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 Ofwono Opondo

Uganda at 61: Counting Losses and Gains But No Turning Back

The NRM under President Yoweri Museveni has since January 1986, established a popular and broad participatory democracy of many ordinary citizens like women, PWDs, and the elderly previously on the margins.
posted onOctober 10, 2023

By Ofwono Opondo

Sixty-one years this week, Uganda appeared in a brief fanfare from British colonial rule under the 1962 federal constitution with an imbalanced power structure between the central government and the so-called federal states, in effect feudal pseudo monarchs. Some historians writing with hindsight, say it was perhaps inevitable that chaos and breakdown ensued almost immediately. The violent abrogation of the constitution by Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote, the expulsion of Kabaka Edward Muteesa II as ceremonial president, and the disbandment of kingdoms in May 1966 left Uganda jittery until their restoration in 1993. This year’s anniversary in Kitgum is themed 'Sustaining a United and Progressive Nation: Taking Charge of Our Future as a Free Nation.' 

While Obote, derided and liked in equal measure, could have been motivated to forestall a creeping coup within his own Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC), there is ample evidence that the Buganda feudalists with whom he had entered a marriage of convenience were a political nuisance. From the advent of colonialism in 1884, wars ensued, religious rivalry, the Bataka Movement against Busulu and Envujo laws on land, Muteesa exiled in 1953, and Mengo’s rejection of direct elections to Uganda’s independence parliament, one can see how far we have traveled. From the political rancor since their restoration in 1993, though stripped of political powers, one can see the heavy heart it takes to accommodate the nuisance value in cultural institutions.

Obote’s ‘pigeonhole’ constitution of 1966, through which he declared himself president, and the 1967 constitution, in which he tried unsuccessfully to consolidate his powers without election, were clearly highhanded but tamed the arrogance of feudalists and laid the foundation for today’s Uganda. Muteesa was hardly in the grave when Idi Amin Dada ousted Obote in a coup in 1971 and began his reign of mass terror, disappearances and murders until April 1979 a lost period when politics, social and economic fabric decayed and collapsed. The short-lived Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) 1979/80 didn’t inspire much hope as incompetent factions jostled to control state power. Obote and UPC return through the December 1980 elections wasn’t any better and was halted by another coup of illiterate army Generals. Deeper causes than the wisdom or folly of leaders explain the swift-inglorious anarchy that ruled Uganda.

The NRM under President Yoweri Museveni has since January 1986, established a popular and broad participatory democracy of many ordinary citizens like women, PWDs, and the elderly previously on the margins. Today, the ‘local’ person, in the remotest village has a voice to speak on issues of their interest and demand what they are entitled to. Democracy from the LCs up to parliament is functioning, and plenty of freedom for the media, religious groups, NGOs and grassroots civil society organisations.

Thirty-seven years of NRM administration has engendered its own small and big drawbacks topmost the failure to tame public corruption and patronage. But that’s somehow compensated for by the full restoration of the security of persons and property which has unleashed great potential of Ugandans to creativity and innovation for societal advancement. Uganda has undergone and continues on a steady path of development, and socio-economic transformation to build a shared prosperity. Truly, there’s no region of Uganda or economic sector that isn’t undergoing structural changes for the better.

People are not only free but safe from common threats by immediate family members, communities and the state or its functionaries. Rights to property legitimately acquired have been fully restored to promote the sanctity of private property, and robust mechanisms for dispute arbitration exist and are well recognized by all. Uganda is diverse in ethnicity, tribal, religion and gender, there continue to be some people who exploit these diversities and making them sources of sectarian divisions, bigotry, and discrimination including in the allocation of public resources. Efforts must be intensified to neutralize these negative groups, frown upon and bring down sectarian trends so that no one can proudly ask to be elected into public office on the basis that they belong to a particular sub-group.

While it is now taken for granted, Uganda’s peace, security and stability have come at great a price. Uganda is peaceful throughout and has excellent relations with all neighbours and a respected member of the global community sometimes contributing more than its due share in peace efforts. The NRM has either partially or fully restored social and physical infrastructure in education, health, power, and roads that had been destroyed, and in many instances expanded or built new ones through government and joint public-private ventures. The liberalization policy brought new private schools, universities, health facilities, factories and industries, which helped bolster entrepreneurship and service delivery.

Ugandans, in hundreds of thousands, who had fled due to wars, personal insecurity, deprivation, hate, and persecution whether political or local have returned, resettled and regained their property that had been grabbed by the government or its agents. Luwero Triangle, Northern Uganda, Teso, Karamoja and West Nile regions most affected by wars are all now calm, and socio-economic transformation is visible.

The writer is the executive director of the Uganda Media Centre

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