Is Uganda drifting back to the troubled 1960s?

Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) government led by Museveni conveyed a message of hope when it came to power in 1986 after a costly guerrilla war. It promised to end all forms of sectarianism (ethnic, tribal and religion in particular) and all privileges by birth, root causes of political instability in the 1960s and the dark period from 1971 through 1985.

On capturing power the NRM government created an environment that accommodated every Ugandan and leveled the playing field so that every Ugandan could participate in the national development process on equal footing. This would correct pre and colonial deficits including lumping together people from different political, cultural, professional, social and discriminatory formations. For example, in southern and western Uganda pre-colonial authoritarian and exploitative governance system of rulers and ruled was not only retained but reinforced through the indirect rule system, causing endemic struggles between the two classes particularly in former Ankole and Rujumbura county of Rukungiri district.

Uganda’s situation was further complicated by religious feuds between Anglican Protestantism and Roman Catholicism and the economic divide between the north and the south. Thus, throughout the colonial period no attempt was made to create national consciousness through economic, social and political linkages. The federal independence constitution imposed by the British to keep Uganda together when it was very clear there was no sense of common statehood made a bad situation worse.

Indeed, within two years of independence won in 1962, ethnic, class (royalists and commoners) and religious differences that had been swept under the carpet so as not to delay independence which Britain had decided to grant resurfaced with a vengeance. Cracks developed within the ruling Protestant dominated Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) between the royalists and commoners forcing the military leadership to take sides. In 1966 one group acted faster and used security forces to crush the opposing group. A new constitution was imposed, kingdoms were abolished and parliament was reduced to a rubber stamp status. Critics and opponents were arrested and imprisoned. The opposition Catholic dominated Democratic Party (DP) which felt it had been cheated during the 1962 elections vowed to challenge the Protestant status quo at the next ballot box. In 1969, DP was outlawed. These cracks got worse with the “Move to the Left” to nationalize private enterprises in the country. Management problems in the military and threats to arrest some senior individuals led to a pre-emptive military strike with foreign backing and the UPC government was replaced by Amin’s in January 1971.

Amin’s military regime governed through brutal force until April 1979 when it was toppled by Tanzanian troops together with Uganda exiled groups. Those including Museveni who were dissatisfied with the December 1980 election results which brought Obote II to power waged a destructive guerrilla war from 1981 to January 1986. Obote and his government were overthrown by a section of the national army in July 1985 which was in turn overthrown by NRM under Museveni in January 1986, also like Amin with heavy foreign backing.

From 1986 to 2006 Uganda was ruled under a “no party” system because, it was argued, parties were divisive along ethnic and religious lines. Under the Movement or no party system elections would be contested by individuals. In 1995 a new constitution came into force with a provision for cultural heads (skipping the use of ‘kingdoms’ which is controversial) and term limits for the president. All these development were designed to avoid ethnic, kingdom and religious problems of the 1960s and to avoid a president staying in power for a long time. Sadly, what has emerged since then is a return to the very troubles that plagued the decade of the 1960s and ushered in the dark days from 1971 through 1985.

First, selection of candidates on individual merit at various political levels has turned out to be, by design or accident, a selection of mostly Catholic candidates. This has resurrected the religious feuds between Protestants and Catholics that NRM had vowed to end permanently. Protestants have begun to realize they have been left far behind in the political game and are beginning to ask questions publicly about religious fairness under the movement government. This religious concern should not be suppressed under anti-sectarian law. Rather it should be discussed openly to find a mutually acceptable solution to avoid a repeat of the 1960s and what followed in the 1980s.

Second, reintroduction of kingdom and omnibus cultural head system has rekindled debates about the privileged few by birth in the royal court that are going to reap big without making commensurate contribution. Even groups known to have had no cultural heads are now demanding them and the few that have been created do not have a secure source of revenue. UPC trial with constitutional heads to solve a similar problem created more problems than it solved, witness the Kigezi Banyama versus Baboga saga whose impact is still around. Clearly, as in the past, it is commoners who are going to bear the kingdom and cultural head system burden through all sorts of direct and/or indirect taxation, or tribute.

Finally, ethnicity or tribalism has become the single most potentially destabilizing factor in Uganda today. The anti-sectarian law which was passed by parliament to end sectarianism seems to have promoted it. The anti-sectarian law forbids talk about ethnicity or other forms of sectarianism even when there is overwhelming evidence that sectarianism is being practiced. Hence, knowing that they would not be criticized those in power have recruited and promoted relatives and friends particularly in strategic positions as in foreign affairs, finance, security forces and increasingly in the oil and energy sector. Let us wait for the announcement of energy and oil minister after elections next year! Similarly, religious favoritism has come back through the back door this time in favor of Catholics. Ugandans are seeing who is getting what and who is connected to whom in government and business sector. It is no wonder that NRM primaries for parliamentary elections in 2011 turned out chaotic with incumbent MPs thrown out and with cries of rigging against those who crept through.

The above serious concerns need to be addressed – and urgently – because they won’t go on forever. Otherwise, it will be difficult to avoid a return to the troubled decade of the 1960s and what followed between 1971 through 1985. Ugandans should work hard to avoid a return to those days. Hopefully, development partners will extend a helping hand in this noble human security cause.