This week, Uganda celebrated 57 years since the country gained self-rule from the British. On Independence Day on October 9, 1962, then 36-year-old prime minister Milton Obote delivered an impressive speech which was full of hope for the new nation whose population stood at about seven million at the time.
However, as time went on, the country started degenerating into political tensions that culminated in several killings in different parts of the country. We highlight some of the dark days that the country has been through in the last 57 years.
The 1966 crisis
The 1966 crisis was the first test for the country that had only gained independence four years earlier. It was as a result of tensions between executive prime minister Obote and Kabaka Edward Muteesa II, who also doubled as the president of Uganda.
The ground for the crisis was cleared in November 1964, when Obote championed a Bill in Parliament providing for a referendum on the belonging of the three counties of Buyaga, Bugangaizi and Buwekula, then belonging to Buganda after being taken away from Bunyoro and given to Buganda by the British as a token of appreciation for its collaboration during the colonisation of what later became Uganda.
The referendum resulted in Buyaga and Bugangaizi counties reverting to Bunyoro. This resulted in the already deteriorating relationship between Obote and Muteesa worsening even further.
When a Bill was introduced in Parliament to effect the result, president Muteesa refused to sign it. This gave Obote enough reasons to accuse Muteesa of dereliction of duty and using his other leg as Kabaka to overthrow the government.
Obote then claimed that Muteesa had started amassing weapons from Britain in his Lubiri palace with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the government.
Acting on the advice of then Attorney General Godfrey Binaisa, Obote suspended the 1962 Constitution on February 22, 1966, and assumed all state power. On April 15, 1966, in a Parliament surrounded by the army, Obote introduced without notice a new Constitution that was passed without debate. He informed MPs that they would find their copies in the pigeonholes.
In that new Constitution, the 1962 federal Constitution was abolished and the powers of president and that of prime minister were merged. Obote declared Uganda a republic and himself president. The Kabaka and his kingdom refused to recognise the pigeonhole constitution.
On May 24, 1966, Obote ordered his army commander, Idi Amin, to storm the Kabaka’s palace in Mengo. Scores of Buganda Kingdom loyalists who tried to fight back were simply massacred. Muteesa escaped and went to exile in the UK, where he later died in 1968 from suspected poisoning.
Amin’s military regime (1971-79)
The next dark period for Uganda was between 1971 and 79, when Gen Idi Amin took power as president. It is claimed in those eight years, some 300,000 people died in the hands of his henchmen and several thousands fled to exile.
Amin’s true colour was revealed from the start of his regime. During the January 1971 coup that propelled him to power, thousands of soldiers suspected to be loyal to deposed president Obote, particularly those from Lango and Acholi tribes, were rounded up and killed in several barracks across the country.
In September 1972, nearly 500 guerrillas based in Tanzania who attempted to invade Uganda from the south were killed in Mbarara and Masaka. This was followed by an open season for Amin’s killers where nobody was safe.
In his book, State of Blood, former minister Henry Kyemba writes that he personally witnessed Amin ordering the killing of many. At the peak of his presidency, particularly in 1977, Amin executed several high-profile Ugandans, whom he accused of collaborating with Obote in Tanzania to overthrow his government.
In the same year, Amin renewed a purge against Acholi and Langi in the army that led to the killings of more from the two ethnic groups. His regime unleashed full terror that put Uganda on a limelight internationally.
Towards the end of his regime in 1979, the economy had collapsed and would take years to recover.
The Ombaci massacre (1981)
The next sad period in Uganda’s history was in June 1981, when the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) attacked Arua Town in an effort to fight the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF), a rebel group formed by former Amin soldiers.
Just 4kms north-west of Arua Town is Rhino Camp, a popular site at Ombaci Catholic Mission near St Joseph’s College Ombaci.
On June 24, 1981, more than 10,000 people had sought refuge at this mission in an attempt to escape the raging war between UNLA and UNRF rebels. According to a 2014 Truth and Reconciliation Project report, the massacre started at 9am and ended an hour later.
On that fateful day, hundreds of government soldiers armed with guns, long knives and logs surrounded the buildings where thousands of civilians had taken refuge. They soon started shooting randomly, stabbing and clobbering people mercilessly.
The survivors claim most soldiers who participated in the killing were Luo speakers (Langi and Acholi) and they believe that it was a deliberate act of revenge against Amin’s people.
Later, the army chief-of-staff, Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok allegedly told the White fathers of Ombaci concerning the massacre: “There is no way an elephant can pass across your field of sim sim without crushing the sim sim”.
Today, there is a large mass grave containing the remains of some 2,000 victims of the massacre.
The Luweero War (1981-86)
The Luweero Bush War of 1981-86 is another dreaded memory in Uganda’s history. It was started by a group of 27 young men under Yoweri Museveni, the former Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) party candidate in the 1980 election won by Milton Obote of the Uganda People Congress (UPC).
Museveni’s group came to be known as the National Resistance Army (NRA). Throughout his regime, however, Obote consistently referred to them as the “Luweero bandits”.
Museveni started a war in the heart of Buganda where Obote and his UPC regime were despised. Soon hundreds of fighters had joined NRA and by 1982, the rebel group had gained a formidable strength to face the UNLA.
Several battles were fought in the areas of Luweero, but the NRA were not yet strong enough to make their way towards Kampala as their major strategy was ambushes and retreats from direct military confrontation.
However, luck started running out for Museveni’s side. According to his memoir, Lt Col John Ogole says by May 1985 he had commanded successful operations that defeated and flushed out the NRA from Uganda and most of them crossed to western DR Congo.
Ogole claims that at that point, Museveni had abandoned his fighters and fled to Sweden to seek asylum. He explains that on May 27, 1985, when the Okellos staged the coup, Museveni received an early morning call from Uganda.
“Come back quickly, the UNLA has overthrown itself. Museveni could not believe his ears, thinking it was a joke. He later returned and reorganised his rebel ranks and overthrew the two generals within six month,” Ogole writes.
The Luweero war ended with the NRA’s military takeover of Kampala on January 26, 1986. However, it is said that about 300,000 were killed during the five-year war.
Museveni and his NRA government have consistently blamed Obote and his UPC of being responsible for the killings. However, the former president had no room to contain this allegation. Threatening to walk from his home in exile in Lusaka, Zambia, to Kampala to commit himself before court in 2014, Obote said he would expose what he called Museveni’s war propaganda.
Alice Lakwena and her Holy Spirit Movement, 1986-87
Soon after the end of Luweero Bush War, another trying moment for the country emerged, this time in northern and eastern Uganda where a 30-year-old woman emerged to resist Museveni’s government.
She was Alice Auma Lakwena, a ‘prophetess’ and a traditional healer from Opit in southern Gulu District.
According to Auma, ‘God’ sent a spirit, Lakwena, to instruct her to change her calling from traditional healer to an military commander, purposely to fight the NRA.
At the beginning of 1987, Auma formed the Holy Spirit Movement with thousands of fighters. She soon laid out rules that would govern the “holy war” that had to be followed strictly by the fighters.
The first major battle between Lakwena and the NRA was fought at Corner Kilak in Pader District. Although Auma is said to have lost about 3,000 fighters, the NRA also lost several soldiers, forcing them to withdraw from the battlefield.
Auma soon advanced towards Lango with the ultimate aim of reaching Kampala to overrun Museveni’s government. Two more battles were fought in Lira, leaving many more people dead. From Lira, Auma pursued the NRA towards eastern Uganda where she was welcomed and supported. Here several more battles were fought that resulted in what she considered spectacular victories on her side.
However, towards November 1987, at Jinja, only 80kms from Kampala, Auma faced intense artillery fire from the NRA that forced her to abandon her fighters and flee eastwards. She eventually crossed to Kenya. The Holy Spirit Movement fighters disintegrated and fled northwards, but were pursued by the NRA. Many were killed while others died of exhaustion.
Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)
After Auma’s military failure in 1987, another large scale rebellion against President Museveni’s government emerged from the same place. It was from 23-year-old Joseph Kony, a former altar boy at a Catholic church in Odek village, in southern Gulu.
His rebellion was based on the principle of restoration of the biblical 10 commandments. By early 1990s, Kony’s rebellion had gained momentum, having received foreign support, especially from former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.
Soon the LRA started unleashing terror on locals. They started kidnapping and abducting school children to expand their rebel ranks and also use them as sex slaves. By late 1990s, the LRA had become a large force and a real thorn in the flesh of Museveni’s government who had made several futile attempts to end the war militarily.
The war reached its peak in 2004 when the LRA unleashed terror in northern and eastern Uganda. The LRA was said to have abducted more than 20,000 children, while 1.5 million civilians were displaced and an estimated 100,000 civilians killed.
Kibweteere’s Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, 2000
Another sad memory in Uganda was in March 2000 when about 1,000 people were burnt to death in Kanungu, then in Rukungiri District. According to a report by the Human Rights Commission, those who were burnt belonged to a religious cult calling themselves the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
The cult was led by Joseph Kibweteere, Credonia Mwerinde, Angelina Mugisha, Fr Joseph Kasapurari and Fr Dominic Kataribabo.
At first, it was believed that the massacre was a mass suicide committed by the cult members who had been willing to “go to heaven” through fire.
However, it was later discovered that it was planned and executed by the cult leadership for unknown reasons.
Weeks earlier, Kibweteere, who hailed from Ntungamo and a former primary school teacher, encouraged his followers to sell off their properties and collect the money for his trip to Europe in a quest of a replica of biblical Noah’s Ark.
Two days prior to the massacre, the cult members gathered their personal and church belongings and set them ablaze before proceeding to throw a big party for themselves. On the fateful day, his followers gathered and were doused with petrol and paraffin before being burnt beyond recognition. The victims included infants too young to make decisions.
Afterwards, six more bodies were recovered from homes of the cult leaders and another 494 more were found in several locations in the cults’ buildings in Buhinga, Rutoma and Rukungiri. Other massacre sites were recovered in Lugazi in Buikwe, Bunyaruguru District and Buziga in Kampala.
Museveni and his NRA government have consistently blamed Obote and his UPC of being responsibility for the killings. However, the former president had no room to contain this allegation. Threatening to walk from his home in exile in Lusaka, Zambia, to Kampala to commit himself before court in 2014, Obote said he would expose what he called Museveni’s war propaganda.