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At Long Last


new internationalist
issue 208 - June 1990

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[image, unknown] BUILD
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Hope - at long last
Slowly and painfully Ugandans are rebuilding a country devastated by war, tyranny
and AIDS. Catharine Watson explains how ordinary people have taken control.

Lwemwedde village is hidden in the forest. Elephant grass has choked the track to it ever since the army of former president Milton Obote killed around 300,000 people between 1981 and 1986 in this region of Central Uganda. When the war ended, piles of bones sat along each road.

Obote's rampage followed an election which he lost despite using soldiers to intimidate voters and switch ballots. He seized power by force and set out to purge the guerilla force called the National Resistance Army, led by Yoweri Museveni. This army had helped overthrow the notorious dictator Idi Amin with the aim of achieving democracy.

But it had a different vision of democracy. Previous attempts at Western-style democracy had sunk into a mire of corruption and lack of accountability. So whenever Museveni 's guerillas liberated an area they set Out to replace political parties with resistance councils and committees accountable to the people.

The new structures caught on and they were the basis on which the war was fought, dismantling forms of state authority at the rural level and replacing them with new forms of popular power.

In January 1986 the National Resistance Army won the war. Museveni became President. And, ever since, the resistance committees have flourished.

The system is like a pyramid. Each committee or council is represented up to parish and sub-county level. From here representatives are elected onto the National Resistance Council (NRC) which functions as a parliament.

The Government has no power over who is on the NRC. The only condition for election is that a person is over 18 and has not been involved in Amin's or Obote's intelligence and torture agencies. Even Museveni's opponents can sit on the Council and hold senior positions. But if representatives misbehave, they can be removed by a vote of no confidence.

Slowly the resistance committees and councils are reversing the anti-democratic trends of the last 20 years.

Most of the local committees' time is spent on judicial work. This is immensely popular with ordinary Ugandans because in the past justice was only for those with money. Now resistance committees judge cases of assault, criminal damage, land, paternity and inheritance disputes.

The committees even intervened when the National Resistance Army was itself guilty of some gruesome human-rights abuses. Now the army can only make sweeps against rebels with the committees' go-ahead. This civilian control over soldiers is revolutionary in a country which cowered under the rule of the gun for 15 years.

In Mbale, committees have arrested corrupt co-operative officials, summoned bank managers and magistrates to explain lapses in duty and arrested soldiers who have taken bribes.

The system is not perfect. In Tororo and Inganga Catholics who suffered under local despots have taken over the committees and 'revenged' themselves on Protestants by arranging their arrest. The committees haven't stopped Karimojong warriors raiding cattle. Nor have they liberated women - or often sided with them. They have not made poor people rich.

But the committees have great popular support. Officials are unpaid. And although hundreds have been killed by rebels loyal to Obote, Amin and the charismatic Alice Lakwena and her Holy Spirit movement, committees are still working bravely on in rebel zones. 'They are the means by which we can pull this nation up from the days of terror,' says one official in downtown Kampala.

These small democratic structures are quietly changing a country that has suffered unparalleled economic, social and moral collapse. Progress is bound to be slow. But it is coming.

Catharine Watson is a Uganda-based freelance journalist and co-author of Aid, Rhetoric and Reality (Pluto Press 1985).


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Build democracy
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The problem
National democracy scarcely exists in Africa. Governments use patronage rather than procedures to stay in power. And individuals shelter from the state behind personal networks of influence. There is often no free press. And voluntary organizations are either co-opted by the powerful or disbanded. Most people cannot participate in political processes because of poverty, poor education or coercion. And where elections do prompt change, the resulting conflict frequently ends in a military coup.


The facts

  • Out of 45 black African nations only five - Botswana, the Gambia, Mauritius, Namibia and Senegal - are multi-party democracies. Twenty-three are military dictatorships. The rest are one-party states.
  • During the last 30 years there have been 'successful' coups in over 25 African countries.


The way forward
Development should go hand in hand with democracy - ordinary people must participate in decision-making processes at all levels. Co-operatives peasant farmers' groups must be encouraged. And local methods of co-operation should be strengthened. The right to organize politically is essential. So is a free press. The two countries with the best economic performance in Africa - Botswana and Mauritius - both have free presses.

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New Internationalist issue 208 magazine cover This article is from the June 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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