Ear to The Ground
By Charles Onyango-Obbo
Amin, Obote, Museveni are chips from same Ugandan rock
July 30, 2003
"The African master of cruel farce and bloodstained parody has done it again. Apparently only hours away from death in a Saudi hospital, Idi Amin has emerged from a coma to defy the world once more ... " Riccardo Orizio, author of the book Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators wrote of the ailing Idi in The Times of London of last week.
Orizio, who interviewed Amin in Jeddah for the book, then makes a very significant statement about his meeting with the former strongman: "My encounter with Amin is both informative and utterly useless.
He doesn't make any revelations; he doesn't say anything that he had not said before ... Idi is pleased to talk, but has little to add to history".
Not surprisingly, even us who write about Idi have nothing new to say. As Amin lay in his hospital bed, articles about his brutality, cannibalism, sex mania were reeled out. But we had heard and read all these before.
However 24 years after his ouster from power, it is time to move beyond the sensational stories about Amin to ask new questions.
I am not talking about the usual stuff about how [former president Dr Milton] Obote groomed him, his being a creation of the colonialists, or how he was helped in his coup by "imperialists and Israeli Zionists". Rather what is it about Ugandan society that allowed him to come to power and stay as long as he did?
One begins to realise the commonalties when you consider that no matter the regime, they all do certain things. For example if we consider the governments that lasted five years and more—Amin, Obote, and now Museveni—they all seem to love to torture, and to keep houses of horror (what today are called "safe houses").
Rather than confront these questions, we stick only to the image of Amin as the devil incarnate. Perhaps this is because we need him to take all the blame for those in his regime who killed the over 500,000 victims of his regime; and absolve most people for not doing enough to stop him.
There are those who need a demonic image of Obote for the same reason. And when Museveni leaves the scene, he will be the new Satan.
Amin's coup was welcomed with dancing and celebration that lasted weeks. The common explanation is that in Buganda, where drums beat loudest, Obote was hated for deposing Kabaka Freddie Mutesa and was blamed for his death in exile.
In other parts, Obote was hated for his one-party rule, and persecution of the opposition. That is true, but the Baganda no doubt knew that Amin had led the attack on Kabaka's palace, so why did they trust him?
And many intellectuals knew from his record right from his activities in the Kings African Rifles, that Amin was no liberal democrat. Why did they join him, expecting he
would be different when he was president and had no one to check him?
When Amin's government turned on the Baganda and the intellectuals and other elite elements, who had given legitimacy to his government, they explained that: "The man changed. He started well, but he became terrible later". In true Ugandan fashion, none of them accepted personal responsibility.
We should not forget what happened when Obote touched down in Uganda from exile in 1980. This is a man who had been blamed for all sorts of horrible things. During Obote's rule between 1962 and 1971, when he was overthrown, it was clear he was not a democrat, whatever good he had done.
When Obote returned, Uganda stopped, and Kampala and other towns half-emptied as people—party members and other fellows who could foresee that Obote's Uganda People's Congress was set to "win" the election and rule—all set out for Bushenyi to give him a "hero's welcome".
By 1983, the Obote regime was governing under nightmarish conditions. When Obote was overthrown in July 1985, there was no shortage of people telling us, as others had done with Amin, that: "The man changed. He started well, but he became terrible later".
Today as Museveni scores dubious electoral victories; falls out with life-long political chums like former first deputy premier and internal affairs minister Eriya Kategaya over his moves to scrap term limits and cling to power, we are told: "The man changed. He started well, but he became terrible later".
However, Museveni was never a democrat, going by his writings and past actions—like when he was vice chairman of the ruling Military Commission of the short-lived Uganda National Liberation Front (1980).
It is at first difficult to see that there is something flawed at the core of Ugandan society which allows hateful, corrupt, and brutal governments to emerge. However, there is. If we dig deep, we begin to find some unique things about Uganda's history that might explain our fickle political character.
For example, nowhere in the region was there the kind of disparities in social development that existed between the kingdom of Buganda and the rest of what became Uganda. Most historians claim the Baganda developed a superiority complex as a result.
However, there is something else. Outside Buganda, "clipping Buganda's wings" grew into a deeply held political notion, and anti-Gandaism became almost an essential element in Ugandan nationalism.
From this mushroomed the "common man's philosophy" that the prosperity of Uganda, parts of it, or certain ethnic communities required the deprivation and suffering of other parts and groups.
Thus it was necessary to govern Buganda under a state of emergency in Obote I, and for Luwero to suffer in order to "safeguard Ugandan's national integrity" during Obote II. And it is necessary for the north to suffer today for the same reason during Museveni's rule.
Almost no amount of brutality is considered immoral in the pursuit of these goals because the Ugandan ethos sees it as historically necessary.
Because of this Uganda is a human rights wasteland. Almost no action that is based on the belief in the above old beliefs is seen as criminal, because there will always be very many educated people, including bishops, who believe it is justified. I hope for the sake of our country, that I am wrong. But I fear I am right.