State and Society in Uganda: Before and after Independence

Mahmood Mamdani
Mahmood Mamdani: Director of Makerere Institute of Social Research



Last year Uganda celebrated its 50th anniversary as an independent state. The most striking thing about the celebration was the lack of any critical reflection.  We made no distinction between State and Society.  We all celebrated as if we were the State or part of the State.

Of course, Society should celebrate this anniversary. 1962 marked Uganda’s independence from foreign domination.  But Society needs to reflect critically on the nature of the State we inherited at independence.

The State of Uganda was established as a colonial State at the beginning of the 20th century.  The colonial State conquered Society.  In the years after independence nationalist scholars studied this process at the economic level.  Among the best known was Walter Rodney, who wrote How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Today we need to go beyond political economy. We need to go beyond How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, to How Europe Ruled Africa.

The Modern State

The modern state was a product of developments in Europe in the 17th century.  The modern state has a monopoly over means of violence and stands over society as its master.  In the ideal form we have here a relationship between the State that is fully militarized and Society that is fully demilitarized.

In the West this militarization is accompanied by a factor they call democracy.  Democracy ensures that all institutions of the State (military, police, bureaucracy, etc) operate under the direction of elected civilian leaders.

The current debate in the West is about how meaningful this arrangement is.  Americans recall how President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the threat of a military-industrial complex overriding elected leaders and ruling America.  Those who elected Obama wonder how meaningful their victory was.  The Second World War ended but the military machine developed to fight it was not dismantled.  The Cold War ended but the military machine it justified was not dismantled.

Democracy as a relation between State and Society is only one part of the story of the modern State in the West.  The other part of this story concerns us. We the non-West where the military power of the West was unleashed, we the rest of the world where there was no democracy.

This brings me home to Uganda.

State and Society in Uganda

The relation between state and society changed radically with the onset of colonialism.  Before colonialism, society was strong enough to rule itself.  What we call modern law, and know as part of the modern state, were then a part of society.  The main difference between customary law and modern law is this. Customary law is a set of rules and conventions through which pre-modern society regulated affairs. Modern law is a set of rules through which the state regulates society.  Unlike with customary law, the enforcement of modern law is backed by the power of the state.  The strength of society before colonialism lay in its capacity for [peaceful] self-regulation.

With colonialism began a sustained assault on the capacity of society to regulate itself.  Not only the colonial period but this entire century should be seen as a period of conquest, of state conquering society. This conquest was not a one off thing, but a process.  This process, this conquest, is still continuing.

If you think back over the last five decades of Uganda’s existence as an independent State, you will realize that the relation between State and Society has been mediated through ongoing violence.  No matter the government in power, the Ugandan state has confronted society, different parts of society, as so many challenges to be vanquished by force. Think of the big questions in Uganda’s independence history: the Buganda Question: the Northern Question, the Karamoja Question, the Asian Question.  Each of these has been ‘resolved’ through violence at some point in our history.  And each resolution has proved unsatisfactory and thus temporary, calling for more violence.

The Buganda Question

It is well known that the colonial conquest of Buganda was a product of religious wars –war between three different factions (Ba-Ingeleza, Ba-Fransa and Ba-Islamu) and the subordination of a fourth, comprising those owing allegiance to an indigenous spiritual and political tradition.  For those interested in this historical period, I suggest you read my friend Lwanga Lunyiigo’s recently published biography of Kabaka Mwanga.

This power grab marks the onset of a tradition of violent expropriation and expulsion.  Catholics were forcibly removed from Mengo and resettled around Masaka.  Peasants lost their land, as did clans, and were forced to line up behind the new Ba-Ingeleza chiefs, backed by the power of the British colonial state, the only way for these expropriated peasants to get access to land was to follow these chiefs to new counties and sub-counties to start their lives afresh.

Anyone interested in the history of ethnic cleansing in Uganda would do well to note this salient historical fact: The first ethnic cleansing in the history of Uganda happened in Buganda.  Though British scholars like Low sanctified it as a ‘revolution,’ we need to see through this official history.

The Northern Question

The North-South division in Uganda is a political division between two sides of the Nile.  The North lies east of the Nile, and the South to its West. Colonialism developed the North as a labor reserve area and the South as a commodity reserve area.  When the colonial state taxed northern peasants, the only way they could get regular access to cash was to move south and work for a wage, in plantations or coffee farms, or the police or the army.  In contrast, peasants in the South were encouraged to grow cash crops, cotton, coffee, and so on, to get money to pay tax and buy necessities like salt, medicine or the hoe.  

As a result, every institution of the state developed an ethnic and a regional flavor. The army, like the police, was Northern.  The bureaucracy was Southern.  The merchant class was Asian, and so on.  The very organization of state institutions set up one part of society in opposition to the rest.

Over time, two major fissures developed in Ugandan society: on the one hand, a division between the North and the South; on the other, a tension between Africans and Asians.

Both questions have been resolved through violence, and neither question seems to go away

The relation between the political North and the political South has moved in a see-saw fashion.  It took the British longer to conquer the North than the South, because in the North they had to subdue entire societies and not just the political leadership of crystallized kingdoms. 

Once colonial rule stabilized, the center of gravity of active opposition to it shifted from the North to the South, which was the home of the cotton and coffee economy.  Faced with peasant uprisings and worker strikes in 1945 and 1949, the colonial power used armed forces recruited in the North to suppress popular resistance movements in the South.

In independent Uganda, this same division continued until Museveni’s forces defeated the Obote II and the Okello regimes and created its own army.  To understand what followed, I suggest you read the book by Adam Branch, my colleague at Makerere Institute of Social Research. 

The North has been the site of an ongoing military campaign since 1986.  The real cost of this armed confrontation has been paid by the civilian population, not by the armed groups on both sides.  The LRA kidnapped and forcibly conscripted children; as a consequence, the LRA turned into an armed force comprised mainly of forcibly recruited and armed victims.

On its part, the government decided to fight the LRA by punishing the civilian population.  Starting the mid-90s, it forcibly interned roughly 90% of the population of Acholi districts behind in camps around the country.  It was a counter-insurgency strategy that the British had perfected earlier during the Boer War in South Africa and the Mau Mau uprising in Nairobi, and the Americans had emulated in South Vietnam.

The Asian Question

The Asian Question reached its most explosive point under Idi Amin, but it was not manufactured by Amin. Amin reduced the Asian question to simplicity.  Asians, said Amin, are all exploiters: “They milked the cow but did not feed it.”

Today, the Asian Question has been again reduced to simplicity: Asians, says the NRM, are investors.  So what about those like me who work for a living, who is neither exploiter nor investor?  In the language of officialdom we cease to exist.  Linguists call this rhetorical violence.

Official rhetoric has a resonance in the society at large.  Popular usage makes no distinction between a 3rd generation East African like me, or someone who stepped off the plane yesterday.  Both are known as a Bahindi.  To be a Muhindi is to be a permanent visitor. It is to be known by your ancestral origin, not by your present, nor by the future that you hope to build. It is to be identified as a visitor. To be a permanent visitor is, however, is to be permanently insecure and permanently irresponsible.  If the Asian minority is daily plagued by this insecurity, the majority is forever conscious of the Asians as irresponsible.

People of Africa who migrate to USA are called African Americans.  Africans who move to Britain are called Black British.  The left side of the hyphen tells you where they came from, the right side highlights where they are.  From this point of view, Ugandans of South Asian origin should be called Asian Ugandans, or Asian Africans.

The National Question

My larger point is this.  Uganda’s larger politics today is a bundle of questions: the Buganda Question, the Northern Question, the Karimojong Question, and the Asian Question.  None of these should be seen as a special question, isolated from the rest.  Each is part of a larger problem that plagues all Ugandans.  We are trapped in a state culture of violence.  This culture is both a hallmark of state practices and is perpetuated by it.  Our challenge is to find an effective anti-dote to it.

To do so, I suggest we think from the standpoint of society, not the state.

Conventional wisdom in Uganda holds that whoever controls means of violence controls society.  The most important criterion of rule, it is believed, is access to violence.

When political science students learn Western political theory at Makerere University, they learn it as a linear tradition, from Machievelli to Hobbes to Hegel to Huntington.  The lesson is repeated over: that power is about control of the state and the state is an apparatus with the monopoly of violence.

But even in Western theory, there is a counter tradition, a tradition that begins with the Greeks, with Aristotle, and comes to full flowering with anti-Nazi German philosophers, Hannah Arendt and the theorists of civil society, who argued that political community is not based on violence but on consent.  Even conquest is not durable if not translated into consent.

There are several democratic traditions, not just one.  I suggest that we think of democracy not just as a state practice, but as a societal practice, as a way society organizes its internal affairs.  From this point view, we should consider Uganda’s pre-colonial history as a treasure chest that can be mined, not so that we identify practices and apply them mechanically, but so that we may adapt these selectively and creatively.

Democracy as a Social Practice

Democracy as a state practice has a shallow history in Uganda.  It was totally absent before colonialism and during the colonial period.  After independence, state democracy has been an irregular practice.

Democracy as a societal practice has a rich and long tradition, starting with the village assembly, what the Waswahili call the Baraza.  I recall an essay we published in Mawazo in the 1980s by the Congolese historian Wamba-dia-Wamba.  It focused on the palaver; broad discussion.

The great challenge of social activists is to get those who have a monopoly on arms to see a simple truth: that arms and armaments are a very poor guarantee to a secure future.

The South African whites have been the latest to learn this lesson.  They used to think that, as a minority, they would not survive democracy without a monopoly of arms and a monopoly over political freedom. Forced to give up that monopoly in 1994, they feel even more secure as part of a larger democracy.  Today, the Boers of South Africa wonder why they did not learn this lesson earlier.