Uganda - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Uganda: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


Uganda, landlocked country on the equator in East Africa. The country contains a varied landscape of savanna, dense forests, and tall mountains, as well as almost half of Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, and the primary source of the Nile River. Uganda is an ethnically diverse nation with a deeply ingrained intellectual and artistic culture. Poor but developing, Uganda’s economy is predominantly agricultural. Uganda was the site of several powerful kingdoms, most notably Buganda and Bunyoro, before the arrival of European colonists in the late 19th century. Uganda became a British protectorate in 1894, and its present borders were established in 1926. It gained independence from British rule in 1962. In the 1970s and early 1980s the nation suffered two bloody dictatorial regimes, under Idi Amin and Milton Obote, and two wars. In 1986 Uganda came under the control of pragmatic leader Yoweri Museveni, who introduced democratic and economic reforms. Kampala is Uganda’s capital and largest city.


Uganda is bordered by Kenya to the east; Sudan to the north; Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the west; and Rwanda, Tanzania, and Lake Victoria to the south and southeast. Uganda has a total area of 241,038 sq km (93,065 sq mi).) The country measures 625 km (388 mi) east to west and 638 km (396 mi) north to south.

Natural Regions in Uganda

Uganda is a country of remarkable physical contrasts. It forms a plateau declining gradually from 1,300 m (4,300 ft) in the south to 750 m (2,460 ft) in the north. The southern portion is a forest zone, although much of it has been cleared for farms. Much of the north is open savanna (grassland with sparse trees and shrubs), though it also contains semidesert. There are small areas of bamboo and rain forests. The Western Rift of the Great Rift Valley, a series of cracks more than 5,000 km (3,000 mi) in length along which the Earth’s crust is splitting apart, runs through western Uganda. Mountains rise on the eastern and western borders of Uganda, 13 of which are more than 4,100 m (13,500 ft) tall. The Ruwenzori Range, on the border with Democratic Republic of the Congo, contains seven peaks that are covered with snow year-round. The highest is Margherita Peak of Mount Stanley, at 5,109 m (16,762 ft) tall, the third tallest mountain in Africa. Glaciers on Ruwenzori peaks are only 60 km (40 mi) from tropical forests and 100 km (60 mi) from dry savannas. Except for the Ruwenzori Range, which was formed by an uplift of Earth’s crust as it split along the Western Rift Valley, all of Uganda’s mountains are volcanic in origin. Earthquakes, occasionally quite severe (up to 7 on the Richter scale), are common in the Western Rift Valley.

Rivers and Lakes in Uganda

Most lakes and rivers in Uganda form a drainage basin for the Nile River, whose principal source is Lake Victoria in the southeast. The Nile winds through Uganda and exits from the north of the country into Sudan. The other large lakes are Lake Albert, Lake Edward, and Lake Kyoga. The Nile is partly navigable in Uganda. Boats cannot pass through the Bujagali Falls near Lake Victoria nor through Kabalega Falls, near Lake Albert, where the Nile passes through an opening less than 6 m (20 ft) wide.

Plant and Animal Life in Uganda

Uganda has a wide variety of plant life, from mvuli trees and elephant grass of the plateau to dry thorn scrubs, acacia trees, and euphorbia shrubs of the northeast, as well as papyrus in swamps, which surround many of the country’s lakes. The country also has spectacular wildlife, including elephants, lions, leopards, gorillas, chimpanzees, rhinoceroses, antelopes, zebras, Rothschild’s giraffes, and crocodiles.

Natural Resources of Uganda

Because it is an agricultural country, Uganda’s soils are its most important resource. It has small amounts of mineral resources, mainly copper, cobalt, gold, tin, tungsten, beryllium, iron ore, limestone, phosphates, and apatite. For most of its electric power, Uganda depends on hydroelectricity from the Owen Falls Dam on the Nile at Lake Victoria. At present 26 percent of the land area is cultivated and 11 percent used for permanent crops such as coffee and bananas.

Climate in Uganda

Uganda’s temperatures are moderate throughout the year. In Kampala, near Lake Victoria, average daily temperatures range from 18° to 28°C (65° to 83°F) in January and from 17° to 25°C (62° to 77°F) in July; in Kabale, in the highlands of the southwest, they range from 9° to 24°C (49° to 75°F) in January and from 8° to 23°C (47° to 74°F) in July. Except for its northeastern border area and small areas in the southwest, Uganda usually receives sufficient rain throughout the country to permit crops to grow once or even twice a year. Most areas of the country have distinct dry and wet seasons, though the Lake Victoria area receives rain throughout the year. The rainy seasons occur from March through May and from October through November. The driest areas, in the north, usually receive about 900 mm (40 in) annually, while the wettest, in the south, get more than 1,500 mm (60 in). Rainfall varies greatly, however, and local droughts are not uncommon.

Environmental Issues in Uganda

Soil erosion, overgrazing, and desertification threaten Uganda’s environment, as the country’s growing population attempts to subsist mostly through agriculture and farming. In order to provide more land for agricultural use, many forests have been cleared and wetlands have been drained. About 1.8 percent (1990–2005) of Uganda’s forestland is destroyed each year, in part because 90 percent (1997) of the country’s energy requirements are met by burning wood or charcoal. About 15 percent (2005) of the land area remains forested.

Uganda is situated in an area of rich biodiversity and about 26 percent (2007) of the country’s land is protected in parks or reserves. However, several animal species have been greatly reduced, particularly the rhinoceros, which is endangered. The greatest threat to all species is the growing need for land for farming and raising cattle. Poaching for rhinoceros horn and elephant tusks, capturing of gorillas for zoos, and shooting of antelopes for food and sport, particularly by soldiers during Uganda’s wars, have also taken their toll.


Uganda’s population is predominantly rural and is concentrated in the south, particularly in the crescent at the edge of Lake Victoria and in the southwest. Almost all Ugandans are black Africans. Foreign residents make up less than 4 percent of the population and come mostly from neighboring states.

In 2009 Uganda’s population was estimated at 32,369,558. The estimated growth rate of the population in 2009 was 2.7 percent. The birth rate was 48 per 1,000 people and the death rate 12 per 1,000. The fertility rate, the number of births per woman, was 6.8.

Principal Cities of Uganda

Only 12 percent of Uganda’s population lives in urban areas. Kampala, near Lake Victoria, is Uganda’s intellectual and business center and its only large city. Jinja, the most important industrial center, is located on the Nile at Lake Victoria. Other important towns include Mbale, Entebbe, Masaka, Mpigi, and Mbarara.

Ethnicity and Languages spoken in Uganda

As a result of migration and intermarriage, most Ugandans have ancestors from a variety of Uganda’s 34 ethnic groups, although people customarily identify with just a single group. In centuries past ancestors of many of these groups came to Uganda from what is now Sudan and Ethiopia. Many of the languages presently used are not mutually intelligible. About two-thirds speak Bantu languages and live in the south, including the largest ethnic groups: the Ganda, Nyankole, Kiga, and Soga. About one-sixth of Uganda’s people are Western Nilotic-speakers living in the north, such as the Langi and Acholi. Another one-sixth speak Eastern Nilotic languages and live in the northeast, including the Iteso and Karamojong. Finally, in the extreme northwest are speakers of Sudanic languages, including the Lugbara and the Madi. English is the official language of Uganda, though Swahili is more widely spoken and used as a lingua franca (a language used in common by different peoples to facilitate commerce and trade). Luganda, the language of the Ganda, is the most frequently used indigenous tongue. There is some tension among ethnic groups, particularly between the Ganda and others.

Religion in Uganda

European missionary activity in the 19th century led to widespread conversion to Christianity. About 41 percent of the people of Uganda are Roman Catholics, and 40 percent are Protestants, most belonging to the Church of Uganda (Anglican). Protestants have had greater political influence from the arrival of British authorities until the present than those accepting the Roman Catholic faith. Muslims (5 percent) have less social status or political influence in Uganda than either Protestants or Catholics. Most Ugandans, whether or not they are Christians or Muslims, value the indigenous African religious traditions of their ethnic group.

Education in Uganda

Uganda’s educational system, modeled on Britain’s, was originally developed by missionaries, but is now run by the state and, increasingly, by the private sector. All levels of education suffer from shortages of teachers and facilities. Education is not compulsory, and schools charge fees for enrollment. There is a sharp decline in enrollment at each higher level—while almost all primary school aged children are enrolled in school, only 20 percent of children attend secondary school. Just 3 percent of the students move on to higher education. However, in 1997 the government began paying the enrollment fees of four primary school students per family, which doubled the number of primary pupils. Boys were once more likely to be sent to school and much more likely to be kept in school than girls, but the gap at all levels narrowed. In 2006, 50 percent of students at primary school were male. The adult literacy rate in 2007 was 74 percent, with male literacy of 82 percent and the female rate 66 percent. Makerere University (founded in 1922) in Kampala is the most important center of higher learning. Smaller universities and private colleges include the Uganda Martyrs University (1993) and Ndejje University (1992), both in Kampala; Uganda Christian University (1923), in Mukono; and the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (1989), in Mbarara.

Social Structure of Uganda

Traditionally, Uganda’s different ethnic groups followed highly varied systems of social stratification. In the 20th century the country’s social structure evolved into a class system dominated by a small, educated middle class consisting mainly of professionals, wage earners (principally working for the state), and a small number of commercial farmers. This class structure persisted into the early 21st century. Most of the rest of the population consisted of poor peasant farmers.

Way of Life in Uganda

Support for the extended family is among the most important values held by Ugandans. Polygyny (the practice of having more than one wife) is accepted and very common. Women are traditionally considered inferior to men and their independent social initiatives tend to be discouraged. However, some members of the government and women’s rights activists have begun the task of removing legal discrimination against women. The constitution adopted in 1995 guarantees women equal opportunities in political, social, and economic areas. It also reserves seats in the legislature and in local councils for female candidates. The accumulation and display of wealth, such as throwing a lavish wedding, are signs of success that win respect in Uganda. Western attire is worn throughout the country. Traditional clothing, which varies among ethnic groups, is often worn at local ceremonies and dances. Traditional Ganda and Soga men often wear a long white robe called a kanzu under a sport coat, while women wear a busuti, a distinctive floor-length dress introduced by 19th-century missionaries.

Social Issues in Uganda

Poverty and disease are linked problems in Uganda that are compounded by poor sanitation, unclean water, and inadequate housing. Only 64 percent of the population has access to clean water. Although food is easily grown in Uganda, sporadic droughts cause severe famines. Uganda suffers from a high infection rate of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) estimated 810,000 Ugandans were infected with AIDS in 2007. The other most common ailments include prenatal and maternal conditions, malaria, and pneumonia.

Social Services in Uganda

Uganda’s medical service is badly overburdened and largely financed by international support. Mulago in Kampala is the national hospital. There are also excellent missionary hospitals, although the emphasis in medical service providers is shifting from hospitals toward rural health clinics. The World Health Organization estimates 71 percent of the population live within walking distance of a health facility. In general, social welfare, including old-age support, is a matter of self-reliance, not government services.


Ugandan artistic expression draws on various traditional oral cultures interwoven with Western cultural influences. Modern Ugandan artists in all fields have tried to bring these strands together to build a Ugandan identity or to use Western art as a lens to understand traditional life more clearly.

Literature in Uganda

Ugandan author Okot p’Bitek, whose long poetic lament, Song of Lawino (1966), is Uganda’s best known literary work, criticizes the supposed benefits of Western education and values for Acholi traditional life. Sir Apolo Kagwa, the first prime minister of Buganda under British rule, wrote The Kings of Buganda (translated 1971), the first locally written Ugandan history.

Art and Architecture of Uganda

Much traditional art, including drums, amulets, and shields, is related to the different royal courts and ceremonies of precolonial monarchs. The Kasubi Tombs, the burial place for the last three Buganda kabakas (kings), are located in Kampala in a magnificent traditional structure made of woven reeds. Modern Ugandan painters and sculptors, using Western techniques, have used their art to mark significant historical events and celebrate local culture. Most of Uganda’s artists who use Western techniques studied in the Margaret Trowell School of Fine Art in Makerere University, although several, such as Francis Nnaggenda, were trained in Europe or the United States. Nnaggenda’s massive sculptures celebrate the triumph of the human spirit and the redeeming power of love. His sculpture War Victim (1986), exhibited at Makerere University, commemorates the suffering borne by Ugandans in the 1970s and 1980s. Ignatius Sserulyo is a painter who interprets traditional myths and indigenous activities, such as farming, on large murals.

Theater and Film in Uganda

Uganda has a lively dramatic tradition with performances in English and native languages. Since its founding in 1959, the National Theatre in Kampala has stimulated the writing and production of plays and dances, and there are now several private theaters as well. Byron Kawadwa, probably Uganda’s leading playwright since independence, was murdered during the Idi Amin regime for using his plays as a vehicle for political criticism.

Music and Dance in Uganda

Several Ugandan popular musicians rose to prominence in the late 20th century. Philly Bongoley Lutaaya, who died of AIDS in 1989, urged AIDS awareness in his last performances. Geoffrey Oryema, many of whose songs grieve for the troubles of his people, the Acholi, became internationally popular in the mid-1990s. The “Kampala sound” of electric guitar-based dance music was regionally popular in the 1960s. Traditional dances, a staple of every ethnic group, are still widely performed. Many of them were also incorporated into performances of the National Dance Troupe in Kampala and abroad.

Museums and Libraries in Uganda

The Uganda Museum (founded in 1908) in Kampala has exhibits of traditional culture, archaeology, history, science, and natural history. It regularly presents performances of traditional music.

Makerere University’s main library in Kampala has a general collection, which is the largest in Uganda. The most important specialized collections, all in Kampala, are found in the Albert Cook Library at Makerere Medical School (at Makerere University), Kyambogo University, the Makerere Institute of Social Research, and the Cabinet Office.


The Ugandan economy has been based on small, African-owned farms since precolonial days. Uganda’s economy collapsed during the Idi Amin regime in the 1970s. In 1972 Amin expelled the country’s Asian population, which controlled most of the commerce, and distributed their businesses and property to corrupt and incompetent managers. From 1972 to 1988 the economy declined about 33 percent. The economy rebounded under President Yoweri Museveni, growing an average of 7.9 percent annually in the period 2007. But it took until the late 1990s for the country to recover the production levels achieved before Amin seized power. In 2007 Uganda’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $11.8 billion, or $380.80 per capita.

Government Role in the Economy

In 1987 Museveni adopted reforms designed to reduce the size of the state and privatize many economic activities. In return Uganda received large loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Under the reforms the government eliminated state regulations over the exchange rate and state control over prices for export crops. More importantly, the government succeeded in diversifying its foreign exchange base by steadily reducing its reliance on coffee exports. Excellent macroeconomic management enabled the government to reduce inflation from 200 percent annually in the late 1980s to an annual average of 6 percent in the period 2007.

Labor in Uganda

In 2003, 69 percent of Ugandan workers were engaged in agriculture, 8 percent in industry, and 22 percent in services. Only a small fraction of the workforce is engaged in paid employment, and the largest wage employer is the government. Since the 1970s wages have failed to keep up with the cost of living, forcing those receiving salaries to supplement their income through farming or business. In addition, inadequate wages led to widespread corruption in most government services.

Agriculture of Uganda

Agriculture (including forestry and fishing) makes the largest contribution to the GDP, amounting to 24 percent in 2007. Almost all farmers work small plots, primarily with rustic tools, and subsist mainly on their own food crops, notably bananas, cassava, sweet potatoes, and millet. They also grow crops for sale, both for local consumption and export. Historically, almost all foreign exchange was earned by the sale of cotton on the world market. Later, coffee surpassed cotton as the most important foreign exchange earner. The economy still is heavily dependent on world coffee prices, but the government has successfully promoted a more diversified foreign exchange basis. Besides coffee and cotton, important export crops include tea, tobacco, cocoa, corn, beans, cut flowers, sesame, and vanilla. Livestock (particularly cattle) and animal products are also important export earners.

Forestry and Fishing in Uganda

The thickest stands of timber are in the center and west of the country. In 2007 production of roundwood timber amounted to 41.1 million cu m (1,451 million cu ft). Much of the wood cut in Uganda is burned for fuel. Nile perch and tilapia are the most important fish caught in Ugandan lakes. The total catch was 399,500 metric tons in 2007. A growing export industry based on fish processing plants developed in the 1990s.

Services and Tourism of Uganda

In 2007 services produced 50 percent of GDP. The largest contributor was government services, followed by retail and wholesale trade, construction, transportation and communications, and the hotel and restaurant sectors. The tourist industry, which collapsed during the Idi Amin regime, recovered in the 1990s and has become very important to the economy. Most tourists came from Western Europe, particularly Britain, and the United States. Favorite destinations for tourists are Jinja, where the Nile exits Lake Victoria, Queen Elizabeth National Park in the southwest, Kabalega National Park in the north, and the Kasubi Tombs in Kampala.

Manufacturing and Mining in Uganda

Although expanding, the manufacturing sector was still small in the early 21st century, providing only 8 percent of GDP in 2007. The most important manufactured products were textiles, processed coffee, grain, sugar, beverages, chemicals, and tobacco. Ugandan mines produce cobalt, gold, limestone, and iron ore.

Energy in Uganda

Uganda’s principal fuel source is wood, the burning of which produces 90 percent (1997) of the energy used in the country. Hydroelectric power plants at the Owen Falls Dam and a number of smaller facilities produce 100 percent (2006) of the electricity used.

Transportation in Uganda

Paved roads connect the major urban areas of southern Uganda, but only about 23 percent (2003) of the country’s roads are paved. Recent reconstruction of Uganda’s main roads has been an important factor in its economic recovery. Steamer traffic on Lake Victoria has been curtailed by the spread of hyacinth weed, which blocks harbors and clogs motors. The main lake ports are Port Bell, serving Kampala, and Jinja. The international airport is located in Entebbe, on Lake Victoria. A number of airlines serve domestic, East African, and a few European airports.

Communications in Uganda

Uganda’s mainline telephone network is limited, so many more Ugandans have mobile telephones than mainline telephones. Among the largest English-language newspapers are the government-owned daily New Vision, the daily The Monitor, and the weekly Guide. The Taifa Uganda Empya is the main Luganda-language daily. All the main newspapers are published in Kampala. The government radio station, Radio Uganda, broadcasts in 24 languages. In the 1990s a number of private radio stations were established in the capital and in other cities. The state-run Uganda Television broadcasts in English, Swahili, and Luganda.

Foreign Trade in Uganda

Uganda has typically imported more than it has exported since the Amin regime, but the proportion of imports to exports progressively grew in the 1990s. In 2007 exports ($1,615 million) were worth far less than imports ($3,423 million). Foreign aid, primarily loans, finances this trade imbalance. Uganda’s chief exports are coffee, fish and fish products, and gold. The most important imports are petroleum products, road vehicles, grains, machinery, medical and pharmaceutical products, iron, and steel. Uganda’s main suppliers are Kenya, South Africa, the United Kingdom, India, and the United States. The main purchasers of its exports are Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and Spain. Uganda is a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the African Export-Import Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Currency and Banking of Uganda

The unit of currency in Uganda is the Uganda shilling (1,724 Uganda shillings equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The currency is issued by the Bank of Uganda, which was founded in 1966, in Kampala. There are also several private banks. Uganda has a stock exchange, founded in 1997, in Kampala.


In the 1970s and early 1980s brutal dictatorships and bloody wars wracked Uganda. Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986, bringing to a close a violent chapter in the country’s history. Museveni established a unique system of nonparty popular democracy. In Museveni’s view, all existing Ugandan political parties competed on the basis of religion and ethnicity, and these divisions helped bring about the conflicts and chaos of the previous decades. For this reason, only the National Resistance Movement (NRM), open to all Ugandans, was allowed to contest elections until political parties based on issues of development could develop. This nonparty system was upheld in a 2000 national referendum, but in 2005 Ugandan voters chose to switch to a multiparty system.

Constitution in Uganda

In 1995 Uganda adopted the country’s third constitution, which divides powers among the executive, legislature, and judiciary. The constitution guarantees human rights, limits the use of imprisonment without trial, and establishes an independent Human Rights Commission to investigate potential human rights violations. It also creates an office of inspector-general to combat corruption and abuse of power at all levels of government. It restores titles to traditional leaders, abolished under the previous constitution, but denies them political power. Its most novel feature gives citizens the right to hold regular referenda on the structure of the country’s political system. All citizens 18 years of age or older have the right to vote.

Executive of Uganda

Under the 1995 constitution, the president is both head of state and head of government, and is elected by popular vote for a term of five years. Government policies are decided by a cabinet consisting of the president, vice president, and ministers who are appointed by the president and who must be approved by parliament. The president also appoints the vice president, subject to the approval of parliament. The vice president and cabinet ministers do not hold fixed terms of office, and are replaced at the discretion of the president.

Legislature of Uganda

Legislative power rests in a unicameral (single-chamber) parliament, whose 308 members serve five-year terms. Of these members, 214 are directly elected by the general public, while 94 are specially elected to represent particular interest groups (69 women, one popularly elected from each district; 10 army personnel to represent the army; 5 youth representatives; 5 workers’ representatives; and 5 representatives for persons with disabilities).

Judiciary in Uganda

The constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary. The High Court has the power to try any criminal or civil case for the first time, and also hears appeals from the local, lower magistrates’ courts. Appeals of High Court decisions are made to the Court of Appeals and from there to the Supreme Court. Issues of interpretation of the constitution may be taken directly to a bench of five judges from the Court of Appeals sitting as the Constitutional Court. Judges are appointed by the president acting on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission and with the approval of parliament.

Local Government of Uganda

Uganda is divided into 69 districts, including the city of Kampala. The districts are subdivided into counties, subcounties, parishes, and villages. The residents of each village make up its village council, which elects a governing village committee. All the village committees in the same parish form the parish’s council and elect the parish committee, which joins together with all the other parish committees in the subcounty to elect its committee, and so on. Committee elections are held every four years and one-third of the positions in each committee are reserved for women. The districts, which are responsible for much of the local public services, receive funding from the central government and also raise some of their own revenues through local taxes. Smaller units within the districts also have some autonomous powers and the right to retain a portion of the revenues they collect from local taxes.

Political Parties of Uganda

From 1986 to 2005, only the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Museveni’s umbrella political organization to which all Ugandans nominally belonged, was allowed to contest elections. In 2003 restrictions on other political parties were lifted, and Ugandans voted in a 2005 national referendum to allow multiparty elections. Major opposition parties include the Forum for Democratic Change, the Democratic Party, and the Uganda People’s Congress.

Defense of Uganda

The military, called the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces (UPDF), originated from the National Resistance Army, a guerrilla force recruited and trained by Yoweri Museveni to overthrow the government in the mid-1980s. In 2006 the UPDF had about 45,000 troops. Military service is voluntary. The military has had great influence on the political process since it took over the government in 1986. However, as civilian institutions have gained more powers under the new constitution, the army has lost some of its influence over decisions.

International and Regional Organizations in Uganda

Uganda is a member of the United Nations (UN), the Commonwealth of Nations, the African Union (AU), the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Nonaligned Movement, a group of nations that did not ally themselves with either the United States or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the Cold War period. It is also a member of the regional East African Community (EAC).


The earliest inhabitants of Uganda were hunters and gatherers who lived more than 50,000 years ago and whose stone axes have been found near the villages of Mweya and Kagera in the southwest and at Paraa in the northwest. Their descendants retreated to the mountains between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago when Bantu-speaking farmers moved into forested areas and cleared the land for crops. Iron smelting by Bantu-speaking cultures has been dated from 2,500 years ago, and Bantu pottery from 1,500 years ago. Bantu-speakers near the shores of Lake Victoria developed the banana as a staple food about 1,000 years ago. Between 600 and 700 years ago the Chwezi, a Bantu subgroup, established settlements at Bigo in western Uganda. The Chwezi were depicted in legends as supernatural, but probably were the ancestors of the region’s present-day Hima and Tutsi herders.

Precolonial Kingdoms

Between the 14th and the 16th centuries AD Nilotic-speaking herders migrated south from Sudan, displaced the Chwezi, and established dominance over preexisting farming peoples. The Nilotic speakers formed several kingdoms, notably Bunyoro, south of Lake Albert, and Ankole, west of Lake Victoria.

The kingdom of Buganda, located between Bunyoro and Lake Victoria, also developed about 500 years ago. Buganda, probably formed by a defeated claimant to the Bunyoro throne, steadily expanded over the next four centuries, largely at the expense of Bunyoro. The earliest confirmed date in Ugandan history is 1680 when a solar eclipse was recorded during the reign of Jjuuko, an early kabaka (king) of Buganda. As opposed to the omukama (king) of Bunyoro, who was chosen exclusively from the royal clan and whose chiefs had some independent authority, the kabaka of Buganda could be chosen from any clan. By the 19th century the kabaka commanded total authority over his kingdom, and all power and wealth flowed from him. He did not keep a standing army, but adult males were conscripted for war as needed.

By the 19th century the Ankole kingdom had become a caste system in which Hima herders, ruled by a king selected from the royal clan, dominated Iru farmers. Toro, Uganda’s fourth major kingdom, emerged about 1830 when a disgruntled son of the Bunyoro omukama declared the region north of Lake Victoria that he ruled independent.

Until the mid-19th century, people outside Africa took no interest in Uganda. Arab traders from Zanzibar reached the royal court of Buganda in 1844 with guns and cloth, which they traded for ivory. They also introduced the religion of Islam.

European Influence

Curiosity about the source of the Nile led to European expeditions into the region. In 1862 British explorer John Hanning Speke was welcomed to the court of Kabaka Mutesa I of Buganda. Speke continued his journey and found the point where the Nile flowed out of Lake Victoria, correctly concluding that the lake was the principal source of the Nile. British explorer Samuel White Baker and his wife, following the Nile upstream, entered Uganda from the north and in 1864 reached and named Lake Albert. On Baker’s second trip, in 1872, Kabarega, the Bunyoro omukama, attacked Baker out of fear that his subjects would become vulnerable to slave raids from Sudan, and forced Baker’s withdrawal. Anglo-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley visited the court of Buganda in 1875 while en route from Zanzibar through the Congo rain forest to the Atlantic coast.


Due to Stanley’s report that the Ganda people of Buganda would welcome Christianity, British Protestant and French Catholic missionaries visited Buganda in the late 1870s. Kabaka Mutesa I was more interested in foreign trade, arms, and military support than he was in foreign religions, but allowed missionaries into his court for diplomatic reasons. The presence of Christian missionaries in Mutesa’s kingdom helped deflect the potential threat of Egyptian annexation of Buganda by Charles George Gordon, the agent in southern Sudan of the Egyptian ruler.

Protestant, Catholic, and Islamic competition for converts, particularly among the pages at the royal court, many of whom later became chiefs, produced three religious factions. Fearing the consequences of disunity, Mutesa expelled missionaries from his court, but his son Mwanga, who succeeded Mutesa in 1884, invited them back. However, Mwanga reversed his decision in 1886 and ordered 22 pages who would not renounce their faith to be burnt to death. The Catholic victims came to be known as the Uganda Martyrs, and were canonized (declared saints) by the pope in 1964. The Islamic, Catholic, and Protestant factions combined in 1888 to overthrow Mwanga, but then warred against each other until Mwanga was restored to the throne in 1889. This period of religious violence firmly established religion as an important basis of politics.

Rise of British Control

The unsettled situation in Buganda was further complicated by competition between Britain and Germany during the Scramble for Africa, in which European nations rushed to claim African territory near the end of the 19th century. Under the Treaty of Helgoland in 1890, Germany ceded its interests in Uganda to Britain, whose government had given responsibility for governing and exploiting the area to the Imperial British East Africa Company. The company’s representative, Captain Frederick Lugard, negotiated a treaty with Mwanga and Catholic and Protestant chiefs in 1891, but the two religious factions remained hostile. To strengthen the company’s position, Lugard recruited a force of Sudanese troops in western Uganda, signing treaties with the kings of Ankole and Toro along the way and thus bringing these areas into the company’s jurisdiction. With his new soldiers—and two machine guns—Lugard and his Protestant allies from Buganda provoked and won a battle against the Catholics in 1892, thus establishing Protestant political supremacy in Buganda and later in Uganda as a whole. Mwanga remained kabaka, but had to sign a treaty accepting British “protection” in 1893.

British Protectorate

In 1894 Britain declared a protectorate over all of present-day Uganda and began the expansion of its control by invading Bunyoro in 1893 and 1894 and removing its king, Kabarega, whose troops were raiding areas under British control. Several Bunyoro counties were awarded to the Buganda government for its military assistance. These areas became known as the Lost Counties, a hotly contested issue in Ugandan politics until the 1960s. In 1897 Mwanga rebelled, but was defeated and deposed as kabaka in favor of his infant son, Daudi Cwa. Mwanga fled to German East Africa, but soon returned to join Kabarega in guerrilla opposition to British forces. In 1899 both were captured and exiled to the Seychelles.

Preeminence of Buganda

The consolidation of the protectorate created a preeminent position for Buganda, greater power for Protestants, and allowed for the ascendancy of chiefs, who served as regents for the young Buganda king. Each of these situations contributed to Uganda’s political problems during and after colonial rule. In 1900 all of these issues were formalized in the Buganda Agreement between the British and the chiefs of Buganda, which laid the basis for Buganda’s economic prosperity during British rule. The agreement gave the four-year-old king and his chiefs title to the more productive half of Buganda’s land in return for which they accepted subordination to Britain and the right of the protectorate government to levy taxes. Treaties signed between Britain and the governments of the other kingdoms (Toro in 1900, Ankole in 1901, and Bunyoro in 1933) were much less generous, particularly in grants of land.

The British introduced cotton growing in 1904, and chiefs who had land became wealthy and established the prosperity of the colony through their contributions to exports and taxes. Uganda’s growing population of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent also benefited from the new cotton industry. Indians (as the immigrants were known in Uganda) came to Uganda as laborers and traders in the thousands between the 1890s and the 1920s. By the 1920s Indian entrepreneurs owned a large percentage of Ugandan cotton processing plants and many other businesses. In the 1920s the British encouraged farmers in Buganda to grow coffee, which became increasingly profitable. Consequently, people in Buganda grew wealthy faster, received better education, and obtained more positions in the public service than those from other areas.

In addition, some chiefs from Buganda were given positions as administrators over other parts of Uganda until World War I (1914-1918). The greedy conduct and cultural chauvinism of the chiefs from Buganda caused resentment and a corresponding rise in local ethnic identifications. As a result, many people from other parts of the country feared the domination of Uganda by Buganda, a fear still held by some Ugandans.

After poor peasants who labored on the lands of chiefs of Buganda protested their living and working conditions, the protectorate government passed legislation in 1927 limiting the peasants’ rents and securing their occupation. Militant nationalism emerged following World War II (1939-1945), marked by an outbreak of urban strikes in 1945 and rural farm protests, primarily in Buganda, in 1949. The colonial government responded by introducing greater African participation in the economy, encouraging African cotton farmers to process their own cotton, and promoting agricultural cooperatives (farms owned by, and operated for the benefit of, multiple African farmers). In addition, the British democratized some local governments. In 1945 the first African representatives were allowed in the colonial legislative council. African representation in the council increased in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the same time, the government also tried to control reform by regulating the new agricultural cooperatives and supporting moderate African candidates for the council seats. In the 1950s Ugandan prosperity was further strengthened by large state- and foreign-financed infrastructure projects. The most significant was the dam and hydroelectric station on the Nile at Jinja, built in 1954, and the Kilembe copper mine on the western border, which began in 1956.

However, the new governor, Sir Andrew Cohen, caused a crisis in 1953 when he introduced a plan for a unitary Ugandan government, which implied eliminating the government’s special relationship with Buganda. Kabaka Frederick Mutesa II, until then known mostly as a playboy, opposed the plan and gained intense popular support among the Ganda. Cohen exiled him to Britain, bringing such strong demands for his return that Cohen was forced to negotiate a new agreement with the Ganda in 1955 that reaffirmed their privileges and granted additional powers to the kabaka. The kabaka, who returned in triumph, became a central political figure.

Nationalist Pressure

National demands for independence began with the formation of the Uganda National Congress (UNC) in 1952 by nationalists Ignatius Musazi and Abu Mayanja. Ganda Catholic chiefs and educated urban professionals formed the Democratic Party (DP) in 1954. In 1960 Milton Obote formed the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) by joining northern branches of the UNC and representatives, mainly from western Uganda, who had been elected to the legislative council in 1958. The DP and the UPC became the major national parties, each gaining influence by winning the support of local notable figures with rural ethnic followings in their home areas. Both parties opposed the Protestant Buganda establishment—the DP, because most of its members were Catholic, and the UPC (regarded as predominantly Protestant), because its members feared Buganda’s dominance after independence.

Buganda, for its part, felt increasingly threatened by the prospect of losing its special rights in an independent Uganda. In independence negotiations with Britain in 1961 and 1962, the Buganda administration secured further guarantees of its position. Notably, the Protestant-dominated Buganda local council was given the right to indirectly elect Buganda’s representatives to the national parliament, virtually eliminating any chance of the Catholic DP winning any seats in Buganda. Bunyoro, Ankole, and Toro received only ceremonial privileges, but that was still more than the districts that lay outside the four major kingdoms received. Most of these kingdoms and districts had an ethnic identity, so their competition to gain the privileges that Buganda carried into independence guaranteed that ethnicity would be central to postindependence disputes in Uganda.


For Buganda’s protection, the kabaka’s government formed an ethnic party, Kabaka Yekka (KY), in 1961. It made an unexpected alliance with the UPC to win preindependence elections in early 1962. Uganda became independent in October 1962 with UPC leader Milton Obote as prime minister and several KY ministers in his cabinet. A year later Uganda became a republic with the kabaka as ceremonial president. But the UPC/KY coalition split over the UPC’s insistence on holding a referendum to decide whether to return the Lost Counties to Bunyoro.

The UPC used its control over the state bureaucracy to bestow favors to its followers and to lure members of the DP to its side. However, it never consolidated its control over its own factions, and in 1966 UPC cabinet members from southern Uganda tried to force Obote out of office. Obote had the cabinet members arrested and claimed the kabaka was part of the plot. He suspended the 1962 constitution and forced an interim constitution through parliament in which Obote replaced the kabaka as president. The Buganda government responded by threatening to secede. Obote ordered the army, under the command of newly appointed Army Chief of Staff Idi Amin, to take control over the Buganda government. The army defeated the small force defending the kabaka, who fled in disguise into exile. In 1967 Obote’s government adopted a new constitution that abolished all four kingdoms and eliminated federal powers. In a futile effort to expand his support, Obote adopted radical policies that expanded state control over the economy. In 1969, following an assassination attempt on Obote, the DP and other minor parties were banned. The UPC remained the only existing party, though the constitution was not amended to prohibit the formation of other parties.

The Amin Years

Obote’s control over the army grew more uncertain as Amin consolidated his power. Obote placed allies in senior military posts in an attempt to diminish Amin’s control over troops. However, Amin overthrew the civilian government in 1971, relying on members of the Nubian ethnic group within the army, who controlled the army’s tank battalion. Though both Amin and Obote were northerners, Amin was a Nubian and a Muslim, while Obote was a Langi and a Protestant. On taking power, Amin ordered the murder of soldiers he regarded as loyal to Obote. He soon also authorized attacks on civilians and ignored killings by his followers. Eventually, he was also responsible for the murder of several of his cabinet ministers, the chief justice, and the Protestant archbishop. Several hundred thousand people may have been killed and thousands more fled the country. No groups were spared, though the educated were singled out by the uneducated ruling group, and the ethnic Acholi and Langi also were singled out, because Obote was thought to have derived support from those groups.

Amin spurred the shift by several African states to align with Islamic nations rather than with the Jewish state of Israel in the Middle East conflict over possession of the historic region of Palestine (see Arab-Israeli Conflict). After receiving aid from Libya in 1972, Amin expelled all Israelis from Uganda. Later that year he also expelled almost all Indians, who had controlled almost the entire commercial sector. At first these bold strokes made Amin popular among Ugandans, especially among those who were given control of the Indian businesses. As the economy contracted, however, shortages occurred, foreign exchange disappeared, and inflation increased, and Amin lost most of his popular support. Though condemned by much of the international community, Amin received military assistance from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Libya during most of his regime. In addition, both the United States and the British governments facilitated sales of military equipment by private businesses and arranged training for Ugandan “police agents” (even after the United States broke diplomatic relations and closed its embassy in Uganda in 1973). The military aid, business opportunities from the departed Indian communities, and money siphoned from state funds helped Amin buy the loyalty of his military. Nevertheless, he faced several attempted coups.

As a principled opponent of military rule, Julius Nyerere, the president of neighboring Tanzania, denounced Amin’s seizure of power and permitted Obote and other opponents of Amin to reside in Tanzania and, initially, train guerrillas there. In 1978 several divisions of the Ugandan army mutinied against Amin’s rule. To distract the nation’s attention from his weakening grip on power, Amin ordered loyal troops to invade the Kagera region of Tanzania just over Uganda’s southern border. The Tanzanian government equipped a large army that, together with two small Ugandan contingents (one loyal to Obote, the other to guerrilla leader Yoweri Museveni), quickly drove the invaders out of Tanzania. This military force then invaded Uganda and ousted the Amin government, forcing Amin to flee to Libya in 1979. The war lasted less than six months, but the looting by Ugandans and Tanzanians during that period caused as much damage to Uganda’s economy as Amin’s policies had over the preceding eight years.

Return of Obote

A 20-month period of transition followed, with the goal of preparing for elections. However, factional intrigue stemming from Uganda’s complex ethnic and religious divisions resulted in three short-lived provisional governments during this period, led by Yusufu Lule, Godfrey Binaisa, and Paulo Muwanga. The 1980 election revived the competition between the UPC and the DP. The DP appeared to win, but Muwanga, a UPC stalwart, seized personal control over the vote count and declared a UPC victory. Museveni’s newly formed party, the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), ran a poor third.

Obote took power for a second time, but with an even narrower base of support than before. In addition, Museveni rejected the UPC victory and started a multiethnic guerrilla movement, the National Resistance Army (NRA), in rural Buganda in 1981. The UPC government responded with a savage campaign against the Ganda in the region to deprive the NRA of supplies. Corruption, torture, and deprivation of human rights by UPC and government officials exceeded the worst years of the Amin regime. In 1985 Acholi officers, complaining that Acholi soldiers had to fight on the front lines while Langi officers and men from Obote’s area stayed safely behind, staged a coup. Again, Obote was forced to flee to exile, this time in Zambia. Acholi army officer Tito Okello declared himself head of state in July 1985, but he had the support of only a fraction of the army, and was unable to establish control over the country. After inconclusive negotiations in Kenya between the combatants, the NRA marched victoriously into Kampala in early 1986.

Museveni’s Uganda

The National Resistance Movement (NRM), the political wing of the NRA, immediately created a broad-based government by inviting members of other parties, particularly the DP, but also the UPC, to join the government at all levels, including the cabinet. However, it insisted on its own version of popular democracy. Museveni argued that because the NRM was a “movement” open to all Ugandans, it alone could contest elections. The old parties, he insisted, competed on the basis of religion and ethnicity, not on issues of development. Museveni established a system of local government whereby the smallest villages were indirectly represented in the province-level administrative bodies. He also oversaw the diversification of the Ugandan economy and adopted market-oriented economic development programs, to which he adhered strictly.

Foreign Policy

Under Museveni, Uganda practiced an aggressive foreign policy. The country was intermittently engaged in hostilities with Kenya during the late 1980s due to Kenyan support of antigovernment Ugandan rebels. Uganda’s support of southern Sudanese rebels elicited sporadic attacks by the Sudanese military.

In 1990 the Ugandan government allowed considerable numbers of Rwandans in the Ugandan army to create an invasion force to attack and eventually defeat the Rwandan government. In 1996 Uganda allegedly helped the Congolese and Rwandan forces who crossed into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and overthrew President Mobutu Sese Seko. In 1998 Ugandan military units helped the Congolese rebels battling the forces of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who was then DRC president.

Domestic Issues

In domestic politics during the 1990s, the government took a number of bold steps. It supported a lengthy constitutional review that involved much public dialogue. The new constitution, adopted in 1995, permitted the return of traditional monarchs as cultural but not political figures. Several areas, including Buganda, promptly coronated kings. In 1996 Uganda held national elections for parliament and the presidency. All Ugandans, regardless of their party affiliation under previous governments, could contest the elections, but the government prohibited party activity and all candidates ran on a nonparty basis. International observers declared these elections free and fair. Ugandan voters chose to retain the country’s nonparty system of government in a 2000 referendum, but voted to switch to a multiparty system in 2005. Museveni was reelected in 2001 and 2006.

Since the late 1980s the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a fundamentalist Christian guerrilla group, has opposed Museveni’s administration in the Acholi areas of the north. The LRA, originally funded by the Sudanese government, has caused much damage and loss of life, leading to popular discontent with Museveni in the north.

Under Museveni, Uganda made remarkable strides toward reclaiming its international reputation since the bloody Amin and second Obote periods. Museveni and the NRM accomplished three remarkable goals: an army that respects the rights of civilians in peaceful areas, disciplined economic management, and democratic elections. Nevertheless, in the early 21st century, Uganda had eradicated neither the LRA nor corruption in government, and its aggressive foreign policy periodically raised the ire of its neighbors.

Museveni became embroiled in more controversy as he prepared for reelection in February 2006. He caused international concern when he facilitated changes in the constitution in 2005 that allowed him to run for a third term. In addition, his leading opponent, Kizza Besigye, claimed that the government sought to derail his campaign by charging him with rape and treason in the run-up to the balloting. Besigye was cleared of the rape charges but had to appear in court repeatedly during the campaign to defend himself. Besigye filed suit charging that the February polling had been rigged. In April 2006 Uganda’s Supreme Court validated Museveni’s election victory. The court declared in a split decision that despite irregularities in the election, the evidence presented would not have reversed the results. Museveni was sworn into office for a third term in May 2006.

Ceasefire with Rebel Group

In August 2006 the Ugandan government signed a truce with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Under the truce the rebels would leave Uganda and come under the protection of the southern Sudanese regional government (see Sudan). The ceasefire was to be followed by peace negotiations. Still unresolved was the issue of war crimes charges brought against leaders of the LRA by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Ugandan government offered amnesty to the LRA leaders, but ICC officials said they were still seeking the top LRA leaders, including its founder, Joseph Kony. The ICC brought charges against them of murder, rape, using young girls as sex slaves, and forcibly conscripting children into the rebel army. In October 2006 the LRA said it would refuse to sign a peace treaty unless the ICC’s arrest warrants were dropped. By 2009 Kony was still eluding arrest, and units of the LRA were in hiding in neighboring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Kony was believed to be in the DRC, where a civil war complicated efforts to capture him and crush the LRA revolt. Human rights groups charged that the LRA continued to kidnap children and use them as conscripts and sex slaves.

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