Population: 14.3 million (est. 1988)
% of population: two-thirds of population are Bantu-speakers from various ethnic groups; remainder are Nilotic and Central Sudanic speakers from the north
Religion: Christian (Catholic, Anglican), Muslim, animist
Languages: three main groups: Bantu, Nilotic, Central-Sudanic plus colonial link language of English

Uganda, a small landlocked nation in Eastern Africa, contains over 40 ethnic groups, speaking many languages. It is literally a nation of minorities as no one group has a majority of the population, although the various Bantu-speaking peoples account for about two-thirds of the population. The greatest differences and therefore conflicts have been between southerners (mainly Bantu speakers) and northerners (mainly Nilotic speakers). From the time of the monopoly of power of the first Obote regime from 1966 to the military victory by Museveni’s NRA in early 1986 the majority southerners were dominated by northerners, especially through the army. Ethnic conflict since independence, whether under Amin, Obote, Museveni or the short-lived transitional regimes, has been persistent and tragic.

Uganda encompasses peoples of three distinctive language families, the Bantu; Nilotic; and Central Sudanic. Bantu-speakers, who are primarily but not exclusively agricultural, are found in the south, south-east and west of Uganda. Together they constitute about two-thirds of the population and occupy about half the land area. They can be divided into three main types: (i) centralized, hierarchical societies, once governed by royal families, These are the Baganda, Banyankole, Banyoro, and Batoro; (ii) less centralized societies, whose social organization varies from local chieftainships to extended family units. These include the Basoga, Bagisu, Bagwere, Banyoli, Basamia and Bagwe in the south-east; the Bakiga in the south-west; and the Baamba and Bakonjo in the west; and (iii) specialized pastoralists, the Bahima and the Batutsi. Both groups established supremacy over the agriculturalists in the areas where they settled — the Bairu and the Bahutu respectively. Bahima and Bairu are collectively termed the Banyankole; the Batutsi and Bahutu are known as the Banyarwanda.

Nilotic-speakers are in two main groups: (i) Western Nilotes from the north-west, related to the Kenyan Luo. They are mixed agriculturalists, organized in chiefdoms. They include the Acholi, Langi, Alur and Jonam; and (ii) Southern Nilotes from the east, related to the Kenyan Turkana,

1Baganda refers to the ethnic group; Buganda to the region; Muganda to an individual; Luganda to the language. The same set of prefixes applies to the other Bantu groups.

2The Tutsi and Hutu are the major ethnic groups in Rwanda and Burundi, where a similar hierarchical relationship exists between the two, which has led to conflict in both countries. See Hutu and Tutsi of Burundi.


originally pastoralists, with a social organization based on clans and age sets. They include the Karamojong and Iteso.

Central Sudanic-speakers occupy the north of West Nile province and also extend across the border into Sudan and Zaire. They are agricultural peoples with a non-hierarchical social organization. They include the Lugbara, Kakwa and Madi.

Colonial history

British exploration and missionary work in the area of present day Uganda began in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There was much competition for converts and political power between Catholic and Protestant missionaries and Muslims, especially at the court of the most powerful local ruler the Kabaka (or king) of Buganda. The British East African Company was formed subsequent to the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 to administer an area roughly that of present-day Uganda, and attempted to consolidate the Protestant faction. There followed a tightening of British control; in 1893 a British Protectorate, in 1897, the deposition of the then Kabaka and his replacement by a British-dominated regency, and in 1900 recognition of the special position of Buganda within the Ugandan Protectorate.

British colonial policy emphasized ethnic divisions. The Native Authority Ordinance of 1919 “exported” the Buganda model, together with Buganda civil servants, to other regions, while the Local Government Ordinance of 1949 drew provincial boundaries to include only one ethnic group, with a few exceptions, with overall government still in British hands. The introduction of cash crops benefited the peoples from the fertile southern areas, while the less developed North provided the main source of recruits to the colonial prisons, army and police. The Bantu peoples and especially the Baganda benefited most from western-style missionary education and provided the bulk of the civil service. They tended to look down on the “backward” Nilotic and Central Sudanic peoples.

The years leading to internal self-government in March 1962 and independence in October 1962 were stormy ones. The British administration deported the Kabaka after he refused to reform the Lukiiko (traditional forum) and although the Kabaka later agreed to change, this was resented by the largely Catholic Baganda peasantry. Political parties were formed, chiefly the Democratic Party (DP), which gained its main support from Catholic Bagandas, its main rival the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), lead by Apollo Milton Obote, and the Kabaka Yekka (King Alone Party — KY) the main support of the king and Bugandan autonomy. The first government of independent Uganda was a coalition between the UPC and the KY, with Obote as Prime Minister, and, a year later, the Kabaka as President.

The first Obote regime (1962-1971)

Without traditional authority, Obote was forced to manoeuvre to maintain his power. In the early years there were reports of discrimination against Muslims and Catholics in public office, but this was overshadowed by the growing rift between Obote and the Kabaka and KY. The coalition was dissolved in 1964 but Obote continued in power with the support of political factions. In 1966 the “Buganda crisis” resulted in Obote ordering the Army Chief-of-Staff Colonel Idi Amin to attack the Kabaka’s palace. Many hundreds died in the attack and the Kabaka fled into exile. Buganda was placed under a State of Emergency which lasted until 1971, while in 1967 Obote declared Uganda a Republic and abolished the special status of the Buganda kingdom. Obote’s continuing political repression of political opponents and pursuance of State-directed economic policies, which were intensely disliked by the Bantu peoples, led to opposition coalescing around the most viable alternative, the army commander Amin, who had been actively recruiting Central Sudanics from his own area of the West Nile into the Army in preference to the Nilotics favoured by Obote. In January 1971, while Obote was at the Commonwealth Conference in Singapore, Amin staged a military coup, which was greeted with widespread Baganda support.

The Amin regime (1971-1979)

Amin began his regime with popular moves such as the lifting of the State of Emergency, the release of political prisoners, and the proper burial of the Kabaka who had died in exile: yet within a few months he had suspended all democratic rights, the army had been given dictatorial powers and Amin became both President (later “President for Life”) and Army Chief. His “Africanization” programme of 1972 resulted in the expulsion of the Asian trading community (see Asians of East and Central Africa). In the eight years of the Amin dictatorship, between 100,000 and 500,000 Ugandans lost their lives or “disappeared”. Among them were very large numbers of the Nilotic speakers, especially the Langi and Acholi. These were massacred in the aftermath of the coup, after the abortive invasion by Nilotic exiles of 1972, after the arrest and murder of an Acholi Archbishop in 1977, and during Amin’s regular purges of the army.

The resulting economic and administrative chaos led to opposition from within the army, from which Amin attempted to divert attention by invading Tanzania. The Tanzanian army, with the assistance of an Ugandan National Liberation Army (UNLA) of exiles, counter-attacked. There were several Ugandan fighting groups already involved in warfare inside the country, notably Kikosi Malumu (KM) of Obote and FRONESA of Yoweri Museveni. The political initiative came from the Unity Conference held at Moshi in March 1979, which resulted in the formation of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF). Its programme was based on national unity, the avoidance of ethnic, religious and political divisions, and the promise to hold national elections within two years. The elected Chairman was Yusufu Lule, from Buganda. When Kampala fell on April 11, 1979 it was the UNLF which took power, with Lule as President.

The second Obote regime (1979-85)

Lule was President for only two months before being replaced by Godfrey Binaisa. Binaisa from Buganda, was at first seen as a supporter of Obote but seemed to follow an independent course, expanding the National Consultive Council (NCC) and encouraging UNLF grass-roots organization. But his own position was weak and the militias which made up the UNLA grew at a rapid rate, especially the KM and FRONASA. His downfall came with a decision of the UNLF in April 1980 to limit the December elections to individual rather than party candidates. Binaisa faced particular opposition from Major-General Tito Okello and Brigadier David Oyite-Ojok and they were leading figures in the coup of May 1980, which resulted not only in the arrest and incarceration of Binaisa but the erosion of democratic rule. The new interim leader was Paulo Muwanga, a supporter of Obote. In the following months the position of the UPC was consolidated.

The 1980 elections, widely regarded by many independent observers as intimidating and fraudulent, resulted in a victory for the UPC. Obote became President and appointed Paulo Muwanga as Vice-President and Defence Minister. Of 50 posts in the cabinet, 42 went to Protestants.

After the elections the scene was set for confrontation. A number of guerrilla groups and opposition parties in exile were formed to fight the UNLA and UPC. They included the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF), composed of Amin supporters, and based in the West Nile region; the National Resistance Army (NRA) of Yoweri Museveni, based in areas of Buganda and with largely Bantu support, and the Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM), based around Kampala, along with a number of other smaller groups. Obote and the UPC during these years depended heavily on the support of the UNLA, by now dominated by Acholi, Langi and Iteso officers and troops. One of its features was increasing rivalry between the Acholis, the largest single group in the army, and the Langis and Iteso — rivalries which resulted in assassination attempts, arrests and attacks. Even more serious was the increasing indiscipline of the many factions within the UNLA, which resulted in indiscriminate attacks on and brutal mass killings of civilians, especially of Bantus and ethnic groups who were considered to have been supporters of Amin.

The second Obote period was marked then by the same series of killings, arrests, tortures and “disappearances” as the Amin regime. Unlike under Amin however there was little knowledge or publicity given to these massive violations of human rights. There are understandably no accurate figures for the numbers killed, but the numbers might range between 100,000 and 500,000 from 1981 to 1985, similar to those of the Amin period. Some of the main campaigns and targets of military violence were the following:

West Nile: Both Lule and Binaisa had prevented Acholi troops from entering the West Nile area, the power base of Amin. After Binaisa’s overthrow Muwanga transferred the Tanzanian troops based there and replaced them by UNLA troops from Kitgum (Acholi) and Apac (Langi). After attacks by ex-Amin supporters these troops began to exact revenge upon the peoples of the area, principally the Kakwa, Lugbara and Madi, firstly in August 1980 and later in October 1980, resulting in the deaths of 5,000 to 30,000 civilians. An attack in February-March 1981 by the Acholi militia on East Madi resulted in an exodus of 50,000 refugees to UNRF areas. UNLA mutiny in June 1981, and killings by the retreating troops, led to further deaths. UNRF guerrillas who held most of the northern area of West Nile, and a group of ex-Amin soldiers from Zaire, also harassed civilians and from March 1982 many thousands began crossing the borders to refugee camps in the Sudan. By mid-1983 there were 60,000 refugees in Zaire and over 200,000 in Sudan.

The “Chasing” of the Banyarwanda: In September 1982 began the forcible evictions from Ankole in the south-west of Uganda of three related ethnic groups, the Batutsi and Bahutu — known collectively as the Banyarwanda — and the Bahima. The Banyarwanda had commenced migration from Rwanda and Burundi from the nineteenth century but most were Ugandan citizens, while the Bahima originated from Uganda. The three groups were mainly Catholics and politically aligned to the Democratic Party. In the days that followed over 75,000 people were collectively evicted from their homes, 35,000 took refuge in existing UNHCR camps in the south of Ankole and another 40,000 fled to Rwanda. In December 1983 a further 20,000 Banyarwanda were evicted from Rakai and Masaka districts. The decision to evict this group appears to have been made by certain UPC ministers.

The Suppression of the Baganda: The heartland of the Baganda peoples, especially that known as the Luwero Triangle, north and west of Kampala, was a natural base for the two opposition guerrilla armies, the UFM and the NRA. As such it was a major target of the government’s counter-insurgency campaign in 1982-83. The UFM was infiltrated and defeated during mid-1982 but the NRA continued to attack the government from within the Luwero Triangle. Counter-insurgency attempted to cut off the material and moral support for the guerrillas given by the local population. From September 1982 civilians living along the Bombo road were driven systematically from their homes. The army campaign was stepped up from the end of 1982 and by June 1983 there were 13 battalions involved. Since by this time the NRA had strategically retreated, the army concentrated on the control of trading centres and the eviction of civilians, who after January 1983 were placed in camps “protected” by the army. The non-camp areas were “free-fire zones” in which anyone found at large could be shot as a bandit. Most of the camps contained women, children and the elderly — most of the young men had fled, been removed for interrogation or killed. Aid agencies became aware of the situation in March 1983 and began to provide food aid and other assistance. At the height of the crisis in mid-1983 there were known to aid workers to be 36 camps containing a population of between 100,000 and 140,000. Despite outside assistance conditions in the camps remained appalling, with serious malnutrition and disease. At some camps there were massacres either by troops or “bandits”, such as that at Kikyusa camp in May 1983 where up to 200 may have died. The government began disbanding the camps in November 1983 and most of the camps were closed in a haphazard manner over the next five months, depriving villagers of even minimal protection and food supplies. Civilians were forced to hide in swamps and forests during the day to escape troops, returning to their homesteads only at night. As a result of the government’s actions much of the fertile Luwero Triangle was turned into a desolate waste ground and its inhabitants into “zombies”. Reports of the army’s excesses and indiscipline were instrumental in turning international opinion against the Obote government.

Operations in Karamoja: Karamoja, the remote north-eastern area, was not assimilated into Uganda until 1921 and was, like Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, kept as a closed area. Cattle raids were an integral feature of Karamoja society, and despite some disruption by the colonial and independence governments, continued, despite attempts to develop the area’s potential. After the fall of Amin many thousands of automatic weapons passed into the hands of Karamojong, aiding cattle raids against rival ethnic groups such as the Teso, Acholi and Langi. Insecurity increased dramatically in 1983 as Karamojong launched raids on neighbouring districts. Revenge attacks, such as the ones by Langi militia near Mohoto, joint operations by UNLA and Kenyan troops in March 1984, and counter-attacks by Karamojong, have made it difficult to understand a complex and volatile situation but one interpretation was that the fighting in Karamoja offered an opportunity to remove Acholi-Langi factionalism within the army away from Kampala to a distant area. As a result of the fighting thousands fled from Karamoja.

The Okello interlude (July 1985-January 1986)

By the end of 1984 the Obote regime had begun to fall apart, the immediate cause being quarrelling within the army between the Acholi, the largest group in the military, and the Langi. The appointment of a Langi officer and kinsman of Obote as Commander-in-Chief angered senior Acholi officers, especially Basilo Okello and Tito Okello (no relation to one another). The army was also demoralized by defeats by the NRA. Langi-Acholi clashes took place in Kampala in July 1985, leading to an Acholi victory as Obote fled the country. Tito Okello was sworn in as head of state and an interim military council set up.

There were attempts to give the new government a broad base by the inclusion of Paulo Muwanga — ousted three weeks after his appointment — Otema Allimadi, and also Paul Ssemogerere of the Democratic Party. Peace talks with the NRA began in September 1987 in Nairobi under the chairmanship of President Moi of Kenya, but agreement could not be reached on the composition of the government. Meanwhile insecurity increased, the UNLA continued to commit atrocities against civilians, the NRA moved towards Kampala and the Okello junta fell apart. Although a peace agreement was eventually signed on December 17, 1985, there was no effective attempt to implement it, and on January 26, 1986 the NRA seized control in Kampala while the remnants of the Okello regime and the remainder of the UNLA fled north.

The Museveni (NRM) regime (1986-1989)

Museveni and his officers had a more clearly-thought-out programme than had Obote or Amin. Their 10-point plan was and remains the basis of their programme. It emphasized the restoration of democracy, beginning with the village councils; the security of persons; the unity of Uganda and the elimination of conflicts based on tribalism and religion; and the overcoming of backwardness through planned economic and social development. The National Resistance (later Revolutionary) Movement had initially consolidated its rule before the taking of the capital in the Bantu-speaking areas of the south west, where they established village councils, called “Resistance Councils”. For the first time since independence the Bantu-speaking southerners were in control of the government and it became important to win over the northern areas, either by peaceful or military means.

These have taken two forms. Firstly, amnesties and talks aimed at negotiating peace settlements. In August 1987 an amnesty was offered to ex-soldiers and to rebels and it was claimed that 25,000 people had availed themselves of such offers. The most successful negotiations have been with factions of the UPDA and there have been attempts to negotiate with other factions both inside and outside Uganda. Of those who have surrendered themselves and their weapons some have been well treated and immediately released while others have been held in detention, sometimes for a considerable period and without outside knowledge of their whereabouts. Apparently conditions in the military prisons where many ex-combatants were held had improved, partly as a result of monitoring and supplies by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

There have also been attempts at a military solution in some areas, where insurgents, rebels and cattle-raiders were operating, principally in the north of the country. While by 1987/8 the NRA appeared to have defeated most opponents, the cost has sometimes been high on both military and civilians, and in Acholi especially, military discipline, for which the NRA had been noted for its high standards, had deteriorated. This deterioration has been commented on by organizations such as Amnesty International, and the government has made efforts to improve military discipline and legal and administrative processes to protect civilians, which have however been made less effective by lack of resources to strengthen these processes.

The main areas of insurgency to date faced by the government are as follows:

Acholi: After the fall of Kampala in January 1986 the UNLA troops, largely Acholis, had fled northwards looting and massacring the civilian population, in particular in Lango district, where Acholi troops took revenge on Langi citizens. By April 1986 the NRA had taken most areas of the north, largely without heavy fighting and by persuading northern civilians to hand over stockpiled arms. The Okello faction fled to Sudan, where they were reported as attacking refugee camps. Later some soldiers returned to Uganda; while some surrendered to the NRA others fought against the government. Two factions emerged; the Uganda People’s Democratic Movement (UPDM) of Basilo Okello operated from bases in the Sudan; and a pro-Obote group which operated in Bosgoga and in Teso. The 35th Battalion of the NRA which had little experience as a standing army moved into garrison the area. There were reports of a breakdown in NRA discipline, of detention and torture of civilians, and this alienated many Acholi, some of whom gave their support to the UPDM and others to a new messianic religious fighting movement, Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, which engaged in suicidal attacks on the NRA. The movement suffered a massive defeat by the NRA in January 1987 and was finally wiped out in November 1987, after which Alice Lakwena fled to Kenya. Two new religious movements then emerged, Lakwena 2 and Lubanga Won, which together with the UPDA, harassed civilians. NRA discipline improved after October 1986 when the 35th Battalion was replaced and orders were issued to cease the use of torture and harassment. In 1988 some civilians had taken refuge with the NRA, which set up camps to protect them. By May 1988 large numbers of civilians in Gulu and Acholi districts were being further harassed by cattle-raiders, rebels and government troops fighting them. By 1989 the insurgency in Acholi, although still serious, was being contained. However the fighting and disruption had produced a condition of serious and continuing food shortage and by mid-1989 there were reports that one million people in the north, especially in Gulu district, faced famine conditions, unless aid was forthcoming.

Teso: The Teso were the chief victims of the cattle-raiding Karamojong, their neighbours to the east. During the second Obote regime the Teso had organized an armed militia to keep the Karamojong at bay but because the Teso had supported Obote and were thought to be hostile to the NRA the militia was disarmed. After the Karamojong began raids, resulting in the deaths of many people and cattle, the Teso lost any faith they had in the NRA (who were mainly engaged in counter-insurgency in Acholi — see above) and turned to the Uganda People’s Front/Army led by Peter Otai, from exile in Kenya. In July 1988 the UPFA suffered a major defeat by the NRA.

Karamoja: The NRA began a major campaign against the Karamojong from late 1986 but were able to do little to contain their raids. The Karamojong, who pose a security threat to any established government, have conducted cattle raids across northern Uganda as far as Nebbi on the West Nile, destroying homes and causing havoc. In March 1989 the Kenya government accused the Uganda government of supporting a cross-border raid by armed Karamojong cattle raiders but in reply the Uganda government pointed out that cross-border raids had gone on for decades and that the previous month had seen a large-scale incursion by Kenyan tribesmen which the Ugandan army had been obliged to repel.

West Nile: Unlike during the Obote regime, the West Nile remained fairly peaceful despite the presence of ex-UNLA soldiers in Sudan who sometimes returned to harass the population. Over 250,000 refugees returned from Sudan in 1987 and 1988 while by May 1988 they had been joined by 20,000 refugees from southern Sudan escaping the increasingly bitter civil war there.

Ruwenzori Mountains: This remote area on the border of Zaire is populated by the Bakonjo people. Since the 1960s a movement among them had demanded autonomy, but this has been largely ignored since the first Obote regime failed to suppress it by the use of force. The Bakonjo clashed with the government when they became involved in coffee-smuggling into Zaire, which deprived the government of much needed foreign exchange. In 1987 there was a harsh government clampdown and the area was sealed off.

The Museveni government has made considerable efforts to express its support for the protection of human rights, the restoration of the rule of law, the establishment of mechanisms for the investigation of past and present abuses and the restoration of security and confidence in the army and police. In February 1989 elections for resistance councils were held throughout Uganda (except in Gulu district, which was still unsettled). Candidates were restricted to standing as individuals and no party candidates were allowed. Compared to the election of 1980 there was no violence or ballot rigging. At the highest level 14 government ministers were voted from office while some government opponents became MPs.

The most serious problems the government faces are those of security and Uganda’s poverty. Although a rich agricultural country, Uganda has been impoverished by the years of dictatorship and civil war, and as in other African countries now faces severe problems of debt service and IMF restructuring plans. Inflation, the flight of capital and professional skills and more recently AIDS, add to the burden. Attempts to establish legal and human rights machinery have been largely thwarted by lack of resources while the military and police structures are lacking in trained personpower. There need to be continuing attempts to bring all ethnic groups into consultation and participation in national institutions such as the government, administration, army and police, if peace and stability is to be gained.

(See also Asians of East and Central Africa; Southern Sudan)