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Buganda: 19th century

Uganda, on the equator and surrounded by the great lakes of central Africa, is one of the last parts of the continent to be reached by outsiders. Arab traders in search of slaves and ivory arrive in the 1840s, soon followed by two British explorers. Speke is here in 1862. Stanley follows in 1875.

The ruler visited by both Speke and Stanley is Mutesa, the king (or kabaka) of Buganda. His kingdom is one of four in this region which have become firmly established by the mid-nineteenth century. The others, lying to the west, are Ankole, Toro and Bunyoro.

The existence of these African kingdoms has a profound influence on the development of Uganda during the colonial period. But when the scramble for Africa begins, in the 1880s, this remote interior region is not immediately in the sights of any of the colonial predators.

It is seen at the time merely as a distant place lying beyond the territories of the sultan of Zanzibar, which are in dispute between Britain and Germany. When separate spheres of interest are agreed, in 1886, the area of modern Kenya falls to Britain. Beyond it, round the north shore of Lake Victoria, lies Buganda. Britain expects this to be little more than the far corner of its new colony. Events prove otherwise.

British East Africa Company: 1888-1895

As with the areas being colonized by Rhodes at this same period in southern Africa, the British government is reluctant to take active responsibility for the region of east Africa which is now its acknowledged sphere of interest. Instead it assigns to a commercial company the right to administer and develop the territory. The Imperial British East Africa Company is set up for the purpose in 1888, a year ahead of Rhodes's British South Africa Company.

The region given into the company's care stretches all the way from the east coast to the kingdom of Buganda, on the northwest shore of Lake Victoria.

It is evident to all that the development of this region depends on the construction of a railway from the coast to Lake Victoria, but circumstances conspire to make this task far beyond the abilities of the East Africa Company. The running sore which saps their energy and their funds is Buganda.

Being in a sense beyond Lake Victoria, Germany is able to argue that this region (the most powerful kingdom within the territory of Uganda) is not covered by the territorial agreement with Britain. Moreover the irrepressible Karl Peters now forces the issue. In 1890 he arrives at Kampala and persuades the kabaka (the king of Buganda) to sign a treaty accepting a German protectorate over his kingdom.

A possibly dangerous confrontation between the imperial powers is averted when the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, proposes a deal which Berlin, remarkably, accepts. Salisbury offers the tiny and apparently useless island of Heligoland (in British possession since 1814) in return for German recognition of British protectorates in Zanzibar, Uganda and Equatoria (the southern province of Sudan). But Germany derives her own benefit from the deal. Heligoland subsequently proves an invaluable naval base in two world wars.

Meanwhile the East Africa Company faces further problems in Buganda, where civil war breaks out between factions led by British Protestant missionaries and their French Catholic rivals.

In January 1892 there is heavy gunfire between and among the four hills which form Kampala. On the top of one hill is the palace of the kabaka. On another the French have completed a Catholic cathedral of wooden poles and reeds. On a third the Protestants are building their church. On the fourth is the fort established for the company by Frederick Lugard, who is the only combatant with the advantage of a Maxim machine gun.

Lugard prevails. But the loss of life and destruction of property in this unseemly European squabble makes it plain that the East Africa Company is incapable of fulfilling its duties.

In 1894 the British government declares a protectorate over Buganda. Two years later British control is extended to cover the western kingdoms of Ankole, Toro and Bunyoro - to form, together with Buganda, the Uganda Protectorate.

Meanwhile the much larger region of Kenya has been relatively calm, even if the East Africa Company has achieved little of value there. But in taking responsibility for Uganda, the British government needs to be sure of the new protectorate's access to the sea. So in 1895 the company's charter is revoked (with compensation of 250,000). Kenya becomes another new responsibility of the British government, as the East Africa Protectorate.

The Uganda Protectorate: 1896-1962

Recent events in Uganda have made evident the difficulties likely to be faced by any colonial power. As a result the British government appoints in 1899 a seasoned administrator, Harry Johnston, as special commissioner to Uganda. His brief is to recommend the most effective form of administration.

The evident power of the local African kings convinces Johnston that control must be exercised through them. Buganda is by far the most significant of the kingdoms. The Johnston policy becomes effective with the Buganda Agreement of 1900.

Under the terms of this agreement the kabaka's status is recognized by Britain, as is the authority of his council of chiefs. The chiefs' collective approval of the British protectorate over the region is eased by Johnston's acknowledgement of their freehold right to their lands (a concept alien to African tribal traditions, but nevertheless extremely welcome to the chiefs themselves).

Johnston subsequently makes similar agreements with the rulers of Toro (in 1900) and of Ankole (in 1901). With this much achieved, and a clear pattern set for the Uganda Protectorate, Johnston returns to Britain.

Later commissioners develop Johnston's solution for Uganda into a clear-cut distinction between it and neighbouring Kenya. White settlers are actively encouraged to move into Kenya's highlands, a region to the immediate southeast of Uganda. But Johnston's successor declares that Uganda is not suitable for European settlement.

Many disagree, and pressure builds to allow the establishment of European farms and plantations - until another commissioner, still in the years before World War I, makes it a point of principle that Uganda is to be an African state. The economics of the protectorate support this policy. Uganda grows prosperous as cotton, introduced by the British, is grown with great success by African peasant farmers.

But a federal system of semi-independent monarchies proves less appropriate in the years after World War II, when all African colonies are moving towards independence. Young educated Africans, the likely leaders of the future, are out of sympathy with feudal Uganda. And the dominant position of Buganda, by far the most powerful of the kingdoms, causes an imbalance in Ugandan politics - with much talk of possible secession by the kabaka and his council of chiefs.

By the early 1960s the leading Ugandan politician is Milton Obote, founder of the UPC (Uganda People's Congress), a party drawing its support from the northern regions of the country. Its main political platform is opposition to the hegemony of the southern kingdom of Buganda.

Britain grants Uganda full internal self-government in March 1962. In the following month Obote is elected prime minister. It is he who negotiates the terms of the constitution under which Uganda becomes independent in October 1962.

Confronted by the problem of Buganda, Obote accepts a constitution which gives federal status and a degree of autonomy to four traditional kingdoms, of which Buganda is by far the most powerful. In the same spirit Obote approves the election in 1963 of the kabaka, Mutesa II, to the largely ceremonial role of president and head of state. It proves to be a short-lived collaboration.

Obote and Amin: 1962-1985

By 1966 the deteriorating relationship between Obote and Mutesa comes to an abrupt end. Obote sends a force, led by his newly appointed army commander Idi Amin, to attack the kabaka's palace. Mutesa flees to exile in Britain.

Obote immediately introduces a new constitution. This abolishes the hereditary kingdoms, ends the nation's federal structure and provides for an executive president - a post taken by Obote himself in addition to his role as prime minister. With the help of army and police he terrorizes any remaining political opponents. But meanwhile an ostensible ally, more ruthless even than himself, is making good use of the widespread discontent.

In 1971, when Obote is abroad, his regime is toppled in a coup led by Idi Amin. Obote settles just over the border from Uganda in neighbouring Tanzania, where he maintains a small army of Ugandan exiles under the command of Tito Okello.

Here Obote bides his time while the unbalanced Idi Amin subjects Uganda to a regime of arbitrary terror. The country's economy is severely damaged when he suddenly expels in 1972 all Uganda's Asians, a mainstay of the nation's trading middle class. His obsessions take more local form in the persecution of tribes other than his own. Between 100,000 and 500,000 Ugandans are reported to be murdered or tortured during Amin's seven years in power.

In 1978 Amin takes one unbalanced step too far. He invades Tanzania. Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian president, takes the opportunity not only to repel Amin's army but also to topple his grotesque neighbour. Tanzanian troops, joining forces with Obote's private army, reach Kampala in April 1979. Amin flees (and lives on, to the century's end and beyond, as an exile in Saudi Arabia).

During the following twelve months there are two interim governments led by returning Ugandan exiles. But in May 1980 a Ugandan general, Tito Okello, organizes a coup which brings Obote back into power. He is confirmed as president in a general election six months later. Uganda lurches back from a mad dictatorship to a repressive regime held in check only by anarchy.

During the 1980s Obote uses violent means to reimpose his rule, while the country continues to suffer economic chaos and tribal massacres carried out by armed factions beyond anyone's control. In 1985 Tito Okello intervenes once more, driving Obote back into exile (eventually in Zambia).

But both Obote and Okello are already peripheral figures. The only well organized faction in these years of chaos is a guerrilla army led by Yoweri Museveni.

Museveni: from1986

Yoweri Museveni was briefly Uganda's minister of defence during the interim government after the fall of Amin. When Obote returns to power as president in 1980, and his party (the UPC) wins a majority in elections widely regarded as fraudulent, Museveni refuses to accept this turning back of the clock. He withdraws into the bush and forms a guerrilla group, subsequently known as the National Resistance Army (NRA).

During the 1980s the NRA steadily extends the area of southern and western Uganda under its control. And Okello, after toppling Obote in 1985, proves no match for Museveni.

By January 1986 the NRA is in control of the capital, Kampala. Museveni proclaims a government of national unity, with himself as president. It is a turning point in Uganda's history.

A decade later the country is back under the rule of law (apart from some northern regions, where rebellion rumbles on). The economy is making vast strides (an annual growth rate of 5% in the early 1990s and of more than 8% in 1996). There are improvements in education, health and transport. International approval brings a willingness to invest and to lend. The nation, emerging from two decades of appalling chaos, is suddenly almost a model for Africa.

The only flaw, to western eyes, is that this remains one-party rule. It is an essentially pragmatic state in which good ideas from any part of the political spectrum are welcome (even Uganda's kings now have a role restored to them). But the new constitution of 1995 limits executive power to the National Resistance Movement, the party emerging from Museveni's guerrilla army.

Democracy is a subject on which Museveni has strong and interesting views. He criticizes western insistence on the multiparty model, seeing it as simplistic to assume that a single pattern can be appropriate in every circumstance. In his view parties in Africa, often based on tribal allegiances, are often likely to frustrate democracy.

Museveni argues instead that the important elements are the benefits taken for granted in a functioning multiparty democracy - universal suffrage, the secret ballot, a free press and the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. He describes his Uganda as a 'no-party democracy', claiming that people of widely differing views can argue their case to the electorate as competing individuals (it is campaigning as a party that is banned).

This is a somewhat utopian blueprint depending, like enlightened despotism, on people of good will at the top. It may be in token of this that Museveni regularly promises a date in the future for the legitimizing of opposition parties.