Uganda: complicated birth; difficult upbringing

Uganda, the size of the United Kingdom, was born after a complicated ‘pregnancy’ following the Berlin conference; border adjustment negotiations among the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and France; religious and colonial wars that left some parts devastated. The outcome was compression into one country of segments of society with different cultures, hostile neighbors, different government systems and levels of economic and social development. Indirect rule using former oppressive chiefs over their subjects and employment of Baganda advisers to other parts of Uganda complicated the situation. Buganda was rewarded with territory taken from Bunyoro for cooperation in subduing the latter, a deal that Bunyoro never accepted. Through the 1900 agreement, Dundas reforms of 1944 and the 1955 agreement, Buganda was accorded a status of a state within a state. Because of various local administration ordinances, the colonial administration introduced a strong decentralized government system at provincial and district levels at the expense of central administration. Collaboration between colonial administration and the Protestant Church at the expense of Catholic and Muslim Faiths also created complications.

Economically, Buganda, and to a certain extent Busoga, became the center of growth. Export crops of cotton and coffee and processing industries were located in Buganda. Other parts were reduced to suppliers of cheap labor on farms and industries in Buganda. Recruitment for security forces took place in the northern and eastern regions. Social sectors of education and healthcare began in Buganda and gradually spread to other parts of the country, giving Buganda an enormous head start.

A combination of labor shortage in Uganda and economic and political hardship in neighboring countries especially in Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya resulted in many migrant workers coming to Buganda. Many of them chose to stay permanently. Some were assimilated through intermarriage with local women while others retained their culture including refraining from marrying local women. The demographic composition and political participation between ‘ordinary’ and ‘true’ Baganda and the distribution of economic benefits and asset acquisition have become contentious issues, calling for an urgent and comprehensive review so that the current grievances of impoverishment and marginalized of sections of Baganda under NRM government are addressed.

During the colonial rule a divergence in economic and social benefits between Buganda and the rest of the country and a high degree of decentralization of responsibility and authority to regions and districts at the expense of central government worked against the creation of national consciousness and complicated preparations for independence and post-colonial Uganda.

Originally Britain had a plan for gradual decolonization constructed on a bottom up scenario. But the abrupt wind of change blowing across Africa changed the plan. In addition, political developments and civil war in Sudan following independence in 1956, the chaos in Congo after independence in 1960 and the refugee impact on Uganda of the 1959 social revolution in Rwanda and the lessons of Mau Mau in Kenya forced Britain to speed up independence for Uganda and escape a chaotic situation. Britain preferred a centralized and unitary state and later an East African federation. Buganda that had enjoyed the status of a state within a state was not prepared to participate in a unitary state with other regions on an equal footing and come under Kenya’s white dominance in the East African federation. UK handed independent Uganda a complicated and fragile constitution in which Buganda had a federal relationship with the rest of the country. To avoid the problem of refugees and foreigners in Uganda, all foreign residents were offered citizenship. Decisions on complicated issues of head of state and lost counties were postponed, placing independent Uganda in a very difficult situation.

Growing up after 1962 has been tough. Immediately after independence, Uganda was faced with conflicts between monarchists and commoners in the administration, resulting in the 1966 war, abolition of kingdoms and overthrow of the 1962 constitution. Districts and other kingdoms sought a status similar to Buganda. Creation of the institution of constitutional heads in the districts was designed to even out relations among administrative entities, giving more powers to the districts at the expense of the central government which raised the potential of the country falling apart.

Presumably in an attempt to save the country, UPC increased central powers at the expense of districts and regions. The 1967 constitution put more powers at the central government level. The NRM government has consolidated powers not only at the center but more significantly in the presidency. NRM decentralization from 39 districts to over 120 is not designed to empower regional and local governments to take care of their development needs but to serve political ends and keep NRM in power indefinitely. The demand for political decentralization has become louder because of economic, social and environmental difficulties. Consensus is emerging in support of a federal system of government in which political and economic power is shared between regions and districts and the center.

This demand for a federal system of governance together with other developments within Uganda and the East African community call for establishing a transitional government that will bring all Ugandans together, discuss the burning issues including the constitution which is a living document subject to periodic review and take appropriate action. The transitional government would then prepare for free and fair multi-party elections (Uganda’s elections under NRM since 1996 have been rigged). To be fair to candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections, officers with political ambitions in the transitional government would be barred from participation in the elections so that they don’t take advantage of incumbency.

Ugandans should consider this proposal seriously to avoid a breakdown in law and order as Ugandans step up non-violent resistance to the NRM regime that has failed to deliver the desired results in the political, economic, social and environmental spheres. The low growth rate of the economy at 3 percent instead of 9 percent essential to meet the MDGs by 2015, skewed income distribution in favor of the rich, rising unemployment, poverty, malnutrition and diseases of poverty and poor conditions in health facilities and ecological decay in towns and countryside and re-allocation of assets especially land from small holder to rich farmers call for a comprehensive review by the transitional government which NRM can’t and shouldn’t undertake alone. We look forward to constructive and specific engagement on the way forward.