Unlike Kenya and, to a lesser extent, Tanzania, Uganda never experienced a large influx of European colonisers and the associated expropriation of land. Instead, farmers were encouraged to grow cash crops for export through their own cooperative groups. Consequently, Ugandan nationalist organisations sprouted much later than those in neighbouring countries, and, when they did, it happened along tribal lines. So exclusive were some of these that when Ugandan independence was discussed, the Baganda people considered secession.
By the mid-1950s, however, Lango school teacher Dr Milton Obote managed to put together a loose coalition headed by the Uganda People's Congress (UPC), which led Uganda to independence in 1962 with the promise that the Buganda kingdom would have autonomy. The kabaka (king), Edward Mutesa II, became the president of the new nation, and Milton Obote became Uganda's first prime minister.
It wasn't a particularly favourable time for Uganda to come to grips with independence. Civil wars were raging in neighbouring Sudan, the DRC and Rwanda, and refugees streamed into Uganda, adding to its problems. Also, it soon became obvious that Obote had no intention of sharing power with the kabaka. A confrontation loomed.
Obote moved in 1966, arresting several cabinet ministers and ordering his army chief of staff, Idi Amin, to storm the kabaka's palace in Kampala. The raid resulted in the flight of the kabaka and his exile in London, where he died in 1969. Following this coup, Obote proclaimed himself president, and the Buganda monarchy was abolished, along with those of the Bunyoro, Ankole, Toro and Busoga kingdoms. Meanwhile, Idi Amin's star was on the rise.
The Amin Years
Under Milton Obote's watch, events began to spiral out of control. Obote ordered his attorney general, Godfrey Binaisa, to rewrite the constitution consolidating virtually all powers in the presidency and then moved to nationalise foreign assets.
In 1969 a scandal broke out over US$5 million in funds and weapons allocated to the Ministry of Defence that couldn't be accounted for. An explanation was demanded of Idi Amin, who by then was commander of the Ugandan army, and when it wasn't forthcoming, Amin's deputy, Colonel Okoya, and some junior officers demanded his resignation. Shortly afterwards Okoya and his wife were shot dead in their Gulu home, and rumours began to circulate about Amin's imminent arrest. It never came. Instead, when Obote left for Singapore in January 1971 to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Amin staged a coup. Uganda's former colonial masters, the British, who had probably suffered most under Obote's nationalisation program, were among the first to recognise the new regime. Obote went into exile in Tanzania.
So began Uganda's first reign of terror. All political activities were quickly 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 such brutal ways as being bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers and iron bars. Among those who suffered most were the Acholi and Lango people, who were decimated in waves of massacres; whole villages were wiped out. Next Amin turned on the professional classes. University professors, doctors, cabinet ministers, lawyers, businesspeople and even military officers who might have posed a threat to Amin were dragged from their offices and shot or simply never seen again.
Also targeted was the 70,000-strong Asian community. In 1972 they were given 90 days to leave the country. Amin and his cronies grabbed the billion-dollar booty the evictees were forced to leave behind squandering it on 'new toys for the boys' and personal excess. Amin then turned on the British, nationalising US$500 million worth of investments in tea plantations and other industries without compensation.
Meanwhile the economy collapsed; industrial activity ground to a halt; hospitals and rural health clinics closed; roads cracked and became riddled with potholes; cities became garbage dumps; and utilities fell apart. The prolific wildlife was machine-gunned by soldiers for meat, ivory and skins, and the tourism industry evaporated. The stream of refugees across the border became a flood.
Faced with chaos and an inflation rate that hit 1000%, Amin was forced to delegate more and more powers to the provincial governors, who became virtual warlords in their areas. Towards the end of the Amin era, the treasury was so bereft of funds it was unable to pay the soldiers. One of the few supporters of Amin at the end of the 1970s was Colonel Gadaffi, who bailed out the Ugandan economy in the name of Islamic brotherhood (Amin had conveniently become a Muslim by this stage) and began an intensive drive to equip the Ugandan forces with sophisticated weapons.
The rot had spread too far, however, and was beyond the point where a few million dollars in Libyan largesse could help. Faced with a restless army beset with intertribal fighting, Amin looked for a diversion. He chose a war with Tanzania, ostensibly to teach that country a lesson for supporting anti-Amin dissidents. It was his last major act of recklessness, and in it lay his downfall.
War with Tanzania
On 30 October 1978 the Ugandan army rolled across northwestern Tanzania virtually unopposed and annexed more than 1200 sq km of territory. Meanwhile the air force bombed the Lake Victoria ports of Bukoba and Musoma.
Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere ordered a full-scale counterattack, but it took months to mobilise his ill-equipped and poorly trained forces. By early 1979 he had managed to scrape together a 50,000-strong people's militia, composed mainly of illiterate youngsters from the bush. This militia joined with the many exiled Ugandan liberation groups – united only in their determination to rid Uganda of Amin. The two armies met. East Africa's supposedly best-equipped and best-trained army threw down its weapons and fled, and the Tanzanians pushed on into the heart of Uganda. Kampala fell without a fight, and by April 1979 organised resistance had effectively ceased.
Amin fled the country and eventually ended up in Saudi Arabia where he died in 2003, never having faced justice.
The Tanzanian action was criticised, somewhat half-heartedly, by the Organisation for African Unity (OAU; now called the African Union), but most African countries breathed a sigh of relief to see Amin finally brought to heel. All the same, Tanzania was forced to foot the entire bill for the war, estimated at US$500 million, a crushing blow for an already desperately poor country.
The rejoicing in Uganda was short-lived. The Tanzanian soldiers, who remained in the country, supposedly to assist with reconstruction and to maintain law and order, turned on the Ugandans when their pay did not arrive. They took what they wanted from shops at gunpoint, hijacked trucks arriving from Kenya with international relief aid and slaughtered yet more wildlife.
Once again, the country slid into chaos and gangs of armed bandits roamed the cities, killing and looting. Food supplies ran out and hospitals could no longer function. Nevertheless, thousands of exiled Ugandans began to answer the call to return home and help with reconstruction.
Yusuf Lule, a modest and unambitious man, was installed as president with Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere's blessing. But when he began speaking out against Nyerere, he was replaced by Godfrey Binaisa, sparking riots supporting Lule in Kampala. Meanwhile Obote bided his time in Dar es Salaam.
Binaisa quickly came under pressure to set a date for a general election and a return to civilian rule. Obote eventually returned from exile to an enthusiastic welcome in many parts of the country and swept to power in what is widely regarded as a rigged vote.
It was 1981 and the honeymoon with Obote proved short. Like Amin, Obote favoured certain tribes. Large numbers of civil servants and army and police commanders belonging to the tribes of the south were replaced with Obote supporters belonging to the tribes of the north. The State Research Bureau, a euphemism for the secret police, was re-established and the prisons began to fill up again; Obote was on course to complete the destruction that Amin had begun. More and more reports of atrocities and killings leaked out of the country. Mass graves unrelated to the Amin era were unearthed. The press was muzzled and Western journalists were expelled. It appeared that Obote was once again attempting to achieve absolute power. Intertribal tension was on the rise, and in mid-1985 Obote was overthrown in a coup staged by the army under the command of Tito Okello.
Okello was not the only opponent of Obote. Shortly after Obote became president for the second time, a guerrilla army opposed to his tribally biased government was formed in western Uganda under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni.
A group of 27 soon swelled to a guerrilla force of about 20,000, many of them orphaned teenagers. In the early days few gave the guerrillas, known as the National Resistance Army (NRA), much of a chance, but the NRA had a very different ethos from the armies of Amin and Obote. New recruits were indoctrinated in the bush by political commissars and taught they had to be servants of the people, not oppressors. Discipline was tough. Anyone who got badly out of line was executed. Museveni was determined that the army would never again disgrace Uganda. A central thrust of the NRA was to win the hearts and minds of the people, who learned to identify with the persecuted Baganda in the infamous Luwero Triangle, where people suffered more than most under Obote's iron fist.
By the time Obote was ousted and Okello had taken over, the NRA controlled a large slice of western Uganda and was a power to be reckoned with. Museveni wanted a clean sweep of the administration, the army and the police. He wanted corruption stamped out and those who had been involved in atrocities during the Amin and Obote regimes brought to trial.
The fighting continued in earnest, and by January 1986 it was obvious that Okello's days were numbered. The surrender of 1600 government soldiers holed up in their barracks in the southern town of Mbarara brought the NRA to the outskirts of Kampala itself. With the morale of government troops low, the NRA launched an all-out offensive to take the capital. Okello's troops fled, almost without a fight, though not before looting whatever remained and carting it away in commandeered buses. It was a typical parting gesture, as was the gratuitous shooting-up of many Kampala high-rise offices.
During the following weeks, Okello's rabble were pursued and pushed north over the border into Sudan. The long nightmare was finally over.
Despite Museveni's Marxist leanings, he proved to be a pragmatist after taking control. He appointed several arch-conservatives to his cabinet and made an effort to reassure the country's large Catholic community.
In the late 1980s, peace agreements were negotiated with most of the guerrilla factions who had fought for Okello or Obote and were still active in the north and northeast. Under an amnesty offered to the rebels, as many as 40,000 had surrendered by 1988, and many were given jobs in the NRA. In the northwest of the country, almost 300,000 Ugandans returned home from Sudan.
With peace came optimism: services were restored, factories and farmland that had lain idle for years were again put to use, the main roads were resurfaced, and the national parks' infrastructure was restored and revitalised in an attempt to undo the devastation wrought by years of war.
The stability and rebuilding that came with President Museveni's coming to power in 1986 was followed in the 1990s with economic prosperity and unprecedented growth. For much of the decade Uganda was the fastest-growing economy in Africa, becoming a favourite among investors. One of the keys to its success was the bold decision to invite back the Asians who, as in Kenya, had held a virtual monopoly on business and commerce. Not surprisingly, they were very hesitant about returning, but assurances were given and kept, and property was returned.
The darkness didn't end for northern Uganda, however, due to the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the last remaining rebel group founded during the time of the NRA rebellion. Its leader, Joseph Kony, grew increasingly delusional and paranoid and shifted his focus from attacking soldiers to attacking civilians in an attempt to found a government based on the biblical Ten Commandments.
His vicious tactics included torture, mutilation (slicing off lips, noses and ears), rape and abducting children to use as soldiers and sex slaves. Eventually over one million northerners fled their homes to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps and tens of thousands of children became 'night commuters', walking from their villages each evening to sleep in schools and churches or on the streets of large and (sometimes) safer towns. In their half-hearted fight against the LRA, government forces reportedly committed their own atrocities too.
In 1993 a new draft constitution was adopted by the National Resistance Council (NRC). One surprising recommendation in the draft was that the country should adopt a system of 'no-party' politics. Given the potential for intertribal rivalry within a pluralist system, it was a sensible policy. Under the draft constitution, a Constituent Assembly was formed, and in 1994 elections for the assembly showed overwhelming support for the government. Also in 1993 the monarchies were restored, but with no actual political power.
Democratic 'no-party' elections were called for May 1996. The main candidates were President Museveni and Paul Ssemogerere, who had resigned as foreign minister in order to campaign. Museveni won a resounding victory, capturing almost 75% of the vote. The only area where Ssemogerere had any real support was in the anti-National Resistance Movement (NRM) north.
A New Millenium
Eventually Museveni shifted his position on political parties, and in July 2005 a referendum was held that overwhelmingly endorsed the change. This political shift was of much less concern to the average Ugandan than the other that occurred the same month; parliament approving a constitutional amendment scrapping presidential term limits. Museveni himself had put the two-term limit in place, but had regrets as the end of his tenure drew closer. It was alleged that MPs were bullied and bribed into voting for the change. International criticism was strong and even many Ugandans who backed Museveni were angry at his move. Nevertheless, Museveni convincingly won his fourth election in 2011 with 68.4% of the vote.
By the 2000s the LRA's campaign of terror had ebbed, though certainly not ceased. In 2002 the LRA lost its Sudanese support and the Ugandan military launched Operation Iron Fist, attacking the LRA's bases across the northern border. The mission failed and an angered Kony not only increased attacks in Uganda but also expanded his targets to areas such as Soroti that had not previously been affected. In the years that followed there were various ceasefires and nominal peace talks, but little progress was made until 2005, when the LRA fled to Garamba National Park in the DRC. After on-again, off-again talks a peace deal was reached in February 2008, though Kony then broke his promise to sign it and the LRA began abducting more child soldiers and even attacked a Sudanese army base.
While Kony and the LRA have dwindled to a tiny force since then and not been a threat to Ugandans for almost a decade now, efforts continue to find and bring Kony to justice. In 2013 US President Obama announced a US$5 million reward for Kony's capture. In March 2014 the USA deployed special operation troops and military aircraft to tackle the LRA in Central Africa Republic (where Kony is believed to be hiding), the DRC and Sudan, to go with the 5000 African Union troops already on the ground.
In May 2017 the six-year hunt for Kony, which included 100 US special forces working alongside the Ugandan military in Central African Republic, ended. The LRA, down to an estimated 120 soldiers, had become a downgraded threat dispersed into difficult jungle terrain. Kony, with a US$5 million bounty on his head, continues to remain missing though some believe that he has taken refuge in a disputed border area between Sudan and South Sudan.
Presidential elections were held on 18 February 2016 and Yoweri Museveni won once again, this time with 61% of the vote, extending his 30-year rule.