Uganda experienced two great waves of migration. The first brought the Bantu-speaking peoples from further west in Africa, and the second, the Nilotic people from Sudan and Ethiopia. These broad families are still geographically split today, the Bantu in the centre and south of the country and the Nilotic peoples in the north. Until the 19th century, landlocked Uganda saw few outsiders compared with its neighbours. Despite fertile lands and surplus harvests, trading links with the great Indian Ocean ports were limited. During the reign of the Bugandan kabaka (king) Mwanga in the mid-19th century, contacts were finally made with Arab traders and early European explorers. Uganda was not to escape the tide of colonialism sweeping across the continent.
After the Treaty of Berlin in 1890, when Europeans carved up Africa without consulting any Africans, Uganda, Kenya and Zanzibar were declared British protectorates in 1894. The Brits ruled indirectly, giving the traditional kingdoms a considerable degree of autonomy, but favoured the recruitment of Buganda people for their civil service.
Other tribal groups, unable to make inroads into the Buganda-dominated colonial administration or commercial sector, were forced to seek other avenues for advancement. The Acholi and Lango soon became dominant in the military. Thus were planted the seeds for the intertribal conflicts that were to tear Uganda apart following independence.
By the mid-1950s a schoolteacher from the north, Dr Milton Obote, had cobbled together a loose coalition that led Uganda to independence in 1962, on the promise that the Buganda would have autonomy.
It wasn’t the ideal time for Uganda to get to grips with independence. Civil wars were raging in neighbouring southern Sudan, Zaïre and Rwanda, and refugees poured into the country. It was soon obvious that Obote had no intention of sharing power with the kabaka (king). A confrontation was looming.
Obote moved fast, arresting several cabinet ministers and ordering his army chief of staff, Idi Amin, to storm the kabaka’s palace. Obote became president, the Bugandan monarchy was abolished and Idi Amin’s star was on the rise.
Amin staged a coup in January 1971 and so began Uganda’s first reign of terror. All political activities were suspended, and the army was empowered to shoot on sight anyone suspected of opposition to the regime.
Over the next eight years an estimated 300, 000 Ugandans lost their lives, often in horrifying ways. Amin’s main targets were the educated classes, the Acholi and Lango tribespeople of Obote and the 70, 000-strong Asian community. In 1972, Asians were given 90 days to leave the country; they departed with little more than the clothes they wore.
Meanwhile, the economy collapsed, infrastructure crumbled, prolific wildlife was slaughtered by soldiers and the tourism industry evaporated. The stream of refugees across the border became a flood, inflation hit 1000% and the treasury ran out of money to pay the soldiers.
Faced with a restless army, Amin had to seek a diversion. He chose war with Tanzania, ostensibly to teach that country a lesson for supporting anti-Amin dissidents. The Tanzanians defeated the Ugandan army and pushed on into the heart of Uganda in early 1979. Amin fled to Libya and later to Saudi Arabia, where he lived in exile until his death in 2003.
The rejoicing in Uganda after Amin’s downfall was short-lived. The 12, 000 Tanzanian soldiers who remained in Uganda, supposedly to assist with the country’s reconstruction and to maintain law and order, turned on the Ugandans as soon as their pay dried up.
Yusufu Lule and Godfrey Binaisa came and went as leaders, before Obote returned from exile in Tanzania to an enthusiastic welcome in many parts of the country. He swept to victory in an election that was, according to witnesses, blatantly rigged.
The honeymoon for Obote proved to be relatively short. Like Amin, Obote favoured certain tribes – his Lango and Acholi supporters from the north were given the top jobs – and the prisons began to fill once more.
Obote was about to complete the destruction that Amin had begun. More and more reports of atrocities leaked out of the country and several mass graves were discovered. In mid-1985 Obote was overthrown in a coup staged by the army under the leadership of Tito Okello.
Shortly after Obote had become president for the second time, a guerrilla army launched a resistance struggle in western Uganda. It was led by Yoweri Museveni, who had lived in exile in Tanzania during Amin’s reign.
In the early days, few gave the guerrillas, known as the National Resistance Army (NRA), much of a hope, but by the time of Okello’s arrival, the NRA controlled a large slice of western Uganda. By January 1986 it was clear that Okello’s days were numbered. The NRA launched an all-out offensive and took Kampala.
Museveni proved to be a pragmatic leader, appointing a number of arch-conservatives to his cabinet, and making an effort to avoid the tribal nepotism that had divided the country. The economy took a turn for the better and aid and investment trickled into the country. Political parties were banned to avoid a polarisation along tribal lines once more, but anyone could join the National Resistance Movement (NRM).
The debate about the formation of political parties has dominated the agenda in recent years. Museveni shifted his position on a return to multiparty politics, and in July 2005 a referendum was held that overwhelmingly endorsed democracy. The fact that voter turnout was tiny suggested no-one was really that interested in the issue.
One issue they definitely were interested in was Museveni’s move to scrap constitutional limits on presidential terms. Museveni himself put in place the two-term limit and promptly changed his mind as the end of his tenure drew closer. He was re-elected in 2006, but not before he had his opponent Dr Kizza Besigye muzzled and imprisoned on charges of treason and rape. Dr Besigye still took 41% of the vote. Long a darling of the donors, President Museveni’s U-turn on a third term in office has cast a cloud over his excellent record. Unflattering comparisons are being made with the Mugabes of this world and old friends are turning their back on Museveni. The world is watching to see what happens next.
The other dominant domestic concern has been the ongoing war against insurgents within the country. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been fighting a war in northern Uganda for two decades now and the mindless violence shows few signs of coming to an end despite ongoing peace efforts. The LRA’s original aim was to establish a state based on the Ten Commandments, but given they have broken every commandment in the book, they seem to have forgotten their goal. Peace talks have been on and off again, but peace and the LRA seem a contradiction in terms.
Uganda has also been involved in conflicts beyond its borders, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This turned into Africa’s first cross-continental war. Old friends Rwanda and Uganda soon became enemies and backed rival factions in the bloody civil war. Both countries were accused of shamelessly plundering the DRC’s mineral wealth and their international reputations took a tumble. Uganda finally pulled its troops out in 2002, but has yet to rebuild its former friendship with Rwanda.
Genuine political stability is possible only if the government can bring to an end the insurgent campaigns within its borders. If Uganda can negotiate a lasting peace with all its neighbours, that in turn should bring a rapid end to the capacity of rebel groups to destabilise the country.