Zimbabwe’s fate: Uganda redux?

Every day, reports of hate-driven devastation in some distant (or nearby) locale remind me that human evolution includes the repetition of atrocities on a scale that defies all reason.

              “Survivor Cafe” by Elizabeth Rosner


The people in the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, were ecstatic earlier this week, celebrating and dancing in the streets.

Zimbabweans celebrate in the morning sun after President Mugabe resigned in Harare

After 37 years in power, Robert Mugabe had resigned as president on Tuesday, Nov. 21.

“We’re very hopeful that change is coming, it’s just so exciting for us,” Zee Musuna told a CBC News reporter in Harare. “Today has been a bright and beautiful day for all of us, because it’s the news we’ve been waiting for for a long, long time,” said his companion, Zviko Barikano.


Zee Musuna (L) and Zviko Barikano

If you knew Uganda’s post-colonial history, you would understand why such optimism for Zimbabwe could well be short-lived.

A SIDENOTE: My interest in Uganda is based on personal experience. I graduated from the University of Denver in 1967 with a B.A. in International Relations focusing on Africa and was accepted into a graduate program in African development at Makerere University, part of the University of East Africa in Kampala. I was thrilled, but my draft board was not. This was, after all, during the increasingly bloody Vietnam War and the United States was heading toward instituting a draft. My draft board strongly cautioned me against leaving the country, dashing my Africa plans, but not diminishing my interest in the continent. Since then, I have often found myself wondering whether I would have survived Uganda’s turmoil if I’d gone there.


University of East Africa, Kampala, Uganda

Uganda, adjacent to Kenya in East Africa, became independent from Britain in 1962.


The people in the streets of Kampala, Uganda’s capitol, were ecstatic, celebrating and dancing in the streets..


The country’s new leader, Milton Obote, was initially hailed as a man of conscience and dedication.


Milton Obote in 1962

Over time, however, Obote’s commitment to democratic rule eroded and he became increasingly autocratic and repressive.

In 1964, anti-Obote elements tried to push him out. Obote arrested the principal plotters and suspended the 1962 constitution.

In 1967, Obote introduced a new constitution that further strengthened his executive powers. That same year he promoted an ally, Idi Amin, to brigadier general and in 1968 to major general. By 1969 Uganda was effectively an oppressive one party state.


Idi Amin

In January 1971, Amin deposed Obote, dissolved the government and took sole control of the state.

People in the streets of Kampala were ecstatic, celebrating and dancing in the streets.

But it didn’t take long for euphoria to turn to horror as Amin turned to savagery against his own countrymen, initiating what the New York Times called “an 8-year reign of terror”. The Amin cabal quickly morphed into a despotic regime, wreaking havoc on Uganda’s economy and its people.

“If one historical figure could be said to embody the continent as it is stereotypically imagined — dark, dangerous, atavistic and charged with sexual magnetism — it would be Idi Amin Dada,” said Andrew Rice, author of “The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget. Murder and Memory in Uganda.”

 The International Commission of Jurists in Geneva estimated the number of people killed by Amin at 80,000-300,000. Exile organizations and Amnesty International estimated 500,000.

In 1979, Amin fled Uganda, eventually finding sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, and Yusufu Lule was installed as president.

People in the streets of Kampala were ecstatic, celebrating and dancing in the streets.

Yusufu Lule lasted just 68 days, before being replaced by Godfrey Binaisa. He was overthrown by supporters of former Ugandan president Milton Obote in May 1980.

People in the streets of Kampala were ecstatic.

Following an election of questionable legitimacy, Obote was sworn in as president for a five-year term on December 15 1980, promising a government of national conciliation.

Setting the tone for his rule, Obote made a memorable speech in western Uganda to a gigantic audience.


Obote’s memorable speech at Bushenyi on May 27, 1980

“The liberation of Uganda last year gave us a new lease of life and opportunity to bury our past differences and build a new nation based on unity, peace and prosperity and erect democratic institutions,” he said. “Fellow countrymen, let us therefore take a vow here and now that never again shall we allow a situation to develop in our country which through disunity would enable any individual or, for that matter a group of people to wrest control of our country, destroy our democratic institutions, plunder our natural resources or tamper with the freedom and personal liberty of our citizens.”

But Obote quickly showed himself to be no democratic peacemaker. This time, his five years of rule were marked with bloody conflicts and violent repression.

Obote resumed Idi Amin’s habits of restricting all media, ordering the arrest and torture of opponents, and pushing thousands of refugees into bordering Sudan. During Obote’s second term, thousands died from starvation, massacre or warfare.

In an Amnesty International 1985 report, the organization cited an estimate made by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs that between 100,000 and 200,000 people died during Obote’s second term of office. A 1992 Library of Congress country study on Uganda stated that estimates for how many people died between 1981 and 1985 is as high as 500,000 people.

So much for “unity, peace and prosperity”.

The seeds of Obote’s repeat failure were sown at the outset of his rule when several former anti-Amin soldiers, led by Yoweri Museveni, fled and launched a guerrilla war against Obote’s regime.

In 1985, Obote was toppled a second time, receiving political asylum in Zambia.

His successor? None other than Museveni, who led a rebel army to victory and became president of Uganda in 1986.

People in the streets of Kampala were ecstatic, celebrating and dancing in the streets.

Thirty-two years later Museveni is still president and the mood is less exuberant.


Yoweri Museveni

According to the Smithsonian, many Western governments regard Uganda as a qualified success from a development standpoint. But that growth is largely confined to the south and Kampala. Elsewhere, deep poverty is the rule.

With a per capita income of $240, Uganda is among the world’s poorest countries, with 44 percent of citizens living below the national poverty line. The nation ranks 146th out of 177 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, a composite measure of life expectancy, education and living standard. Donor countries and international lending agencies cover half of Uganda’s annual budget.

In a “Uganda 2016 Human Rights Report”, the U.S. Department of State said serious human rights problems in Uganda included lack of respect for individual integrity (unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention, and other abuse of suspects and detainees); restrictions on civil liberties (freedoms of press, expression, assembly, association, and political participation); and violence and discrimination against marginalized groups.

Other human rights problems included harsh prison conditions, lengthy pretrial detention, official corruption, biased application of the law, societal violence, trafficking in persons, and child labor, the report said.

Museveni appears to still retain support, according to the Smithsonian, but his autocratic drift and systemic corruption risks wrecking his legacy.

A Nov. 21, 2017 report titled “Uganda’s Slow Slide Into Crisis” by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels, Belgium-based organization, is not optimistic about what will happen when Museveni leaves (or dies).

“The public appears to have little confidence that Museveni’s departure will be followed by a constitutional transfer of power,” said the International Crisis Group’s report. “Many expect that groups left out of power will confront the government. In response, the military might step in…”

“Major violence is unlikely for now, but Uganda nonetheless faces the gradual fraying of order, security and governance. Discontent is growing, particularly among youth…,” the group said.

Hard to say how long it will be before the long-suffering people of Uganda are again ecstatic, celebrating and dancing in the streets of Kampala.


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