My earliest memories of Uganda are of Idi Amin and his reign of terror – over 300,000 people died while he was in power. And yet, I hear that Uganda is a beautiful country. So it is next on my list.
Uganda is part of Central Africa, and even though it is landlocked with no oceanic borders, it is almost surrounded by beautiful lakes and rivers. The country, which lies across the equator, is divided into three main areas—swampy lowlands, a fertile plateau with wooded hills, and a desert region. In terms of size, for an African country it is relatively small, just a little smaller than Oregon. It has a population of around 35 million, with at least 10 different ethnic groups making up 70% of the population. Although English is the official national language, Luganda is what is widely used. The country is almost entirely Christian, (41 % Catholic, 42 % Protestant) 12% Muslim. Uganda has substantial natural resources, including fertile soils, regular rainfall, small deposits of copper, gold, and other minerals, and recently discovered oil. Agriculture is the most important sector of the economy, employing over 80% of the work force. Coffee accounts for the bulk of export revenues, but other products include tea, cotton, tobacco, cassava (manioc, tapioca), potatoes, corn, millet, pulses, cut flowers; beef, goat meat, milk, poultry; major industries include sugar, brewing, tobacco, cotton textiles; cement, steel production. Right now, Uganda’s trade partners are largely African, Kenya being its largest trade partner for imports and exports.
Paleolithic evidence of human activity in Uganda goes back to at least 50,000 years, and perhaps as far as 100,000 years, as shown by the Acheulean stone tools recovered from the former environs of Lake Victoria. The people of Uganda were hunter-gatherers until 1,700 to 2,300 years ago. Uganda’s strategic position along the central African Rift Valley, its favourable climate at an altitude of 1,200 meters and above, and reliable rainfall around the Lake Victoria Basin made it attractive to African cultivators and herders as early as the fourth century BC. The cultivators who gradually cleared the forest were probably Bantu speaking people, whose slow but inexorable expansion gradually took over most of Africa south of the Sahara Desert. As the Bantu-speaking agriculturists multiplied over the centuries, they evolved a form of government by clan chiefs. Larger polities began to form states by the end of the first millennium AD, some of which would ultimately govern over a million subjects each. By the 14th century, three kingdoms dominated: Buganda (meaning “state of the Gandas”), Bunyoro, and Ankole. At first, the Bunyoro was the largest. It had a central structure under a king (omakuma) and a strong trading position, because of its salt mines. In the early 15th century, the state of Buganda began to slowly take over the region, conquering many of the earlier states. Buganda had a standing army of 125,000 men and a sophisticated 230-canoe navy to help with its expansion. But by the late 1700s, the Buganda kingdom and its king (the kabaka) had become established as the major regional power.
Uganda is one of the last parts of the continent to be reached by outsiders. in the 1840s When intrusion from the outside world finally came, it was in the form of long-distance trade for ivory. Leading large caravans financed by Indian moneylenders, Arab traders based in Zanzibar reached Lake Victoria by 1844. One trader, Ahmad bin Ibrahim, introduced Buganda’s kabaka to the advantages of foreign trade: the acquisition of imported cloth and, more important, guns and gunpowder. Ibrahim also introduced the religion of Islam, but the kabaka was more interested in guns. By the 1860s, Buganda was the destination of ever more caravans, and the kabaka and his chiefs began to dress in cloth called “mericani” (derived from “American”), which was woven in Massachusetts and carried to Zanzibar by American traders.
Two British explorers followed the Arab traders; Speke in 1862. Stanley in 1875. The ruler visited by both Speke and Stanley is Mutesa, the king (or kabaka) of Buganda English Protestant and French Catholic missionaries came at the request of Mutesa I, and Baganda loyalties split into ‘Franza’, ‘Inglesa’ and Muslim parties. An Anglo-German agreement of 1890 declared Uganda to be in the British sphere of influence in Africa, and the Imperial British East Africa Company was chartered to develop the area. The company did not prosper financially, and in 1894 a British protectorate was proclaimed. Few Europeans permanently settled in Uganda, but it attracted many Indians, who became important players in Ugandan commerce.
Although control of the country passed to the British Colonial Office in 1905, Uganda was never fully colonised, as non-Africans were not allowed to acquire freeholds. By 1913, with the completion of the Busoga Railway the cotton industry was well established, though it suffered from World War I and the Great Depression of 1932–33. In the 1920s, commercial production of coffee and sugar began. After World War II, high prices of coffee and cotton brought an economic boom. While the agricultural Baganda people worked closely with the British, the Acholi and other northern ethnic groups supplied much of the national manual labour, and came to comprise a majority of the military. The southern region became the centre for commercial trade development. The livestock-raising Acholi from the north of Uganda were resented for dominating the army and policing.
Uganda became independent on Oct. 9, 1962. Sir Edward Mutesa, the king of Buganda (Mutesa II), was elected the first president, and Milton Obote the first prime minister, of the newly independent country. In succeeding years, supporters of a centralized state vied with those in favor of a loose federation and a strong role for tribally-based local kingdoms. Political maneuvering climaxed in February 1966, when Obote suspended the constitution and assumed all government powers, removing the positions of president and vice president.
On Jan. 25, 1971, Colonel Idi Amin deposed President Obote. Obote went into exile in Tanzania. Amin expelled Asian residents and launched a reign of terror against Ugandan opponents, torturing and killing tens of thousands. Under his orders, the authorities expelled Uganda’s Asian community in 1972 and seized their property; they expropriated the property of the Jewish community, and terrorised intellectuals, destroying such symbols of ‘intellectual’ status as possession of books, spectacles and chess sets. Public order rapidly deteriorated, and murder, destruction of property, looting and rape became hallmarks of the regime. In 1976, Amin had himself proclaimed “President for Life.” In 1977, Amnesty International estimated that 300,000 may have died under his rule, including church leaders and recalcitrant cabinet ministers.
After Amin held military exercises on the Tanzanian border in 1978, angering Tanzania’s president, a combined force of Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles loyal to former president Obote invaded Uganda and chased Amin into exile in Saudi Arabia in 1979. After a series of interim administrations, President Obote led his People’s Congress Party to victory in 1980 elections that opponents charged were rigged. Under Obote, as under Amin, detentions, torture, and killings betrayed an essentially unstable and violent political situation. On July 27, 1985, army troops staged a coup and took over the government. Obote fled into exile. The military regime installed Gen. Tito Okello as chief of state.
The National Resistance Army (NRA), an anti-Obote group led by Yoweri Museveni, kept fighting after it had been excluded from the new regime. In 1986, the armed rebellion waged by Museveni’s NRA National Resistance Army, took over power through military means. It seized Kampala on Jan. 29, 1986, and Museveni was declared president. They sought vengeance against the ethnic groups in the North of Uganda. Their activities included Operation Simsim which consisted of burning, looting, killings and “kambanakamba” a three-piece tying of the locals to death. Their acts of terrorism led to formation of rebel groups from the previous Ugandan army Yet, Museveni also transformed the ruins of Idi Amin and Milton Obote’s Uganda into an economic miracle, preaching a philosophy of self-sufficiency and anti-corruption. Western countries flocked to assist him in the country’s transformation. A ban on political parties was lifted in 1996, and the incumbent Museveni won 72% of the vote, reflecting his popularity due to the country’s economic recovery. Museveni won reelection in March 2001 with 70% of the vote, following a nasty and spirited campaign. In 2006, full democracy returned with multi-party elections and Museveni remained president by popular vote. In power for 25 years, President Musevni won a fourth term of office in the February 2011 elections, making him the longest-serving leader in East Africa.
In parallel with Museveni’s election, an extremist Christian organization called the Lord’s Resistance Army emerged in Northern Uganda from within the Acholi, who were being terrorized by Musevni’s NRA. At first, the group was spiritual in nature, but they began their first raiding activities in 1987 making it one of Africa’s oldest, most violent, and persistent armed groups. The LRA began to carry out local attacks to underline the inability of the government to protect the population. Lacking public support, the LRA resorted to forcible recruitment to fill its ranks. A 2006 study funded by UNICEF estimated that at least 66,000 children and youth had been abducted by the LRA between 1986 and 2005. According to that study, most of these children were only held for a brief period of time and then released or escaped, but others were forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves and commit unspeakable acts. In 1991, the NRA began to wage attacks on the LRA which led to mass atrocities such as the killing or abduction of several hundred villagers in Atiak in 1995 and the kidnapping of 139 schoolgirls in Aboke in 1996. The government created the so-called “protected camps” beginning in 1996. The LRA declared a short-lived ceasefire for the duration of Ugandan presidential election, 1996, possibly in the hope that Yoweri Museveni would be defeated.
Uganda’s 18-year-long battle against the LRA showed signs of abating in Aug. 2006, when the rebels agreed to declare a truce. Up to 1.5 million people in northern Uganda had been displaced because of the fighting and the fear that their children will be abducted. Kony and three other LRA leaders have been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. The LRA and the government signed a permanent cease-fire in February 2008. Kony failed to show up to sign the landmark agreement several times in 2008, dashing hopes for formalized peace. The rebels, however, sought a cease-fire in January 2009, after the armies of Uganda, Southern Sudan, and Congo attacked their bases.