As I mentioned in my last post, I am not an expert on Uganda. I realize, however, that some readers might be completely unfamiliar with the place. So here’s some background information on where I’ll be living for the next nine months in what will probably seem like half a writing sample for Lonely Planet and half an entry for Encyclopedia Britannica.
Uganda is famous for its natural beauty and political turmoil. Winston Churchill supposedly called Uganda the “Pearl of Africa” when he visited in 1907 and the country is filled with gently rolling hills, lush rainforest, and the tallest mountain ranges on the continent. The Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda are taller than the Alps and the jungles surrounding them are the only place in the world where you can see great apes in their natural habitat.
A country of 33.4 million people, Uganda is nestled in the heart of Africa next to Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan. English and Swahili are the official languages, 85% of Ugandans are Christian, and 12% are Muslim.
I’ll be staying in Kampala, the capital city of 1.7 million people. Kampala borders Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world, and is less than 50 miles from the equator, which crosses southern Uganda.
With lakes, waterfalls, rainforests, and mountains, Uganda has it all, and its friendly people make it one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world. But political strife and the proximity to tumultuous neighbors have given the country a lousy reputation.
When the British drew the boundaries of present-day Uganda, they united a fractured patchwork of tribes and kingdoms. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, rivalries predominated the democratically elected regime until a general named Idi Amin led a coup d’état against Prime Minister Milton Obote in 1971.
Depicted in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland, Amin’s name continues to tarnish Uganda’s reputation. He committed horrific atrocities and killed an estimated 300,000 of his own people.
With the aid of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Milton Obote returned to Uganda and ousted Idi Amin in 1980. As Obote adopted many of Amin’s tactics, he was accused of numerous abuses and the opposition coalesced around Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement, which captured Kampala in 1985.
Museveni has stayed in power since 1985 and has been widely praised for bringing a semblance of stability and economic growth to Uganda. In 1987, he negotiated with the IMF and World Bank to undergo major economic reforms in return for near-total debt forgiveness. In 2009 and 2010, Uganda’s GDP growth rate was 7.2% and 5.2%, respectively, giving it one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Despite this success, there are many Ugandans who don’t approve of Museveni’s work. Although the government is technically democratic, Aili Mari Tripp argues in Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime (2010) that it hovers somewhere between “semi-authoritarian” and “semi-democratic.” Uganda has many of the processes and institutions of democracy, but the current regime controls the major institutions and manipulates processes to its advantage.
Uganda was one of the last countries in Africa to introduce multi-party elections. Until 2005, it was technically a “no-party” state, in which the National Resistance Movement claimed to represent all Ugandans through grassroots outreach, but this was de facto a “one-party” state.
The constitution was changed in 2006 to allow for multi-party elections; but simultaneously, executive term limits were dropped so that Museveni could run for a third term in 2006 and a fourth term in 2011. He was reelected both times with more than half the vote, easily defeating his main rival, Kizza Besigye.
Since Museveni ousted Obote in 1985, he has also been challenged by opponents from the north, where Obote was from. Northern guerilla groups infused violence with religion—anointing their soldiers with holy water, for example, so that they would be invulnerable to government bullets.
The Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, is one of these groups and has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Ugandans, abducted children to use as soldiers and slaves, and displaced approximately 1.8 million people.
The Ugandan military pushed the LRA out of Uganda in 2005 and Kony and his dwindling band of rebels have continued their operations in the Central African Republic, the Congo, and South Sudan. A quote from the State Department describes the newfound peace in Uganda:
“There have been no LRA attacks in northern Uganda since August 2006. As a result, the vast majority of the 1.8 million former internally displaced persons (IDPs) have returned to or near their homes. Assistance from the Government of Uganda through its Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) and from international donors has helped communities in northern Uganda rebuild and recover from the 20-year humanitarian catastrophe caused by the LRA.”