Uganda : History


Uganda has a long history, but few records of early settlement, although the country seems to have been inhabited very early. Bantu peoples were engaged in agriculture from 1000 BCE and working in iron can be traced back to about CE 1000.

In the fertile south and west, powerful social and political orders developed, including the Bunyoro, Buganda, Busoga, Ankole and Toro kingdoms. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they formed profitable links with the Sudanese slave trade (which dominated the regional economy) and formed alliances among themselves. By the 19th century, the Buganda Kingdom, which was allied to the powerful Shirazis of Zanzibar, gained the ascendancy. Buganda was ruled by Kabaka (traditional kings) whose power was circumscribed by a council of nobles. Buganda’s standing army and well-developed agriculture allowed the kingdom to survive the decline of the slave trade.

Various Europeans appeared during the 19th century. English Protestant and French Catholic missionaries came at the request of Kabaka Mutesa I, and Baganda loyalties split into ‘Franza’, ‘Inglesa’ and Muslim parties. In 1888 the Imperial British East Africa Company set up in Buganda with the Kabaka’s permission, and in 1894 Buganda was declared a British Protectorate. In 1896, protectorate control was extended to Bunyoro, Ankole and Toro, and the British extended Buganda’s administrative system to these societies. Cotton- growing for export, by smallholders, began in 1904.

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.

The gradual transfer of power to the local people began in 1921, when a legislative and an executive council were set up. By 1955, half the membership of the legislative council were Africans, a party political system was developing and the executive council was developed into a ministerial system. In 1961 a general election returned Benedicto Kiwanuka’s Democratic Party. In 1962 Uganda became internally self-governing, with Kiwanuka as first Prime Minister. However, the general election of April 1962 returned Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC).

Uganda became fully independent in October 1962 and joined the Commonwealth. The Kabaka of Buganda, Sir Edward Mutesa (Kabaka Mutesa II), became the first (non-executive) President in 1963.

Milton Obote abrogated the 1962 constitution in 1966 and in 1967 the country became a unitary republic. The kingdoms were abolished and the President became head of the executive as well as head of state. (The kingdoms were restored in 1993, and the 1995 constitution has a provision on traditional leaders.)

Obote remained in power until January 1971, when a military coup was staged by former paratroop sergeant Idi Amin Dada. At first very popular, Amin moved quickly into a brutal authoritarianism. 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. Amin declared himself President-for-life and, in 1978, invaded the United Republic of Tanzania’s northern territories. Tanzania, which had long opposed Amin’s regime, took this for a declaration of war.

Supported by the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF, exiled Ugandans), the United Republic of Tanzania army marched into Uganda. Kampala was taken in April 1979, but Amin escaped and fled the country. Professor Yusuf Lule, a former Commonwealth Assistant Secretary-General and Chairman of UNLF, became President for two months, and was then replaced by Godfrey Binaisa who was himself replaced a year later in 1980 by a Military Commission led by Paulo Muwanga, which organised elections in December that year. Commonwealth and other observers were present.

The elections returned Dr Obote’s UPC and were disputed. Obote was unable to restore economic and political stability to the devastated country, and the government became bogged down in fighting the National Resistance Army (NRA), led by Yoweri Museveni. The NRA had launched a protracted bush struggle in 1981 after accusing the government of rigging the 1980 elections. Obote was overthrown by his own Uganda National Liberation Army in a coup led by General Tito Lutwa Okello in July 1985, who then became President. However, this did not satisfy the NRA and its allies.

The NRA occupied Kampala in January 1986. Okello’s government was ousted and Museveni became President, with Dr Samson Kisekka as Prime Minister and a broad-based cabinet of civilians. Civil war continued in the north, and the first three years of the new regime were dogged by continuing instability in the region. Museveni and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took over a country in which conflict had resulted in one million deaths, two million refugees, more than 500,000 seriously injured people, and ruin of the economy and physical infrastructure. The NRM governed the country through a National Resistance Council (NRC) which functioned as a parliament. After elections in 1989 based on universal adult suffrage, 8,096 village resistance councils were set up. Museveni sought democratic structures based on a non-party democracy, rather than a multiparty system, to avoid reviving the ethnic divisions which had so prolonged the civil war. Political party activities were suspended, though party structures were not made illegal.

Elections under the ‘movement system’ (see Constitution) were held in May and June 1996 (presidential and parliamentary) and June 1998 (local government). Museveni was returned as President with 75 per cent of the votes. The national assembly of 276 members, sitting as individuals (although many of them with known political affiliations), was formed in July 1996.

In June 2000, as required by the constitution, a referendum was held on the movement system and 91 per cent of voters supported its continuation; voter turnout was 47 per cent. In the presidential election in March 2001, Museveni took 69 per cent of the votes to win a further five-year term. Though the result was decisive, the election had been vigorously contested between Museveni and a former NRM colleague, Dr Kizza Besigye (28 per cent). In the parliamentary elections in June 2001, more than 50 members were defeated – including ten cabinet ministers.

After 20 years of conflict along the country’s northern border, abduction of more than 20,000 children and displacement of some two million people, a ceasefire between the Uganda Government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – a rebel group led by Joseph Kony – came into force on 29 August 2006. The truce opened the way for peace talks in Juba, mediated by the Government of Southern Sudan. With only intermittent minor skirmishes the ceasefire was maintained until June 2007, when the Uganda Government reached agreement with the LRA on a roadmap for long-term peace, reconciliation and accountability.