I ran into Museveni on the late afternoon of, if I remember accurately, February 4, 1981. He was wearing a short sleeve beige shirt untucked, and khaki trousers, and ambling along in his trademark wobbly walk. He had pistol in a holster to his right side, and another one stuck into his belt to the left. Only months later did I figure that he was on his way to meet up with the small group of men, who launched a daring and surprise attack on an army barracks on the morning of February 6, seized weapons, and started the guerrilla campaign that would eventually bring him victory on January 25, 1986.
YESTERDAY IN “Kony 2012 Video, The Brouhaha, The Long Hunt For A War Criminal, And How We Got Here (Part 1)” we started tracing the roots of Joseph Kony and his brutal Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion in northern Uganda. Kony and his LRA has since morphed into a transnational force, sowing terror in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic. Then along came Kony 2012, the controversial and viral video by the US charity Invisible Children campaigning for the arrest of Ugandan war criminal and warlord Joseph Kony. I covered the worst phase of the Kony war, so us go back 26 years ago, and today we continue our journey back to where this story begun:
By the time the Uganda government and the LRA started talks in Juba in 2006, the country held a world record, with the largest camps for internally displaced in the world. There were between 1.4 million to 1.6 million packed in the squalid compounds.
The camps joined both the government and the LRA in common cause – it served their agendas very well. At the start of the 1990s, the Kampala government announced a controversial scorched earth policy in its war against the LRA. It said it was burning food gardens to deny the LRA of sustenance, and thus weaken it. Also, that it would begin moving civilians who were being attacked by the LRA into “protected camps”. What were to become eyesores teeming with 1.6 million people years later, started with a trickle that was barely noticed.
Human rights groups, and western diplomats in Kampala, noticed and screamed murder. They were ignored. There was huge domestic support for the Museveni government’s counter-insurgency tactics in the north, because resentment of the north still ran deep in the populous south and west of the country.
This is because since independence, politicians and generals from the north of the country had ruled Uganda. The first independence Prime Minister and Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) leader Milton Obote, from the north, fell out with the largely titular president from the south, King Freddie Mutebi, a southerner, in 1966. Obote ordered his army commander, Gen. Idi Amin, to attack the king’s palace in the outskirts of Kampala, abolished kingdoms, and a year later scrapped the semi-federal constitution.
He notoriously introduced a constitution that was passed in under five minutes, with Parliament surrounded by army tanks. And, shortly afterwards he rolled out one-party rule. Mutesa died in exile, a broken man in his tiny London flat in 1969. The official cause of death was alcoholic poisoning.
Obote and north-hating took deep roots in Buganda, and some of the districts in western Uganda whose kingdoms were abolished in 1966.
In 1971 Amin, also from the broader north, overthrew Obote and unleashed one of the worst military tyrannies in Africa ever. A combined force of the Tanzania People’s Defence Force and Ugandan exiles ousted Amin in April 1979, and Prof. Yusuf Lule, a southerner, was installed as president. He lasted only 68 days. His successor, Godfrey Binaisa, also from the south, did much better. He nearly made one year. The force behind the overthrow of both Lule and Binaisa was the all-powerful Military Commission of the interim Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), the government that took over from Amin.
It was composed of the commanders of the main rebel armies that had ousted Amin. Though Museveni was a member, it was dominated by Obote loyalists from the late 60s Uganda military when he was president.
In May 1980 when the Military Commission overthrew Binaisa, an election was coming up. The elections were held in December 1980, and were a shambles. When it appeared that the opposition Democratic Party was winning, the Military Council suspended the announcement of results, briefly detained the head of the electoral commission who later fled the country, and a few days later announced that the UPC had won the poll. That gave Obote, who had returned from exile in Tanzania a few weeks earlier, a second bite at the cherry as president.
Museveni ran as a candidate for the left-leaning Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM). UPM lost, winning only one seat. It was a travesty. In present-day Busia district on the Uganda side, one of the country’s most eloquent and educated public intellectuals, Prof. Chango Machyo, stood on the UPM ticket. But the UPC machine had taken over the election so much, that Machyo was declared illiterate and disqualified because he could not produce his high school certificate from more than 25 years back!
During the campaigns, Museveni warned that if Obote stole the vote, he would go back to the bush and fight another guerrilla war. What happened next is very important in explaining the rise of Kony eight years later—and why the popular digital enthusiasm for Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video is uncomfortable for some people.
The divide-and-rule myth that colonialism had spun was that northerners were warrior tribes more suited to the army and police duty; labour in southern tea and sugar plantations, and for work on the Kenya-Uganda Railway.
That the southerners were frail, but a little more sophisticated, thus better made for clerical, bureaucratic, and more intellectually demanding tasks like being medical officers and bankers.
The British colonialists didn’t figure that one day the northerners would use their domination of the military to take over government, educate their people, become “sophisticated”, and take over all the intellectual jobs too. But something worse happened – it would seem deep down many Ugandans from the north who were in the army and politics believed they were actually martial ethnic groups, and southerners were milk-drinking-banana-eating weaklings who would never stand up to them for a fight.
UPC leaders and military officers scoffed at Museveni, with Obote saying famously in Parliament shortly after he was sworn in that Museveni was free to go to the bush if he wished, as he “will be eaten by mosquitoes and insects and die there”.
I was a university student then, and working part-time as a trainer reporter at the radical Weekly Topic newspaper mainly to get my adrenalin fix as those were terribly exciting days. I ran into Museveni on the late afternoon of, if I remember accurately, February 4, 1981. He was wearing a short sleeve beige shirt untucked, and khaki trousers, and ambling along in his trademark wobbly walk. He had pistol in a holster to his right side, and another one stuck into his belt to the left.
Only months later did I figure that he was on his way to meet up with the small group of men, who launched a daring and surprise attack on an army barracks on the morning of February 6, seized weapons, and started the guerrilla campaign that would eventually bring him victory on January 25, 1986.
The history of Uganda might have turned out differently, if the northern military officers and UPC political elite had not despised Museveni’s fighting will just because he was from the south-west.
Museveni’s war brought cracks in Obote’s government about how to deal with the insurgency, with the UPC leader paralysed between the hawks that wanted to throw everything they had at the rebels, and the progressives and moderates who favoured a mix of political negotiation, and selected targeting.
Fed up, the military, led by two generals, Tito Okello and Basilio Okello, from the north, or specifically Gulu, the area that from which Kony was to later launch his war, overthrew Obote for a second time in July 1985.
That ushered in some of the most nightmarish months in Ugandan politics. The older and more accommodating Tito Okello, favoured talks with Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels. In peace talks in Nairobi chaired by President Moi in Kenya, the two sides eventually agreed a power-sharing deal. But it unravelled quickly.
The Tito Okello faction was too weak to impose its will. The Military Commission, as the junta that took power from Obote in 1985 called itself, had brought in other fringe armed groups, including former Amin army forces that were hiding out in Sudan, into government to bolster itself. The armies had divided Kampala into about five zones, with each getting a zone as its turf. Murder, looting, and rape continued despite the agreement in Nairobi to stop them.
However the NRA too, reading correctly that the Military Commission were too divided to be a formidable opponent, and having built up its ranks with recruits western Uganda and parts of the central region that it had captured after the July 1985 coup, concluded that it could get the prize for itself alone.
Fighting resumed in December 1985, and by end of January 1986 it was done and dusted. Museveni was sworn in on January 26, and 26 years later, he is still put. The rise of Kony was now barely two years away, but it was the furthest possibility from anyone’s mind.
•Part 3 0f 5 Tomorrow, March 15.
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