UGANDA WAS ONE of the lesser-known African countries until the 1970s when Idi Amin Dada rose to the presidency. His bizarre public pronouncements--ranging from gratuitous advice for Richard Nixon to his proclaimed intent to raise a monument to Adolf Hitler--fascinated the popular news media. Beneath the facade of buffoonery, however, the darker reality of massacres and disappearances was considered equally newsworthy. Uganda became known as an African horror story, fully identified with its field marshal president. Even a decade after Amin's flight from Uganda in 1979, popular imagination still insisted on linking the country and its exiled former ruler.
But Amin's well-publicized excesses at the expense of Uganda and its citizens were not unique, nor were they the earliest assaults on the rule of law. They were foreshadowed by Amin's predecessor, Apolo Milton Obote, who suspended the 1962 constitution and ruled part of Uganda by martial law for five years before a military coup in 1971 brought Amin into power. Amin's bloody regime was followed by an even bloodier one-- Obote's second term as president during the civil war from 1981 to 1985, when government troops carried out genocidal sweeps of the rural populace in a region that became known as the Luwero Triangle. The dramatic collapse of coherent government under Amin and his plunder of his nation's economy, followed by the even greater failure of the second Obote government in the 1980s, raised the essential question--"what went wrong?"
At Uganda's independence in October 1962 there was little indication that the country was headed for disaster. On the contrary, it appeared a model of stability and potential progress. Unlike neighboring Kenya, Uganda had no alien white settler class attempting to monopolize the rewards of the cashcrop economy. Nor was there any recent legacy of bitter and violent conflict in Uganda to compare with the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. In Uganda it was African producers who grew the cotton and coffee that brought a higher standard of living, financed the education of their children, and led to increased expectations for the future.
Unlike neighboring Tanzania, Uganda enjoyed rich natural resources, a flourishing economy, and an impressive number of educated and prosperous middle-class African professionals, including business people, doctors, lawyers, and scientists. And unlike neighboring Zaire (the former Belgian Congo), which experienced only a brief period of independence before descending into chaos and misrule, Uganda's first few years of self-rule saw a series of successful development projects. The new government built many new schools, modernized the transportation network, and increased manufacturing output as well as national income. With its prestigious national Makerere University, its gleaming new teaching hospital at Mulago, its Owen Falls hydroelectric project at Jinja--all gifts of the departing British--Uganda at independence looked optimistically to the future.
Independence, too, was in a sense a gift of the British because it came without a struggle. The British determined a timetable for withdrawal before local groups had organized an effective nationalist movement. Uganda's political parties emerged in response to impending independence rather than as a means of winning it.
In part the result of its fairly smooth transition to independence, the near absence of nationalism among Uganda's diverse ethnic groups led to a series of political compromises. The first was a government made up of coalitions of local and regional interest groups loosely organized into political parties. The national government was presided over by a prime minister whose principal role appeared to be that of a broker, trading patronage and development projects--such as roads, schools, and dispensaries--to local or regional interest groups in return for political support. It was not the strong, directive, ideologically clothed central government desired by most African political leaders, but it worked. And it might reasonably have been expected to continue to work, because there were exchanges and payoffs at all levels and to all regions.
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