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Uganda - History

Uganda History

Indigenous kingdoms popped up in Uganda in the 14th century. Among them were the Buganda, Bunyoro, Toro, Ankole and Busoga. Over the following centuries, the Buganda people created the dominant kingdom. The tribes had plenty of time to work out their hierarchies as there was very little penetration of Uganda from the outside until the 19th century. Despite the fertility of the land and its capacity to grow surplus crops, there were virtually no trading links with the East African coast. Contacts were finally made with Arab traders and European explorers in the mid-19th century - the latter came in search of ivory and slaves.

After the Treaty of Berlin in 1890 defined the various European countries' spheres of influence in Africa, Uganda, Kenya and the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba became British protectorates. The colonial administrators introduced coffee and cotton as cash crops and adopted a policy of indirect rule, giving the traditional kingdoms considerable autonomy, but favouring the recruitment of Buganda tribespeople for the civil service. A few thousand Bugandan chiefs received huge estates from the British, on the basis of which they made fortunes. Other tribespeople, unable to get jobs in the colonial administration or make inroads in the Buganda-dominated commercial sector, were forced to seek other ways of gaining influence. The Acholi and Lango, for example, were dominant in the military. Thus were planted the seeds for the intertribal conflicts that were to tear Uganda apart following independence.

A loose coalition led Uganda to independence in 1962 promising that the Buganda would have autonomy. It wasn't a particularly advantageous time for Uganda to come to grips with independence. Civil wars were raging in neighbouring southern Sudan, Zaïre (now Congo) and Rwanda, and refugees poured into the country. It also soon became obvious that Obote had no intention of sharing power with the kabaka (the Bugandan king). Obote ordered his army chief of staff, Idi Amin, to storm the kabaka's palace. Obote became president, the Bugandan monarchy was abolished and Idi Amin's star was on the rise. But events soon started to go seriously wrong. Obote rewrote the constitution to consolidate virtually all powers in the presidency. He then began to nationalise, without compensation, US$500 million worth of foreign assets. In 1969, Amin was implicated in a financial scandal and he responded to the bad press by staging a coup. Obote fled and so began Uganda's first reign of terror.

The army was empowered to shoot on sight anyone suspected of opposing the regime. Over the next eight years an estimated 300,000 Ugandans lost their lives. Amin's main targets were the Acholi and Lango tribespeople, the professional classes and the country's 70,000-strong Asian community. In 1972 the Asians - many of whom had come from other British colonies to work Uganda's plantations as far back as 1912 - were given 90 days to leave the country with nothing but the clothes they wore.

Meanwhile the economy collapsed, infrastructure crumbled, the country's prolific wildlife was machine-gunned by soldiers for meat, ivory and skins, and the tourism industry evaporated. The stream of refugees across the border became a flood. Inflation hit 1000%, and towards the end the treasury was so bereft of funds that it was unable to pay the soldiers. Faced with a restless army wracked by intertribal fighting, Amin foolishly chose to go to war with Tanzania. The Tanzanians rolled into the heart of Uganda. Amin fled to Libya. The 12,000 or so Tanzanian soldiers who remained in Uganda, supposedly to help with the country's reconstruction and to maintain law and order, turned on the Ugandans.

In 1980 the government was taken over by a military commission, which set a presidential election date for Uganda later that year. Obote returned from exile in Tanzania to an enthusiastic welcome in many parts of the country and swept to victory in a blatantly rigged election. Like Amin, Obote favoured certain tribes. Large numbers of civil servants and army and police commanders belonging to southern tribes were replaced with Obote supporters from the north, and the prisons began filling once more. Reports of atrocities leaked out of the country and several mass graves were discovered. In mid-1985 Obote was overthrown in an army coup led by Tito Okello.

Shortly after Obote became president in 1980, a guerrilla army opposed to his tribally biased government was formed in western Uganda. It was led by Yoweri Museveni, who had lived in exile in Tanzania during Amin's reign. From a group of 27 grew a guerrilla force of about 20,000, many of them orphaned teenagers. In the early days few gave the guerrillas, known as the National Resistance Army (NRA), much of a chance, but by the time Obote was ousted and Okello had taken over, the NRA controlled a large slice of western Uganda. Fighting proceeded in earnest between the NRA and Okello government troops, and by January 1986 it was clear that Okello's days were numbered. The NRA launched an all-out offensive and took the capital.

Despite Museveni's Marxist leanings, he proved to be a pragmatic leader, appointing several arch-conservatives to his cabinet and making an effort to reassure the country's influential Catholic community. Meanwhile, almost 300,000 Ugandan refugees returned from across the Sudanese border. The economy took a turn for the better and aid and investment began returning to the country.

Museveni won democratic 'no-party' elections in 1994 and again in 1996 and 2001. One of Museveni's major challenges in the late 1990s was the north, which was plagued by various anti-government rebel factions such as the bizarre Christian group known as the Lords Resistance Army, allied with Sudan's Islamic government, and the West Nile Bank Front, led by Idi Amin's former minister. Today the country's levels of AIDS and HIV infection are among the highest in the world, with a conservative estimate of 1.5 million Ugandans infected; in some villages the infection rate is as high as one person in every four.

The 1996 elections were seen as Uganda's final step on the road to rehabilitation and the country was rewarded by a visit from US President Bill Clinton in 1998, despite its blemished human rights record. In August 1999, Uganda signed onto the Congo peace agreement.

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