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The "Understanding Development" Series

Development cannot be seen in isolation from the political (and often military) history of a country. This is the argument clearly laid out by the first contributor to our inquiry into the essence of “development” as we prepare for JSAS 2023 and the interrogation of the theme: Redefining Development: Examining alternative approaches in Africa and Asia.

Uganda’s Political Development: Tales of a Historic Violence

(By Ian Karusigarira Lecturer, GRIPS, Japan)

The irony of what entails political development still baffles political scholars, the ruled, and the rulers. Political development can be seen to subtly reimagine the historical events chronologized with differing outcomes on the peoples’ lives in a country’s case. In the case of Uganda, various developments have occurred, some with a greater negation while others with prospects for greater improvements in people’s perceptions of a change in histories. To begin with, there was something going on in the political structures of precolonial Africa (Uganda inclusive), regardless of the orality that surrounds evidencing of such times. Written history was not a permanent parameter to account for what entailed a pre-colonial society politic. Traditional authorities within their domains not only either centralized or decentralized power but also expanded through annexation of other weaker formations. Particular to precolonial Uganda, conquests frequently occurred between two kingdoms namely Bunyoro and Buganda. The rival annexations precipitated the smooth bargain for British colonial expedition that followed towards the end of 19th century. Such traditional authorities have seemingly dominated the analytical frames within which we can discuss the current conundrums in Uganda’s political trajectories such as the “democratic retreat” and the identity infiltration in politics.

The formation, and later, naming of Uganda is a developmentalist process amassed with violence. In what came to be famously known as the 19th Century’s scramble for and partition of Africa, boundaries that characterize Uganda were drawn. In 1890, military guards (Swahili Askari) traveled to in-land Uganda with Captain Lugard of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAco), to guard the economic interests of the company (Omara-Otunnu 1997). They were later boosted by Sudanese troops recruited by Lugard some of whom ruminants of Ottoman Empire’s Mehmed Emin Pasha’s army from the Lake Albert vicinities. Baganda were recruited also in a military expedition to attack hostile Omukama Kabalega of Bunyoro Kingdom in 1893-4. The other monumental event in this period was the formation of a standing army for the protection of the protectorate and pacification of the peoples of Uganda and to back-up the state administrative functions.

Up until 25th May, 1906 when the Uganda Constabulary was renamed the Protectorate Police Force, the political role of police and King’s African Rifles were overlapping. However, the main role of the African rifles was seen in World War one and two intended to protect British interests abroad. These militaristic historical events marked the civil-military relations and the role of military in political consolidation of regimes we see today. For many war-ridden strategists, the military might is indicative of an upward development trend of a given political class. The body of literature on the role of the military in Uganda is a common academic characteristic of Amii Omara-Otunnu, especially in his work titled “the role of military in the Establishment of colonial rule in Uganda between 1890-1900”.

At the end of colonial expedition, the euphoria of a hope for native-led political decisions flared. The independence turn was a clear manifestation of political development. However, native leadership became a backslide in progress. Omara-Otunnu explained that military violence became a dominant force in Uganda’s post-independence politics and that politics were reduced to a competition between ethnic groups intended for the control of the armed forces. Although military oppression existed throughout the colonial administration of Uganda, the military intervention in politics is usually cited from 1966 when Milton Obote suspended the 1962 constitution and sent the troops under the command of Col. Idi Amin to overthrow the independence president (the king of Buganda) and to suppress the Buganda loyalists. In the period between 1966-7, most educated southern officers (including Baganda loyalists) were arrested, arraigned for court-martial, or disgracefully dismissed. The ethnic-northern became the yardstick for recruitment into (and promotions within) the military. Although the most referenced coup was in 1966 against President Edward Mutesa, the very first military mutiny was in 1897. This is a mutiny that posed a threat to the British Administration in Uganda. To be able to fight against the mutiny by mainly the Sudanese troops, the British had to mobilize troop support from India and East African Coast. The political situation since 1897 indicated increasing domestic opposition that required containment by a force of coercion. The army became part and parcel of civil- political engagements.

As 1962~1986 showcased premature and outright barbaric coups and dictatorships, the 1986 revolution led by the current president, Yoweri Museveni, embarked on an anticipated complete turn of events that would fundamentally change the nation beyond a mere change of guards. In power for thirty-seven years, but the realization of the fundamental change seems to be farfetched.

With this turbulence and human resilience, Uganda has built a political culture that disassociates with—and ridicules—protest action against the superior others, considered the elites. The idea of the “devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know” has conversely animated the societal glorification of the powerful, in whatever form. Hypothetically speaking, the growing trend of a quest for “coalition democracy” in Kenya is a rapid political development. But this is perceived as a barbaric behaviour or blood-thirsty, tribal-centered political opposition in the country. In equal measures, those who live near Makerere University, or have some form of relationship with the institution have become conversant with its characterization as nuisance-tolerant and self-destructive because of a systemic protest culture in the institution. Recently, a growing narrative in the political spaces is the damaging effect of participation in democratic mobilization for an opposition party. Although, protest action appears to be a political development in restricted democracy, the question about who bears the greater responsibility for restraint has generated mixed answers. The choice of shoot-to-kill seems to be a convenient justification for the maintenance of a parochial civic culture. The realities of oppositional engagement seem to produce more discomfort and most of the time life-threatening.

Yet, since 1986-bush war the praise for Uganda’s consistency of periodic election (whether free and fair or otherwise) has become a common “African potential” the international community wants to believe, a subtle portrayal of development perception.

Thus, engaging Uganda as a nation is an interrogation of its defilement by its founders and those that preceded. It could, nonetheless, be the starting point for the puzzlement of what many call political development. This is an alternative to the way development, as a term, has been used to characterize the political processes leading to putative universal imperatives such as democratization, human rights, economic redistribution, and social inclusion of people, in general, or in the case of Uganda, a stiff retreat to the darkest political space.

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