stop the tribal war

DISCUSS UGANDA ­ “vb. British. to have sex. A euphemism coined in the 1970s by the British satirical magazine Private Eye. It has become one of the magazine’s long-running jokes and is said to stem from a party at which a female journalist was alleged to have explained an upstairs sexual encounter by saying ‘We were discussing Uganda.’ (Idi Amin’s regime was in the news at the time.) The term ‘Uganda Affairs’ is also derived from this source.”

Dictionary of Contemporary Slang by Tony Thorne (Pantheon Books, New York, 1990).

One of Idi Amin’s initial dubious acts after taking power was to expel all the asians from the country. In the depature lounge of Entebbe airport you can still buy postcards of Idi Amin, sold by asian shopkeepers. This really freaked me out – it’s like buying Hitler postcards in Berlin or something. Except of course they wouldn’t stick his name on in blood red comic sans, would they?

While Amin still casts a long shadow over Uganda, more venom is probably directed at Milton Obote who preceded and then replaced him. Many people felt that the post-Amin elections in 1980 were rigged, which lead to the formation of a number of military rebel groups, the most well known of which was Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA).

In the subsequent battles, Obote ended up killing more people than Idi, although he is less well known because he wasn’t so flamboyant. The NRA eventually took control of Uganda in 1986. Obote fled to Zambia, where he died in October of this year.

Museveni has remained in power ever since. His early days were marked by a pretty good run of uniting the various tribes within Uganda, something which was much needed. He was also praised for his economic policy and (more recently) for the practical way he has dealt with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country. He is often presented by western politicians as being a model African leader, which it has to be said is more of a “best of the worst” than anything else – akin to being “the most attractive member of the royal family” in the UK.

In some ways it is ridiculous to judge the man by european standards – it is inconceivable that someone who seized power through military force will be prime minister of the UK any time soon. Nonetheless, unpicking Museveni’s past and future were an integral, and fascinating part of our stay in Uganda…

Back to the timeline. Elections were held in 1996 and 2001 and Museveni won each of these with a sizeable majority. On both occasions the opposition leaders claimed foul play, and the 2001 elections were marred by violence. The irregularities in the elections seemed minor to most…

There are some elements to Museveni’s style which I find disturbing, though. Most shops and offices you go into in Uganda feature his portrait prominently, as if he was royalty or something. Apparently this used to be a legal requirement. His government owns one of the two “quality” newspapers in Uganda, New Vistion, and his brother is said to own the only english-language tabloid.

Before we arrived in the country there was a massive row about Museveni changing the consititution to allow prospective presidents (i.e. himself) to stand for three rather than two terms – a measure which I assume is included in the constitution in the first place to prevent autocracy emerging.

The main challenger in the 2001 election was Kizza Besigye and his Forum for Democratic Change. Besigye had been Museveni’s physician in the National Resistance Army and was appointed Minister of State for Internal Affairs when the NRA took power. He opposed Museveni in the 2001 elections on the basis that his leadership had gone off course and that his “no party” system of government was flawed. New Vision printed a number of letters we saw which bemoaned the return to “party politics” on the grounds that it caused chaos and confusion. Better the devil you know, or a fear of democracy?

After the 2001 elections Besigye was detained and questioned in relation to treason charges and subsequently fled the country, saying his life was in danger.

Besigye returned to Uganda just before we arrived, so that he could register and campaign for the 2006 elections in February. Tens of thousands of his supporters came to meet him at the airport.

On November 14th, Besigye was arrested on charges of treason and rape. The rape allegation stems from 1997. The treason charge apparently relates to his supposed relationship with armed guerillas in the north (more about whom in another post).

The hippo of dictatorship bides its time.

The prospect of a democratic leader ordering the arrest of the leader of the opposition sounded alarms bells all over. There were riots in Kampala, which meant we were unable to return there for a few days. Virtually everyone we spoke to felt that the charges were a total fit up and that Besigye was probably a better bet for the country, in the short term, than Museveni – but would end up being the same deal a few years down the line. The “vote them out before they can do too much damage” strategy, essentially.

Reading all this unfold in the newspapers was gripping, unfathomable and also very worrying. Was it all going to kick off? I never really felt we were unsafe, but I was very glad that we chose not to visit during the 2006 elections, which was our original plan.

Besigye’s trial was equally disorientating. The government’s new black-clad security force turned up, hung about outside in a minivan taxi, and then disrupted the case, arresting Besigye on seperate military charges after the main procedings were adjourned. The security force was dubbed The Black Mamba Urban Hit Squad by the press, which gave a slighly camp, “top of the pops” feeling to the whole thing. Needless to say, the judges went mental at the “sanctity of the courtroom” being violated by a tooled up boy band. Besigye had been granted bail and the judge resigned from the case.

“The Mambas” actually have a more official name, which is quite boring (so much so that I cannot and do not wish to remember it). I read a number of articles comparing them to Mussolini’s black shirts. Their numbers seem to be a state secret. Bizarrely they also “do their patrols in civilian registered cars and sometimes operate disguised as women.” which I don’t think the blackshirts did?

The (relatively?) independent newspaper The New Monitor was harassed by the state for supposedly printing pro-Besigye posters (perhaps the ones in the photo above).

We got out of dodge on the 23rd of November. That’s the day when I bought my Idi Amin postcard. That is also the day that media debates on the trial were banned, with radio stations etc threatened with closure if they did not comply. The government later banned all public rallies, demonstrations, or gatherings related to the trial of Besigye.

At the time of writing, Besigye is still in prison because of the military charges, guarded by the Black Mamba Urban Hit Squad.