You’re making me cry, Uganda

The world is, after all, a coarse and brutal and cruel place. It’s only a matter of how long you can live with it – Elizabeth Wurtzel, writer and journalist

People in the streets of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, were ecstatic, celebrating and dancing in the streets.

It was October 1962 and Uganda, adjacent to Kenya in East Africa, had finally gained its independence from the United Kingdom.

There was so much hope. 

“I consider the aspirations of the peoples of Africa for self-rule to be the most important development in the postwar period,” Prof. George W. Shepherd at the University of Denver  wrote that same year. “I…see the fulfillment of the African nationalist revolution as the major challenge of the second half of the twentieth century.”

Bobi Wine and Patrick Amuriat are just the latest Ugandans to see how the challenge continues in the 21st century and how calamitous it can be.

Both are opposition candidates challenging Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president since 1986. Wine was dragged from his car after turning in nomination papers in Kampala. Amuriat was detained at the headquarters of his party, the Forum for Democratic Change, but later allowed to turn in his papers as well. 

“Today I came to this nomination a prisoner,” he told the press. “While trying to access my documents, I was kidnapped, forced into a saloon vehicle, brutalized and I feel body pain.”

I despair that Uganda’s history since independence has been a trail of ebullience and then anguish, unbridled joy and then savage death.

Uganda’s first leader after independence, Milton Obote, like so many other African leaders, was initially hailed as a man of conscience and dedication. In October 1962, Obote visited Washington, D.C. where he met with President John F. Kennedy. “The tide of freedom now sweeping through Africa is a victory for free peoples everywhere,” Kennedy was reported to have said.

Obote meets with JFK, Oct. 1962

Over time, however, Obote’s commitment to democratic rule eroded and he became increasingly autocratic and repressive. In February 1966, he suspended the constitution, assumed all government powers, and removed the ceremonial president and vice president.

In September 1967, a new constitution proclaimed Uganda a republic and gave the president even greater powers. That same year Obote promoted an ally, Idi Amin Dada, to brigadier general and in 1968 to major general. By 1969 Uganda was effectively an oppressive one-party state.

On January 25, 1971, Idi Amin turned on Obote, ousting his government in a military coup. Amin declared himself president, dissolved the parliament, and amended the constitution to give himself absolute power.

Idi Amin Dada

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.”

Idi Amin’s rule produced economic decline, social disintegration, and massive human rights violations.  A 1971 decree gave the military the power to detain anyone who they thought was culpable for sedition.

In 1978, the International Commission of Jurists estimated that at least 80,000 – 90,000 Ugandans were murdered during Amin’s reign of terror. Later that same year, Amnesty International presented a report to the Foreign Relations sub-committee of the U.S. Senate that said 300,000 people had died under Idi Amin’s rule. In 1999, the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on International Human rights that put the number of deaths between 100,000 and 500,000. 

In October 1978, Tanzanian armed forces repulsed an incursion of Amin’s troops into Tanzanian territory. The Tanzanian force, backed by Ugandan exiles, waged a war of liberation against Amin’s troops and Libyan soldiers sent to help him. On April 11, 1979, Kampala was captured, and Amin fled, eventually finding sanctuary in Saudi Arabia.

Continuing disputes led to two successive presidents and a military commission running the country until Obote returned as president for a five-year term on December 15, 1980, promising a government of national conciliation.

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

“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,” Obote 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 again marked with sustained violence, bloody conflicts, repression and corruption. 

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.

Under Obote, his security forces had one of the world’s worst human rights records. In their efforts to stamp out an insurgency led by Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA), they laid waste to a substantial section of the country. 

A 1985 Amnesty International 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 had been killed by the Ugandan army or deliberately starved to death during Obote’s second term of office. A 1992 Library of Congress Country Study on Uganda said estimates for how many people died between 1981 and 1985 were as high as 500,000.

So much for “unity, peace and prosperity”.

Obote ruled until July 27, 1985, when an army brigade took control of Kampala and proclaimed a military government. Obote fled to exile in Zambia.

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

But under the new regime, headed by former defense force commander Gen. Tito Okello, massive human rights violations continued as the government murdered civilians and ravaged the countryside. His successor, Yoweri Museveni, became president of Uganda in January 1986.

“This is not a mere change of guard, it is a fundamental change,” said Museveni.”The people of Africa, the people of Uganda, are entitled to a democratic government. It is not a favour of any regime. The sovereign people must be the public, not the government.”

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

Thirty-four years later Museveni is still president.

Museveni was initially celebrated by the West as part of a new generation of African leaders.

“To hear some diplomats and African experts tell it, President Yoweri K. Museveni has started an ideological movement that is reshaping much of Africa, spelling the end of the corrupt, strong-man governments that characterized the cold-war era, “ wrote the New York Times in an adulatory 1997 article. “These days, political pundits across the continent are calling Mr. Museveni an African Bismarck. Some people now refer to him as Africa’s ‘other statesman,’ second only to the venerated South African President, Nelson Mandela.”

At his May 2016 inauguration for a fifth term, however, Ugandan opposition leaders said Museveni’s re-election campaign was marred by fraud and intimidation and the U.S. said the election was “deeply inconsistent with international standards and expectations for any democratic process,” noting in particular the arrest of the main opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni attends his swearing-in ceremony at the Independance grounds in Uganda’s capital Kampala, May 12, 2016. REUTERS/Edward Echwalu

Now the New York Times is offering a different perspective on Museveni.

“When he came to power, Mr. Museveni was seen by Ugandans and the West as a source of stability in a nation that had undergone years of war and political strife,” the paper wrote on Nov. 3, 2020.” But his government has been dogged by controversies over his involvement in wars in neighboring countries, the passage of anti-gay laws, his expansion of digital surveillance, and rising food and fuel prices.”

A Nov. 21, 2017 report titled “Uganda’s Slow Slide Into Crisis” by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels, Belgium-based organization, was 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.

In March 2020, the U.S. Department of State issued a report on Uganda’s Human Rights Practices which was exceptionally harsh in its depiction of the situation in the country:

“Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearance; torture; and arbitrary detention by government agencies. The government was also responsible for harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; detainment of political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; lack of independence of the judiciary; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; significant acts of corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons (LGBTI); and the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults.”

How long will it be before the long-suffering people of Uganda are again ecstatic, celebrating and dancing in the streets of Kampala? And when it happens, what are the chances it will usher in an era of progress and peace?

I fear I’ll be crying for Uganda for a long time.

___________________________

A SIDENOTE: My interest in Uganda is based on a long connection. 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.

Uganda landscape

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 under Obote and Idi Amin if I’d gone there.

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