What happened to Uganda? - By Joy Odera

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What happened to Uganda? - By Joy Odera

Indeed, what happened to Uganda? I hear this question of consternation more often from Ugandans and friends of Uganda who were of age or old enough to understand the social and political dynamics in or around 1972. I heed this question with doubt and perhaps misinterpretation of its true enquiry.


What I gather is, correctly or mistakenly, “What happened to a Uganda where class and schooling were the cornerstone of privilege and entitlement? What happened to a stable Uganda? What happened to a structured Uganda where positioning on the societal ladder was predictable and accepted without too much interrogation?” I detect a heavy expression of loss in this question. In other words, what I sense underlying this seemingly innocuous question is: What happened to my privileges and entitlement? However, probably on a more politically correct note, I translate this question to mean, “What happened to cause the sustained social upheaval and its myriad of mixed repercussions?


What happened to Uganda’s moral compass and social graces? Where did decency, honesty, principle and honour disappear? This question looms high and hangs in the air when Ugandans gather especially those in the diaspora. Often, it is murmured, but at times, it is shouted out. Rejoinders to this question are as varied as its intricacy. Some answers are cautious while others are provoking. Some are subjective and ill informed, while others are objective and humorous. It all depends on the measure of the respondent’s emotional and past relationship with Uganda.


Having lived in Uganda through the 70’s, the late 80’s and then again from 2007 to 2015, and even though I am neither an anthropologist, sociologist nor a political scientist, I believe I have made some observations of Uganda and Ugandans that qualify me to nearly answer this question. In other words, my answer is not backed by hard scientific theories, methodologies and testing. It is just an amateur’s estimation of what happened to Uganda. My answer to ‘what happened to Uganda’ can be analysed through what I regard as a ‘Reverse to the Year Zero’.


Anyone familiar with the history of Cambodia will recall that on April 1st1975, President Lon Nol- who had overthrown the monarchy headed by King Sihanouk in 1970 with alleged backing of the USA government while the king was on a visit in Beijing, fled Cambodia to escape the advancing Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot. Two weeks later, the victorious Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, the capital. The ragged conquering troops were welcomed as heroes, but no one in the crowds that lined the streets could have foreseen the horrors that that victory would bring to Cambodia. Immediately, the country was renamed Democratic Kampuchea and Pol Pot set to work, establishing a radical Maoist-style agrarian society under his vision of ‘Return to Year Zero’, to where all Cambodia’s history and culture would be erased and forgotten.


This was an extreme philosophy of no families, no sentiment, no expression of love or grief, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, no books, no learning, no holidays, no music- only work and death. From then on, anybody who possessed such ‘extravagances’, dwelled in a city or town, had more than a basic education or had a modern skill, knew or worked for foreigners- was in danger. Many- approximately 25% of the population, died because of those reasons.


I believe that a similar scenario, which would have almost comparable social, cultural, political and economic consequences, had already taken place in Uganda in the early hours of 25th January 1971. On that day, a coup d’état led by Idi Amin Dada with alleged sanction from the British government and the Israelis, overthrew the socialist president- Milton Obote, while he was away in Singapore attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.


Shortly after taking power, and even though he had been hailed by cheering crowds especially in Buganda, Amin set about dismantling and incinerating the long established social, political and economic structures he did not trust. These, structures that were founded in pre-colonial and colonial systems, did not serve his purpose. In a paranoid manner, maybe due to a lack of education or some childhood psychological trauma, Amin immediately instituted pervasive violence and brutality as his means to govern and control Uganda.


He formed 'killer squads' to hunt down and kill Obote's supporters as well as much of Uganda’s intelligentsia and social elite, who he suspected of treachery, rightly or wrongly. Military leaders who had not supported the coup were executed. Mistrusted ethnic communities were cleansed.


Those lucky to survive the purge fled with their families to neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania or further afield. By 1972, under the guise of empowering Ugandans, Amin declared an ‘Economic War’. He expelled the commercial bourgeoisie- the Asians, who controlled the economic power in Uganda. Next, for multi-layered reasons that we may never fully comprehend, Amin turned against his sponsors- the British and Israelis, and they too left Uganda in droves and by the mid-70s, only the ‘foolish’ ones remained in Uganda.

The sudden departure of all these groups of people created a political, economic and social gap. The abrupt departure of this elite class created by traditional culture and colonization with a certain set of moral values, social norms and etiquette predicated on education and station at birth left a vacuum, and as the old adage says, ‘power hates a vacuum’.  


I am not a sociologist, but I consider this true to all vacuums. As a result, various constructs and people with a different set of values and ethos, started to fill these vacuums. It is ‘these’ others’, which are often in question and judgement. Inadvertently, through the activities that drastically challenged and changed the long entrenched political, economic, social and cultural affairs, Amin had directed Uganda in the direction of the year zero- to the foundation of a new philosophy and attitude, and new alignments in Uganda’s social structure.


To fully appreciate the impact of this change on Uganda, a bit of history of the creation of the Ugandan elite class is necessary.

In pre-colonial Uganda, the social practice of main tribes that came to comprise Uganda was mostly inclusive and tended to integrate migrants into its fold, without extreme otherness or prejudice, especially where linguistic similarities existed. In this setup, the ruling class and their descendants guided the political and economic agenda.


As a result, they determined the social hierarchy through the establishment of largely unchallenged cultural institutions. However, colonialism changed this balance with the introduction of an organized migration of groups from outside Uganda e.g. the Nubians from Sudan and the Indians from Asia.


To govern and control the Ugandans, colonialism imposed laws and regulations that were discriminatory and divisive in nature between the colonialists, the migrants and the natives. Colonialism ascribed certain job skills to the different tribes, e.g. the Northerners of Uganda were assigned the uniformed services, based largely on their physical attributes. The Southerners of Uganda were sent to missionary schools and they became the lower civil servants in the colonial government.


The point of these distinctions was to discriminate against one group, and to favour another in a policy of ‘divide and rule’ – creating handpicked beneficiaries and victims. The beneficiaries were enticed and rewarded mainly with Western education and jobs in the colonial government. Among the favoured groups, the elite had privileges of land ownership and an accumulation of wealth that was denied to most people. They were admitted to social clubs that were reserved for the colonialists or the economically wealthy Asians. The elite also formed their own exclusive social clubs like the enigmatic Kakamega Club. This club mingled around the King of Buganda, and was dominated by the sons of the landed nobility who had schooled at King’s College Budo with the king.


In many areas of commerce, discriminatory government licensing regulations and red tape was used to benefit a small elite group who prospered into a middle-class. The social structure evolved into a class system dominated by a small, educated social group between the upper and working classes consisting mainly of professionals, government employees and a small number of commercial farmers and traders.


In this mix, religion was introduced as another mechanism of divide and rule. The Anglicans were favoured over other faiths politically, economically, socially and administratively. This particular division went on to define post-colonial politics and squabbles in Uganda, to a point where the two major independence political parties- the Democratic Party and the Uganda People’s Congress were delineated as Catholic and Protestant respectively. In this blend were World War II veterans, who joined a small not so well educated elite class of clerical workers and leaders to become a nascent civil society, united by a single but multi-faceted cause- to defeat the colonial masters and take charge of the state apparatus.


The pre-colonial and colonial stratification of Ugandan society, divided the rich and the poor, masters and servants, uniformed and civilian populations, growth poles and labour reserves. It created distrust and fear among Ugandans.


Despite this fundamental challenge at Independence in 1962, Uganda inherited a system founded on law and order, education and health, biological diversity, food and nutrition security. The law was swift and largely fair, overall personal and community security was good and food reserves were decent. Bylaws of public health and hygiene were strictly implemented. Wetlands, forests, animal conservancies and vegetation were all protected for biological diversity.


Under the subsequent government, most of these positives began to decline and the identity of the elite class started to alter. Milton Obote reduced the privileged status of the southern kingdoms in 1966, especially Buganda, bringing the northerners into wealth participation and into the fold of the elite class in increasing numbers. However, this did not change the basic nature of the elite. This was not as radical and as far-reaching as what happened when Amin took power in 1971.


Dramatically, in 1972, Amin expelled the Asian commercial bourgeoisie. He then started eliminating and disempowering the established elite class, taking away its privilege and influence. As security worsened, increasing numbers of the educated and wealthy elite fled, leaving a wide chasm in the social pecking order. His government’s expropriation of the Asians’ wealth and other foreign businesses for distribution among his cronies and minions through patronage and the elimination of the established middle class signified the rise of a new economic and social order. Consequently, former marginal groups, like the Nubian military community, assumed new power and wealth. Many uneducated, untrained military recruits got important military and political appointments. This advent of the underclass, comprising of groups that did not have the same social values and manners as the previous elite class, resulted in new value systems- a social shift had begun to shape Uganda.


To maintain power, Amin used the state assets for rewarding political clients but as these resources begun to dwindle, his government lost its ability to impose economic and political order. The economy and urban centres stagnated, and the shortages of basic commodities and foodstuff provided new avenues to wealth through black-market operations and smuggling.


In this new economic sequence and power games, a few people amassed extraordinary wealth by explicitly manipulating the illegal economic networks that had rooted. Black-market activities -magendo, and its most thriving recipients- the mafuta mingi - became the foundation of the economy that quickly evolved as the fulcrum of the changing social structure. Together with its lower class beneficiaries- including those who carried out risky smuggling ventures, ran errands, and stored goods for their superiors- kibanda, as well as those who were simply thieves- bayaye, magendo became the new way to rise to the top of Uganda’s social structure. The mafuta-mingi, kibanda and bayaye became the new elite class and money the currency to rise to the top of Ugandan society.


Under these conditions of political and economic uncertainty, many of the former elite who survived the purge and remained in the country, reverted to subsistence cultivation or humble means in order to survive because they did not possess the skill set, aggression and adaptability that the new order demanded. They became the new underclass as the institutions of government became almost irrelevant to social progress. Roles had been irrevocably changed. ‘What happened to Uganda’ had happened.


When Amin finally left Uganda in 1979, the instability caused by the ensuing wars and coup d’états resulted in an unstable social order controlled by the gun and money. The restoration of a figuratively viable middle class began the mid 1980’s with revived urban activity, but continuing warfare in other parts of the country delayed nationwide economic and social programmes. Middle-class workers and farmers continued to struggle economically.


Uganda continued to face political and economic corruption as well ethical challenges that had risen to the surface in Amin’s era. The different ethical progenies born out of Amin’s era like corruption, tribalism, and nepotism continued to eat the very moral fibre of Uganda’s society.  


In today’s Uganda, values, ethics and standards are upside down. Hard work, patience, loyalty and honesty are termed as foolish, boring and not ingenious, whereas fraud and theft are considered as success, and its perpetrators respected as heroes. As a result, rude, unkempt, petulant, pugnacious, unethical, sluggish, indifferent, blatantly corrupt, and incompetent servants typify an inefficient public service.


This explains why architects build houses that sink, roads have potholes, prosecutors and judges convict suspects in wrong jurisdictions, nurses inject clients with infected blood, teachers award marks for sex or without reading scripts, police officers operate by brutality, legislation lacks quality, preachers lie, and the total social infrastructure is broken.

 This phenomenon, ‘Reverse to the Year Zero’, is what happened to Uganda.

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6 months ago
Joy Odera, I cannot thank you enough for putting in words what I could not. All along , I have had my suspicions about what happened to Uganda, my beloved country but I am terribly thrilled that you as articulate as you are, you have nailed it : Reverse to the Year Zero. Now my biggest worry is that it is easier to destroy than to rebuild . Rebuilding the Uganda you and I want may never happen in out time. You and I know that to change our world we have to change our thinking first. Thank you very much for writing this enlightening post and please keep educating us about what is going on around us. It helps us to make sense of it all.

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