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Uganda’s independence: What if?

Edited by Admin
Uganda’s independence: What if?

Whereas political independence of African colonies from European powers was a very good thing, they handed political power to us too soon. We were simply not ready.


Whenever I have said this, I have triggered vitriolic responses driven by understandable emotions. The language used by some in response to my personal opinions on the matter has often exposed the thinness of the veil of civility and gentlemanly conduct that is donned by educated colleagues who prefer a single side of the story. Their side. 


To me, there were two consequential tragedies of colonialism. The first was the creation of forced marriages of tribes, many of whom were utterly incompatible, with different histories, different languages, and other traditions. Many were mortal enemies, with long trails of bloody wars, mutual plunder, and despoliation. As incompatible as blood and milk.


The arrogant disregard with which the colonial powers drew borders to create their territories, without the slightest care about the history and human demographics of the beautiful landmarks that their cartographers considered convenient, remains a very sore point for many of us. 


The reflex ethnic intolerance in many African countries, more than a century after the forced marriages, and over sixty years of pretend unity and forced nationhood, bears witness to the gravity of this single error by the European powers. In Uganda, for example, the politics of tribalism and regionalism is alive and well, even as the practitioners and exploiters of this foolishness claim to be nationalists. 


In Uganda we are less interested in the qualifications of who gets appointed to high public office than we are about their ethnicity. Of course, we do not call it tribal appointment. We prefer the less revealing term “regional balancing.”


Don’t get me wrong. I am as irritated by tribal dominance and power monopoly as is any other fair-minded Ugandan. I am allergic to the ethnic narrowmindedness that has anchored various regimes since political independence. 


However, I am so married to meritocracy that whenever the ruler appoints people to his cabinet, or to critical posts in the public service or armed organizations, my first interest is always their qualifications and experience. I would be happy to see an entire cabinet or top civil service peopled with only Baganda or Acholi or Banyankore, if they were the very best qualified to execute their briefs with world-class intellect, efficiency, and integrity. I am results oriented, and not interested in cosmetics and assuaging tribal egos. 


This may well be a minority approach. I suspect that in a national poll on the matter, fidelity to ethnic identity would triumph over ability, efficiency, and integrity as the major consideration in appointment of people to public office. This is understandable in our country, a patchwork of 65 communities, most of them as different as the English are from the Arabs. For the record, I am certain that where meritocracy is the prime consideration, we would end up with unforced regional balancing. 


The second tragedy of colonialism was the creation of benevolent dictatorships in the form of unelected chiefs and other colonial enforcers, and a very delayed inclusion of Africans in democratization. They entrenched the “bwana traditions”, with the chief’s word being the law.


Then, almost as an afterthought, the colonial powers grudgingly tolerated democratization efforts by the Africans. This late effort in the colonial state, became a very rushed affair, reacting to “the wind of change”, rather than a carefully planned introduction of what was a very foreign concept. 


What should have been introduced over decades, to enable a cultural mindset-change from feudalism to individual rights and democracy, was rushed like an arranged marriage between two incompatible strangers. Societies like that of Abakiga, where rugged individualism ruled supreme, were suddenly expected to subscribe to the give and take of democracy, and acceptance to be ruled by people one vigorously opposed. The feudal areas of the Uganda Protectorate, where the word of the king or his noblemen allowed no public dissent, were now expected to entertain competing public opinions, and potential alternative rulers withing the royal realms.


In the event, the Uganda National Congress (UNC), our first political party, was founded in 1952, under the leadership of Ignatius Kangave Musaazi. The Democratic Party (DP) was founded in 1954, under the leadership of Joseph Kasolo. The Uganda People’s Union (UPU) was founded in 1958, under the leadership of William Wycliffe Rwetsiba. On March 9, 1960, the UPU and a faction of UNC under Apolo Milton Obote, merged to form the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), with Obote as leader. Kabaka Yekka (KY), formed by Sepiriya Kisawuzi Masembe-Kabali in 1961, completed the quintet of mostly nascent parties that engaged in our pre-independence political ballet. Terrible dancers all of them were, through no fault of theirs, but simply because they were uninitiated.  


These ill-prepared politicians were set free upon an ill-prepared population in an ill-prepared marriage called Uganda. Failure was the only possible outcome. To his credit, Governor Sir Andrew Cohen, probably the only truly patriotic Ugandan leader since 1894, had hoped that gradual transition to independence would be the course pursued by the Uganda Protectorate. While his hopes were like a dry leaf against a high wind of change, one suspects that Cohen might well have tried to persuade Uganda’s African politicians to work with him to create a smooth transition from colonial rule to independence, perhaps with a ten-year lead time before complete transfer of power to us. Unfortunately, Cohen left Uganda in 1957. One must dream of what could have been, for it eases one’s angst at the disaster that lurked behind the great pomp and circumstance at the Bulange in Mengo, then Kololo and finally in the newly built Ugandan Parliament in October 1962. 


As I reflected on Uganda’s political independence from Britain, many what-if questions flowed through mind. What if the colonial powers had taken the trouble to create viable countries made up of tribes that shared language and other traditions? What if democratic politics had been introduced among Africans decades before independence? What if a genuinely pan-Africanist coalition of politicians had joined forces to work towards the creation of, at a minimum, regional federations of the colonial states?  What if Governor Andrew Cohen’s vision for gradual transition to self-government had been embraced by Uganda’s politicians? What if? What if?


All this is water under the bridge, of course. However, revisiting the errors of colonialism, the forced marriage we call Uganda, and our ill-conceived transition to independence invite reflection. What lessons have we learnt? What actions must we take for our forced marriage to work? Remember, we are stuck in it. 


© Muniini K. Mulera

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