. The peasants who make up about 90 per cent of this society – nearly half of whom are illiterate – had to stick it out.

In the mid-1980s, when Obote was in power, Eriya Kategaya, a large, quiet man, then in charge of underground diplomatic work for the resistance, now Deputy Prime Minister, used to say: ‘Ugandans do not deserve to live like this, the people don’t deserve leaders like these.’ No one could disagree. Realpolitik, Ugandan-style, was ugly. Ugandan presidents, army officers and ministers flourished on corruption while in power; overnight, they could be unceremoniously ousted and end up waiting at bus-stops on the Edgware Road. The Obote Government ruthlessly attempted to co-opt people or break them.

One human legacy of those years is the million and a half orphans in the country. Most are from the years of war, though many are the result of the Aids epidemic, which is estimated to have infected a million people: hundreds of babies have been born with the disease. The Kiwanga Orphanage Home symbolises the past: one hundred and twenty children, 17 of them handicapped, live here. Most come from the Luwero Triangle, a huge area of small hamlets and farms north-west of Kampala, where President Obote’s soldiers went on an orgy of killing which lasted for months. ‘The children just came with no name, no history they could tell us,’ said Aunty Gorrete, a serene nun from the Daughters of Charity, who runs the home with 18 women helpers, ironing much-mended clothes and tending spotless dormitories packed with beds inches apart. A dozen naked five-year-olds ran across the courtyard, giggling and shoving after their shower. A little girl who could not have been more than seven carried on her back a girl her own size with legs withered by polio. In the classroom the blackboard was neatly halved with a chalk line: one class of children were learning maths from the left side; another, biology from the right. There were no toys, no wheelchair for the crippled child, no equipment, but there was nothing pathetic about the atmosphere in this orphanage. The home is also a symbol of the present: it is supported neither by government nor by international agencies, but mainly by the Daughters of Charity restaurant in Kampala, run by an older group of fifty orphans who go to school in shifts between their restaurant work. Clothes come from UWESO, the Ugandan Women’s Effort to Save Orphans, which was started by Mrs Janet Museveni, wife of the President; with very little outside help, UWESO is building the first orphans’ village for Luwero children. In the last few years thousands of Ugandan families have taken in orphans and cared for them, but as the number of Aids orphans has risen, and the country’s economic situation become more difficult, street children have begun to appear in Kampala, begging or going through dustbins.

The five-person Human Rights Commission, to which Mustafa Adrissi made the revealing admission about his style of government, has spent nearly four years travelling the country painstakingly noting hundreds of stories of disappearances, deaths, torture, theft and abuse by the state under Amin and Obote. The Commission sits with great formality – despite the stifling heat, the men are dressed in old-fashioned three-piece suits, the women in long traditional dresses – attended by teams of lawyers, police and shorthand writers. But no formality can numb the pain of what they hear – usually from peasants, the invisible actors in Ugandan politics under previous regimes. One Commissioner said: ‘It is worse than anything we knew, often it is impossible not to weep.’ Another, Joan Kakwenzire, a history lecturer at Makerere University, described the Commission as ‘constructing our history’. Thousands of hours of testimony have been packed into more than a hundred volumes. Mrs Kakwenzire believes that ‘visible justice must be seen, people need it so badly they will queue for hours and days to see us.’ These are people who have told her that thèy hid when they first saw her Landrover: ‘Any time the Government is looking for you it wants to kill you.’

Many of the ministers, politicians, soldiers and police who made Uganda a byword for violence are fighting rearguard actions. And in Teso, in the East of the country, a low-level civil war, supported by former ministers in Obote’s government who are now living in London, has in recent weeks seen 60 local officials and nearly two hundred civilians killed by rebels. But the new political forces in Uganda have the confidence and tenacity of the young; they are backed, and in many places led, by the military – also young, with a Chief-of-Staff in his early thirties. Their confidence comes from having achieved what in the early Eighties every outsider told them was impossible: the overthrow of an African government, not by a coup, but by a popular uprising.

The guerrilla war which brought to power the National Resistance Government, led by President Yoweri Museveni, was a first in post-independence Africa. Museveni, in Amin’s time a student at Dar-es-Salaam’s radical university and an admirer of Frelimo’s guerrilla war in Mozambique, was Defence Minister for the anarchic two years following the overthrow of Amin by Tanzanian forces in 1970. In those two years a National Liberation Front government failed to unite Ugandans and to transcend the tribal rivalries which had divided the country since the British colonial period. In 1980 Museveni lost his bid for Parliament in the election grossly rigged and unsurprisingly won by Milton Obote and the Uganda People’s Congress Party, which, Protestant and Northern, had ruled the country in the Sixties. Party politics based on religion and ethnicity retuned to Uganda overnight, and Museveni announced he was going to the bush to take up arms against Obote’s government. With half a dozen men, he attacked a police post and seized the arms stored there: the five-year war had begun.

Tens of thousands of Ugandan peasants from the West and South of Uganda chose to join him during those years, and tens of thousands of women and children were killed as Obote’s Army raged through the countryside on search-and-destroy missions. Thousands of skulls still lie in great heaps in the hamlets of the Luwero Triangle. When Kampala fell to the National Resistance Army four years ago, there was no country in Africa closer to disintegration than Uganda. There was a danger of the country splitting in two, as much of the old Army, polarised on tribal lines, fled to the North and, encouraged by some of Obote’s former ministers in exile in London and Nairobi, took up arms in a rebellion. This ended three years later, after bitter fighting and brave political initiatives by local politicians – notably, the minister in charge of the North, Mrs Betty Bigombe, who spent months visiting women in hostile villages and persuading them to get their sons to come back from the bush and give up their arms in return for government help to start life as farmers. In that period Museveni had no substantial cushion of international aid and good will such as that which followed the ousting of Amin in 1979. Three of Uganda’s neighbours – Sudan, Kenya and Zaire – were openly hostile and had been allied with the short-lived military junta which ruled for six months in 1985. That hostility continues: Zaire and Kenya have been involved in the arming of dissidents and the plotting of coups, and in assassination attempts against the President; the Islamic fundamentalist military government in Sudan has bombed the Northern Ugandan town of Moyo, and Sudanese soldiers have crossed the Ugandan border in pursuit of their own Southern Sudanese dissidents. Former Ugandan soldiers even fight in the Sudanese Government Army against the guerrillas of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which controls the major part of Southern Sudan and threatens to bring down a second government in Khartoum.

The porous northern border – which has often divided extended families and over which waves of refugees from both sides have crossed to settle for short or long periods – is in a new phase of its history. Under the British in the Fifties economic power went to the South, while the colonial army came from the poor and unfertile North. For Northern families access to the cash economy and the modern world came almost solely through husbands and sons in the Army. Later, under both Amin and Obote, who were from different ethnic groups in the North, there were terrible pogroms: villages were burned and civilians butchered by Army factions from the rival group.

The region was devastated by social crisis when the National Resistance Army took Kampala, and thousands of ethnic soldiers from Obote’s Army, who had been involved in the Luwero Triangle massacres, fled home to the North expecting retribution. The community responded to the crisis by taking refuge in the cult of Alice Lakwenya, a priestess who swore her followers would not die from bullets in battle if they were pure. Armed with stones and smeared with oil, her followers attacked the NRA and were decimated. It was a tragic start to the Museveni period, and for a time it risked destabilising the new regime and losing the NRA’s reputation as a different kind of Ugandan Army.

For the first time, Uganda now has a national Army, and one of the achievements of the young leadership has been to incorporate some thirty thousand former dissidents from all the various ethnic groupings. Predictably, officers have proved harder to integrate than their men, and betrayals, shoot-outs and even coup plots have come from some of the newly integrated former rebel leadership. But a strict leadership code and harsh penalties for some of the terrible mistakes the military have made – such as the death by asphyxiation of 57 men held for interrogation in a railway car in Kumi district last year – have allowed the new national Army to retain much of the ethic of the small guerrilla band of the early days. Once a year, to commemorate the start of the armed struggle, ranks of soldiers are out on the streets of every town armed only with brooms.

The soldiers who clean the streets and grow their own food – and the ministers who return unused foreign exchange after official trips abroad, and manage to live on the tiny state salaries which have driven most of the Civil Service into routine daily corruption are the exceptions in this society: Uganda’s New Men. More commonplace are the vast crowds that gather to escape from harsh realities with the words of the fundamentalist preachers – often from the United States or West Germany – who have flooded into Uganda in recent years. The Moonies even managed to gain a foothold in the battered and bankrupt university before the Government intervened.

The last four years have seen a struggle between the old local powers – the Police, politicians, chiefs, teachers, priests, businessmen – and the peasants, both civilian and military, who were the motor of the guerrilla war. This is a long way from resolution. Museveni’s government, which includes every shade of opinion and veterans of every failed previous regime, has given itself five more years in power with a parliament elected on a personal, non-party basis. This nine-year period will be (despite the civil wars in the North and East) the longest period of political stability post-colonial Uganda has ever known.

[*] Slim (Bodley Head, 388 pp., £15.95, 29 March, 0 370 3 1342 9).