The National Resistance Movement (NRM), a 1980s guerrilla and political group, officially came to power on January 26, 1986 and has ruled Uganda for the last 24 years.
This makes it the longest-serving government in Uganda’s post-independence history.
The first 24 years from 1962 to 1986 were dominated by politicians and military leaders from northern Uganda and the last 24 since 1986 have been dominated by southerners.
With 48 years behind us now, divided equally between northerners and southerners, we have a firm basis for assessing who has done better or worse for Uganda.
For the first 24 years, there was a deeply felt prejudice by the southern Bantu-speaking tribes against the northerners, believing that northerners were by nature violent and brutal people, that is why the British encouraged them to join the army, prisons, and police and left the clerical work and economic activities to the more “civilized” Bantu.
Now that both northerners and southerners have had an equal 24 years to dominate Uganda’s politics, civil service, and military, what is the verdict?
For starters, the northern rule was the period in which Uganda had the largest number of national assets and companies. Embassies abroad were in good working condition, Uganda Airlines, Uganda Railways, Uganda Commercial Bank, Coffee Marketing Board, Lint Marketing Board, Soroti Flying School, the Cooperative Bank, the various cooperative societies in all parts of the country, Uganda Air force with between 40 and 70 aircraft, the meat packing factory at Soroti, the Uganda Hotels chain, a well-equipped Radio Uganda, Uganda Television, and government primary and secondary schools that were all fully functional.
Today, nearly all the former state-owned corporations have either collapsed or been sold off to private, usually foreign, investors. There is very little that belongs to the Uganda government, except for the New Vision newspaper, that works well.
Under the 24 years of northern/Nilo Hamitic rule until 1986, it is said that 500,000 Ugandans under Idi Amin Dada and 300,000 under the second Milton Obote government perished at the hands of the state or the army.
Many estimates put the number of Ugandans who died in West Nile, Acholi, Lango, Teso, and Karamoja at the hands of the NRA/UPDF army after 1986 at well over one million.
There were reports of atrocities committed by the State Research Bureau in the 1970s; there are almost daily reports of atrocities committed in Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence and Internal Security Organisation safe houses in Uganda today.
The army and police were accused of brutality toward civilians in the 1960s and 1970s but evidently the army and police are accused of brutality toward civilians today.
Other sources claim that to this figure should be added the millions of Congolese who died in the late 1990s when the Ugandan army was sent into the then Zaire, later called the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Before 1986, the biggest corruption scandal by senior government officials had been the alleged 1965 incident in which the then Prime Minister Milton Obote and the deputy army commander, Col. Idi Amin are said to have looted or smuggled gold and ivory from the Congo.
Other than that, there is no widely known corruption scandal from the first Obote government, there is no major corruption scandal known from the Amin government or the Tito Okello government (besides the claim by the NRA that when they took power in 1986, they found stacks of wine and spirits at State House Entebbe).
In contrast, the number of corruption scandals involving senior government officials in 2009 or say 2005 alone are more than all known major corruption scandals in all of Uganda’s history going back even to 1900.
Even NRM members of parliament and some cabinet ministers regularly comment on the high levels of corruption in Uganda today.
The question is: is there any area in which the southerners have performed better than the northerners in their rule of Uganda?
The most striking contrast is in the cult of personality of the leader or president. Idi Amin was declared the “Life President” in 1976. In 1984, Entebbe International Airport was named the Milton Obote International Airport.
Ugandan currency notes in the 1970s and 1980s had portraits of Amin and Obote respectively.
For all his well-known love for power, Yoweri Museveni has largely avoided the need to imprint his photo on currency notes.
Also, through much of his time in office, especially from the 1990s and on, President Museveni has not dominated the news headlines, be it on TV, radio, or the other state-owned media in the way Obote, Okello, and Amin did.
The state-owned media can go for a week without leading their news with a story on Museveni. And even in addressing the president, the honorific titles of the past, such as “His Excellency” have largely been avoided.
On government and private radio stations, Museveni’s own ministers and aides often refer to him as “Museveni” and not many bother to address him as “His Excellency.”
Newspaper headlines simply render it as “Museveni calls on….” Or “Government to introduce free education — M7”
Ironically, therefore, the northerner leaders between 1962 and 1986, although they gave their government officials and military leaders real powers, centred the image of power on themselves, while the Bantu-speaking Museveni, even though he has centred more decision-making power in himself than any leader before him, had ruled without much need for titles and being addressed in respectful terms.
Thirdly, the most important change brought by the NRM government has been in the media; and only in that area.
The President and his cabinet and senior military officers have been frequently discussed on radio and TV talk shows, cartoons drawn of them in the newspapers and magazines where once few editors would have dared draw a cartoon of the head of state, and in that sense, no government official has been above the law of media scrutiny since 1986.
Even after the NRM leaves power, it will be difficult for Ugandans to go back to the era of speaking politely and with deferential respect for government officials.
In summary, the 24 years of political and military dominance by northerners saw Uganda at its strongest as a nation-state and in the 24 years since 1986, the Ugandan individual has been at his most free to enjoy himself and speak his mind.
If we take the two situations, judging by the amount of disorganization, corruption, and lack of the most basic public services, the 24 years from 1962 to 1986 were the better 24 years of Uganda’s post-independence history.
By Timothy Kalyegira