Tuesday April 16 2013

How the history of killings has affected the thinking and behaviour of Ugandans

By Nicholas Sengoba

Thirty four years ago, euphoria greeted the downfall of Field Marshall Idi Amin whose reign from January 25, 1971 to April 11, 1979 was described as a ‘reign of terror’ characterised by mysterious deaths and disappearances. In central Uganda among the Baganda, there was talk of the end of ‘Kijjambiya’ -the big panga- in reference to the killings of the Amin era.

The same Baganda had welcomed Amin in 1971 when he overthrew Obote in coup. Obote’s reign from 1962 had its fair share of mysterious killings and State-inspired violence against its opponents. The Nakulabye massacres, the death of Brig. Okoya and his wife and the storming of the Lubiri in Mengo during the 1966 crisis are some of the most quoted.

The elation after the departure of Amin was to be short-lived. This was captured in the words of former Makerere University Vice Chancellor Prof Ssenteza Kajubi (RIP). Speaking to journalist David Lamb, author of the book The Africans, during the chaotic post-Amin era, Prof. Kajubi, made a cryptic remark to the effect that Uganda had been greatly affected by Iddi Amin and what happened ‘afterwards.’ He added that Uganda had sunk so low that he did not know what it would take for us to rise again.

What happened ‘afterwards’ during the UNLF era was that mysterious deaths most prominent being the deaths in West Nile against what were described as ‘Amin’s people;’ of Muslims in Bushenyi and doctors Bagenda, Obache and many other public servants continued unabated.

When Obote ‘won’ the disputed 1980 elections prompting Yoweri Museveni and his bunch of revolutionaries to take to the tall grasses of Luweero, the killing of Ugandans became a regular occurrence. The skulls of Luweero are testimony to that.

After the fall of Obote the uncertainty and chaos of the short-lived Okello junta of 1985 to 1986 gave Uganda a serious number of dead bodies to count. Then the Museveni era moved the centre of deaths to northern and north eastern Uganda. Mukura and Bulchoro have been recorded. Many others have been dispatched as the killings of northerners by their own son Kony.

It is clear from just this random sampling of our history that killings in Uganda have been a continuous process from our Independence and have not been the monopoly of a particular individual or regime.
The only difference is that the writers of our history take it upon themselves to explain them away by heaping the blame on others. This has led to one of the most enduring and controversial episodes in the Ugandan discourse.

Of great concern, however, is the effect the history of killings and disappearances has had on the psychology and behaviour of the Ugandan. Because most killings have gone unexplained and unpunished, the trust in the State has vanished. The State through its organs, especially the police and courts of law, are looked at with suspicion. Instead we have to align ourselves to powerful individuals who have taken over the role of the State which is not sustainable.

The mess in the justice law and order sector finds its source here. You hardly have witnesses coming forward to testify in court even when they have good evidence. No civilisation can endure in an atmosphere where people do not have faith in the law.

Secondly, Ugandans have become very timid people. The risk one faces for killing another is not very high. There are many people who are known for killing who walk about the streets without fear. Likewise, there are many examples of people who have been killed and life has gone on as if nothing happened.

Thirdly, this sad side of our history has created very opaque characters. You can hardly tell what people think or their convictions on public matters. No one wants to be caught on the wrong side because they risk either being killed or have their rights violated. It is smarter to keep quiet.

This has created very deceptive characters who say one thing and practice another. They keep many secrets about their lives and what they own and this affects their potential. The antidote to all this is building a real State with institutions and functions that work basing on truth, equity and justice. That is Uganda’s challenge going forward.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.