Others Laugh as Uganda Celebrates 50 Years of Independence

Okello Oculi

Uganda sits on the upper lips of a vast pool of water around which prowl two immense pythons. The first is the River Nile which drinks water from the vast pool and runs with it to pour into another vast pool they call the Mediterranean at the far northern tips of the continent. The second python is a rail line that drinks deep from the land itself and runs to empty its gorge by the Indian Ocean for onward transmission overseas. The first python was followed by adventurers who arrived at the big pool in the north and settled down to build Ancient Egypt. In the process they made slaves out of peoples in Iraq, Syria, Greece and the Arabian Peninsula; deployed them as tractors and Caterpillars to build the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the other wonders they left behind.

When Napoleon did battle in Egypt he saw that the Sphinx was built in the image of the proud rulers from the great plateau of East Africa. He ordered its black African face hacked. Napoleon arrived late. Before him the Ottoman Turks had ravaged the land and slaughtered people all the way to the source of the Nile. One descendant of Nubian mercenaries the Ottomans used was Idi Amin Dada who would seize power over Uganda in 1971. Amin fled from power in 1979

The second python, the ray line, was built by rulers of the British Empire who saw that their rule in Egypt could not be secure unless they also controlled the lands at the source of the Nile. To build the railway they brought slave labour from India. When Nubian mercenaries, inherited from the Ottomans by the British, mutinied against their British paymasters, Indian troops were imported to subdue them. After he seized power the grandson of the Nubians announced that God had visited him and told him to expel Indians out of Uganda. Idi Amin, a Muslim, was saying, God is great and does not forget his people. The Nile python returned the slap inflicted on it by the railway python.

For their mutiny the British punished Idi Amin’s forbearers by rewarding the Asians with the monopoly of retail trade which consisted of buying agricultural produce from local producers and selling imported products from British industries. Nubians were denied access to education. Mission schools accepted only children of converts to Protestantism and Catholicism. Muslim Yusuf Lule, later Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, had been able to attend school by passing as a Christian under the name Y K Lule. When Amin brutalised students on Makerere campus and directed that priority be given to Muslims in student admission, Amin was re-echoing this history of prejudice against his Nubian kin. When Daudi Ocheng, an agric economist and a protestant, on February 4, 1966, moved a motion in parliament which said: This House urge that Government suspend forthwith Colonel Idi Amin of the Uganda Army, Ocheng had no idea what pains and what memories he incited inside Idi Amin. At the time Idi Amin was the second in command of the Uganda Army.

 Asians of Uganda had come from the lowest classes. They could not plant in Uganda the great pillars of Indian civilization. They held on to the Brahmin invention of caste prejudice which protected minority Aryan rule. They could not bring to Uganda Ghandi’s generous spirit of struggle for freedom and honour. Sanskrit and Buddhist traditions of scholarship and learning, the philosophical thought about the subjection of body to mind, which stood as the bedrock of governance in India, found no echo in Uganda.

Carrying varying degrees of colonial favour from the British, two big groups emerged in colonial Uganda wielding varying degrees of influence; Asian trader class and Baganda Chiefs and aristocracy whom colonialism, against the interests of ordinary people, had awarded large tracks of land, known locally as mailo land.

 Asians found themselves playing the role of barriers to economic progress of chiefs and landlords. Who could not move capital they made from farming coffee and cotton into commerce and industry. Because colonial law prohibited Africans from owning shops within a radius of ten miles of any area designated as urban. Thus while the powerful Badru Kakungulu and his Baganda mercenaries fought colonial wars around the country on behalf of their British masters, no Baganda merchant or shopkeeper took root in their footsteps of plunder and ravages.

Favoured and constrained by the British, so it happened that two economically blind groups, Asian traders and Baganda chiefs and landlords, would rise as quasi power blocks, and fail to lead Uganda nationalism into taking power over the whole country and leading the country into freedom. Perhaps it was inevitable. Without an industrial class to emerge from among them, both groups learnt no political lessons from the American war of independence. They failed to learn lessons from the fight of the merchant and industrial class that wrestled power away from the king of England and his feudal followers. They kept their gaze low.

It was these two blind classes that Milton Obote, a man from the outlying districts, meant to force to be free. His way was, in the manner of Jean Jacque Rousseau, to use in The Common Man’s Charter, the force of political ideology. The Common Man’s Charter was promulgated by the Uganda People’s Congress in 1969. Its practical implementation The Nakivubo Pronouncements, named for the football stadium where it was launched, gave government ownership of 60 per cent shares in a total of 80 companies. It was a bolt of lightning across the blindness of the two classes.

The blindness of the Asian trader-classes was clear in their response to government creation of the National Trading Corporation as a tool for supporting and nurturing African inroads into wholesale and retail trade. They could not see much less appreciate Government’s dilemma of what to do with thousands of graduates from secondary schools, technical colleges and universities of Makerere, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Obote had protected both Baganda monopoly of jobs in the civil service and their dominance of enrolment into educational institutions, by refusing to draw a limit on them, as others had demanded. Instead, he built in every district a new government-financed secondary school. Through the districts Obote ensured that primary school teachers were well paid. He ensured that as many children as was possible were enrolled in primary schools to pursue qualitative education. Uganda had one of Africa’s highest literacy rates at the time. Each secondary school was to be a mini Uganda; it took in students from every part of the country. Yearly the Ministry of Education assembled headmasters from all secondary schools for the collective exercise of admissions. This ensured that the objective of a mini Uganda in every secondary school was adhered to.

Uganda Asians failed to read the time bomb that the new post independence education policies and practices had set in motion. Products of schools were going to need jobs. These jobs had to be created. Asian traders and industry leaders though they had the capacity and the means, had no plans of their own, to chart a way forward for creating an industrial structure that would create these jobs.

Asian traders adopted panic measures. As Mahmud Mamdani reports, they started hoarding goods, which created artificial price increase and generated a lot of anger in the consumers. They began exporting capital out of Uganda. Whereas in 1966 investment capital flowed into Uganda in a total of Shs 74 million, by 1970 – the year of the Nakivubo pronouncements - capital flight reached the height of Shs 295 million. I recall the shock of arriving at Essex University campus in the summer of 1868 and finding the same Mr Patel who ran the Canteen on Makerere campus as the owner of the new and only shop being set up. We became instant brothers who shared a common memory. Patel me that his relatives also ran shops in other British locations and in Canada. I sat up in surprise and shame. Here I was enrolled at a prestige British campus for a Masters degree in Government. And Mr Patel with virtually no education knew more about economics and globalisation than I did. The python that came from the east was eating Uganda.

From the Mediterranean came some dangerous diplomacy. At the London constitutional conference to clear the way for Uganda’s independence, arrived the Foreign Minister of Israel, Golda Mea, who had a private luncheon with Milton Obote. She wanted to be sure that he would be a friend of Israel. And assurance was given. Obote knew that Benedicto Kiwanuka had strong Catholic support in many parts of Uganda. He did not wish to add on to his troubles.

Israel was, however, a dangerous ally. She had a history of blood and war all over the Middle East and in Egypt where the Nile supports vital agriculture. To the immediate north of Uganda was Sudan from whose politics Egyptian intelligence operatives earned bread. With Colonel Nasser threatening to drown Israelis into the Sea, sooner or later Israel would ask for military bases in Uganda from which to launch aerial attacks against Egypt and the Sudan.

By 1965 that time was imminent. Obote the pan-African, whose hero, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, was married to an Egyptian, was for the Israelis a suspect bet. He was showed signs of being too clever. It was important to toss him out of power. The snag was that, Obote was a leader whose country’s military came from the same region as him, although this was none of his making but a legacy of the British. Brigadier Shaban Opolot, the Itesot head of Uganda’s army, could be turned into an ally against Obote. The need to protect and strengthen his single hold on the army, explains Ocheng’s motion in parliament of February 4, 1966. Ocheng’s motion sought to remove any possible challenge to Oplot’s command of the Uganda Army and to distance the Army from Obote. The 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel destroyed all of Egypt’s military aircraft, as they stood parked at their bases, suggested that the Israelis had planned for a friendly Ugandan leadership.

The sudden explosion of armed robbery (kondoism) in the Kampala area in the years leading to the 1971 military coup in Uganda, combined with the drop in the price of cotton and coffee, and the kidnapping of a British diplomat in Kampala, were familiar ingredients used by secret service agents of foreign powers to brew a sense of insecurity and economic disaffection in third world countries. Terry Waite who as Personal Assistant to the Archbishop of Canterbury was to gain worldwide fame as hostage, graphically documents this period in Uganda life in his autobiography Taken on Trust.

It was clear someone was determined to break up the government of Uganda, Terry Waite who lived in Kampala at the time, writes in a section of the book. American and British academics at Makerere University in Kampala began to do frantic research on the ethnic composition of Uganda army around this period. The diplomatic storm over the Nile just about shot a bullet into Obote’s head as he walked out of a conference of his party. By January 1971 the storm eased Idi Amin into power as the Military Dictator of Uganda to wide acclaim from Western Powers.

Uganda’s tragedy was that allies of Buganda’s land-owning class had not been helped by Buganda’s university educated class to read into Obote’s plans for windows and opportunities for new economic prosperity if he succeeded in breaking through the gridlock that Asian trader-capitalist class held over the country’s economy. With historic and catastrophic blindness they supported the coming into power of a military officer whose Nubian ancestry included the most horrendous scotched earth decimation of Bunyoro-Kitara when they served as colonial mercenaries against Omukama Kabalega. They ignored Governor Walter Coutts’ warning that Idi Amin was a butcher. They solicited for and brought about a military coup by a soldier who they knew had no vision or policy for developing the country. They betrayed little if any awareness of the destruction which military coups had brought to Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo and the Sudan. The python of the Nile had stolen their best judgement.

A Makerere University lecturer once said that Obote’s politics was akin to white ants flying in pitch darkness from all over the country to the only big fire in Kampala. The People’s Congress Party had atrophied. Party branches at local levels were dormant. The leader at the centre did not interact with the grassroots. When in 1965 Grace Ibngira’s faction of the party won branch elections in Buganda, in the western districts and Busoga and Bugisu, it had been a game of American money buying support, not a mass struggle over party policies and Obote’s performance in governance.

After locking up five cabinet ministers he accused of engineering a coup, the People’s Congress and Parliament joined the loud silence that detention had imposed on opposition politicians. In Buganda, the attack on the Palace and the Kabaka’s flight and death in exile caused by 1969 moments of hysteria and alienation manifested, among other things, in the phenomenon that became known as the mbalasasa. Mbalasasa was said to be a lizard which stalked its victims and in a surprise attack killed its victim with a single bite. No one could name a victim, but that was irrelevant to the fear and hysteria it generated. Obote’s strategy of turning to university students as vanguards for change came too late. Idi Amin’s horrendous massacres from 1971 to 1979 would make mbalasasa look like a fool’s moment of fun in the sun. Buganda’s political class had run out of ideas and lay prostrate in paralysis.

It is strange that the National Resistance Movement who overthrew the Tito Okello regime in 1986 would take violence to villagers who had been effectively shut out of political participation soon after independence in 1962. With the victory of the National Resistance Movement and the rise of their twin, Joseph Kony and his bizarre and cruel sense of revolution, a double burden of violence struck rural populations across northern and eastern Uganda. Against unarmed civilian population now stood two sets of brute violence armed to the teeth and determined to wreck maximum human suffering. And for years they did so with abandon. Massive social and economic dislocation followed communities that government by force of arms herded into concentration camps


Visiting one of these camps at Erute in Lira Town in 2002, the site of hundreds of people forlornly seated under twigs and scattered bands of grass for shelter from sun and rain combined with a stretch from the bare ground between the camp and the forest, turned into a mass toilet, brought home to me the reality of a people treated not as citizens but as sub-humans. The aftermath of the coup of 1971 combined with four decades of people ignored by politics of elite intrigues in Kampala, to send Uganda roaring backwards into anti-development for significant sections of its population.

For a country trapped by colonial geography between territorially vast countries, notably, Sudan, Congo, Tanzania and Kenya, the loss of time in educating and improving the quality of its human resources across politically unfavoured districts is a massive waste of that brain power that small countries like Switzerland, Israel and Japan power among industrialized countries. Uganda’s elites need to urgently get out of the trap of economic and political blindness which afflicted the Asian trader-capitalist class and Buganda’s land-lord class and their bureaucratic allies. The enduring focus on income without industrialisation has led to obsession with power and acquiring power; that in turn has lead to massive corruption in governance and civil society.

A new vision that transcends tribal monarchism and tribal doctrines that paralysed foresight in the past must be possible. Without it Uganda will mark 50 years of Uhuru while observers laugh and poke fun at the folly of its elites.