“”The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.
|—Yoweri Museveni, 1986. Museveni subsequently became Uganda's current president, having served for almost 35 years.|
The "Republic" of Uganda is a small and troubled country in eastern Africa. It is currently ruled by Yoweri Museveni, who styles himself as president but rules as a dictator. He has been in power since 1986.
Uganda takes its name from the Buganda kingdom, founded in the Fourteenth Century. In 1894, during the Scramble for Africa, Uganda became a protectorate of the British Empire. It remained under British rule until 1962. Uganda has managed to cram an awful lot of history into its few decades of independence - or rather, a lot of awful history. From Idi Amin to the Lord's Resistance Army, Uganda has suffered dictatorship, war, dictatorship, war, dictatorship, and war. And the Ebola virus. And then some more war.
Uganda's official languages are English and Swahili. Its capital and largest city is Kampala. In terms of religion, the people of Uganda are predominantly Christian, with 40% of the population identifying as Catholic and 32% of the population identifying with the Church of Uganda, which is part of the Anglican Communion. Other Christian denominations such as Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventism also have significant followings in Uganda.
Humans inhabited the region that is now Uganda for at least 50,000 years, and archaeological evidence possibly indicates human activity there as far back as 100,000 years ago. Various kingdoms and empires rose and fell in the Lake Victoria area during the Middle Ages. The most significant of these was the Kingdom of Buganda, from which modern Uganda takes its name. The realm's founder, Kintu, arrived in the Fourteenth Century from further north in Africa and conquered the region with an alliance of clans. Kintu then focused on integrating the conquered peoples by ordering his followers to intermarry with them; this created the modern Bugandan ethnic group.
By this time, Buganda was too large to face any real opposition. Internally, however, the kingdom was a shit-show. Due to its lack of a peaceful succession mechanism, various clans warred with each other constantly for the honor of placing one of their own on the throne. Until about 1894, the Bugandans effectively played out their own version of Game of Thrones in sub-Saharan Africa.
British Uganda Protectorate
Europeans became keenly interested in exploring the so-called "Dark Continent" during the mid-19th Century They were most especially eager to find the source of the great Nile River. Long story short, British explorers found the river's source and named it Lake Victoria in 1858. British ambition immediately aimed to conquer the entire length of the Nile River, and their efforts to do this directly imperiled the Buganda Kingdom.
European missionaries, not just from the UK but also from other Christian countries and faiths, flooded into the region to convert the natives to Christianity. The empire itself remained content with taking a hands-off approach to the area. Right up until the German Empire also started making inroads into Uganda. With their control over the source of the Nile under threat, the British government immediately mobilized and struck a deal with the Germans to solidify British control over Uganda in exchange for handing some other territories to the Germans. With international consent, the British forced their rule over Uganda and turned it into a protectorate.
The Imperial British East Africa Company constructed a fort in 1890 in the old capital of the Buganda Kingdom to consolidate British military rule over the region. This military outpost grew to become the financial and communications hub of the Uganda Protectorate.
Uganda's remoteness made widespread European settlement impossible, or at least forbiddingly expensive, so it never really had a large enough white population to set about horribly oppressing the black natives. Despite this, the Imperial British East Africa Company set about improving the region by building a railroad and facilitating widespread agricultural production. This railway was constructed mainly by indentured laborers forced into servitude from British India, and many of those laborers perished during the construction process.
However, shit hit the fan in 1892, when civil war erupted between Africans who had been converted to Protestantism by the British missionaries and Africans who had been converted to Catholicism by French missionaries. The Company restored order by using its fancy new machine guns, but by then, the religious war had caused serious loss of life and destruction of property. The British government decided to institute the direct rule of Uganda by the Crown.
After being connected to the outside world by the railroad, Uganda became one of the wealthier colonies in Africa. Unlike in other places, much of that wealth was actually kept in the hands of native Africans. In this fashion, Uganda became one of the luckier African colonies. The British Crown found it most convenient to enforce its will by using local rulers. The most significant of these local rulers was the King of Buganda. In exchange for retaining his power and court, the King of Buganda became the British Empire's eager agent.
After World War II, the burden of the British colonial empire became too high to manage, and Uganda began its path towards independence. By 1955, it had a legislative council, over half of whose members were Africans, and that legislative council was even beginning to form genuine political parties. Any prospect for continued British rule in the region died when Kenya began the bloody and expensive Mau Mau Rebellion. The British basically dumped Uganda in 1962, and Uganda became an independent nation.
Independence and crisis
Even though it prospered under British rule, Uganda still suffered from the British policy of empowering local rulers, turning it into a feudal patchwork mess. Enter Milton Obote, a highly-educated activist and nationalist. Obote had previously been forced into exile due to his anti-British advocacy. However, he returned to find his country still dominated by the creaking feudal rulership of the Buganda Kingdom even after its independence from the British. To fix that, Obote assembled the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), which comprised various anti-Buganda ethnic groups and kingdoms. Obote became prime minister of Uganda and pushed through a constitution that granted federal status within Uganda to five traditional kingdoms, including Buganda. On the other side of Uganda's political divide was Mutesa II of Buganda, who was nicknamed by the foreign press as "King Freddie".
The tensions between the Ugandan government and the Bugandan kingdom became unresolvable. The central government had grown irredeemably corrupt, and Obote himself was implicated in 1966 in a gold smuggling scheme alongside army officer Idi Amin. When Parliament tried to open an inquiry into the matter, Obote told them to fuck off and suspended the Ugandan constitution. The Kingdom of Buganda condemned this measure, so Obote put Idi Amin in charge of the military and ordered them to capture or kill King Freddie. A day-long battle ensued, with the military deploying tanks and helicopters against the king's palace, but the king managed to escape into exile. Obote then abolished all of Uganda's subnational monarchies and declared himself the sole executive authority in Uganda.
The first Obote regime
Many people, of course, were very unhappy with Obote's abrupt usurpation of power. In 1969, an unknown assailant tried to assassinate Obote. Things got much, much worse after that. Obote banned opposition political parties and then sent the military to terrorize, torture, and harass people. He then assembled a secret police force called the General Service Unit, under the leadership of Obote's cousin, to commit even more atrocities.
Meanwhile, Obote started preparing for Uganda's entry into the turbulent Cold War. With communism's historically anti-colonialist message, it's unsurprising that Obote chose to start moving Uganda in a socialist direction. Obote's "Move to the Left" program was not, however, really about socialism. Instead, it was more of a means to mobilize Ugandan nationalism, mainly by suppressing diverse local cultures and strengthening the military. Uganda's economy became even more corrupt as Obote's cronies took power and privileges they didn't have the knowledge or competence to manage. Food prices skyrocketed due to perpetual shortages.
Meanwhile, Idi Amin was lurking in the background with his own ambitions. In 1970, Obote moved against his old ally by removing him from his post, fearing that Idi Amin had become too influential among the soldiers. It's quite possible that Amin, at this point, came into contact with some Western Powers like the United States. Regardless of how it happened, Idi Amin orchestrated a military coup in 1971, which removed Obote from power while Obote was on a foreign visit to Singapore. The Journal of Modern African Studies characterized the coup as an example of "class action by the military", as many military commanders feared that Obote's socialist-leaning regime threatened their personal economic privileges.
Idi Amin regime
Things started getting even worse for Uganda once Idi Amin came into power. He freed some political prisoners to boost his initial popularity, but he then unleashed "killing squads" to pursue any remaining Obote loyalists in Uganda. Naturally, those killing squads didn't limit themselves to their initial targets. Amin soon authorized them to start pursuing other people he didn't like, such as homosexuals, journalists, and students.
Under Amin's rule, Uganda transformed into a mere extension of the military. He renamed Government House "the Command Post," placed military tribunals above the civil law system, appointed soldiers to top government posts and parastatal agencies, and even informed the newly inducted civilian cabinet ministers that they would be subject to military discipline. Uganda was split into areas of influence, which were ruled with iron fists by military commanders who behaved as little more than warlords. Despite the outward appearance of military discipline, the new military government was even more corrupt and unstable than the regime it replaced; backstabbing and murders were disturbingly common. The internal competition was ruthless, and defeat meant death. Amin himself got in on the action, and he periodically rewarded or purged officers to maintain his grip on the military.
In 1972, Amin decided to completely purge Uganda's longstanding Indian and Asian minority. Amin forced the expulsion of about 50,000 people with a decree, accusing them of being disloyal to the state. Although Amin claimed to be retaking "Uganda for the Ugandans", the confiscated property from the expelled was doled out to high-level military commanders who were in Amin's good graces.
Amin apparently decided that he quite liked cracking down on minorities, so his list of targets expanded to include other African ethnic groups inside Uganda. He established the State Research Bureau, which became his personal murder factory. The SRB rounded up undesirables and massacred them inside what were effectively human slaughterhouses. Methods of execution were brutal, often involving knives and hammers. This evil killing spree generated an estimated death toll of 300,000 to 500,000.
War with Tanzania
Meanwhile, Obote had survived Amin's coup against him and had gone into exile in Tanzania at the invitation of his personal friend President Julius Nyerere. With him went about 20,000 loyalists, and they all proceeded to plot together to overthrow Amin. That plan came to fruition in 1972 when Obote's forces invaded Uganda with Tanzanian supplies. Of course, Idi Amin had been obsessing over Uganda's military for years by that point, and Uganda was able to easily beat back the rebellion.
Amin wasn't about to sit on his ass, waiting for a second attack. He marshaled his forces and launched an attack on Tanzania in 1978, ostensibly to clean up the old colonial borders. Attacking, however, is a lot harder than defending. Within months, Tanzania rallied, gathered allies and supporters, and managed to kick the Ugandans back to their capital city of Kampala. Morale and discipline broke down in the Ugandan military as they began to suffer a rapid series of defeats at the hands of Tanzania and Friends. Finally, in April 1979, the allies seized control of Kampala itself, and Idi Amin fled in a helicopter. The war ended with several thousand dead, mainly on the Ugandan side.
With his military gone and his power broken, Idi Amin had no choice but to get the fuck out of dodge. Like many former dictators, Amin managed to escape justice even after losing his position. He went into comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia, enjoying a mansion, getting massages at health clubs, and taking comfort in that absolutely no nation attempted to bring him to justice. Amin died of natural causes in 2003.
Uganda's age of horror didn't end after the monster Amin fell from power. The government of Tanzania returned Milton Obote to power, and he returned Uganda to its previously scheduled programming. When Obote started cracking down on the people again, many Ugandans finally decided they'd had enough. Military officer Yoweri Museveni and some armed supporters put together the National Resistance Army (NRA) to overthrow the Obote regime.
The NRA kicked off a grueling insurgency war against the government. Both sides of the war engaged in atrocities, massacring civilians based on ethnicity. Museveni's forces also deliberately muddied the waters by dressing as government soldiers and attacking civilians, a brutal false flag tactic. The government predictably responded by becoming even more brutal towards civilians, the worst incident being the forced removal of 750,000 people from the countryside north of Kampala. When the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) raised the alarm about these severe abuses, the Obote government expelled it from Uganda.
Obote started getting more erratic as the war dragged on. His attention became divided between Museveni's forces and opportunistic Amin loyalists. The army, continually mistreated and unrewarded, suffered a complete collapse in morale and order. By 1985, the situation had become untenable for Obote, and he fled Kampala in a helicopter just like Amin. Obote had seized much of the Ugandan treasury and hauled it off with him.
Obote went into exile in Zambia and died in 2005, having received and fucked up his second chance at power.
“”Some people think that being in government for a long time is a bad thing. But the more you stay, the more you learn. I am now an expert in governance.
|—Yoweri Museveni in 2012, apparently having had a change of heart since saying quote at the top of the page.|
And that's how it's been since 1986 since Museveni is still in power at the time of this writing. Museveni was an improvement over his predecessors due to lacking their sheer murderousness. Better, however, doesn't mean good. Museveni liberalized Uganda's economy and has seen some success in battling Africa's AIDS epidemic, but he's failed to deal with Uganda's crippling corruption problem.
He was far more destructive in near-distance foreign policy, supporting and exacerbating a wide variety of rebellions across the African continent. Apparently, the former rebel feels an affinity for other rebels. He got involved in the struggle between north and south Sudan and then intervened in South Sudan's immediate civil war. However, the worst of it came when Museveni started interfering with the ethnic wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the surrounding areas. First, he backed the Tutsi ethnic group in the Rwandan Genocide, and then in 1998, he ordered his military to invade, occupy, and brutalize the eastern Congo for about five years.
Lord's Resistance Army
If that wasn't enough, Uganda has also been fighting an ongoing civil war against the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony. The LRA took advantage of Uganda's fragile politics to wage an insurgency to impose a heterodox Christian theocracy on Uganda. Their interpretation of the Bible has apparently condoned rape, landmines, facial mutilation of women, and the mass abduction and enslavement of children. Uganda has wisely teamed up with several neighbors to put down the insurgency.
As of 2015, the group has been severely weakened, although it's still stubbornly staying in the game. The LRA has kidnapped an estimated 67,000 children to be used as child soldiers, sex slaves, and porters. Amnesty International reported that the LRA would have few combatants without child abductions.
“”You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
|—Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight.|
Uganda is effectively a dictatorship run by Yoweri Museveni. Once considered a freedom fighter who fought against evil dictators, Museveni has slowly turned into a dictator himself. Uganda is a presidential republic in which the President of Uganda is both the head of state and head of government. In a measure ostensibly designed to reduce sectarian violence, Museveni banned political parties in 1986. A constitutional referendum overturned that ban in 2005, but that still didn't shake Museveni's grip on power.
Since 2005, Museveni has dutifully maintained the appearance of being an elected leader by staging fraudulent elections. 2005 marked Uganda's first multi-party elections, and the country failed that test. Riot police cracked down on opposition supporters with teargas while the ruling party committed massive voter fraud, bringing Museveni to victory with 59% of the official vote.
In the 2011 election, Museveni spent taxpayer money to bribe election officials into declaring his victory with an official 68% of the vote. European Union observers also noted a large military presence outside of most polling places, which created an atmosphere of intimidation towards voters. He then ordered cops to crack down on the subsequent protests.
Most recently, Museveni won the 2016 elections in a process widely described as "shambolic". He celebrated that victory by putting the opposition candidate under house arrest and then arresting many of his supporters.
In 2017, Museveni went further by creating the conditions for him to rule as president for life. He had the Ugandan legislature strike down age limits in the constitution, meaning that Museveni could theoretically run for president as many times as he wished. No less than six members of Parliament were arrested for opposing the measure.
Uganda also has several monarchies that largely exercise cultural autonomy rights alongside its other administrative divisions. The kingdoms are Toro, Busoga, Bunyoro, Buganda, and Rwenzururu. The monarchies were restored after Yoweri Museveni came to power; he had used the promise of restoration to gain popular support for his rebellion.
These kings wield some powers, mainly concerning cultural functions and disbursing tax money the kingdom receives from the government.
The relationship between government and kingdom has not always been amicable. The kings want more power and to become full states within Uganda, while Museveni has worked hard to limit their ambitions and keep them politically neutral.
Uganda has been described as the 'world's worst place to be gay' (right after Saudi Arabia, Iran, or DAESHistan), and the death penalty may soon be introduced for homosexuality. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill would allow the death penalty to be extended to citizens who have previous convictions, are HIV positive, or engage in sex acts with people under 18 years of age. The bill includes provisions for Ugandans who engage in homosexual acts outside of the state and who may be extradited. It also has penalties for companies, individuals, or media organizations supporting gay rights. Unsurprisingly, the prevalent homophobic attitude owes much to the influence of Christian churches under the leadership of Scott Lively, which receives a significant amount of funding from evangelical organizations in the USA. The bill was passed by Parliament in December 2013 and signed into law in February 2014 but annulled by the Constitutional Court that August.
Kanungu cult massacre
In March 2000, between 700 and 1000 followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a Roman Catholic splinter group, were killed by its leadership in Kanungu province in southwest Uganda, mostly trapped inside a church which was then set on fire. The Movement was founded in the late 1980s by Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere (who both claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary) and others, including defrocked nuns and other former Catholics; it called for strict adherence to the Ten Commandments and had several strange prohibitions including reportedly bans on sex and soap. The cause of the massacre is unclear, but the most likely explanation is that they had been expecting the Apocalypse on 31 December 1999, many selling their possessions and making other preparations, and when it failed to happen, the church members grew angry or restless; there are claims of murder or torture in the run-up to the massacre. It is believed the Movement's five leaders all perished in the fire, although that isn't confirmed, and there are still rumors that they are in east Africa.
Uganda is also home to a movie studio called Wakaliwood, located in the slums of Kampala, Uganda's capital. Run by Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, they make action movies on meager budgets (usually around $200), with their most famous movies being Who Killed Captain Alex? and Bad Black. Their movies have an international cult following.
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- G. S. K. Ibingira (1980), African Upheavals since Independence, Westview Press, ISBN 0-89158-585-0
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- Uganda's Kanungu cult massacre that killed 700 followers, Patience Atuhaire, BBC News, 17 March 2020
- Vibeke Venema, Uganda’s Tarantino and his $200 action movies, BBC 13 May 2015