Lessons for Uganda from the 1979 Iranian revolution

What is happening in Uganda right now is almost reminiscent of what happened in Iran before the 1979 revolution. The background story to that revolution might help the NRM leadership, Ugandans at home and abroad and others interested in Uganda’s peace and security to take preventive steps to avoid a revolution, civil war or continued dictatorship.

According to Ervand Abrahamian (2008), the revolution “erupted like a volcano because of the overwhelming pressures that had built up over the decades deep in the bowels of Iranian society. By 1977, the Shah was sitting on such a volcano, having alienated almost every sector of society. He began his autocratic rule adamantly opposed by the intelligentsia and the urban working class. This opposition intensified over the years”.

According to Melissa Rossi (2008), “The Iranian revolution that culminated in 1979 … was much more a reflection of the deep unhappiness with the Shah and his oppressive, corrupt regime than of a desire to install the Islamic theocracy that Khomeini wrought. Although during his thirty-eight-year rule the Shah paved roads, built modern business boxes and brought big money to some, the middle class and the poor didn’t see many benefits: the economy was plagued by inflation, the Shah was siphoning off billions for U.S.-made arms, and most Iranians had nowhere to vent grievances in a society that was more fearful and plagued by spies than the Soviet Union (where at least dissidents spoke up). The Shah’s secret service, known for torture, maiming, kidnapping and killing up to fifteen thousand, knocked off most opposition; exiled Khomeini, who’d been lashing out at the Shah’s Islam-ignoring ways since 1963, was among the few who survived”.

Ayatollah Khomeini who was born in a family of small landowners began attacking the Shah in 1963 and openly called for resistance. He was imprisoned twice. In 1964, he was sent into exile in Turkey and later in Iraq. He was subsequently expelled from Iraq and ended up in France where he continued his resistance against the Shah. According to Monika Gronke (2009) Khomeini’s revolutionary message “united a wide spectrum of diverse opposition groups: leftists and rightists, liberals and conservatives, intellectuals, bazaar merchants, radicals and moderate groups of clergy as well as the great mass of impoverished former landowners now living in the slums of the great cities”.

What triggered the revolution was an article published in a government-controlled paper denouncing Khomeini in particular and the clergy in general as “’black reactionaries’ in cahoots with feudalism, imperialism, and, of course, communism”(Ervand Abrahamian 2008). The publication triggered massive demonstrations that forced the Shah out of the country in January 1979.

The situation in Uganda today is almost the same as in Iran before the revolution in 1979 as well as before the revolutions in France in 1789, Mexico in 1910, Russia in 1917 and Ethiopia in1974.

What is remaining in Uganda is a trigger which can occur at any time. With good will and determination among Ugandans at home and abroad, partners, friends and well wishers, the catastrophe can be averted.

Eric Kashambuzi

January 31, 2017