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Ugandan history dates back at least 50,000 years, with hunter-gatherers eventually evolving into pastoral peoples who ruled over different regions of the country.
The Bito and Himo states practiced wildly different social structres, with the Bito being a compararively egalitarian society whilst the Himo practiced a strict caste system.
It was the Bugandan system, however, that would prove the most successful in the pre-colonial era. Emerging in the 15th century, the Bugandan system was a blend of monarchy and democracy in which the King was elected from amongst the member tribes. This meant that no one tribe within the Baganda nation ever held ascendancy for more than a generation.
This system allowed Buganda to expand aggressively over time. One British journalist, Henry Morton Stanley, estimated that Buganda possessed an army of more than 125,000 troops. Their capital, Kampala, was said to be a bustling metropolis of more than 40,000 people.
While Buganda never held all of what is today Uganda, they held a significant portion of the nation and were the most organized tribe at the time of British expansion. Other areas of the country ranged from small pastoral communities to bands of hunter-gatherers.
The coming of the outside world was both a blessing and a curse for the rising Bugandan empire. While demand for ivory saw great riches flow into the nation, it also brought foreign interest. Slave raiders, missionaries, and explorers came to the nation in droves and brought with them virulent illnesses that would cripple the fledgling nation.
Religious rivalries between Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim converts would set the stage for British settlement, with the fierce civil war sufficiently weakening Buganda.
While the British never conquered Buganda’s territory, they did succeed in conquering the northern reaches of the nation and uniting them into the Uganda Protectorate. They would go on to negotiate a treaty with Buganda which would see them remain separate from British rule while enjoying many of the benefits.
The Uganda Protectorate
In the wake of the establishment of the Uganda Protectorate, the Baganda were quick to offer their services as administrators. The financially-minded British jumped at this opportunity, and Bagandan agents went about collecting taxes and enforcing their cultural values on their former neighbours.
Lugandan was spoken in all trade, bananas were planted, and traditional Bugandan dress began to spread. Missionaries from all three religious camps continued to spread Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam wherever they could.
The Bunyoro people, who had long fought against both British and Bugandan rule, found their way of life threatened as their old enemies sought to divide up their lands and force cultural changes upon them.
In 1901, with the completion of the Uganda Railway that connected Mombasa to Kisumu, the British government looked to recoup its expenses in building the railway in a number of ways. Part of the Uganda Protectorate was transferred to the neighbouring Kenya colony, while European settlement into what became known as the White Highlands was encouraged in order to grow more profitable crops.
The Uganda Protectorate and Buganda continued to grow in power and wealth through the turn of the century, where cotton growth and the nation emerging largely unscathed from World War I served to make it one of the more profitable British colonies.
This prosperity did not sit well with everybody, however. British control over cash crop pricing, the introduction of Indian and Asian administrators, and British influence over tribal elections began to chafe at the Bugandan people. In 1949, riots broke out and the homes of pro-British chieftains were burned down.
Despite a steady growth in discontent with British rule, Buganda did not act to secure their independence. Meanwhile, the Uganda Protectorate, buoyed by recent independence movements in India and West Africa, began laying its own foundation for an independent Ugandan nation without Buganda.
Native Ugandans, fearing that their interests would be secondary to those of white settlers in any new Ugandan nation, Many within Buganda wished to unite with the Uganda Protectorate in forming a new nation, while those in power wished to retain Bugandan independence unless they could be the leadership of any new nation.
Ultimately, when elections were held in 1962, a new nation comprised of the former Uganda Protectorate and the Buganda state was formed.
Uganda: A New Nation
The new Uganda was a nation was made up five kingdoms with warring interests. The powerful Buganda dominated politics, much to the chagrin of the other kingdoms – the Banyoro in particular.
Divided upon nationalistic, racial, and religious lines, the new nation had great difficulty in achieving unity.
In 1964, confronted by a military mutiny demanding greater pay, President Milton Obote acceded to their demands and began to increase the role of the military in governance. Fatefully, he would select an uneducated young soldier to be his protégé: Idi Amin Dada.
Over the next few years, Obote and the military would work towards creating a more united Uganda – overturning policy that had previously favoured British and Bugandan interests. This move not only won him the support of kingdoms such as Banyoro, but also weakened Bugandan power.
Obote’s power continued to grow to the point that his own party began to accuse him of corruption, citing a 1966 incident in which his protégé, Idi Amin attempted to exchange a gold bar for cash in a Kampala bank.
Facing a near unanimous cry for his resignation, Obote instead had his military allies lead a coup against his own party to secure his power. He suspended the constitution, arrested those who had spoken out against him, and assumed complete control of the country.
Obote’s new constitution now longer recognized the autonomy of kingdoms such as Buganda, who declared that he and his military should leave Bugandan land. In response, Obote had Amin and his loyal troops assault the Bugandan capital of Mengo Hill and seize control of it.
The Bugandan leader fled into exile.
A one party system was put into place, with Obote’s UPC party the sole political party. He adopted a nationalistic, socialist ideology and began to consolidate his power.
Asian immigrants were forced out of the country, opponents were bullied into submission, famines were commonplace, and corruption was rife.
The Idi Amin Years
Obote’s growth in power was closely tied to that of his closest ally, Idi Amin. Over the years, Obote began to grow increasingly paranoid of his young protégé, especially after a number of failed attempts on his own life and the assassination of Idi Amin’s closest military rival.
In 1971, Obote moved to curb the rise of Amin’s power, ordering his loyalist Langi officers to arrest Amin and his supporters while he was attending the 1971 Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in Singapore.
Supported by Israel, who saw Amin as a means to curb the rise of Islam in neighbouring Sudan, Amin was able to act ahead of Obote and seize control of Kampala and Entebbe. His troops quickly began to execute those loyal to Obote.
The Bugandan people, who had been oppressed by Obote, were quick to welcome Amin’s new government. The British, Americans, and Israeli would also recognize Amin’s new government, as Obote’s nationalist movement had decreased foreign power in the region.
Interestingly, neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Tanzania did not recognize his new government. Uganda’s former president, Obote, was offered sanctuary in Tanzania.
In order to secure his control over the military and the country, Idi Amin began to eliminate soldiers from Obote’s home region and replace them with his own. He also employed a large number of mercenaries from Sudan, Nubia, and from among Uganda’s minority Muslim population.
In need of funds to pay for his growing military, Amin abandoned his Israeli advisers in favour of more profitable alliances with the likes of Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the USSR.
Beginning in 1972, Idi Amin began seizing the lands and businesses of Asian Ugandans, giving them ninety days to leave the country. Some 80,000 people were forced to flee. This sent the Ugandan economy into a downward spiral that was only worsened by Amin’s extravagant spending on Scotch whiskey, Rolex watches, and other luxury gifts for his favoured officers.
The former president, supported by the Tanzanian government, lead a failed attempt to reclaim the country that only served to increase Idi Amin’s growing paranoia.
In 1976, Amin moved to win the favour of the Palestinian PLO movement by allowing the hijackers of an Air France flight to negotiate for the release of Israeli hostages. The move backfired and caused him immense embarrassment when Israeli commandoes pulled off a daring rescue known as Operation Entebbe.
Amin’s rule was characterized by constant changes in policy, rampant military over-spending, and brutal retaliations against those he deemed as a threat. More than 300,000 Ugandans, mostly from the north, were massacred.
Amin’s violent temper and illiteracy made him an unpredictable leader. Orders he made over the phone one day were later contradicted by orders he issued in person. Record keeping was virtually non-existent and paranoia reigned supreme.
This would ultimately prove his undoing, as in 1978 he invaded Tanzania. In response, Tanzanian president Julius Nyere declared a formal state of war against Uganda.
Supported by former allies of Obote, the Tanzanian forces made steady progress against a disorganized Ugandan military. Even with the support of Libyan reinforcements, the Ugandans were defeated and Idi Amin was forced to flee into exile.
After five months of bitter fighting, Idi Amin’s regime had been overthrown.
Uganda Since Amin
Obote would return to power following a democratic election in 1980, but life did not improve immediately for the Ugandan people. If anything, Obote’s human rights violations were almost as bad as the man he had replaced.
These atrocities came to a head in 1985 when, once again, Obote found himself the subject of a military coup – this time at the hands of the National Resistance Movement.
Their leader, Yoweri Museveni, was elected in 1986 and has been president of Uganda ever since, winning five consecutive terms in office. While Museveni’s reign has not been without controversy regarding vote-rigging and intimidation, Uganda has enjoyed greater stability under the NRA’s rule.