The Nilotic peoples of the north, including the Acholi, Ateso, Iteso, Kakwa, Lango, Lugbara, and Madi, have little in common with the mainly Bantu peoples like the Baganda, Basoga, Bakiga, Bakonzo, Bamba, Banyankole, and Bunyoro, farther south.
Also, thanks to European missionaries in the 19th Century, most Ugandans are either Anglicans or Roman Catholics.
Ethnicity has been such a powerful political force in Uganda that it is reflected in the political parties, the military, and local and national governments. Ethnic cleavages became responsible for coups, secession attempts, and wars. Holding the country together is a challenge.
The Imperial British East Africa Company had become active in the region in 1888, and after 1894, the area was ruled as a protectorate by the British. In 1957 Sir Andrew Cohen, the British Governor of Uganda from 1952-1957, noted that, “nationalism is still a less powerful force in Uganda than tribal loyalties.” Not that much changed after independence in 1962.
National governments in Uganda have either been coalitions of various ethnic groups or ultimately unsuccessful attempts to dominate the state with the support of only a few numerically small ethnic groups, as under the rule of Idi Amin, a Kakwa, in the 1970s. None have been successful at representing all major ethnic groups in government.
Idi Amin’s 1971 coup against the country’s first prime minister, Milton Obote, a Lango, established a tyranny characterized by human rights abuses, political repression, and gross economic mismanagement. He also expelled some 90,000 Asians from Uganda in 1972.
The number of people killed as a result of his eight-year reign is estimated by international observers and human rights groups to range from 100,000 to 500,000.
When Amin was in turn toppled by Obote in 1979, the victorious Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) soldiers wreaked vengeance among Amin’s followers among the Kakwa, Aringa, Madi and Lugbara, who had formed the bulk of his army and government.
But in 1985, the UNLA, supported by the Acholi, was in turn battling Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels, mostly southerners. Museveni is himself a Banyankole. Following Museveni’s victory over Obote, the NRA became Uganda’s national military.
The Kingdom of Buganda, comprising all of Uganda’s Central Region, including the Ugandan capital of Kampala, had for a long time generated resentment throughout Uganda, because it had enjoyed a position of unrivalled superiority throughout the colonial period.
Following the outcome of a 1964 referendum which returned the two counties of Buyaga and Bugangaizi, given to Buganda by the British, to the rival Bunyoro Kingdom, many in Buganda called for secession from the country.
The kingdom was therefore abolished by Obote in 1966 and its hereditary king, the Kabaka, sent into exile. (It was revived in 1993.)
In the northern region there have been secession attempts in West Nile and the Acholi sub-regions. They have more in common with the neighbouring areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan than with the rest of Uganda.
Obote had relied heavily on the support of the Acholi, and following his defeat by Museveni, whose supporters were southern peoples, the Acholi have been fighting the current regime under different banners.
First came the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) formed in 1986, followed by the Holy Spirit Army (HSA), and then Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which is weakened but still operational.
Meanwhile, Museveni, who has cracked down on most opponents since taking power three decades ago and has been accused of running a dictatorial government, plans to run for the presidency again next year. A recent poll suggests that 71 per cent of Ugandans would vote for him.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.