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Uganda: Biography Of A Nation

Updated Tuesday, 8th August 2006

Discover more about this diverse country, its people, history, government and economy in an article by Carolyn Baxter entitled 'Uganda - an overview'

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African school children voting Student Masesco The country
Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa, bordered by Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. At 236,000 square kilometres area it’s slightly smaller than the UK (244,820 sq km); about 20% of Uganda is inland water and swamps, with the rest being forest, and savannah grasslands; there are mountains to the west and east, and Lake Victoria forms the southern border. The climate is tropical, except for the north east which is semi-arid. The former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called Uganda the ‘Pearl of Africa’ because of its great natural beauty - the countryside is green with plentiful water and rolling hills. It is claimed that the Source of the Nile lies in Uganda, at Jinja, east of Kampala. Both the Albert and Victoria Nile, also run through the country. There are many lakes and the two wet seasons mean the country is well-supplied with water.

The country obtained its independence from the colonial power, Britain, on October 9 1962. Its official title is the Republic of Uganda, its currency the Ugandan shilling, and its national symbol the red crested crane.

The people
The population is approximately 27 million, with just over half aged 14 and under, and just under half aged 15-64. The average age is about 15 years, and only 2.4% of people are aged 65 and over, compared with 16% in Britain, where the average age is 39 years.

There are about thirty different tribes in Uganda, plus small Asian and European communities. There are four main linguistic groups, which can be divided roughly by region - Luganda is spoken in the central area, Luo in the north, Ateso in the east and Ruynakole in the west, but there are also a number of other indigenous languages. The official language is English. Around two thirds of the people are Christian, 16% Muslim and 18% follow indigenous religions.

Before the arrival of Arab traders and then Europeans, Uganda consisted of several kingdoms - Toro, Ankole, Bunyoro, Busoga and Buganda - the last of which Uganda gets its name from. It was declared a British protectorate in 1894; the colonial administration introduced coffee and cotton as cash crops; but the traditional kingdoms were granted a wide degree of administrative autonomy. The foundations of inter-tribal conflict were laid in colonial times with British policy favouring certain tribes, especially the Buganda, over others.

After independence, between 1962 and 1986 there was a succession of governments. The most notorious of these is probably that of Idi Amin whose regime wrecked the economy and was responsible for the deaths of up to 300,000 people. The National Resistance Army(NRA) was founded in 1982 by Yoweri Museveni; it fought a guerilla war against Obote government troops; Obote was forced into exile and Museveni took power in January 1986.


Student Masesco Government
Museveni faced considerable challenges - the economy and much of the infrastructure had been destroyed, up to one million people were dead and up to two million refugees. He has sought to promote reconciliation - the NRA was renamed the National Reconciliation Movement (NRM) and he has included conservative figures in his government. In addition to the President who is both chief of state and head of government, there is a Vice-President, a Prime Minister and 303 National Assembly members, of whom 214 are directly elected by popular vote and 81 nominated by legally established special interest groups - women, the army, youth and labour. Other political parties are allowed to exist (there are about 5 main ones) but they cannot field candidates, so government is effectively one-party, or ‘no party’ as the NRM is said to be a mass organization which claims all Ugandans’ loyalty.

Presidential, parliamentary and local elections were held in 1996 and again in 2001; the term of office is five years. A referendum held in 2001 to decide the retention of ‘Movement’ system resulted in a vote in favour of keeping it, but turn-out was low and there were criticisms that the views of the organization supporting a multi-party system were not allowed to be fully expressed. Museveni has said he will stand down in 2006, when elections are due again, but it remains to be seen whether he will do so if defeated. The media (press, TV and radio) , and the judiciary are remarkably free from government control. Attempts have been made to tackle corruption and a Human Rights Commission has been set up.

There are still pockets of armed resistance, most notably from the Lord’s Resistance Army whose activities in northern Uganda have resulted in people moving into ‘protected villages’, and which has conducted massacres in and burning of villages, and the abduction of at least 20,000 children The LRA’s original quasi-religious ideology has now largely been discarded, and it indulges in killing, maiming and looting the Acholi people which it initially set out to liberate. It received support from the Sudanese Government, because Uganda supported the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. In 1999 both countries agreed not to support the other’s insurgents, and 2002 they signed a protocol which allowed the Ugandan Army to take military action against the LRA in southern Sudan. The Ugandan Army 'Operation Iron Fist' has had some success against the LRA, and attempts to set up a peace process were initiated - but the LRA leader failed to turn up. Parts of northern Uganda are highly dangerous to travel around safely and up to 1.6 million people live in refugee camps  because of the continuing violence and instability.

The Ugandan public health system is inadequate, with only 49% of people living within 5 kilometres of a health facility. There are 98 hospitals for the whole country, of which 55 are state run and the rest by private foundations, generally religious or charitable. Health provision was affected by the conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s, so many facilities are in need of refurbishment, and assistance has been provided by both the Ugandan government and foreign donors to improve them, from primary level upwards. Diseases such as typhoid, hepatitis, bilharzia and malaria are endemic; most people cannot afford nets to prevent or drugs to control the latter. Childhood immunization rates are low, and poor nutrition is also a health issue, with an acute malnutrition rate of 5%; the dietary staple is maize meal (posho) or steamed plantain (matoke), neither of which are very nutritious but act as fillers to accompany chicken or goat meat.

In September 2004 the government set up a commission to examine the integration of traditional medicine into the health system. This kind of medicine would be more accessible (there is one healer per 150 people compared to one doctor per 18,000 people) and cheaper, though some practices would need to be regulated against because they would be dangerous.

Life expectancy for men is 50 years and for women 52 - in Britain, the rates are 75 and 80 years respectively. The infant mortality rate is 97 per thousand births - in Britain it is 5.67 ; about 63 % of the total population have access to clean water and 53% to sanitation - in urban areas the figures are 43% and 63% and in rural areas 30% and 28% respectively.

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is also a major challenge, affecting about 14% of the adult population, and it has clearly impacted on life expectancy rates. The government has, however, run vigorous and explicit campaigns to raise awareness, to encourage changes in sexual behaviour, and to promote condom use. Although more recently a heavier emphasis has been placed on abstinence, the official attitude to AIDS contrasts strongly with that in other African countries, and there is some evidence the disease is in decline in the 15-19 year old age group. AIDS also presents social policy challenges because of the large numbers of orphans who lack parents or relatives to care for them.



Traditional dancing The economy
Museveni chose to liberalize the economy, despite his Marxist leanings, and the country has a free market economic system. Foreign investment has been encouraged, along with the return of Asian business people who were expelled en masse in 1972 by Idi Amin. The economy has grown at an average of about 5-6% per annum, though many have yet to benefit from this; the average income per head is U$240 per year, and 35 to 38%% of the population are estimated to live below the poverty line. The population is also growing at a rate of 2.97 % per annum, despite the high infant and maternal mortality rates.


Uganda remains heavily dependent on aid and heavily in debt, to the tune of $4.5 billion in 2004. Debt and its accompanying repayments hamper poverty reduction strategies and infrastructure investment including education, health and communications, especially in rural areas. 14% of the population is urban with the largest concentration in Kampala, whose population of 1.2 million is slightly larger than that of Birmingham, and about double that of Edinburgh. Other large towns with a population of over 50,000 are Jinja, Gulu and Lira. Most people, however, live and work in the countryside; the land is generally fertile and well-watered. About 80% work in agriculture, 5% in industry and 13% in service industries. In Britain, the comparable proportions are 1.5% in agriculture, 26.5% in industry and 72.7% in service industries. Most of Uganda's exports are agricultural products - coffee, fish, tobacco and cut flowers, and the price received for these is driven by external global factors.

Transport links are difficult and slow, as 6.7% of roads are sealed and there is only one train line, used for freight, between Kampala and Kasese. Sugar milling, brewing and cement production are among the industries; main imports are items such as vehicles, capital equipment and cereals. Natural resources include copper, cobalt, limestone, salt and alluvial gold; in 2003 it was reported that there were oil reserves in the Semliki Valley. At the moment fuel is imported and is consequently expensive.

Much farming remains small-scale or subsistence, but there are also tea and coffee estates. Cattle are both a source of milk and of wealth, especially for the Ankole people who live in the south west of Uganda, and the Karamajong in the north east. Population growth is putting pressure on land, for food production and housing, and there are also problems of deforestation, poaching, and pollution. Lake Victoria has suffered as a result of the introduction of non-native fish and plants, and from the effects of sewage, industrial effluents and chemical run-offs.

One of Uganda’s biggest natural assets is its scenery and wildlife; it has about fifteen national parks and reserves with the biggest attraction probably mountain gorillas in the south west, close to Rwanda. There are also many bird species, savannah game and forest animals which draw overseas visitors. Efforts are being made to promote eco-friendly tourism, with community involvement. Visits to tea plantations and factories take place in some areas, and there are also heritage tours which include sites of historical interest. One tourist attraction, white water rafting at Jinja (visited by Prince William in 2003), is threatened by the construction of a dam further upstream to generate electricity - only 3% of Ugandans can get electricity. The rafting companies are mostly owned by and attract foreigners, so should the rapids be preserved for them or flooded so that local people might benefit from an improved electrical supply? The dam project has been beset by problems with its effectiveness, generating capacity and costs questioned by environmentalists, and concerns expressed by local people whose land and burial sites will be drowned.

Uganda has made great progress following the chaotic period after Independence thanks in great part to the efforts made by the Museveni regime, which has brought an improved degree of political and economic stability, and has started to address issues of education, health and social welfare provision. Problems like external debt and internal conflict remain, but many of the achievements of the past 20 years, if built upon and strengthened, could make Uganda a potential model for other African countries.


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