Every January, I escape the Maine snow and ice for three delightful weeks by teaching a study abroad course in Uganda. The course’s theme is development, and its primary aim is to guide students toward grappling with the significant problems in the international humanitarian and development aid system and, eventually, realizing that ordinary Ugandans are not sitting around waiting for western white saviors to come and “fix” what is wrong with their country, but rather are creatively solving problems of poverty and corruption in context-appropriate ways.
I love this course and am constantly working to improve it, especially in preparing students to understand Uganda’s political and historical context so that they’re prepared to grapple with the deeper questions we engage on the course. As such, I’m always on the lookout for new books and readings I can assign. But finding a good general history of the country has been difficult – until now. Richard J. Reid’s A History of Modern Uganda is the book I’ve been waiting for, both for my course and for my own knowledge of Uganda’s historical place in East Africa and the broader world.
Reid sets out to tell the story of Uganda differently, by avoiding a simple narrative of political events to situate the country’s history in the long series of interactions between different ethnic groups and outsiders. He grapples directly with whether it even makes sense to speak of a precolonial history of “Uganda” as a unit, given the linguistic and cultural divides of the precolonial kingdom’s and societies that were slapped together in British East Africa.
Yet Reid concludes that to tell this history does make sense. He does so by tying together the work of dozens of Ugandan historians who have written detailed histories of Uganda’s various ethnic groups into a cohesive narrative, showing that these groups have long traded, migrated, and interacted in ways that made their ties at least as important as their differences. Reid manages to do this without sacrificing the complexity of Ugandans’ relationships with one another and with their neighbors in what became DR Congo, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania.
More importantly, he ties these narratives together in a way that shows how recurring themes in precolonial, colonial, and post-independence politics continue to affect political and social realities today. Competition between the Ganda (who enjoyed favored status under the British colonial regime and whose name is the root of the country’s name today) and the country’s other ethnic groups had a major impact on politicians’ and those groups’ post-independence struggles for relevance on the national political scene. Those dynamics in turn played out in the series of coups, violence against civilians, and, eventually, the civil war of the 1980s that led to current president Yoweri Museveni’s takeover of the country, and a second civil war carried out by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north.
In evaluating Museveni’s tenure, too, Reid shows how common threads from Uganda’s long history still play out. Museveni and his National Resistance Movement’s decision to allow the restoration of (some of) the country’s traditional kingdoms greatly affects how many Ugandans view their relationship to the state today, and helps to explain why many Ugandans continue to support Museveni despite his undemocratic tendencies (he has, as of this writing, been in office for 32 years). The NRM’s rise to power came through violence, but removing the tyrant Milton Obote from power (and avoiding a return to government by another like Idi Amin) probably required violence in order to restore peace. Uganda’s government does not hesitate to use violence against civilians in order to maintain that peace – as, for example, in authorities’ recent tear-gassing of citizens who took to the streets in protest of a new tax on social media usage.
But as Reid notes, “all nations are the product of violence, in one way or another, and in their turn deploy violence in their development and consolidation and struggles for survival.” Moreover, “war divides, of course, but it also binds,” and Reid makes a compelling case that, however imperfectly, Uganda’s experiences of violence have helped to tie the country together in the sense that no one wants to go back to the time before the NRM’s takeover.
Reid’s book is beautifully written and is easily accessible to a broad readership (and there’s a Kindle edition for those looking to save a few dollars and space on the bookshelf). I can’t wait to assign it to my students this January and to see how building our understanding of Uganda’s history makes our learning experience even richer.