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Freedom of Expression: Country Studies - Uganda

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 5 Political Rights, 4 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


Uganda, a country in sub-Saharan Africa that is situated in the Lake Victoria basin and borders Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had a multiethnic population of approximately 30 million in 2006. Uganda's gross national income (GNI) per capita in 2006 was only $300 (ranking 194th in the world), with a GNI per capita measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), which takes into account factors such as inflation, significantly higher at $1,490 (ranking 180th in the world). At the end of 2005, it was estimated that approximately 7 percent of the adult population was infected with HIV, which was half of the average during the 1990s of approximately 15 percent. Yet, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the average life span was only 48 years in 2004. Uganda's initial period after independence in 1962 was marked by dictatorial rule. Since 1986, under the rule of President Yoweri Museveni, the government's record of respect for human rights and free expression has improved, but there still has not been a peaceful change in power, and Museveni has employed increasingly authoritarian methods.



Uganda was originally populated by groups subsisting through hunting and gathering as early as 30,000–40,000 BC. Groups speaking Bantu, one of the dominant sub-Saharan African-language families, began populating the area in the fourth century BC and spread their practices of herding and agriculture. As early as the fourth century BC, Bantu groups had developed a process to smelt iron, enabling them to produce steel well before the technique was used in Europe in the 19th century.

Clan-Based Governance Emerges

Cushitic-, Nilotic-, and Luo-speaking tribes from the west and north, mostly pastoralists, migrated to the area at the end of the first millennium, around which time a clan-based system emerged. Some pastoralists moved south to form the Hima and Tutsi tribes of northern Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. The Nilotic speakers who stayed in Uganda formed two major states and other minor ones. The Bito ethnic group gained control over the central region, called Bunyoro. It ruled through a royal clan system over Hima pastoralists and Bantu farmers. In the 15th century, refugees from Bunyoro established the Buganda state on the northern shores of Lake Victoria. There, kings or chiefs (kabakas) were chosen by clan elders from among different princes of Baganda clans, thus preventing domination by a single clan. Buganda was highly successful, quadrupling its territorial control and surpassing the Bunyoro as the dominant state in the region.

State Rivalry Leads to Competition Among Religions

Uganda thus had its own internal system of rival states. In the mid–19th century, Islamic traders from Zanzibar (see Country Study of Kenya), seeking access to ivory, convinced leaders in Buganda of the merits of trade. The Egyptian pasha sought his own foothold, which he gained through the northern Aholi tribe. When the British explorers John Hanning Speke and Henry Morton Stanley arrived, they converted Buganda's leader, Mutesa I, to Christianity, igniting a competition between British Protestant, German Protestant, French Catholic, and Islamic missionaries. Buganda's Protestant and Catholic supporters combined to defeat the initially successful Islamic missionaries, but then battled themselves. The Protestants were victorious.

Backed by the military force of Buganda, the British then set out to conquer the Bunyoro and other ethnic groups. In 1888, the British East Africa Company was granted control of East Africa, and in 1894, Buganda became a British protectorate.

President Yoweri Museveni shaking hands with US President Ronald Reagan
British Colonial Rule and the Politics of Independence

Through a large portion of British colonial rule, Buganda was treated favorably in exchange for its loyalty to the Crown. In 1900, the kabaka was able to keep half of the territory of Buganda (the British controlled the other half) in exchange for Baganda services. The colonial administration also provided Buganda a higher level of education, supplemented by the ongoing presence of missionary groups. Graduation from school replaced the previous system of appointment to privileged positions based on the kabaka's instruction.

In the early 1950s, the politics of independence initially revolved around Buganda's kabaka, Edward Frederick Mutesa II. Mutesa was criticized by his constituents for failing to protect his community's interests. But for the British administrator, Sir Andrew Cohen, he was a major stumbling block in negotiations over independence. The British needed Buganda to make concessions to other regions to achieve a unitary Ugandan state. King Mutesa II, bolstered by a new generation of educated clan leaders, was suspicious of Cohen's motives and insisted on a separate state for Baganda. Cohen responded in 1953 by deposing Mutesa II and exiling him to London. But this served only to strengthen Mutesa II's position among Baganda and to harden his separatist position. He was brought back to Buganda in 1955 with restored powers that allowed him to appoint his own governing council for the first time since 1889.

Challenges to Buganda's Position and the Emergence of Unitary Uganda

New political parties emerged that challenged the status quo in the predominantly Protestant Buganda. The Democratic Party (DP), modeled on the German Christian Democrats, united the country's Catholics. A coalition of non-Catholic, non-Baganda groups formed under the banner of the Uganda People's Congress (UPC), led by Milton Obote. When Mutesa II continued to thwart progress at a 1960 London conference, Cohen simply announced elections for a National Assembly in March 1961. The kabaka boycotted the elections, allowing the Catholic-dominated DP to obtain all the Buganda region's seats. Alliance with the kabaka and his party, the Kabaka Yekka, or the King Only (KY), helped Obote to strengthen the UPC's power. The 1962 parliamentary elections produced a dominant two-party coalition of Obote's UPC (43 members) and Mutesa II's KY (24 members). The DP was left in the minority (23 members). Obote became prime minister of the initial government, and Edward Frederick Mutesa II became the head of state.

The Slide from Democracy to Dictatorship

Upon independence in October 1962, Uganda and its new government faced many challenges due to its regional, ethnic, and religious differences. At first, Milton Obote managed the many factions of the UPC, which was united only through its identity as non-Baganda. An attempted military coup in January 1964 led Obote to seek the army's loyalty through political patronage. To ensure personal support within the military, Obote appointed a young protege, Idi Amin Dada, as deputy head of the armed forces. Obote neutralized his rival, President Mutesa II, by enticing MPs from Mutesa's KY party to switch parties, ultimately giving the UPC a strong majority. In 1964, Obote organized a referendum on the "10 lost counties" (territory Buganda had gained from the Bunyoro in 1900). Its residents overwhelmingly voted to return to Bunyoro, their historical kingdom. Obote, emboldened, forced the kings of all six constituent kingdoms into exile.

In early 1966, an investigation into the theft by Obote and Amin of money from Congolese rebels in exchange for arms that were never delivered prompted Obote's opponents within the UPC to organize a vote of no confidence. While only one member voted for the prime minister, Obote refused to resign. He then carried out a coup against his own government (an autogolpe) with the support of the military, ushering in a period of dictatorship that lasted until 1986. Obote ended the multiparty system, deposed the president, forced the adoption of a new constitution concentrating all powers in his prime minister's office, and abolished the federal powers of the kingdoms. At Obote's order, Idi Amin literally drove Mutesa II out of his palace into exile, and Obote broke up Buganda into four districts. Obote established secret police and paramilitary forces to keep control.

Julius Nyerere on a coin
Idi Amin's Regime of Horror

In January 1971, Idi Amin staged a preemptive coup against Obote, his former mentor (just before being deposed, Obote had tried to arrest Amin). Amin instituted one of the most repressive dictatorships in Africa's postindependence history. Under his reign, Amin's forces killed over 300,000 people, including mass executions of Acholi and Langi because of their presumed loyalty to Obote. In 1972, Amin expelled Uganda's Asian community (approximately 50,000 individuals, mainly from India) and confiscated their property, destroying Uganda's commercial class. Although a highly trained soldier in the British army, Amin was illiterate, as were most military officers. He ran his government based only on oral orders, in person or over the phone or radio. Consequently, there were no paper records. Corruption and bribery maintained the loyalty of different army factions.

Tensions soon developed between Amin's government and the governments of his neighbors in East and Central Africa. Amin's most vocal African opponent was Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania (Uganda's southern neighbor), who was an ally of Milton Obote. In 1978, when army mutineers fled across the border to Tanzania, Amin declared war on Tanzania and occupied some of its northern territory. This prompted Nyerere to mobilize his forces, which were then joined by the pro-Obote Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). Tanzanian and UNLA forces quickly defeated Amin's army and captured Kampala (Uganda's capital) in April 1979. Idi Amin fled to Saudi Arabia, where he lived in exile until his death in 2003.

"The Movement System": Elections Without Democracy

After three interim governments, including one that had formed after a bloodless coup, presidential elections were held in December 1980, returning the UPC's Milton Obote to power. Human rights barely improved under Obote's second term in office (1980–85). They also did not improve under the subsequent military regime led by General Tito Okello, who ordered fierce but unsuccessful counterinsurgency campaigns to defeat the National Resistance Army (NRA) led by Yoweri Museveni, who had formerly worked in the state's intelligence service under Obote. The NRA seized Kampala in late January 1986, forcing Okello's troops to flee to Sudan.

Arguing that political parties aggravate ethnic and religious conflicts in Africa, Museveni ran Ugandan politics until recently according to "the movement system,"...

On January 29, 1986, Museveni was installed as president; he has remained in power since. Arguing that political parties aggravate ethnic and religious conflicts in Africa, Museveni ran Ugandan politics until recently according to "the movement system," which forced candidates to run as part of one broad movement, the National Resistance Movement, or as individuals. This made Uganda a de facto one-party state. Not surprisingly, Museveni won the 1996, 2001, and 2006 presidential elections (the last after the constitution was changed to allow him to serve a third term). In 2006, multiparty elections were held for the first time since 1980, resulting in an opening of political competition. The percentage of the vote going to Museveni dropped from 75 to 59 percent, with his key rival gaining 37 percent. Nonetheless, international monitors observed numerous irregularities during the election, including voter disenfranchisement, ballot box stuffing, counting problems, intimidation, and violence (although both the Ugandan Supreme Court and international monitors agree that the irregularities did not affect the outcome of the election too greatly).

Under Museveni, there have been reported abuses in areas where the regime is in conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a messianic guerrilla movement with which Uganda negotiated a truce in 2006. The government is fully dominated by President Museveni. Reports of corruption have increased over time, and abuses of power are frequent. However, Museveni has largely respected his pledge not to violate "the security of person and property" and other human rights, which is unusual for a former army and guerrilla leader. Uganda's general human rights record is much improved from the days of Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Furthermore, Museveni has earned praise for his economic policies, implementing economically conservative structural adjustment programs to stabilize hyperinflation and promote investment. Through his campaign to reduce HIV infection rates, he has also reduced the incidence of HIV infection from one of the highest to one of the lowest in Africa.

Freedom of Expression

The government and President Museveni have frequently threatened and intimidated the media with desired effects.
The Limits of Government Tolerance

The 2006 election was the first election in 25 years in which multiple parties were permitted to compete, following a referendum in 2005 that changed the one-party system. However, the government's tolerance for political expression and competition was limited: It arrested the leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change, Kizza Besigye, on charges of treason and rape in November 2005. Although the Supreme Court ordered Besigye to be released without consideration of the charges, and he was allowed to run in presidential elections, the government made clear its power, negatively affecting Besigye's chances for challenging Museveni. The Forum and Besigye remain outspoken critics of Museveni's government and have charged that the elections were fraudulent.

A Vibrant Free Media Challenges the Regime

Nonetheless, reforms in the early 1990s did allow Uganda to develop a vibrant free media. There are now over two dozen newspapers and dozens of radio and television stations that are independently owned and operated, which frequently criticize the government. The situation, however, is not entirely free. The government and President Museveni have frequently threatened and intimidated the media, with desired effects. In 2002, the Monitor, a prominent independent newspaper, was shut down temporarily following coverage of the fight between the government and the LRA that the government deemed inaccurate. In 2005, a privately owned radio station, KFM, was temporarily closed for allowing speculation on its broadcast about the plane crash of John Garang, the former Sudanese vice president and ally of Museveni who had led the Sudan Liberation People's Movement (SPLM). All media were warned not to broadcast or publish any information on the crash that killed Garang. Museveni declared, "Any newspaper that plays around with regional security, I will not tolerate it—I will close it." Thereafter, radio presenter Andrew Mwenda was arrested for sedition in connection with comments made on his KFM talk show. During the Besigye case, media outlets were also intimidated and shut down over journalists' coverage of the events.

In addition to frequent arrests, there are physical threats and attacks against journalists. Human rights and media watchdog advocates have expressed concern that as a result of the intimidation, there is now a high degree of self-censorship by Ugandan journalists, including a reduction in the level of public debate on the radio. At the same time, media outlets continue to operate independently and report critically on the government and public officials. Even subjects the government warns is taboo, most notably its war with the Sudanese-backed LRA, remain a subject for media reports.