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Uganda: Tyranny under President Idi Amin


Idi amin dada

President Idi Amin president over a bloody sucker regime in which an estimated 500,000 civilians were massacred. (PHOTO/File)

Idi Amin’s coup was widely welcomed, as there was hope that the country would finally be unified. Several Western nations, including Britain, who feared the spread of communism, were also relieved at Obote’s overthrow: they had become suspicious that his policies were moving to the left. Amin promised a return to civilian government in five years, but problems with his leadership were soon apparent.

Amin had little Western-style education and virtually no officer training, so he often resorted to arbitrary violence in order to maintain his position. In one incident, he destroyed the one potential centre of effective opposition by a wholesale slaughter of senior army officers loyal to Obote.

To win more general support among the Ugandan population, Amin ordered all Asians who had not taken Ugandan nationality to leave the country in 1972. His move won considerable approval in the country because many Africans believed that they had been exploited by the Asians, who controlled the middle and some of the higher levels of the economy, but the action isolated Uganda from the rest of the world community. Although a few wealthy Ugandans profited from Amin’s actions, the majority of the commercial enterprises formerly owned by Asians were given to senior army officers who rapidly squandered the proceeds and then allowed the businesses to collapse.

Most people in the countryside were able to survive the total breakdown of the economy that followed in the mid- and late 1970s because the fertility of Uganda’s soil allowed them to continue growing food. In the towns an all-pervading black market developed, and dishonesty became the only means of survival. This economic and moral collapse stirred up criticism of the government, and during this period the country experienced several serious coup attempts.

In an attempt to divert attention from Uganda’s internal problems, Amin launched an attack on Tanzania in October 1978. Tanzanian troops, assisted by armed Ugandan exiles, quickly put Amin’s demoralized army to flight and invaded Uganda. With these troops closing in, Amin escaped the capital. A coalition government of former exiles, calling itself the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), with a former leading figure in the DP, Yusufu Lule, as president, took office in April 1979. Because of disagreement over economic strategy and the fear that Lule was promoting the interests of his own Ganda people, he was replaced in June by Godfrey Binaisa, but Binaisa’s term of office was also short-lived. Supporters of Obote plotted Binaisa’s overthrow, and Obote returned to Uganda in May 1980.

Obote’s second presidency

In December 1980 Obote’s party, the UPC, won a majority in highly controversial elections for parliament. The DP leadership reluctantly agreed to act as a constitutional opposition, but Yoweri Museveni, who had played a significant part in the military overthrow of Amin, refused to accept the UPC victory. He and Lule formed an opposition group, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Museveni led the movement’s guerrilla group, the National Resistance Army (NRA), and waged an increasingly effective campaign against the government.

With the support of the International Monetary Fund and other external donors, Obote tried hard to rebuild the economy. Initially his efforts seemed successful, but the extraordinary inflation rate resulting from an entrenched black market system worked against him. It was impossible for urban wage earners to keep pace with rising prices, and salaried civil servants grew frustrated at the government’s inability to increase their pay in line with their needs. In addition, the guerrilla war drew strength from the fact that it was based in Buganda, among people already suspicious of Obote. That strength grew as an ill-paid, ill-disciplined, and vengeful army, consisting largely of Acholi and Lango, ravaged the countryside for loot and took vengeance on their longtime Ganda enemies.

A split within the army itself—in particular, between its Acholi and Lango members—led to Obote’s overthrow and exile in 1985 and to the seizure of power by an Acholi general, Tito Okello. This, however, could not prevent a victory for Museveni’s NRA, and Museveni became president on January 29, 1986. While a new constitution was being drafted, an indirectly elected National Resistance Council, dominated by the NRM, acted as the national legislature.

Museveni in office

Domestic affairs

Faced with the same problems that had confronted the UNLF in 1979 and Obote in 1980, Museveni announced a policy of moral as well as economic reconstruction, although it was not easy to enforce. Sporadic military resistance to the new government continued, particularly in the north and east. Arms were plentiful, and dissatisfied persons were willing to use them to promote their ends. The NRA, despite the president’s injunctions, sometimes proved as heavy-handed in dealing with opponents as Obote’s forces had been.

Security did improve, however, at least in most of central, southern, and western Uganda, and observers claimed that human rights were more widely protected. A constitutional amendment in 1993 led to the restoration of the monarchies, and the Ganda, Toro, Bunyoro, and Soga crowned their traditional rulers. The new constitution was promulgated in 1995, and presidential elections were held in May 1996; Museveni easily won the majority of votes. He was reelected in 2001.

During the 1990s and continuing into the 2000s, Uganda was faced with an increase in rebel activity, particularly from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony. Established in the late 1980s, the LRA abducted tens of thousands of children to serve as slaves or soldiers in its fight against Museveni’s government. Its vicious attacks on civilians in the northern part of the country—including rape, murder, and acts of mutilation, such as cutting off the ears, noses, lips, and limbs of their victims—terrorized and displaced more than one million Ugandans, creating a humanitarian crisis in the early 2000s. After years of refusal, the LRA agreed to meet with government officials for peace talks in late December 2004. However, the talks broke down in early 2005, and the LRA resumed their brutal attacks on civilians. Peace talks resumed in July 2006, and although a cease-fire agreement was reached in late August, talks again broke down, and negotiations to end the decades-old conflict continued intermittently. In late 2008 Uganda began a joint military operation with armed forces from the DRC and southern Sudan (now South Sudan) to target LRA bases in the DRC. The campaign’s goals were to capture or kill Kony and to destroy the organization’s command structure. The operation was poorly executed, however, and ultimately failed. Kony escaped, and the LRA, which dispersed throughout the northeastern DRC and into Sudan and the Central African Republic, continued its acts of terror in those countries.

Although the country’s continued economic growth was praised by the West, inflation and unemployment continued to be problems in the early 2000s, especially given Uganda’s dependence on fluctuating markets for its agricultural produce. In an effort to enhance economic activity in the region, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya launched the East African Community Customs Union on January 1, 2005; they were joined by Burundi and Rwanda in 2009. Oil discoveries beginning in the first decade of the 2000s also bolstered economic prognostications for Uganda.

Meanwhile, in a referendum in 2005, Ugandan voters overwhelmingly endorsed a return to multiparty politics. Museveni, who had long argued against a multiparty democracy on the premise that it would divide the country along ethnic lines, embraced the referendum and accepted the results in the face of pressure from international donors. The next year the country held its first multiparty elections since 1980. A constitutional amendment that eliminated existing presidential term limits, also passed in 2005, allowed Museveni to stand in the 2006 presidential election. Representing the NRM, he was reelected, although the contest was clouded by allegations that Kizza Besigye, the leader of the opposition group Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was imprisoned in the months leading up to the presidential election to stop him from participating. Besigye was ultimately released in January 2006 and able to stand for election in February, and, although he lost, he managed to garner almost two-fifths of the vote.

Museveni and Besigye were the two front-runners in the 2011 presidential election as well, in which Museveni was reelected with 68 percent of the vote. Besigye, who took 26 percent of the vote, rejected the results. The basis of his rejection was supported by observations of international monitors, who cited an increased military presence on voting day as being intimidating and noted that too many voters were disenfranchised. They also noted instances of ruling party members giving money and gifts to election officials and others, actions construed as bribery.

Corruption, long a problem in the country, continued to be an issue. Although much appeared to be done to combat it, in reality very little was accomplished in the fight against graft. A former head of the country’s Anti-Corruption Court complained that only low-level cases were being tried and that high-ranking perpetrators of corrupt practices went unpunished.

In the years before the 2016 elections, there was speculation as to whether Museveni would once again be the NRM’s presidential candidate; there was also speculation that he was grooming his son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to succeed him. His desire to run again appeared to be confirmed in part in 2014, when he sacked Amama Mbabazi, the prime minister. Mbabazi had been a longtime ally of Museveni but was also seen as the second most-powerful political figure in the NRM and a strong contender for the presidential nomination. In early 2015 Mbabazi announced his intent to challenge Museveni for the NRM presidential nomination but later said that he would instead run as an independent candidate, citing what he claimed were attempts by the NRM to block his efforts.

Museveni faced seven challengers for the presidency in the February 18, 2016, elections, the foremost being Besigye and Mbabazi. Museveni was declared the winner, with about 60 percent of the vote. Besigye, his nearest challenger, received about 35 percent, and Mbabazi took less than 1.5 percent of the vote. Museveni’s victory was announced amid complaints of missing materials that delayed voting in opposition strongholds and allegations of voting irregularities. Some international observers criticized the atmosphere surrounding the vote, citing a climate of fear and intimidation; they also condemned the repeated detainment of Besigye by the police and noted problems with the transparency of the vote. Besigye, the FDC, and others declared the results to be fraudulent. In March Mbabazi filed a petition with the Supreme Court, seeking to have the presidential election result declared null because of the alleged widespread irregularities. Later that month the Supreme Court dismissed his petition. The court acknowledged that there was evidence that some irregularities had occurred but stated that it did not believe the issues cited by Mbabazi had substantially affected the result of the election. Meanwhile, in parliamentary elections, also held in February, the NRM retained more than a two-thirds majority of the body’s seats.

Foreign affairs

In the late 1990s Uganda faced international criticism over its involvement in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After many attempts at resolution, the last of the Ugandan troops withdrew from the DRC in 2003. In December 2005 the International Court of Justice determined that Uganda was guilty of unlawful military intervention in the DRC and that Uganda’s military had violated international human rights law and international humanitarian law and exploited the DRC’s natural resources; the court ruled that Uganda owed reparations to the country.

Uganda has since had a military presence in other countries. In Somalia, Ugandan troops served in an African Union force beginning in 2007; this was generally lauded by the international community. Less popular was Uganda’s intervention in South Sudan on behalf of that country’s government in the civil war that began in December 2013.

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