On 9 October, Uganda will be 50 years old as an independent country. A series of activities has been lined up by the government to celebrate the Golden Jubilee in grand style. Having gone through shaky periods in the early years of independence, a now stable Uganda has reason to indulge in a big birthday celebration.
If the celebration of 50 years of independence is a time for stocktaking, Uganda has a lot to do. The country has gone through tumultuous times since attaining independence from Britain on 9 October 1962. After 74 years of colonial rule dating back to 1888, when Uganda was placed under the charter of the British East Africa Company, the British left the country that they once called the “Pearl of Africa” in a state of dangerous fragility.
Perhaps that was to be expected. Uganda, as a nation, had had that kind of see-saw existence right from the beginning when the British or their agents first arrived in that part of East Africa. Imagine a people starting life as a modern nation under the rule of a private company (the British did the same to India).
However, Uganda was promoted from private-company-rule to a British protectorate in 1894, and 20 years later in 1914 London finally succeeded in cobbling together what is today’s Uganda from the traditional kingdoms that existed in the area before the arrival in the 1860s of the British explorers, Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke.
The two explorers were looking separately for the source of the River Nile, and having traced the river from its mouth in Egypt, Speke finally located the source at Jinja, 4,000 miles away in Uganda, flowing majestically from Africa’s largest lake, Nalubaale, which Speke cheekily (and some would say arrogantly) renamed after his queen, Victoria. Jinja today is one of Uganda’s important towns where the Owen Falls Dam, started by the British in 1951 and completed in 1954, still provides electricity for the national grid.
The British explorers paved the way for European missionaries and eventually British colonialism to make Uganda part of the British Empire. As independence neared, Britain granted internal self-government to Uganda in 1961, after the first-ever elections in the country were held on 1 March 1961.
The elections saw the emergence of Benedicto Kiwanuka of the Democratic Party as the first chief minister of Uganda. However, a year later, Kiwanuka was swept aside in the independence elections in which no single party had a winning majority.
Thus, Milton Obote, whose Ugandan People’s Congress (UPC) had had the most votes, headed a fragile ruling coalition that saw him becoming the executive prime minister, and the King of Buganda, Kabaka Edward Mutesa II (head of the Kabaka Yekka party), become the ceremonial president, with William Wilberforce Nadiope, the Kyabazinga (or paramount chief) of Busoga, as vice president.
No wonder that fragile marriage of convenience lasted for only four years, as on 15 April 1966, Obote abrogated the independence constitution, following a power struggle arising from accusations that he and his deputy army commander, Idi Amin, and two of his ministers Adoko Nekyon and Felix Onama, had been involved in gold smuggling from DRCongo.
“As from this moment,” Obote announced in a parliament surrounded by heavily-armed troops and armoured personnel carriers, with Uganda airforce helicopters hovering intimidatingly above it, “the constitution which we had from 9th October 1962 is hereby abrogated.”
In fact, Obote had suspended the constitution on 22 February, seven whole weeks before finally abrogating it on 15 April. He proceeded to tell Parliament on that fateful day: “…We are also not members of parliament … Now therefore, we, the people of Uganda here assembled in the name of all the people of Uganda do resolve, and it is hereby resolved, that the constitution that came into effect on the 9th day of October 1962 be abolished; and it is hereby abolished accordingly; and the constitution now before us is to be adopted, and it is hereby adopted this day, 15th April 1966.”
Yet almost all the MPs in the august House had not seen, let alone read, the new constitution which they were being asked to adopt. Aware of this embarrassing fact, Prime Minister Obote proceeded to tell the MPs that “fairly soon you will find your copies in your pigeonholes”.
Though Obote claimed that his action was “in the interest of national unity and public tranquillity”, nothing could be farther from the truth. On 3 March, he had dismissed Kabaka Mutesa as president and Nadiope as vice president, and this had set in train a series of unpleasant events. A new law that accompanied the abolition of the constitution outlawed Uganda’s various kingdoms, and thus rendered Buganda, the most dominant kingdom in the land, “stateless”. In addition, a draconian Preventive Detention Act was rushed through to deal with people who might show any inclinations for “feudalism”.
Thus, stripped off his presidential powers, King Mutesa refused to pass the new “unitary” constitution, and on 30 May he asked Obote’s government to remove its headquarters and capital of the nation from Buganda soil. The prime minister saw this as a plot to topple his government, and immediately ordered his right-hand man, Idi Amin, to use the army to invade King Mutesa’s palace. The Buganda crisis, and by extension Ugandan crisis, was born just four years after independence.
A year later, in September 1967, without holding an election, Obote became executive president when the country was declared a republic. Poetic justice was, however, served when on 25 January 1971, Idi
Amin used the same army to topple Obote’s government in a coup d’état when the president was away attending a Commonwealth heads of government conference.
Amin’s coup later turned out to have been a British creation. London wanted Obote out for attempting to nationalise the mainly British businesses in the country. Sadly, Amin became a huge embarrassment, not only to himself and Uganda but his British sponsors as well. He declared himself president and gave himself absolute power. His eight-year rule is generally accepted to have been the darkest period in Uganda’s post-independence history, although some blame Obote for changing the constitution in the first place. Amin created “economic decline, serious social disintegration, and massive human rights violations”, as one writer has pointed out.
With Amin ousted in 1979, thanks largely to the involvement of the Tanzanian army, Uganda experienced a further seven-year period of utter chaos, frequent changes of government, brutal abuses, and armed rebellions which were only halted when the current president, Yoweri Museveni, and his National Resistance Army took power on 29 January 1986. The 20 years between February 1966 and January 1986, could be described as Uganda’s nightmare.
No wonder President Museveni now says the “optimism” at independence was misplaced. “This,” he says, “was because there were so many things that were not yet done. So I don’t know how they thought they would get by without doing some of those things, such as building a nationalist party – a party which believed in nationalism not sectarianism. We didn’t have nationalist parties at the time of independence, we only had sectarian parties.”
However, that is all behind Uganda now. Today, the country has moved on, and although Museveni’s government is regularly criticised by political opponents for short-circuiting democratic principles, even a critic such as the British journalist Richard Dowden, can write, “in his first few years in power, Museveni re-established the Ugandan state, law and security. No one can ever take that away from him and the National Resistance Movement [NRM].” Today, after 26 years under Museveni and his NRM government, stability has firmly returned to Uganda, the economy has registered impressive growth rates over the last 25 years (in some years, as high as 7.2%, though this year it is down to 3.2%), and the army is now a modern professional force of over 50,000 soldiers.
Having defeated and driven out of the country Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that had laid waste to large swathes of northern Uganda, Museveni’s government now has a peaceful environment in which to bring prosperity to the country. But it seems the government is now paying for the sins of long incumbency, as it has lost every by-election held in the country since the last elections in February 2011. The next general election will be held in 2016.
As the country celebrates its golden jubilee of independence, perhaps now is the time for all Ugandans, not only Museveni’s government, to take stock of the past and ponder the future – what kind of country they would want to leave for future generations.