A Political History of Uganda

Published in History Today

Samwiri Karugire, at present Deputy Foreign Minister of Uganda, must have written this book during the early years of the Amin regime, when he was a Lecturer at Makerere University, and before he went into exile as Professor of History at the University of Zambia. Clearly, it is addressed first and foremost to Ugandans. Ethnic and geographic names are densely spread, and only a handful of them figure on the single map. A great deal of local knowledge is assumed. Described in the blurb as 'the first comprehensive account of the history of Uganda by a Ugandan scholar', it is in reality a lively, rhetorical, controversial and highly selective discourse on certain historical themes, beginning with the conquering migrations of the Nilotic Luo in the late fifteenth century and closing with the military takeover of 1971.

It is a real problem how to present the pre- colonial history of a country which acquired its frontiers less than a century ago and through the accidents of colonial partition. Karugire's solution is to emphasise the Nilotic infiltration, which did in some measure affect most parts of pre-colonial Uganda, thus achieving a kind of historical trompe I'oeil and giving the impression that the country enjoyed a natural unity long before its frontiers were drawn. Probably, an introductory analysis which emphasised the diversity of Uganda'a pre-colonial population would have been more realistic. But the illusion of primal unity is necessary to Karugire's over-all thesis, according to which contact with outsiders from the mid-nineteenth century onwards resulted in 'religio-political polarisation' – first between animists and Muslims, then between Muslims and Christians, next between Protestant and Catholic Christians, and finally between political parties organised by the alumni of Protestant and Catholic schools, to which most of the troubles of post-independence Uganda are attributed.

Colonial administration is likewise presented as a divisive influence which sharpened up the ethnic differences in the indigenous population. There may be an element of truth here, but it is one which needs to be carefully balanced against the many areas in which colonial rule provided the indispensable foundations of a wider national unity. For example, Karugire says that the availability of cheap foreign manufactures killed the local industries which had previously given rise to inter-ethnic trade and contact. But he nowhere mentions the colonial roads and railways, which bound the country together, making possible the exchange of bulky food-stuffs, promoting the mobility of labour and the growth of detribalised urban populations. And so on. All in all, while this is a trenchant and entirely good-humoured book, it should not be seen as more than one element in a balanced diet.

Roland Oliver

A Political History of Uganda

Heinemann Educational Books, Nairobi and London, 1980; 247 pp.

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