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At the time of the first European exploration of what we know as Uganda, three main kingdoms existed - Buganda, Kitara, and Karagwe. Each was ruled by a king with separate laws and customs. These are thought to have their origins back in the 16th century and the land before this time was probably occupied by Khoisan Bushmen and Batwa (pygmies, to use the old name for this ancient people, many of whom still live in remote forest regions of Uganda).
The first Europeans to visit Uganda were German missionaries in 1849 who sent reports back to Europe of ‘great lakes and snowy mountains’. Then in 1862, the explorer John Speke found the source of the Nile at Ripon Falls near present day Jinja. The British colonialists were next to arrive and they made Uganda their own in 1893 - hence the very English names of Uganda’s lakes and national parks.
Uganda achieved independence from Britain in 1962, and for a moment it was thought to have the best prospects for prosperity of any of the newly independent African states. In particular, the country’s national parks had abundant game in lush settings, and animal numbers were higher than in Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa. But it wasn’t long - thanks to a series of inept and despotic regimes - before things started to go seriously wrong for Uganda.
The first of the dictators was President Milton Obote. He banned opposition parties in 1969, and rewrote the constitution putting all the power in his own hands. Next up was the infamous Idi Amin. He overthrew Obote in a 1971 coup and made himself President of Uganda, King of Scotland, and Master of all the Fishes in the Sea (his inaugural speech was that of a man with a warped mind). A former sergeant in the British colonial army, the unhinged Amin directed a reign of terror for eight years, during which 300 000 opponents of his dictatorship were murdered, many more were tortured, and society effectively collapsed.
The educated classes were first to be targetted, followed by the 70 000-strong Asian community, mostly traders and business people. In 1972 they were ordered out of the country with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Blatantly using them as a scapegoat for the troubled economy, Amin grabbed the US$1000 million in cash and assets they were forced to leave behind. He then threw out the British companies with interests in tea plantations and other industries, and once again squandered the US$500 million they left behind in investments.
Uganda under Amin became a wasteland, governed by a tyrannical, inept leader, dressed in shades and combat fatigues and protected by a pet security force of armed and financially rewarded henchmen. Anybody who challenged him was killed or thrown into jail while his wayward armies managed to destroy most of the animals in Uganda’s unprotected national parks. Then in 1978 Amin’s insanity reached fever pitch when he decided to invade Tanzania. But he severely underestimated the force of the Tanzanian army, who joined forces with Ugandan nationalists and quickly turned around and counter-invaded Uganda. Amin was finally ousted and fled to Libya in 1979. A few years later, Gaddafi threw him out after a quarrel, and he died in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in 2003. Few Ugandans mourned his death.
Obote subsequently returned to office but soon found himself fighting various guerrilla groups including the remnants of Amin’s army and Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army. A civil war broke out between the various movements and ethnic groups that claimed another 100 000 lives, and the interminable conflict dragged on until 1986, when the National Resistance Army finally took control and Yoweri Museveni was sworn in as president.
Museveni is now in his fourth term of office and the economy has grown steadily, foreign investment has increased and many Asian Ugandans have returned to reclaim their businesses. Though the majority of Ugandans still live in poverty, and the Aids epidemic has struck hard in Uganda, the country remains in considerably better shape than its war-torn neighbours, even after the horror years of Amin and his successors.