Uganda's past, Ugandan futures: debates over equality and inclusion in 1979-80

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: History


This project will show why the past matters to Uganda's future. Designed around a focused study of a key moment - the months following Idi Amin's fall from power in 1979 - it will create an interdisciplinary team that works together to improve understanding of the past and disseminate that knowledge to multiple audiences in Uganda to inform contemporary debates about persistent inequality and exclusion . Through this process of research and dissemination, the project will contribute to SDGs 4, 5 and 10.
A series of workshops will bring early-career researchers together with more experienced colleagues. In a context where early-career Ugandan scholars face severe challenges in securing research experience and mentoring, the project will make possible a programme of archival and interview research that allows early-career scholars to develop their research skills and to enrich the team through their distinctive perspectives and insights, and will enable the sharing of ideas on analysis and dissemination. Through the involvement of media (newspaper and local radio) and a civil society partner whose work focuses on promoting gender equality, the project will co-produce outputs that present research results to non-academic audiences, demonstrating the ability of research in the humanities to speak to contemporary challenges, showcasing the importance of scholarship that is sometimes undervalued, and consistently underfunded, in contemporary Uganda.
Amin's fall opened a moment of possibility. Seventeen years after independence - years that had seen the abrogation of the constitution, the introduction of one-party rule, a military coup and a prolonged period of destabilising and terrifying violence - Ugandans had the opportunity to start again. The next year and a half saw active, multi-vocal debates over the future. In newspapers, on the radio, in urban streets and in villages, Ugandans pondered and argued - and took action - in pursuit of multiple visions of a Ugandan future.
The unhappy end to those turbulent months - the rigged elections of December 1980 that brought former president Milton Obote back to power - has meant that the period has been largely ignored in scholarship, remembered simply as a time of the creeping spread of Obote's influence. The project will challenge that presentation, and resurrect this as a time of hope, and of a contest over the future. This actively engaged an elite but also spread far more widely to a public that was - for the first time in many years - able to ask critical questions about what it might mean to be Ugandan, and about who should hold authority. The questions of the time were pressing, and multiple, for colonial and post-colonial states had created new kinds of inequality and exclusion, disadvantaging women and marginalizing whole regions of the country: what form should political representation take? How could inequality be overcome? What would it mean to be a good citizen of a new Uganda?
Those questions remain pressing today. The project will look back to the debates of those few hectic months - captured in newspapers and radio broadcasts of the time, and still live in the memories of those who took part - to recover a history of popular, as well as elite, debate over the nature of government and citizenship. It will produce an edited collection for academic audiences; and a series of media outputs - from newspaper articles to blog posts to radio talkshows - for wider audiences. Working with partners from civil society, the project will develop a model for using research-based knowledge of the past in contemporary policy and grassroots debates. Through research and co-production of outputs the project will create a team, involving early-career Ugandan scholars, that can bid successfully for further funding; and will show public and policy-makers how useful and important the study of the past can be.

Planned Impact

The project has two overall objectives in terms of impact, one of which will lead to the other.
The first is to use research on Uganda's recent past - in this case, the period 1979-80, which saw an efflorescence of debate about governance and the nature of citizenship - to contribute to continuing contemporary debates over inequality and exclusion in Uganda. In particular, it will challenge assumptions that current patterns of inequality and exclusion are inevitable, or that they were simply unquestioned in the past. By exploring previous debates over these issues, the project will show that the present grows from past decisions, and that there are - and have been - other possibilities.
The second is to use this example to demonstrate the wider relevance of interdisciplinary research on the past, involving humanities techniques, to contemporary debates. Informed by an awareness that institutions matter, but may be used in different ways, it will also use those past debates to encourage contemporary reflection on a key question: how do the formal structures of government and representation engage with popular ideas about proper behaviour: how do people look to create government that is moral? The project will show that Uganda's past is itself an intellectual resource for meeting the challenges of the future, and will involve a partnership with media and civil society that allows the production of outputs that reach advocacy groups, policy-makers and the public at large.
Inequality and exclusion continue to be major development challenges for Uganda. At independence in 1962, the country was marked by significant disparities. These took an evidently gendered form: in Uganda, as in much of colonial Africa, men had benefited disproportionately from the educational and employment opportunities created by colonialism, and the state-centred developmentalist economy that emerged from colonial rule was very much male-dominated. Disparities were also regional, with wealth and educational achievement concentrated in southern/central Uganda, and especially in the kingdom of Buganda.
The situation was complicated by disagreements over how to manage cultural diversity, and in particular the place and role of customary authority - a challenge that centred on the nature and role of the kingdom of Buganda itself. These questions - how to enable women's political inclusion; how to overcome political (and consequent economic) centralisation; how to build on diversity rather than suppressing - have continued to be at the heart of Uganda's politics. Reforms introduced since 1986 - creating new forms of representation for women, channelling resources through a local government system with multiple levels of elected representation - have created new institutional forms to address these challenges but are far from overcoming them, and in Uganda (again, as elsewhere in Africa) formal decentralisation seems in some ways to have enhanced central control.
There continues to be debate over institutional forms, and this project will draw on the brief, but intense debates of 1979-80 to contribute to these. It will do justice to innovative ideas about equality and citizenship that have been forgotten or neglected.
In reaching those audiences, the project will use an innovative programme of co-production with non-academic partners to demonstrate that study of the past can be both productive and relevant, and that humanities researchers can work with media and civil society to improve wider understandings of the complex roots of inequality and poverty. The project will challenge a presentism in Ugandan public life and combat an apparent tendency to discount certain forms of scholarship - in particular in the humanities - as luxuries that are irrelevant to the needs of a developing country.


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