When the National Resistance Movement (NRM) fought its way to state power in January 1986, many Ugandans greeted this milestone with cheers and a genuine belief that the country was about to embark on a new destiny.
Today, there is mixed feelings across much of the country. Even among those still loyal and optimistic about the NRM, there is a feeling that while much might have changed for the better, certain developments like rampant corruption that seemed like the least of the NRM’s challenges in 1986 have stubbornly refused to go away.
The debate in many circles is over what changed the NRM’s leader Yoweri Museveni so that from being a resolute young man determined to change Uganda’s politics he has settled over the years into just another African political leader, trapped by the precious state power.
In some other circles, the argument is that this is who Museveni always was, just that most Ugandans and international watchers of Uganda were too caught up in the euphoria of his victory to see all the signs that were there right from the beginning.
One of the most enduring lessons that will have to be learnt from the NRA/NRM experience is the need to record, analyse, know and publish history. It is incredible how little history - true, factual, probing history - forms a part of the political and social life of Ugandans.
The many who invested much hope in the person and promises of Museveni in 1986 or even in the early 1980s at the start of his guerrilla war did not have a full grasp of what Uganda was and the external forces at work in the country.
Had sufficient time been taken to understand the circumstances of the Milton Obote and Idi Amin governments in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Ugandans would have a more sober picture of the NRM’s prospects in 1986.
What history now tells us is that western interests in Uganda have always determined what position the Western powers like Britain and the United States took toward an existing government.
Domestic politics, repression of the media, the abuse of human rights, corruption and so on that do not directly or even indirectly affect western interests did not feature as reasons for western political and military intervention in Ugandan affairs.
For example, it is fairly common knowledge that the January 1971 military coup that brought Idi Amin to power had a large part to do with British opposition to President Obote who in May 1970 had partially nationalised several British-owned companies operating in Uganda.
At the Singapore Commonwealth summit, Obote led a Pan-African effort to condemn the British government over its sale of weaponry to apartheid South Africa. The coup, then, happened mainly because British commercial interests in Uganda had been threatened by Obote and the powerful and lucrative British arms industry was now facing embarrassing questions raised by Obote.
The raid on the Kabaka’s Lubiri in May 1966, the abolition of the traditional kingdoms, the detention for five years of key cabinet ministers, the murder of Brig. Pierino Okoya in 1970 - all these deeply emotional issues for a large majority of Ugandans - were not reason enough for British intervention.
In 1971 after Amin took power, his first official visit was to Britain. The new military head of state was welcomed and praised profusely by the British press, that is, until he started making it clear that he had come to power to be a leader of and try to create a powerful, proud, independent and prosperous Uganda.
Asians holding British passports were expelled in 1972. The nationalisation of British companies started under Obote continued. Uganda cut off diplomatic relations with Israel and opened up important relations with the Arab world.
In 1973, the US embassy in Kampala was closed and Uganda started to receive military supplies from the Soviet Union. As soon as Amin started to show this defiant and independent-minded side to his rule, coincidentally he started to be vilified in the Western media. He became a mass murderer, a buffoon, an illiterate man-child.
The teenage Museveni had always expressed a burning wish to some day become president of Uganda. However, the adult Museveni, trained in intelligence gathering, steeped in Marxism and Maoism, experienced in revolutionary guerrilla warfare and also a keen student of history saw all that and knew all that even as he was in the jungles of Luweero Triangle fighting the second Obote government. His priority starting about 1982 was to ally with any external and internal power that would help bring him to power. Thus began his alliance with Libyan strongman Col. Muammar Gaddafi and the British tycoon “Tiny” Rowland, chairman of the Unilever Group of Companies.
One of the very first acts upon seizing power was to call a press conference at the Lubiri Barracks in Kampala to explain his position and plans to Western diplomats accredited to Uganda.
A photograph of that press conference was published in Museveni’s 1997 memoir, Sowing the Mustard Seed. That press conference, not fully appreciated to euphoric Ugandans in central and western Uganda at the time, was the first, important signal of the reality of what Uganda was all about since independence in 1962.
A few days later, on January 29, 1986, Museveni was sworn-in at the steps of the Parliament buildings in Kampala by a British judge, Chief Justice Peter Allen, another important, unrealised symbolic act.
By September 1986, a British citizen, William Pike, had been named the new Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director of the new government newspaper, The New Vision. Museveni had come to power with a proper understanding of the cold, hard facts that shaped Uganda and the external forces whose final say determined what happened in the country.
In those first days and months in power, he swiftly took all the steps necessary to allay western fears that he and his group of NRA commanders were radical Marxists. What the West wanted in concessions and a re-branded image, he gave them.
It was a strategy that would be replicated by Marxist guerrillas in Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa in 1991 and by the Tutsi-led RPF guerrillas in Rwanda after 1990: launch a guerrilla war, fight on local terrain and espouse local beliefs and deal with local issues. But above all make sure that from the start you ally yourself with the interests of the major Western powers and all will be well with you. Simple formula, but a formula that has never failed.
Everything else, all the national and social issues that Ugandans judged as so important to them - the restoration of the traditional kingdoms, the space open to the news media, the fight against HIV/Aids, the “peace ushered in”, the creation of Resistance Councils and elections - were only a sub-text.
Bowing to West
What mattered to the powerful Western nations was that Uganda’s new leaders understood the West’s vital strategic and economic interests in Uganda, agreed to maintain and even enhance them, restore the pre-eminence of British capital and investment in Uganda and allow the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to become Uganda’s de facto Central Bank and Ministry of Finance.
This reality that Uganda had never ceased to be a British and western colony even with the granting of independence in 1962; the reality that the West can live and deal with a leader and a government that totally alienates and suppresses its own people as long as that government serves core western interests; the reality that Obote and Amin fell from power and became the villains of history mainly because of their defiance in the face of Western pressure, not because of their divisive domestic policies and actions - this is the true story and picture of Uganda since 1986, 25 years since the NRM took power. It explains the NRM’s long stay in power better than any other explanation.