Last week, Japan marked the 75th anniversary of its surrender in World War II. It was a war whose impact was felt far and wide, including in Uganda.
Then governor Philip Mitchel had told Ugandans at the start of the war not to worry as they were far from the battle area.
“Do not be afraid. There are Italian forces in Abyssinia but it is a very long way from you people of Uganda, and there are large armies to prevent them from coming here. It is possible, but not likely that you may see an Italian aeroplane or two over some part of Uganda; if you do, do not be frightened. Sit quietly in your banana groves or under any trees until it has gone away. It will do you no harm,” he said in his June 11, 1940, statement.
As a British protectorate, Uganda was forced to join the war against her will. Up to 77,000 Ugandans were enlisted to serve in the war. To many of those who were enlisted, it as an opportunity and not a crisis. Their return had a lasting impact on both the social and political scene of the country.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Uganda as a subject of the British Empire was supposed to contribute to the war. Uganda’s contribution was through volunteering military service and donating money. In so doing, the public expected the British to reciprocate with loyalty and opportunities after the war.
Writing in an English pamphlet An African Soldier Speaks, veteran Robert Kakembo described the returning soldier as “smartly dressed in His Majesty’s uniform and with plenty of money... he is 100 per cent changed. He is fat and strong, clean and clever, with plenty to talk about and lots of money to spend.”
“And beyond proving himself to Europeans, such a man who learnt to read and write... listening to wireless broadcasts... will never submit to the neglect that the uneducated masses back home in the villages undergo.”
Kakembo was not alone in warning about the impact of the exposed returning soldiers.
Uganda’s governor in 1945, Sir Charles Cecil Dundas, anticipated that the returning soldiers were going to demand for change in the administration of the country.
“It will not surprise me if these returning soldiers give some trouble to their own authorities, especially to such as incompetent and venal. They have lived under the superb leadership of British officers and have seen inefficiency ruthlessly liquidated. They may not defer to incompetent superiors and they may demand to have a voice in the management of affairs,” Dundas wrote.
Kakembo shared that the returning soldier “does not want to accept things blindly, he wants to know why and he wants to give his views. We are very impatient, because we want to grow overnight”.
“The war has brought about a great industrial revolution and agricultural improvement. The favourable prices, the assured market... all these have brought about a great revolution in the ordinary life of the African, and he is not going back to where he started in 1939,” Kakembo added.
Writing in Africa and World War Two, Carol Summers says, “Kakembo and Dundas portrayed the soldiers and wartime entrepreneurs as potential leaders who will build a new Uganda from its backwardness.”
“War created leaders not directly through some militaristic or heroic model, but practically, as a means of accumulating the resources necessary for prosperous patronage and killing the unqualified. War, progress and opportunities were closely related concepts for Ugandans.”
The appointment of an ex-serviceman into leadership first came in 1945. Mikairi Kawalya Kaggwa was given the position of Omuwanika (Buganda Kingdoms’s finance minister) and later the Katikkiro (prime minister).
Summers writes about mobilisation of resources and men saying “notable Baganda, including some veterans of World War I, such as Prince Suna, participated in military recruitment drives”.
Besides local governments contributing money, locals contributed financially by paying to attend public events.
“Educated, politically connected elites such as Stanley Kisingiri, coordinated a series of films, concerts and events designed to simultaneously propagandize Ugandans and elicit voluntary donations,” Summers writes.
On July 20, 1942, as the war raged then governor wrote to the colonial secretary giving him the news of the local governments Teso, Karamoja and Busoga to give the colonial government interest-free loans to facilitate the war. The local governments were getting the money from their surplus budgets.
“Sums involved ranges from £15,000 from Teso and £1,250 from Busoga in cotton-growing regions to £1,500 from the marginal Karamoja,” Dundas wrote.
Such generous donations were not a preserve for the local governments. According to the Uganda Herald newspaper of October 14, 1942, Kabaka of Buganda Daudi Chwa II made a personal donation of £1,200.
The paper further says special events such as football matches, bicycle displays and boxing tournaments were organised to raise funds for specific projects connected to the war. These included supporting a home for the elderly in Bristol, supporting war refugees in Uganda from Greece and Poland, among others.
Those who donated expected a generous reciprocation from the British government once the war was over.
In a letter to the editor of the Uganda Herald, a radical Ugandan politician A.B. Mukwaya wrote, “A new social class is being born before our very eyes... taking form and shape at a speed that is to some people terrifying. Certainly the war has helped to speed up this growth. This class becomes increasingly self-conscious and excessively vocal every day; and all this to ... acquire a position in the social and political life of the country.”
The much anticipated reciprocation from the British was shattered soon after the war. The 1945 events in Buganda and how the British reacted to those events made those who hopped to be looked at as equals with the British hopeless.
The imprisonment and death in detention of Prince Suna, a WWI veteran and leading recruiter for WWII, and the deportation of Kisingiri, who collected war donations for Seychelles, was unsettling to both the ex-servicemen and the public.
The British response to the strikes of the mid-1940s and detention of several people such as K. Kanyike, A. Wamala, and E. Kiyingi was seen as highhanded.
Their wives in a joint petition to the chief justice said, “Each of those men put in a period of valuable service in the country. Each one of them set himself out to do his utmost towards the successful prosecution of the war. Each gave freely according to his means. We should be reluctant to believe that the Uganda Attorney General is naturally a sadist who rejoices in the suffering of people without cause, but it is very curious.”
By the time the war ended in 1945, Ugandans had become politically aware and were abreast with what was happening in the rest of the world, courtesy of newspapers.
“World War II legacy in Buganda and Uganda was not simply integration into a broader world and a new worldly class of returned soldiers, but an increasingly widespread and critical re-evaluation of the alliance with Britain,” Summers writes.
The new Uganda after World War II was very different. The new was not looking at patronage from the British, it wanted alliance.
“Ugandans found Britain unwilling to reciprocate their loyalty. The new public sphere superseded older relations of loyalty and patronage, leaving contentious Ugandans to fight in new ways, pursuing a sometimes contradictory array of changes,” Summers writes.