From Pearl to Pariah: The Origin, Unfolding and Termination of State-Inspired Genocidal Persecution in Uganda, 1980-85
Published on: Dec 21, 2006


Even the most cursory glance at the emergence of the country we now call Uganda leaves one convinced that, at some stage, it was inevitable that the country would go from being the “Pearl of Africa,” so dubbed by Winston Churchill in 1908, to the all-around epitome of Third World malaise that earned residents of that country much notoriety barely a decade after Britain, the former colonial master, gave them leave in 1962 to manage, if not mangle, themselves. Uganda’s founding—and all the casualness with which she was thus christened—is one of those instances wherein humanity sows chilies and, out of some strange optimism borne of collective amnesia, expects to harvest tomatoes. At every critical juncture of the country’s evolution, her key architects and local emulators made compromises and concessions with such abandon that by the eve of independence every sinew of the young polity was ingrained with the precursors of tragedy.

This paper explores part of that tragedy, focusing on the widespread, systematic and largely state-inspired massacres the country experienced in the early 1980s, in what should have been treated as genocide. It pays specific attention to atrocities committed in regions and against groups that were deemed to be a political threat to the regime in power at the time and does not dwell on endangered minorities such as the Ik, Batwa and Karimojong whose livelihoods have been under constant threat throughout the history of Uganda. Their plight requires attention and advocacy that is beyond the scope of the discussion here. Rather, this paper reviews the proximate cause of the violence, the perpetrators, escalation and termination of the phase of violence, and the world’s understanding and response (or lack thereof) to the events in the second half of the 1980s decade.  

Background: Evolution of the Policies and Practices of Violence

The very process of the creation of Uganda—initially as a colony and after 1962 as an independent country—laid the ground for much of the debilitating violence that has come to characterize it; a country whose inhabitants’ only known tool is a hammer, and for whom every problem has come to resemble a nail.1  Uganda’s tortured history has turned the nail and hammer analogy into a doctrine of state building (and destruction), which in turn has evolved into an instrument of domestic policy and the currency through which social and political groups conduct their relations. Competitive retaliation has hardened ethnic boundaries, and with the military as the major instrument of policy and regimes collapsing one after another, the country has over time accumulated a mass of unemployable “lumpen militariat”—the throngs of former and disused specialists in violence—which the country continues to churn out. Throughout her history, Uganda has borne structural crises and societal pressures that would normally have been transitory, but which by not being either properly anticipated or effectively managed have turned into a recurrent malaise and a precondition for authorities and local warlords to eliminate entire groups. Several factors have played a contributory role but I single out the failure by both colonial and post-independence authorities to translate what was originally a mere geographical expression into a united and peaceful people.

Central to this is the integration crisis, namely the failure to socialize the different ethno-racial groups into accepting each other as citizens of one country with a common destiny. The integration deficit derives from several sources, including the pattern of economic and social development that favored the largely Bantu south at the expense of the north, resulting in what is commonly called the “north-south divide.” This involved turning the north of the country into a labor reserve for plantation agriculture located in the south and actively discouraging the development of commercial agriculture in the north. Schools and colleges were concentrated in the south of the country, pushing the northern residents further into unskilled employment, with the south providing most of the civil servants, clerks and bureaucrats. The colonial authorities passed legal enactments that established tribally oriented local government units that fostered “a sense of district nationalism and separatism that in many cases did not exist prior to the arrival of the British” (Burke, 1964:14). Furthermore, the colonial authorities propounded the “martial tribes thesis” to justify the recruitment of members of the armed forces exclusively from the north, a policy that was further pursued by most of the post-independence government.

With this trend of favoring the south in education, commerce and administration of the colony and relegating the north to unskilled labor and the armed forces, there emerged a sense of superiority amongst the inhabitants of the south and centre who tended to refer to the non-Bantu population of the north as non-humans or beasts.2  The groups tend to refer to one another in derogatory terms that, if given the right mix of conditions, could foster genocidal attitudes. Among the pejorative terms used by the Bantu to ridicule the non-Bantu is “badugudugu,” meaning that the Sudanic and Nilotic speakers of northern Uganda do not communicate at all, but merely burble incomprehensibly.

The point here is that genocide is never a paroxysmal event, but rather a process that unfolds through predictable and stoppable stages. Some genocide analysts have identified eight such stages: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination and denial. In the case of Uganda, there is evidence of groups repudiating the humanity of other groups as demonstrated above by equating them with animals, vermin or pests. It is this kind of dehumanization that marks the third of the eight markers on the slippery slope of genocide.

As already discussed above, Uganda was molded as a polity with a sizeable citizenry, whose cradle the authorities nurtured as an area of (relative) prosperity, but whose northern areas they chose to dub “outlying districts,” with inhabitants who are despised and looked on as second-class citizens. They are systematically socialized to believe that they should not hold a stake in the collective prosperity of the country. Even the country’s name, derived from the Buganda kingdom based in the south, privileged one ethnic group. As one scholar would remark, such are the circumstances that would yield “the enthusiasm with which the destruction of [life and] property was undertaken in the Luwero Triangle”; further adding that, the brutality was in many ways “a logical conclusion to colonial economic policies: the two zones were evening up the score” (Lunyiigo, 1989:36).

Economic policies had their counterpart in practices of military formation. Between them, the two sowed the seeds of a possible genocide. The military in Uganda, like similar forces in other colonies, was originally crafted as a custodian of the interests of the colonizing power. The Uganda Rifles Ordinance specifically empowered the military to take action against any local group in the protectorate engaging in active opposition to the administration. Colonial recruitment emphasized selective preference for the Luo, Sudanic and Nilohamitic sections of the population. Of the 161 officers in the Uganda Army, 141 (88%) were from those groups. In 1969, although the population of the north constituted a mere 19% of the national total, 61% of the military were from that part of the country (Omara-Otunnu, 1988: 80-82). It was important to the British to ensure that the militaries were, where possible, “an entirely alien mercenary element who did not have any sentimental attachment to Uganda and could be trusted to be brutal without any reserve or compunction.”3  More ominously still was “the fact that this key institution of the post-colonial period was built on British foundations of remoteness and hostility toward people in the center of the country” (Lunyiigo, 1989).

This paper assumes general familiarity with the political history of independent Uganda. The first independence regime was led by Milton Obote, whose Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) was primarily a vehicle for containing the Baganda’s ambitions for political supremacy. Obote, a Langi from the center-north, duly abolished the Buganda monarchy. He was overthrown, not by his Baganda adversaries, but by another northerner, General Idi Amin, who became a parody of an incompetent and brutal dictator. Amin was overthrown in 1979 by a Tanzanian-led invasion, with the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) as its local protégé, drawn chiefly from Obote’s followers from the Langi and Acholi. At this stage the country was an economic wreck and deeply divided—problems that the December 1980 elections did nothing to resolve. The elections were a hastily contrived contest between four political parties, namely the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC), the Democratic Party (DP), the Conservative Party (CP) and the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM). They returned Milton Obote to power.

The massacres occurred in the context of bungled counterinsurgency operations by government forces in the centrally located Buganda region and in the West Nile region in the northwest at the border with the Sudan and then Zaire. The insurgency in the Buganda region was sparked by Milton Obote’s return to power,4  and worse still, doing so through what was widely acknowledged as a fraudulent election. The West Nile insurgency was launched by military elements of the deposed regime of Idi Amin, primarily as a counterattack against the new government, but partly as a consequence of the retributive violence meted out on the population of the region by the Nilotic sections of the UNLA.

The Victims

The victims of Obote’s genocidal massacres fall into three main categories: the Baganda, the “Banyarwanda” and the Sudanic peoples of West Nile.

Following Obote’s fraudulent return to power in 1980, it did not require a lot of effort to prod the population of the Buganda heartland to translate their longstanding and deep-seated abhorrence for the man and his party into open rebellion.5  The UPC sprang onto the political scene as a party to contain Buganda and, as party leader, Obote had done his best to live up to that mission.

The anti-Obote sentiment in Buganda was clearly evidenced by the UPC’s performance in the 1980 poll, which though rigged in the party’s favor, earned it only 15% of the vote in Buganda,“winning” in only 1 out of the 34 parliamentary constituencies.6  In Luwero, Mpigi and Mubende the epicenters of the 1980-85 insurgency and massacres, the UPC claimed only 12%, 5% and 19% of the vote respectively (COG, 1980: Annex 15).7  Neither did Obote have any illusions about the UPC’s electoral prospects in Buganda. In a 12 August 1980 secret memo, he laid out a UPC strategy of conduct before, during and after elections, urging party adherents to remember “…how much the Baganda hate me personally,” further proposing that “the Baganda especially should be intimidated” for “There was no way their cooperation can be solicited,” and further stating how he was “…. at pains to propose that if necessary leaders of other parties should be eliminated.”8 

Elsewhere the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Violation of Human Rights (CIVHR) carries the testimony of a witness who quotes Obote as having warned the people of Soroti as to the fate of the recalcitrant, stating, “I warn you people of Soroti, if you behave like a certain tribe you know very well, I shall not hesitate at all, I will send my boys to destroy both you and your property. I repeat, I will send my boys to destroy both your lives and property. I say this for God and my country... A good Muganda is a dead one” (Uganda Government, 1995).9

Therefore, with Obote’s hair trigger readiness to mete out anguish on the populace of Uganda’s heartland; or to put it in his own words of 20 years before, “to crush Buganda,”10   or in those of one rather astonishing Obote admirer who makes reference to cutting Buganda to size to make it easier “…to establish parity of esteem and treatment between Buganda and other regions” (Mazrui, 1975:193), it was just a matter of the slightest excuse possible.  To provide this excuse, but more so, to skilfully harness the longstanding antipathy for Obote in Buganda, Yoweri Museveni, in command of the National Resistance Army, set up base in the Luwero Triangle, while other groups like the short-lived Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM) and the Federal Democratic Movement (Fedemo) established themselves in other parts of Buganda, especially in the vicinity of the capital, Kampala.  

As expected—and one could say, as calculated by the insurgents—Obote’s response outdid the most brutal moments of Idi Amin’s hellish era. As Abdu Kasozi observes, Amin’s reign was permanently characterized by violence which “was like a tide, peaking and subsiding at certain periods. Whenever there was a political crisis in the ranks of the regime itself, or when an attempt was made to dislodge the dictator, violence intensified. But in the second Obote period, violence was always at high tide” (1995:145).

In January 1983, Obote launched “Operation Bonanza,” a scorched earth campaign, during which the UNLA destroyed small towns, villages, and farms and killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. By 1984, no significant headway had been registered against the NRA who still maintained strong support among local civilians. Frustrated by its inability to defeat the NRA, the government forces exacted further reprisals against the population, mainly the Baganda, Banyarwanda and Ankole pastoralists by way of large large-scale murder, mass starvation, looting and dislocation of whole communities.

In one parish of Kasana, the home of the tactical headquarters of the UNLA, a recent study has indicated how up to 80% of the heads of households were massacred.11  Given that Luwero had about 130 parishes each with an average of 800 households, this could mean that in just one parish at least 650 men may have been killed.

In September 1982, the government opened another chapter of ethnic persecution, targeting what the regime collectively lumped up as the “Banyarwanda,” affecting at least 100,000 people, mainly in the south of the country, but even as far north as Teso region.

Post-independence Uganda has provided one of the foci where the Banyarwanda  as a group have epitomized the crisis of postcolonial citizenship, whether as refugees or as citizens. In the 1980s, “Banyarwanda”12 as a term became a derogatory label to symbolize and brand targets for political persecution and denial of entitlement, particularly for those sections of the Bantu that had no sympathies for the government of the day. It was not uncommon at military checkpoints to be quizzed by a drunken soldier on whether one was not “Nyarwanda,” a term that was used interchangeably with “guerrilla,” “bandit,” “rebel” or NRA. Ruins of homes demolished by soldiers in the Luwero Triangle still bear graffiti that reads, “Museveni rudi kwenyu Rwanda” (Museveni go back to your home in Rwanda), inscribed in the early 1980s as an attempt to discredit the (then rebel) NRA by portraying its leader, Yoweri Museveni, as a Rwandan meddling in the internal affairs of Uganda.

As a general term, “Banyarwanda” was employed by officials and auxiliaries of the Obote regime as a reference to two categories of victims of persecution, the first of which were the ethnic Banyarwanda, who had migrated to the country over many decades, and the second, more general category, most people of western and south western Uganda, mostly the Bafumbira, Banyankole and Bakiga. By subjecting the “Banyarwanda” to persecution the government was on one hand aiming to punish the Bantu groups that were not supportive of the ruling UPC, and to discourage them from supporting the Museveni led insurgency, and on the other, partly actualizing a scheme started in the late 1960s of expelling from Uganda the predominantly Roman Catholic Banyarwanda because of the political cost they placed on the UPC by supporting the DP.

Of the Ugandan citizens to suffer, most were the cattle-herding aristocratic Bahima—whom Obote chooses to pejoratively, if rather falsely, characterize as “a stock of itinerant cattlemen and a stock who, everywhere in Uganda, is known for stealing cattle” (1990)—the subgroup of Ankole region that furnished the largest component of the senior leadership of the NRA. The Bahima also had a history of being sympathetic toward the DP, contrary to what one would have expected given that they are almost exclusively Protestant. This seemingly contradictory phenomenon dates back to the mid 1950s13  and was to account for the abysmal performance of UPC in the region during the 1961 elections. This same voting pattern was to be replicated in the 1980 elections, making the Bahima a target of the wrath of a resurgent and militaristic UPC, a situation that was not mitigated by the arrival on the political scene of the Uganda Patriotic Movement under the leadership of the furiously anti-Obote YK Museveni, himself a Hima.14

At least 80,000 people were evicted from their homes, half of them finding their way across the border into Rwanda and the other half relocating to UNHCR refugee camps in Mbarara.

The Sudanic community of West Nile was the other target. By May 1979, the Tanzanian army and UNLA had “liberated” much of the country save for the West Nile region, Idi Amin’s ethnic base. Around this time, the President, Yusuf Lule, was approached by the commander of the Armed Forces, Tito Okello, and the Chief of Staff, David Oyite-Ojok, requesting for permission to “punish the people of West Nile for their misdeeds.” The two officers from Acholi and Lango respectively wished to advance on West Nile and take revenge on the Kakwa, Lugbara and Madi for the thousands of their kin murdered by the Amin regime.  

Lule turned down the Ojok/Okello request and accordingly instructed the TPDF Commander Gen. Msuguri to ensure that the Acholi and Langi contingent of the liberation forces were denied access to the West Nile region. The Tanzanian commander managed to keep those two groups out of West Nile until he was transferred from the region in 1980 following the deposition of the second post Amin President, Godfrey Binaisa. The replacement of Tanzanian forces by UNLA battalions and militia from Kitgum and Apac areas of Acholi and Lango, respectively, marked the beginning of the systematic devastation of West Nile region and genocidal massacre of the local people. In the months that followed the withdrawal of the TPDF from West Nile, regular Army reinforcements and hordes of Nilotic militias and volunteers poured into West Nile, this at a time when former Amin soldiers had launched a guerrilla campaign from across the border in the then Zaire.

For every incursion the guerrillas launched, the UNLA set out to massacre the local populace by locking them up in their huts and setting them on fire; this, in addition to looting any movable articles, destroying food stores and desecrating places of worship and burial grounds. Some of the soldiers reportedly arranged for their relatives to come along from Acholi and Lango to assist with the looting, especially of livestock. The end of each cycle of the pogroms was marked by victory parades accompanied by martial music from Acholi flutes. A common scene following the orgies of violence was that of jubilant militias clad in belts festooned with the genitals of their victims.

One of the most well documented massacres in West Nile was the infamous Ombachi Catholic Mission slaughter. The mission compound also doubled as an ICRC safe haven hosting thousands of displaced civilians. In June 1981, the UNLA attacked the mission, allegedly searching for insurgents and, in a frenzy of indiscriminate shooting, killed scores and injured several of those sheltering in the compound. The ICRC gave this incident wide publicity and was subsequently expelled form Uganda (Pirouet, 1988; MRG, 1989:10). Following the massacre at Ombachi, the genocidal policy of Obote’s regime in West Nile was summed up by the Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff, Oyite Ojok, who in communicating the official UNLA response to the survivors is reported to have been dismayed at the large number of people still living, and further stated that he intended to clear the region and leave it as a game reserve, a statement that was to spark off an exodus of refugees to neighboring Sudan and Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).

Ojok reportedly remarked that he could only smile upon seeing a dead Lugbara, and not a live one (Refugee Law Project, 2004:6). Within a short time, approximately 500,000 residents of West Nile (about 80% of the population of the region) had fled into exile. According to the Minority Rights Group, up to 30,000 people may have been killed by the government forces (MRG, 1989:10). A missionary working in the area was to note that, "We thank God that Zaire and Sudan were so near otherwise the slaughter might have been greater than it was" (Uganda Church Association Newsletter, 1981:7).

The Perpetrators

The main perpetrator of the violence was the state and its agencies, specifically the military, paramilitary organizations, the civil intelligence organizations, specifically the National Security Agency (NASA), local and national officials of the ruling UPC and members of the party’s Youth Wing. Most massacres were carried out by the military in zones of counterinsurgency operations as in West Nile and Luwero Triangle, where the role of the military and its dominant ethnic group is still evidenced by such graffiti as “You will never forget that boys from Gulu were here!”

The roadblock as the point of interaction between the populace and the state’s terror machine was to many an “institution” and, if indeed accepted as such, probably the only single effective institution in the Uganda of the 1980s (Kasozi, 1995:151). At the roadblock, the ill-provisioned, ill-trained, underpaid, and quite often drunken government soldiers would rob, rape and murder and humiliate the citizenry unhampered.15  In his autobiography, Museveni recounts an incident when together with his family he faced near death at a roadblock in the outskirts of Kampala—had it not been for “some comrades [who] used force to rescue us” after a five hour detention, as the soldiers manning the roadblock consulted on how to dispose of him (Museveni, 1997:123). He was then the Vice-Chairman of the ruling Military Commission, effectively making him the country’s Vice-President. In such circumstances, the ordinary wayfarer never stood any chance.

The secret police, the National Security Agency (NASA), like its predecessors, the General Service Unit (GSU) of Obote I and Idi Amin’s State Research Bureau (SRB), operated above the little that was left of the law and were manned by individuals whose “powers sometimes exceeded their talents” (Makubuya, 1989). The Gestapo-like NASA agents were active in all sectors of Uganda’s national life especially where anti-UPC sentiment was rife. They operated in schools, factories, churches, hospitals and other institutions, with every UPC branch office being collocated with a NASA bureau. Operatives in guerrilla-infested areas like Luwero Triangle or in the ethnic base of the guerrilla leadership in Mbarara were also nicknamed the “computer men” as they often read off their victims’ names from piles of computer printouts generated from a central database. The agency also carried out kidnap and assassination operations outside the country, especially in neighboring Kenya where most rebel groups had their external wings.16 

Party functionaries at all levels, from constituency through parish and village and ordinary party members all over the country, collaborated with the military and the spy agency. There are innumerable instances in which even local administration officials and civil servants, who were generally required to be members of the ruling party, participated in human rights abuses and massacres, with some running private prisons in their homes (Uganda government, 1995).

How the Violence Ended

Commenting on the events in Uganda in the 1980s is as much the decrying of hemorrhage of a beleaguered nation as it is an exercise in scripting the political fortunes of Milton Obote, especially so in his relations with the populace of Buganda. Obote viewed the military as his primary constituency and mainstay of his hold on power, and therefore Buganda was to remain the principal object of the actions of that power. Upon regaining office in 1980, Obote “tried encircling Buganda, a strategy which had paid off in the 1960s,” as a result of which “Buganda had been forced to break out of the encirclement by seeking an alliance with the UPC—an alliance which at the time was tactical but eventually proved disastrous for Buganda and, eventually for Uganda” (Mudoola, 1989).

The Buganda—and indeed Uganda—of the 1980s was radically different from the one of the 1960s. As a consequence of the turmoil that occasioned the reign and dethronement of Idi Amin, Ugandans had not only been brutalized, but other than doubling in number, they were now hardened and ultra-militant. Over the years, force had become too dispersed for any single politician to wield it successfully to hold sections of the country to ransom. As Mudoola notes, “With the fall of Idi Amin, political forces in Uganda generally—and Buganda specifically—came to realize that force was a highly critical element in the jungle that was Uganda. In the 1980s Buganda not only steered away from any affiliation with Obote and the UPC, but it also sought to break out of a state of being roped off as in earlier times, hence the various armed uprisings that followed the UPC “victory” in the 1980 poll. Naturally, Obote swallowed the bait by opting for the military resolution of the uprisings. And the desire to do so did not have to wait for the mushrooming insurgent groups to declare intent to take on the UPC government militarily. Throughout the 1980 election campaigns, Obote constantly challenged other contestants to show the public their generals.

The UPC government’s attempt to reconstitute an ethnically homogenous military force along the lines of the 1960s came to naught. With all its inherent defects, the military of Obote’s first reign was, though prone to be being misused, less ill-disciplined. It was easy to provision and therefore non-predatory. Additionally, the government was presiding over a docile populace. The UNLA was a far cry from this, especially as the traditional Lwo politico-military axis of the Acholi and Langi steadily yielded to the strain of the counterinsurgency in Buganda.

Weaknesses within government were deepened by differences between the President and Vice President Paulo Muwanga. The latter disagreed with Obote’s nepotism and his strategy to deal with the escalating insurgency. Critical was the death of the Army Chief of Staff and overall operational commander in Luwero Triangle, Maj-Gen David Oyite Ojok, in a helicopter crash in December 1983. This dealt the Obote government a triple blow by first of all depriving the military of an individual who had helped to give it the semblance of professional leadership and a sense of purpose. Secondly and probably more important, Ojok’s death precipitated a succession crisis that was to hasten the disintegration of the military and the regime as the antagonism between the Acholi and Langi within the UNLA was to demonstrate. Muwanga silently opposed and undermined Obote’s nomination for Ojok’s successor.

Thirdly, the manner in which the leadership of the NRA conducted itself in the wake of Ojok’s death in their zone of operations also served as a catalyst for the crisis within the ruling UPC. There were no claims whatsoever made by the NRA that it had shot down the helicopter, very much in keeping with strict Maoist discipline of never claiming cheap victories; or victories one had not scored. For a force under so much pressure at the time it would have been almost a reflex to announce the downing of the helicopter as an achievement, if for anything else, then at least to boost the morale of the hard pressed fighting force. Apart from being clear testimony to the extraordinary confidence of the guerrilla leadership, the NRA effectively deflected the death of Ojok to the UPC government itself, as senior military and political leaders started pointing accusing fingers at each other for planning the mishap. These accusations and counteractions were to create an atmosphere of mutual suspicion within the UPC leadership that only hastened the atrophy of the regime.

On the strategy to combat the guerrillas, Vice President Muwanga came to realize the futility of the military option in resolving the now escalating insurgency particularly in Buganda, and started favoring a negotiated settlement, as the government forces’ inability to diminish the efficacy of the NRA became increasingly evident. Obote, elated that the relocation of a sizeable contingent of the NRA to the west of the country was a sign of defeat and their search for an exit to Zaire,17  still hoped that the government forces would regain the initiative. Museveni was able to meet Muwanga in Germany and make an attempt to initiate negotiations (Museveni, 1997: 165). Of course the shrewd Muwanga was being motivated more by opportunism than by pacifism: he had read the signs of the times and was attempting to position himself for the emerging new order.

The state of the commitment and cohesion of the demoralized military was a further blow to the Obote regime. Over time, the Acholi members of the military felt, with justification, that the President was favoring his fellow Langi in promotions, appointments and opportunities for training abroad; and above all else by keeping them out of harm’s way by ensuring that were never deployed in battle zones. Conflict heightened in August 1984, when after almost a year of indecision, Obote promoted one of his kin, Opon Acak and appointed him to replace Ojok as chief of staff. The Acholi who were the majority communal group in the force had hoped that, Basilio Olara Okello, their co-ethnic, was best qualified to take over as Chief of Staff. In time, they would directly disobey the Chief of Staff’s orders, as happened in June 1985 when the mainly Acholi troops stationed at Maga Maga, near Jinja, directly disobeyed the order to move to western Uganda to fight the increasingly bold NRA, engaging the Langi officers who had gone to transmit the orders in a shootout.

There was, in fact, open communal conflict within the military and widespread insubordination by Acholi officers who suspected that Obote was ordering their arrest, detention and elimination. A struggle over which ethnic faction of the army would control armored assets led to further shootouts in the outskirts of the capital, worsening the schisms within Obote’s military and setting the stage for his eventual overthrow.

The disarray within the military also took the pressure off Museveni’s NRA, which was better able to sustain its military threat and capitalize on discontent within Uganda. During 1985, the NRA spread its operations to the West of the country and after grinding down the will of the UNLA in the Luwero triangle was now in a position to hold territory and to switch their operations to the third phase of the guerrilla campaign of frontal engagements with government forces and holding territory. By this time, the military had lost the will to fight and was experiencing mass defections to the NRA; the government was growing increasingly fractious just as the ruling party was racked by divisions. Obote could not even count on his closest political ally hailing from Buganda, Paulo Muwanga. Such was the isolation and desperation of the president that he initiated efforts to enlist the support of the pro-Amin UNRF (Sathyamurthy, 1986:715). International isolation further hastened the regime’s demise as the Western aid donors and close regional allies like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania grew increasingly weary of the atrocities in Luwero and West Nile. In July 1985, Acholi elements within the UNLA, led by Lieutenant General Basilio Olara-Okello, himself an Acholi and a candidate for arrest on Obote’s orders, overturned the government. General Tito Okello Lutwa, also an Acholi, became President.

Once again, Lango region, the home of the deposed president, was targeted for widespread looting and massacres just as it was after Amin’s overthrow of the Obote I government. General Okello invited several anti-Obote forces to join his government, including two organizations comprised mainly of ex-Amin soldiers in exile in Sudan. The return of pro-Amin elements into the Uganda armed forces only served to increase the general population’s feeling of distaste and revulsion for the Okello government.

Shortly after the Okello junta took over, President Moi of Kenya initiated the Nairobi Peace Talks, (dubbed the “Peace Jokes”) between the Okello forces and the NRA, which despite appeals to abandon the guerrilla campaign, remained in the countryside. Four months of negotiations for power-sharing were conducted in Nairobi, culminating in the signing of a December 1985 agreement signed by General Okello, NRA leader Museveni and President Moi. The Agreement was not to hold since even the most preliminary steps beyond signing were never to be implemented. The government in Kampala referred to the NRA as “snakes” whose fangs had to first and foremost be extirpated.

In the meantime, fighting went on between the UNLA, now reinforced by a large contingent of ex-Amin soldiers and Karimojong warriors who had been lured with promises of acquiring herds of cattle from south western Uganda after assisting in defeating the NRA. Massacres of civilians did not relent either. Six months after General Okello’s coup, and just one month after the execution of the Nairobi power-sharing agreement, the capital city was overrun by the NRA as government forces gradually disintegrated, leaving the Acholi component to flee northwards in an exodus that was marked by looting and civilian massacres. As they crossed Acholiland, they warned Acholi civilians that the NRA was coming for “revenge” and would massacre many of them upon arrival in Gulu and Kitgum. Many civilians followed the fleeing soldiers across the border to Sudan. By March 1986, the NRA had achieved complete military control of Gulu and Kitgum relatively peacefully, though later on in August of the same year, remnants of the deposed military were to launch a counterattack that sparked off a civil war that still continues to haunt the country.


The episodes of genocidal killing in Uganda in the period under examination, namely from 1980-85, came to an end when the Obote regime fell apart under the strains of its own internal contradictions. Whether that brought to an end the structural vulnerability of Uganda to future episodes of genocidal violence is a different question. The answer is not optimistic.

The passing of Milton Obote’s second reign, and in its wake, the routing of the Okellos by the NRA, was viewed by many as a watershed in Ugandan politics; heralding the first decisive shift of political pre-eminence from the elites of the north of the country to those of the south. The years that have followed the NRA’s victory, though marked by a relative upswing of fortunes for the better part of the country, have also been characterized by an explosion of armed rebellion, as Ugandans increasingly perceived Yoweri Museveni’s exploits almost as a re-branding of insurgency as an enterprise, if not elevating it to the level of an institution. No less than fifteen rebel groups and movements have since emerged18, the longest-surviving being the exclusively Acholi Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which, with its enigmatic leader Joseph Kony, has dragged the country into what may probably be the most brutal, if purposeless, episode of insurrection Africa may yet see. It may not be far-fetched to suppose that, in the fullness of time, the dire effects of the rebellion in central northern Uganda might call for the kind of examination that is the subject of this paper, albeit for a different era and principal culprit.

What ought to be sounded as a caution, though, is however much the loci of collective violence shall shift within Uganda, the enduring problem in the national politics of Uganda shall remain the stalemate in the relationship between Uganda’s national authorities and Buganda’s traditional elite with respect to the status of the Kingdom of Buganda. It is this stalemate that set the stage, however remotely in history, for the events discussed in much of this paper. The selective restoration of traditional political institutions in the 1990s may have helped to ease the longstanding bitterness of sections of Buganda over the abolition of their monarchy but it may be too early to hope that pro-monarchist groups have outgrown their revanchist proclivities. If not, then any future divergence of visions between Buganda insular nationalism and pan-Ugandan designs of nationalist elites at the centre will undoubtedly generate animosities that may precipitate conditions that will lead to scenes the world witnessed in Luwero in the 1980s.

At the national level, Uganda is still a divided and underdeveloped society whose multi-ethnic character will, for years to come, continue to tempt the country’s office-seeking political elites to manipulate the otherwise neutral social diversity for personal ends, especially in light of the continuing low level of institutionalization of political participation. The persistent use of military force as the principal arbiter in political contests in this short-fused polity remains a risk factor for mass murder. As Helen Fein posits, “Perpetrators of genocide are often repeat offenders, because elites and security forces may become habituated to mass killing as a strategic response to challenges to state security and also because targeted groups are never destroyed in their entirety” (Fein, 1993). The 1980s may have seen the country stepping back from the brink, but old habits die hard. Much of the same reality that spawned the sad events of the period being discussed still obtain. As such it may not be imprudent to nominate Uganda for inclusion on the list of countries on which genocide watchers should vigilantly keep tabs.


1 The Constitution of The Republic Uganda legitimizes armed rebellion in defence of the constitution (Articles 3(4), (5) and (6). 

2 In the Bantu languages, “ bantu” means persons, humans, people or individuals. 

3 Lunyiigo, op cit.

4 Given the past strained relations between the Buganda establishment and the Obote, it is highly unlikely that the UPC would have received any cooperation from the Baganda.

5 In Buganda, Obote earned himself such unflattering epithets as “Kawenkene” or devil and “Kakokoro” (malignant cancer), a label that curiously rhymed with Akokoro, his ancestral home. 

6 This was the Mubende North East constituency, one of the four whose electoral results were switched in favor of the UPC; in this particular case, two weeks after the official winner had been declared (Karugire, 1985:96).

7 In other areas of Buganda, the UPC did not perform any better: Masaka, 9%; Rakai, 11%; Kampala, 20% and Mukono, 25%.

8 Karugire, op. cit., pp. 101-102.

9 See also Minority Rights Group (2001:27)

10 Uganda Argus 3 February 1960, p.3, cited in Dinwiddy, 1981; p.501.

11 Mamdani (2002) extensively reviews the complexities of the political and cultural evolution of the Banyarwanda,  highlighting their distribution in the region and their colonial history and discusses in detail the distinction between the cultural and political diaspora.  

12 Up to that time, British colonial officials favored the Bahima and enabled them to dominate leadership positions, as a result of which, all chiefs, and by implication, members of local administrative councils, were from this group. With the introduction of elections to the District Council, the Bairu became dominant because of their numbers, dislodging the Bahima from their chiefly offices. The traditional conflict between the aristocratic pastoralists and the majority agricultural population took precedence over belonging to the same religion, resulting in the Protestant Bairu eclipsing Protestant Bahima from power. The latter, using the principle of “the enemy of your enemy is your friend” forged an alliance with the Bairu Catholics who like all other Catholics in the Uganda protectorate were excluded from positions of power. With the introduction of direct elections in 1961, the Protestant Bahima combined with the Bairu Catholics and the DP against the Bairu Protestants and the UPC with the former winning four of the six seats for the region in the National Assembly. For details, see Karugire (1980).

13 Available evidence does not support some of these claims. For example, in report No. 66,  Minority Rights Group indicates that only seven Banyarwanda featured on a list of 240 most wanted collaborators and officials of Idi Amin (Minority Rights Group, 1989:12). It is not even clear how many of the seven Banyarwanda were Rwandan or Ugandan nationals. 

14 Yoweri Museveni reveals in his autobiography how he was prepared to confront Obote militarily as early as 1966 but was talked out of his plans by an elder in his home district (Museveni, 1997:19). 

15 One of the most gory of actions was an incident when an infant was slashed to death by soldiers when they discovered Uganda shillings 200 folded in the diapers of the three month old. The mother was caused to sit at the roadblock and watch her baby bleed to death, and when death indeed finally came, she was released and told to inform her husband that his bank had been destroyed; and to also inform all Baganda friends how the same fate would befall them if they attempted to hide their money. 

16 Most publicised was the 1982 abduction of one Balaki Kirya the leader of the rebel Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM) and Lawrence Ssemakula the founder of Federal Democratic |Movement of Uganda (FEDEMU) that were at the time operating in and around Kampala.

17 The NRA’s relocation of some of its elements to the west of the country was actually the dawn of a new and critical phase of their war that saw the opening of a second front, a change of approach to the war from guerrilla to conventional tactics that was to mark the end of Obote’s reign after, according to Museveni,  “extracting the last ounce of benefit from our presence in the central sector” (1997:164). 

18 A full list would include the following: The Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA), Uganda People’s Army (UPA), Ninth October Movement/Army (NOM/A), Force Obote Back Army (FOBA), the Uganda Mujahideen Movement (UMM), later Allied Democratic Front/Force (ADF), West Nile Bank Front (WNBF) I &II, Uganda Federal Democratic Alliance/Front (UFEDA/UFDF), Uganda National Democratic Alliance (UNDA), National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF) I &II, Holy Spirit Movement/Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSM) I & II, Citizen Army for Multiparty Politics (CAMP), Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), originally Lord’s Army and then Uganda Salvation Army; Anti-Referendum Army (ARA), Former Uganda National Army (FUNA), Uganda Salvation Force/Army ( USF/A), Peoples’ Redemption Army (PRA), Action Restore Justice (ARJ)


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