Deep Read: Uganda’s 50 years of restless freedom

"Let us pause for a moment and look back at the path we have travelled … What other aims have we, today, on looking forward? One of our first needs must be national unity. The narrow ambitions of a tribe, a sect, or a party must be subordinated to the greater needs of one complete Uganda … on attaining independence, this government [Uganda] has more needs to bear, heavier than those that any other government before has borne."

These excerpts from the October 9 1962 speech by the late Apollo Milton Obote, Uganda's first prime minister, on the occasion of the country's independence at Kololo air strip in the capital Kampala, will resonate clearly as Uganda marks 50 years of self-rule on Tuesday.

Obote headed the Uganda People's Congress (UPC), one of Uganda's oldest political parties. The canny statements, made at the exact venue of this year's golden jubilee anniversary, forces those at the helm to reflect on whether the country is towing the path on which the father of the nation, as Obote fondly came to be known, had envisioned for Uganda.

Uganda, like its East African neighbour Kenya, fell under Britain colonial rule until history was re-written in 1962. Whereas independence was celebrated with flair that planted grains of hope in the hearts of many citizens who envisaged a better country under self governance, the events that unfolded shortly in the post-independence period set off alarm bells.

Barely a year after independence, a mutiny by soldiers demanding higher wages and rapid promotions, shook the regime and prompted Obote to summon help from the former colonial troops to reinstate order.

To ensure stability, Obote chose to rapidly promote a semi-illiterate soldier, Idi Amin, a decision that later churned more political disaster as the latter ousted Obote in a military coup in 1971 before assuming power.

Political crisis
From then until 1986, Uganda plunged into a political crisis with violent change of leaders one after the other which saw presidents Yusuf Lule, Godfrey Binaisa, Milton Obote II and Tito Okello, flicker on and off the country's political stage.

The ascendance of Yoweri Museveni to power, after waging a five-year guerilla war, restored the lost hope that the nation had longed for. It was not merely the change of guards – it was a fundamental change, as the Museveni put it then.

That the country's economy staggered back to stability and started an upward rise proved the president's word. The launch of the economic recovery programme in 1987 to address poverty set the growth rate back on track at 6.5% between 1986 and 1987 and 7.5% between 1997 and 2005.

However, the landmark occasion for Uganda was the making of the 1995 Constitution which signified restoration of the rule of law in the country. To nurture democracy and ensure the country doesn't relapse to anarchy, the Constitution provided for a two five-year-term limit for an elected president.

As Museveni stated in 1988, "The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who overstay in power."

For a country that had never tasted peaceful transition of power from one president to another, the article on term limits flashed the desired ray of hope. The amendment of the Uganda Constitution in 2005, that deleted article 105(2) on presidential term limits, thus to many citizens, cast the present NRM party under Museveni, on the same page as the past dictatorial regimes they had fought to replace. Besides stifling discontent among citizens, the gesture ensured that Uganda became the only country in the five-member states of the East African community without presidential term limits.

The period between 2005 and now has seen Uganda wade against the most violent tide and calm shores seem far from sight. The alarming levels of corruption that has ensured an annual loss of 500-billion shillings (R1.6-billion) to the country, political repression characterised by military and police brutality, have further culminated in declining economic growth.

Economic growth that averaged 8% between 2005 and 2007 slowed to a dismal 4.1% in 2011, mainly due to massive population protests accruing from the high costs of living and poor governance. The growing dissent against the prevailing regime has had the opposition parties, led by the main opposition leader Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change Party (FDC), on parallel paths with the ruling NRM party.

Besigye, who had thrice stood against Museveni, together with multiple opposition leaders, have been frequently in and out of jail for protesting the bad policies of the regime. In what political analysts describe as paranoia characteristic of most dictators who overstay their welcome, Kampala, like never before, has perpetually been under heavy military and police deployment to avert protests.

Campaign rallies banned
A fortnight into the golden jubilee, police banned campaign rallies and peaceful demonstrations within the city. Last week, Besigye was arrested for breaching the directive.

"To me I have a feeling that Britain should once again re-colonise Uganda, say, for only 15 years to salvage it from the suffering and the impunity that is going on. Fifty years down the road and Ugandans still can't be allowed to freely associate? Then we were better off under British rule," argues Joseph Elunya, a resident of Gulu district, Northern Uganda.

Even then, the bad governance and impunity of the NRM government seems to have solidified a unified front among the citizens, the civil society and opposition parties to agitate for restoration of sanity in governance.

Lately, there have been countrywide campaigns for the restoration of presidential term limits. Outspoken retired Anglican bishop, Zac Niringiye, is one of those spearheading the campaign.

"It's only Uganda in East Africa where we have never had a peaceful transition of government. Every government that comes is forcefully removed through armed rebellion and coups. Museveni would set a precedent as the first leader to peacefully hand over power if term limits are restored," Niringiye says.

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