Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Tribal politics in Africa: Uganda's example

by Dr. A. B. Assensoh

Brigadier Olara Okello's coup which ousted President Milton Obote of Uganda from power has once again brought into sharp focus African tribal politics as a contributory factor to instability. The writer provides a "histo-political" background to the coup.
Probably, former colonial powers in Africa never had the least inclination to hand over political power to indigenous Africans. Therefore, they woefully failed to give the proper political education to the various nationalist politicians who were inevitably and impatiently standing by to inherit the reins of power from the departing representatives of the various colonial powers, including the British, the Portuguese and the Italians.

Indeed, the deplorable political circumstances of many of Africa's independent nations often confirm the foregoing contention. Otherwise, one can hardly believe that despite the unlimited belief of the British in institutionalized democracy, almost all of its former colonies in Africa continue to lack even the basic tenets of democratic rule and, as a result, most of these former colonies have instituted absolute dictatorships and so-called one-party regimes.

A typical example was the terrible political fortune of Uganda in East Africa which led to the overthrow of President Milton A. Obote's regime by a section of the Ugandan Armed Forces on Saturday, July 27, 1985.

After years of tribal warfare in and outside the Ugandan Armed Forces coupled with senseless murders of political opponents of Obote's government and even innocent Ugandans, it came as no surprise to observers that Brigadier Basilio Olara Okello led dissident forces to topple the tribalistic administration which replaced Idi Amin's inefficient and murderous regime in December 1980. From all accounts, the bane of the Ugandan political impasse for some years now was unlimited tribalism.

While Western democracies are often faced with incidents of racism, in African countries it is the peril of a powerful tribe doing everything within its power, both moral and immoral to dominate other tribes, in some instances minority tribes. In Uganda, under Obote's presidency, it was a tribal squabble between the two prominent northern tribes of Acholi and the Langi.

Tribal Conflagration

Unfortunately, however, the tribal conflagration in Uganda is not expected to improve in any measure now because of the obvious tribal under-currents of the coup d'etat which toppled the Obote leadership. For example, Brigadier Okello, who is from the Acholi tribe, reportedly decided to use troops under his control to effect the take-over when he realized that there would be no peaceful solution to the tribal imbalance in the appointment of military officers and 'top-level civilians to very sensitive positions in the regime of the Uganda Congress Party, led by Obote, a Langi by tribe. Also, Okello detested the daily massacre of Obote's opponents, most of whom were from his own Acholi tribe and other minority tribes.

In many respects, the Ugandan tribal politics has a background of its own, dating back to the nation's independence from Britain in 1962 when Obote became the country's leader. In less than nine years' rule, Obote's trusted Army Chief of Staff, Idi Amin, staged a coup d'etat and, for some years, the former President had to live in exile in Tanzania.

While Obote's overthrow did not come as a surprise to observers of the African political scene, many African scholars in and out of Africa still hold the opinion that many more nations on the continent will taste Coup d'etat because of their repressive and corrupt administrations

As a result of Amin's tribal and murderous politics, he became very unpopular among African leaders. Therefore, when Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere claimed that Amin's troops had attempted to invade a portion of Tanzanian territory, Amin could not appeal to any other African leader for support arbitration orpurposes.

Consequently, Tanzanian regular troops teamed up with anti-Amin guerrilla forces to overthrow the mu hated Amin regime and, since the Amin has lived in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Obote and other exiled Uganda were able to return to Kampala, t Ugandan capital, to celebrate the victory over the Amin forces. To many observers, everything seemed suggest that the former politic leaders, led by Obote, had acquire enough experience and politic maturity to ensure that the past trib politics would not be permitted permeate Uganda's body politic again In a matter of months, every positive prediction was undermined by the senseless manner in which innocent Ugandans were being killed daily.

In general elections, held in the Fa of 1980 and supervised by Tanzania troops, Obote's Uganda Congress Party was declared the winner and his main opponents, the Democratic Party headed by Paul Ssemogerere, who felt cheated, had to settle for the role of the official opposition. Since 1980 however, many impartial observers of the Ugandan political scene have disputed the results of the elections but Obote held on to power tenaciously.

Many Ugandans were dissatisfied with the way things began to go under Obote and, coupled with the aftermath of the supposedly rigged elections, it became possible for some of the very soldiers who fought to overthrow Amin's regime to undermine Obote's leadership.

This led to the formation of the National Resistance Movement in Uganda with Yoweri K. Museveni, a former Defence Minister, as its chairman. Museveni took his supporters into the Ugandan bush to begin a bitter anti-Obote guerrilla warfare which claimed many lives of soldiers and innocent civilians.

Museveni considered himself at war. Therefore, he sent his wife and children to Goteborg in Sweden and, at the time of Obote's overthrow, he was in Sweden visiting his family. In a statement, he publicly approved of Brigadier Okello's coup d'etat and, in turn, a message from the Ugandan radio extended a warm welcome to Museveni's forces in the following words: "Our brothers in the bush led by Yoweri Museveni can now come and join us to destroy tribalism in Uganda for good".

Uganda's Economy Under Obote

It is, indeed, a fact that various Western nations were doing their best to help prop up the sagging Ugandan economy. Therefore in June, the Obote regime played host to a delegation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but the civil rights record of the regime and the rampant corruption in high places were so appalling that officials of IMF reportedly withdrew the offer to assist the economy.

Apart from these details, it was reported that the IMF was not happy with the fact that over 35 per cent of Uganda's budget was being spent by the deposed Obote regime on idle 14,000-member army, at least to make sure of military support for the unpopular regime.

Above all, other international agencies, including European Economic Community (EEC), became skeptical in all efforts to assist the Obote regime. In fact, in June, the opposition leader, Ssemogerere, toured several European nations, including Belgium and Britain, to urge European leaders to tie aid for the Obote regime to the improvement of the nation's civil rights on record. In London, Ssemogerere held fruitful talks with Britain's Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr Malcolm Rifkind.

While Obote's overthrow did not come as a surprise to observers of the African political scene, many African scholars in and out of Africa still hold the opinion that many more nations on the continent will taste coups d'etat because of their repressive and corrupt administrations.

However, such scholars are at pains to see that there is no democratic way of changing such useless elections in Africa, especially so since elections are openly rigged and writers, who try to play the role of critics, are often detained for years without trial.

In fact, in Africa today, most of the continent's best known authors and journalists, including Nigeria's Professor Wole Soyinka, Kenya's Professor Ngugi and Ghana's Professor Kofi Awoonor, have tasted imprisonment for various reasons. In Liberia, one of America's best allies in Africa, journalists are detained in the notorious Belle Yallah prison and their newspapers are banned permanently from publication.

The main reason for the deplorable state of affairs of these writers is that they dared to write against tribal politics and, sometimes, they spoke publicly against corruption. In "Letter from Gdansk Prison", Poland's Adam Michnik quoted a statement by Jozef Pilsudski, noted as the father of Polish independence, which aptly summed up the plight of African writers and intellectuals who tried to oppose the tribalism and corruption of their leaders. In the July 18, 1985 issue of The New York Review of Books, Michnik quoted Pilsudski in the following words: "Prison is a constant, everyday companion of human thought. It is a part of consciousness, political culture, and everyday life".

In a statement, he publicly approved of Brigadier Okello's coup d'etat and, in turn, a message from the Ugandan radio extended a warm welcome to Museveni's forces in the following words: "Our brothers in the bush led by Yoweri Museveni can now come and join us to destroy tribalism in Uganda for good".

General Tito Okello

Therefore, after the overthrow of Obote's regime, the vari newspapers reported that detained opponents of the regime were to be freed from the notorious Makir Barracks, an underground prison.

For various reasons, one wonders if African leaders really understood the true nature or meaning of independence. After all, from all events, what Africans can see after independence is the substitution of foreign domination by outright oppression.

It is on this score that the 85-year- C.L.R. James, the leading Caribbe political theorist now living in London to complete his autobiography, was targeted when he stated that what many nationalist leaders in Africa and of Third World nations achieved independence was the mere acquisition of a national anthem, a flag and indigenous leader to dictate to their citizens.

Indeed, if African leaders do not learn from the shortcomings of deposed tribal and corrupt leaders, then the entire continent would be engulfed by the worst tribal conflagration and political upheaval not yet witnessed on the continent. To that end, it is time for despotic leaders to dismantle their autocratic one-party regimes and, of course, those still dreaming of introducing new ones must humbly shelve the idea.

*Dr Assensoh, who teaches History at Dillard University in New Orleans, is currently serving as a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities at Harvard University.

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