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Political turmoil is already evident in Uganda ahead of general elections in February 2016, raising some concern about the East African nation that has a history of disputed elections and military takeovers. Various economic and political transitions have left Uganda without a national political and economic model that is people-centered or a political culture of peaceful transition.

Experts in developmental psychology refer to the age of 40s and 50s as an age of ‘mid-life crisis’. Philosophers of Science would refer to this as a period when a paradigm shift can happen. Incidentally, a paradigm shift is also marked by crisis, since the hitherto existing theories cannot explain the phenomenon at hand. On 9 October 2015 Uganda celebrated 53 years of independence amidst heightened and dramatic political developments, namely the impending 2016 general elections. Various political parties and their prospective candidates are buys traversing the ‘Pearl of Africa’ trying to win over voters come February 2016. There is do no doubt a lot at stake this time around.

The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) under President Yoweri Museveni, the longest ruling party in Uganda’s political history is faced with an existential threat to its grip on power since 1986. The major threat is coming from two main forces: Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) under its former President Dr. Kiza Besigye who has been elected its presidential flag-bearer, and Hon. Amama Mbabazi, the former Prime Minister and former NRM Secretary General. Political analysts are generally in agreement that the current political contestation will be a three-horse race—Amama Mbabazi, Kiza Besigye and Yoweri Museveni. What has complicated matters further is the emergency of an outfit known as The Democratic Alliance (TDA) comprised of the main opposition political parties that had hoped to field one presidential candidate, but the strategy of a joint candidate did not materialize. Given this political reality at hand, is Uganda experiencing a ‘mid-life crisis’ of titanic proportions?

‘Uganda at 53’ offers an opportunity to look closely at the phenomenon of political transition and suggest a political theory, as an attempt to offer a conceptual and theoretical framework that can help explain the wide range of political developments that have taken place since 1962. The immediate context is the impending Uganda general elections scheduled for February 2016. The underlying key question guiding this discussion is the following: Why has Uganda defied a democratic and peaceful transition since independence? The related question is: will the February 2016 general elections usher in a peaceful and democratic transition in Uganda?


Political transitions in Uganda have been described as neither political nor transitions. The issue of never having a peaceful democratic transition from one regime to the next in Uganda’s political history remains a matter of great concern and raises fundamental questions: has Uganda a stable political system? Does Uganda have a stable constitutional culture? Can Uganda be characterized as a stable democratic polity? What factors are responsible for the constant fear of Uganda sliding into anarchy and armed violence? Why do Ugandan elections quickly slide into a theater of violence and uncivil behavior?

One wonders where Uganda had a false start right from independence. Several ideologies have been tried in Uganda’s political history: monarchy and chiefdoms before independence; colonialism and imperialism; nationalism; fascism and imperialism; dictatorship and totalitarianism; militarism; socialism; militarism; one-party democracy; no-party democracy/Movement system [1]; and multipartyism. This cocktail of ideologies already points to some deep trouble in a post-colonial polity. Clearly there has been lack of ideological cohesion. This also points to a much more serious challenge, namely, the lack of distinction between state and party, state and regime, state and government. With lack of such differentiation, roles get mixed up.

Uganda has experienced regime changes since independence, the most obvious being of course the shift from the colonial regime to the independent state. While this transition was surprisingly peaceful, the democratic content of this transition is in question. Right during the struggle for independence the two main contending parties were identified with the main religious traditions of Uganda, namely, Anglicanism and Catholicism. [2] A joke is made that Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) was United Peoples of Canterbury and the Democratic Party (DP) was Dini ya Papa (Swahili for religion of the Pope).

One may argue that this was long ago in the 1960s. But the fact that religious based political affiliation was alive and well all along, is evidenced by the fact that when Idi Amin was overthrown in 1979 and elections were organized in 1980, the same old parties of DP and UPC resurfaced with more or less the same religious flavor of the 1960s. Interestingly it was only Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) that did not have a strong religious flavor. In fact, the formation of National Resistance Movement (NRM) was premised on the rejection of sectarian politics based on religion and ethnicity. It remains to be established whether the demons of religious and ethnic sectarianism have to be exorcised in Uganda’s political system.

The hot current issue of Uganda’s impending elections should not blind us to the quest for a deeper explanation of what forces are behind Uganda’s failed democratic and peaceful transitions. Uganda has had disputed elections right from independence, just as it has had military take-overs. The vast political experience in 53 years is sufficient to help in attempting a political theory of transition. Focusing on the current immediate political drama and individual actors who are now contesting for political power is important but it does not provide a long term solution to Uganda’s beleaguered political history.

I want to suggest that the only way to demonstrate a country’s political maturity and stability is the ability to have uncontested regular and predictable political transitions based on coherent and democratically agreed upon rules and procedures. Unfortunately, Uganda has not met these criteria. A lot has been written about Uganda’s political history and systems. Uganda is not lacking in world re-known political scientists, but what seems to be lacking is a robust conceptual and theoretical framework that borders on political philosophy to offer an epistemology of Uganda’s diverse political and social phenomena. This conceptual and theoretical deficit gets manifested in the quick fix economic policies, party manifestoes and numerous contradictory legislative reforms that easily get overtaken by rapid changes both nationally and globally. Ignore theory at your own peril.


Uganda is a contested polity. There are conflicting and competing definitions of what Uganda is. The colonial definition of 1894 claimed Uganda as a British Protectorate but did not settle the national question leaving Buganda Kingdom as a ‘state within a state’. The British had no easy solution for Buganda that had a long established monarchical system with vast tracts of land and a huge population supporting the throne. We have a British colonial philosophy grafted on an ancient well-established monarchy that believes in the divine right of kings. While Buganda was getting colonial concessions, other equally powerful monarchs of Toro, Bunyoro and Busogo were taking note. Other parts of Uganda have chiefdoms—not as powerful as kingdoms, but equally formidable units of social and political organizations.

This means that for one to gain legitimacy in Uganda’s political formation, one has to win over the various ethnic communities, which are by-and-large the basic unit of political mobilization. It is not surprising that even the allocation of ministerial post still follows this ethnic equation. Various tribes are known to send delegations from time to time to the head of state demanding their share of ministerial posts. In common Luganda parlance this philosophy of demanding privileges by different ethnic communities is known as Ebyaffe—translated as “ours.” For Buganda Ebyaffe originally referred to large tracts of land that the Buganda Kingdom claims from the government. Later Ebyaffe came to mean the demand for a federal status for Buganda. It is this philosophy of Ebyaffe that has evolved into the philosophy of neopatrimonialism and patronage—a system whereby resources and political office are given in exchange for supporting the regime.

The other big force that shapes Uganda’s political thought is religion. The three main religious bodies are Catholicism (about 45%), Protestantism (about 35%) and Islam (about 10%). While the post-colonial political parties of Uganda were identified with the two main religions (Catholicism and Protestantism), since NRM came to power in 1986 party affiliation along religious lines has declined. But this did not diminish the public role of religion in Uganda’s politics. In fact, shortly after the NRM came to power in 1987 Alice Lakwena launched a rebellion against the NRM government and named her group the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM). [3] The Holy Spirit Movement later evolved into the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) under the leadership of Joseph Kony.

While these two movements operated in the North of Uganda, another movement was born in South Western Uganda known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments. Kizito Kiyimba goes on the make a philosophical link between religion public life in the whole of Africa thus: “On the other hand, religion is still a major item in the epistemic toolbox of much of Africa…Religion plays an explanatory and justificatory role in motivating and sustaining violence in Uganda.”[4] Researchers are yet to establish the causal relationship between violent religious movements in Uganda and Catholic marginalization in Uganda’s political landscape, since all the three movements mentioned were led by ordinary Catholics. It might be important to investigate whether these rag-tag movements led by ordinary Catholics might be a collective and subliminal expression of political marginalization of Catholics in Uganda’s politics.

The old parties of UPC and DP are still around and they still attract the core of their members along religious lines. But most crucially, voting for individual candidates especially at parliamentary level still follows religious identity. And then, at the presidential level, the candidate has to reach out to the key leaders of the main religious leaders for support, at times through subtle ‘gifts’ during fundraisings for Church or Mosque construction. While there are no clearly defined parties along religious lines, religion is implicitly considered as a formidable player in influencing voting patterns, and can be considered as an ‘unregistered political party’. The perennial challenge of separating religion from politics still plagues Uganda’s politics.

Uganda’s military, ethnic and religious forces as responsible for the country’s political and economic woes is well captured by Alan Whitworth and Tim Williamson: “Following Idi Amin’s coup in 1971, Uganda suffered fifteen years of brutality, war, and civil war, which turned one of Africa’s more prosperous economies into one of the poorest.”[5] The World Bank further described the effect of bad governance on Uganda’s economy and politics thus: “When the NRM Government assumed power in January 1986, it inherited a nation torn apart by ethnic and religious conflicts, and an economy shattered by years of civil war, political instability and physical insecurity…Its skilled personnel and experienced administrators, terrorized by successive repressive regimes, had fled to safer pastures.” [6]


Uganda is well-endowed with natural resources that contrast with the underdevelopment that has marked the country since independence. From 1962 a success story of Uganda’s economy is told: “At independence in 1962 Uganda’s economy was one of the most promising in sub-Saharan Africa. Fertile soils, an equable climate and an industrious population made the country self-sufficient in food. The agricultural economy provided inputs for a relatively well-developed manufacturing sector as well as export earnings that were more than adequate to finance imports and normally resulted in a current account surplus.”[7]

Uganda has gone through a wide range of economic reforms and philosophies that are as confusing as its political history. To start with was the colonial economy of exploitation of cheap labour and natural resources for export.[8] The colonial political economy of exploiting the periphery to support the center and subsequently the global economy, has largely remained long after independence. Due to lack of social amenities in rural areas, rural poverty is by far more pronounced than urban poverty.

In terms of classic economic philosophies Uganda has also been experimenting. During the later period of Obote’s first regime in the late 1960s he tried socialism in his famous ‘Move to the Left’ at a time when Nyerere was embracing what he termed African socialism with his Arusha Declaration. When Idi Amin Came to power, it is difficult to know what economic philosophy was operative; economic mismanagement was its peak and inflation was its worst. Essential commodities were in short supply. Clearly, the major cause of economic decline was the transition from civilian rule to military dictatorship.

In 1980 Obote came to power through the disputed elections; armed rebellion ensued in 1981. It is difficult to see how a regime under the threat of armed rebellion could focus on the economy. A similar type of mismanagement as that of Idi Amin resurfaced and Obote took over the Ministry of Finance. Under UPC, the popular slogan in Uganda was Twalire—translated as we have eaten. It was an economic philosophy of ‘eating’ by the ruling party. There was much eating but little production.

When the NRM came to power in 1986 after a protracted armed struggle, the rhetoric of Structural Adjustment Programs was in the air. NRM had come to power under the economic philosophy of a mixed economy (some form of state control and free market). NRM opted to be pro-Uganda instead of being pro-East or Pro-West. But in fact the dominant political and economic philosophy that had inspired NRM was Marxist socialism. Most of the NRM ideologues were schooled in the Dar school of socialism. The famous Kyankwazi Political school was known for grilling cadres with socialist/Marxist analysis of society. But when East-West ideological battle was supposedly won by the West in 1989, the NRM shifted to the free market economy and embraced a wide range of economic reforms. IMF’s and World Bank’s liberalization programs were fully embraced. Uganda became a shining example of successful economic and monetary reforms. These reforms included among others: privatization, deregulation, public service reform, public sector reforms, tax reforms, fiscal reform, and budget reform. Thanks to Uganda’s well trained economists and public administration experts, these reforms were by and large. Poverty was reduced considerably from around 56 per cent in 1992 to 31 per cent in 2006. Economic growth was sustained at about 7 per cent per annum.

What needs to be pointed out is that while there were wide-ranging economic reforms, the political reforms to embrace multiparty politics only commenced in 2006. The question to raise is whether one can have successful economic reforms without corresponding political reforms. It is also not clear whether the opening of political space in 2006 was real or just cosmetic since all the elections held since 2006 have been challenged in courts of law with electoral irregularities and constant calls for electoral reforms.

The major challenge that accompanied the reforms of 1990s was the realization that the poor were left out. This called for another philosophy of poverty eradication. Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers were designed and again Uganda excelled in these.[9] What was the content of the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP)? Through wide consultation that included public and private participation, three main pillars were identified: increasing the incomes of the poor, increasing the quality of life of the poor, and strengthening good governance. The social justice component in Uganda’s PEAP is quite clear. This partly explains why the majority of the poor fell in love with the ruling NRM government.

Concretely there were pro-poor programs such as Universal Primary Education (UPE), primary health care, rural feeder roads, provision of safe water and sanitation, and modernization of agriculture. Uganda was quite evidently ahead of the UN in anticipating the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But critics raise issues of the quality of Universal Primary Education. The quality of teaching was suspect since there was not a corresponding effort to produce more qualified primary school teachers. And if you make primary education free and compulsory what happens to secondary education? And if you make secondary education free what about tertiary education? Equally problematic was the quality of health care since salary for nurses and doctors was not increased. Were these policies merely campaign gimmicks? Merely providing education does not help eradicate poverty. The key challenge is whether the education provided produces jobs since unemployment is a major challenge for the youth in Uganda.

Uganda is largely a subsistence agricultural economy with about 80% of the population relying on agriculture for their livelihood. Attempts to provide rural water and sanitation as well as rural electrification have been made. But the budget for agriculture as percent of the national budget is still low (less than 5%).

The other major contradiction in the economic sphere is the rampart corruption that is referred to as corporate fraud (to give it a fancy name). Uganda has well established anti-corruption institutions such as the Inspector General of Government, Anti-Corruption Court and Ministry of Ethics and Integrity. But the effectiveness of these agencies is highly doubted. It seems that Uganda’s culture of corruption is deeply entrenched in the economy of affection.[10] When a member of one’s ethnic community raids public coffers to assist relatives, he or she is hailed as a hero or heroin. Corruption that involves taking public funds for private use is considered part of poverty eradication strategy among most Ugandans. In fact, most people would get surprised that a high-placed official is not benefitting his kith and keen from public funds.


Uganda has quite a good relationship with the international community judging by the way it got massive support for HIV/AIDS programs and massive injection of foreign direct investment since the 1990s. Uganda has also been instrumental in promoting regional stability in countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, and DRC. At the same time, there have been complaints that Uganda has complicated internal security issues of some countries. This raises the issue of whether the various interventions Uganda has engaged in have been based on standard international relations norms.

On regional integration Uganda is also credited for playing a critical role in regional organizations such as IGAD, COMESA, EAC, and AU. But the attempt to help the crisis in Burundi did not succeed as would have been expected. Equally problematic is the crisis in South Sudan. Issues of exit strategy are constantly mentioned.

The international relations theory that informs international organizations such as the UN, is premised on the liberal democratic theory. The fundamental question that Uganda has to address is: how can one subject oneself freely to the international relations system and still demand to be left free to set up laws that might contradict the bill of rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It is seems that you cannot have it both ways.

The same political economy of affection gets dramatic during election time. It is not uncommon to see high level politicians distributing money in brown envelops at public rallies. Uganda has no rival when it comes to distribution of money and goods during election time. Fundraising activities even by religious groups are strategically organized around election time. This monetization of elections has done serious damage to Uganda’s democracy. As a political contender one has to first meet the primary requirement: supplying sugar, salt, soap, hoes, alcohol, and money, then begin talking serious political issues and manifesto.


Having outlined some of the major challenges of political transition in Uganda, what is a way forward? Can Uganda overcome the historical contradictions that have derailed peaceful and democratic transitions since independence, as February 2016 elections get closer?

Uganda needs a paradigm shift if the ghosts and demons that have haunted the Pearl of Africa are to be exorcised once and for all. There is need for a transition from politics of militarism. There is need for a transition from the political economy of affection to merit-based economy. There is a need for a transition from ethnic and religious politics to national politics. There is need for a transition from exclusive economic growth to an inclusive growth.

Uganda has all it takes to be a vibrant and sustainable polity if only the country can get the formula for a peaceful, democratic and credible transition from one regime to the next. The time for this paradigm shift is now, after 53 years of independence. Most of the current political leaders contesting for political power in Uganda have witnessed the past failed transitions, that started off with hope but ended up in despair. It is incumbent upon them to deliver a peaceful and democratic transition come February 2016, lest history judges them as having betrayed the trust of Ugandans.

But what principles and strategies can guide the political theory of transition that Uganda needs so badly? I suggest the following: dialogue for the common good of the nation; compromise for the greater good and for posterity; unity for countering the forces of division and sectarianism; demilitarization of politics; full and active participation of all stakeholders.

Uganda needs leaders who will look at the next generation and not just at the next elections. Politics in Uganda has been looked at as a zero-sum game and a do or die phenomenon. There is need to start looking beyond elective posts to the picture of the needs of the country. Equally vital is to focus on national interests rather than party or regime interests. Parties and regimes come and go, but the nation remains. A key factor to enable this new paradigm is a pluralistic political culture that promotes tolerance of dissenting views. Political opponents are not enemies to be fought, but legitimate contenders for political power.

The missing link in Uganda’s development discourse has been a peaceful and democratic transition. If Nigeria can have a peaceful and democratic transition, why should Uganda not have it? The two countries have some common elements of militarism, ethnic and religious sectarianism and certainly corruption. Let Uganda emulate Nigeria and bring to an end the curse of failed peaceful and democratic transition, so that the Pearl of Africa can truly rise and shine again. Only when this has happened will there be meaningful celebration of independence for generations to come. Only then can there be sustainable development and peace in Uganda.

* Odomaro Mubangizi (PhD) teaches philosophy and theology at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa and is Dean of the Department of Philosophy and also Editor of Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


[1] See Aili Mari Tripp, Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime (London: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2010), 28-29.
[2] See Republic of Uganda: APRM country Review Report No. 7, January 2009, p. 20.
[3] Kizito Kiyimba “The God’s Must be Belligerent: Understanding the Role of Religion in Uganda’s Recent Social Unrest” in Chiedza, Arrupe College Journal, May 2012, p. 111.
[4] 117.
[5] Alan Whitworth and Tim Williamshon “Overview of Ugandan Economic Reform since 1986” in Florence Kuteesa et al. Uganda’s Economic Reforms: Insider Accounts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1
[6] World Bank “Public Choices for Private Initiatives”. Report 920-UG (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1991), 2.
[7] Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile “Institutional and Political Dimensions of Economic Reform” in Kuteesa et al. Op. cit. p. 35.
[8] For a detailed study how the colonial policies affected parts of Uganda such as Kigezi see Grace Carswell, Cultivating Success in Uganda: Kigezi Farmers & Colonial Policies (James Curry: Oxford, 2007).
[9] See Organization for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (OSSREA), Assessment of Poverty Reduction Strategies in sub-Saharan Africa: The Case of Uganda (OSSREA: Addis Ababa, 2011).
[10] For more on the nature and meaning of economy of affection see Goran Hyden, African Politics in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006), pp. 72-93.

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