The liberation of Uganda by what its protagonists called ‘a protracted people’s war’ took exactly five years. Such a change of government under armed popular pressure rather than by a coup d’etat has never before been achieved in Africa. Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (nra) was trained in the bush war to a level of discipline and organization which completely outclassed the corrupt government army still nominally reliant on a British Ministry of Defence training team twenty years after independence. Repercussions on other repressive neocolonial regimes in the region—notably Kenya—are inevitable in the medium if not the short term.

The nra victory comes close in style to the euphoric early days of the Sandinistas’ ousting of Somoza. In the last weeks of the Okello regime peasants armed only with sticks and stones came out to attack the various maurauding factions of government soldiers ahead of the advance of the nra. For months before that in areas of Buganda and Eastern Uganda nominally controlled from Kampala groups of boys aged as young as ten or eleven, apparently engaged in voluntary tasks of filling in pot-holes on main roads, had actually been organized systematically to dig roadside trenches for the protection of the nra ahead of its move into new areas. The spontaneous support of elders from virtually every area, from leaders of all political parties, and most military factions, was pledged to Museveni in Kampala within days of the military takeover and the swearing-in of a broad-based government. The roots of the divisions and alliances which make up the political map of Uganda in 1986 go back twenty years. And many of the individual actors, and the interests they represent openly or covertly, are playing out roles they embarked on in the era immediately after Uganda’s independence in 1962.

The British colonial regime set the stage for the grim tragedy Uganda has been caught up in for two decades. Uganda’s export economy was developed during the colonial period with the forcible introduction of cotton and coffee as cash crops for export. European and Indian traders, middle-men, transport operators and administrators dominated the country. Meanwhile Britain made careful preparations to perpetuate its influence well beyond its own physical presence. An influx of European missionaries (both Catholic and Protestant, eagerly competing against each other) took over education in Uganda and made Kings College (Budo) and Kisubi College into Africa’s Eton and Harrow which prepared the sons of the elite for polishing at Makerere University. Colonial ideology was more deeply imprinted on this elite—dominated by men from Buganda—than in other East African nations. Successive Ugandan governments since independence have, without exception, demonstrated a level of intellectual and emotional dependence on Britain which can only be likened to the slavish attitudes adopted towards France by such figures as former President Senghor of Senegal.

But the most obvious negative legacy left behind by the British was the division between north and south which they had so carefully cultivated as a strategy of control. The British trained a predominantly northern army, commanded by white officers until the very eve of independence, and a predominantly southern civil service. They also installed Idi Amin in an officer’s uniform despite his well known personal involvement in atrocities in Kenya during the war against the Mau Mau Land and Freedom Army. President Milton Obote used Amin, his Army Commander, as a strong arm during the 1960s as he gradually usurped the power of all Uganda’s young institutions, including Parliament and even his own Uganda People’s Congress. (He also alienated Buganda by destroying its oldest and most central institution: the monarchy.)

In the first five years after independence Obote’s army was the fastest growing on the continent, expanding at a rate of fifty per cent annually. Ninety per cent of the new recruits were northerners, including an estimated six thousand southern Sudanese. Obote, however, alienated his former British overlords by his apparent commitment to a nationalist economic programme, which contained some threat to local British economic interests, and, more importantly, by his stalwart opposition to the British Conservative government’s decision in July 1970 to resume arms sales to South Africa. There is ample evidence of London’s prior knowledge of the coup organized by Amin in January 1971 while Obote was at the Commonwealth summit in Singapore.

The coup was also supported by Israel which struck back at Obote for having cancelled Israeli technical aid to Uganda the previous year. For several years the Israelis had been involved with Amin, who was their chief conduit for military aid to the Anyanya rebellion in the southern Sudan. The German mercenary Rolf Steiner, a key figure in the Anyanya supply operation, was arrested in Uganda in late 1970 and was about to go on trial in Khartoum at the moment of the coup. Despite the indelible birthmark of British and Israeli support for the Amin regime, some of the leading oppositionists to Obote, from both the moderate right and left, initially supported the new government. Thus on one side, Grace Ibingira, secretary general of Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (upc) and minister of justice in the early years of independence, lent his highly educated and sophisticated skills as Amin’s un ambassador until 1974. (His ultimate defection followed the murder by Amin’s soldiers of his brother, Major Katabarwa.) On the other end of the political spectrum some prominent Ugandan leftists, notably Edward Rugamayo (who became minister of education) and Dan Nabudere (later to be a chief architect of the 1979 ‘democratic’ experiment) also chose to work with Amin.

Fresh from the University of Dar es Salaam and fieldwork with Frelimo, Yoweri Museveni made a very different assessment of the coup’s implications for Uganda. Leaving Kampala two days after Amin seized power, he returned to Dar es Salaam where together with the nra future second-in-command, Eriya Kategaya, he began to organize resistance against the military dictatorship. Obote was also in exile in Dar and the two groups cooperated in the disastrous attack on Mbarara barracks in 1972 in which a number of invading Tanzanians and Ugandan expatriots were massacred by Amin’s well-armed troops. This tragedy persuaded Museveni to found a new resistance organization based on guerrilla tactics similar to those employed by the national liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies. ‘We wanted to involve the people in liberating themselves’, he explained years later.footnote1 The Front for National Salvation (fronasa) was a clandestine military network of Ugandans both inside and outside the country. Small groups received training in Tanzania and Mozambique. But few Ugandans believed that a serious armed struggle against Amin was a feasible possibility, and fronasa’s commitment to armed struggle gave it, and Museveni in particular, the reputation of ‘militarists’ in East Africa. The sharp criticism of well-known leftists, like Nabudere and Rugamayo, helped to isolate the group with fateful consequences for the unity of progressive forces in the post-Amin period.