Saddam and Amin: lessons unlearned
It is a year since the invasion of Iraq and its transformation under American rule began. While much has been written in the meantime about Iraq's reconstruction, little has been made of a very apt comparison with the reconstruction of Uganda after the fall of Idi Amin in 1979. This is ironic, since last year commentators such as Lord Meghnad Desai, Frederick Forsyth, Christopher Hitchens, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jose Ramos-Horta and former Mail on Sunday editor Steward Steven were more than happy to compare Tanzania's invasion and overthrow of Amin with the conquest of Iraq. They argued then that both invasions were illegal according to international law but had good consequences nonetheless.
Yet when it comes to the rebuilding of Iraq, pundits and politicians have ignored Uganda in favour of the more positive examples of Germany and Japan. Of course, as Will Hutton pointed out last year in the Observer, "Iraq, it is obvious, is not in the same situation as post-war Germany or Japan. Rather, the entire apparatus of a capitalist democracy has to be painfully created from scratch - an exercise in state building from outside on a scale that has never been attempted before." But Hutton also neglects Uganda, which was about as far away from a capitalist democracy in 1979 as any country could be. It is high time the Ugandan case is examined in detail to see what it can show us about the future of Iraq.
After eight years of destroying Uganda, Amin launched a hapless invasion of north-west Tanzania in October 1978. His move backfired, leading to a counter-invasion by the Tanzanian army, which managed to work its way to the Ugandan capital of Kampala in short speed. Amin flew to Libya in April 1979, leaving Tanzania in sole charge of the country. Yet problems with the 10,000 Tanzanian troops occupying Uganda - who were unsupported by any significant UN force, as with Iraq today - began almost immediately. While initially welcomed as an obvious improvement over Amin's thuggish soldiers, the soldiers were "looting houses and demanding money at gunpoint," ex-President Yusuf Lule claimed, a point confirmed by Gregory Jaynes of the New York Times, who wrote that the Tanzanians "use their weapons to commandeer their basic needs from civilians."
Furthermore, thousands of people in the north-east part of Uganda starved to death, since the Tanzanian troops could not ensure the safety of UN food relief deliveries, and the Tanzanians were also unable to prevent pro-Amin rebels from Sudan and Zaire from invading and occupying the north-western part of the country. Again, the parallels with contemporary Iraq should be obvious, with child malnutrition and infant mortality doubling since the war while unknown numbers of foreign terrorists continue to enter the country through porous borders.
Politically, the fact that Uganda's former President Milton Obote had spent the Amin years in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam made many Ugandans immediately suspicious of Nyerere, whom they suspected wanted to re-install Obote as President - thus paralleling the Iraqi distrust of Paul Wolfowitz's favourite son, Ahmad Chalabi.
It was, in any case, immediately apparent that Nyerere held ultimate power over the provisional Ugandan government which took over after Amin fled. The first post-conflict president, Professor Lule, claimed that he was overthrown after only 68 days in office because he wanted Tanzanian troops to leave. When Lule's successor Godfrey Binaisa tried to dismiss the pro-Obote minister Paulo Muwanga from his government in February 1980, Nyerere forced Binaisa to give Muwanga another cabinet post; three months later, Binaisa himself was dismissed for trying to replace yet another Obote supporter. Muwanga then took the reigns for the rest of the year as the country prepared for elections which, most observers agreed, had little chance of real legitimacy due to the chaotic condition of the country. At the time The Economist noted that "the government's control over the countryside is tenuous; regional administration barely exists; banditry is rife." Sound familiar?
The election took place in December 1980, 20 months after the overthrow of Amin - exactly as long as it will be in Iraq if elections are held at the end of this year, as called for by Kofi Annan. The leader of one of the four political parties involved, the future and current president of Uganda Yoweri Museveni, attempted to have the election declared illegal since both Obote and Nyerere had already ensured who the winner would be: not only had Muwanga had replaced the country's chief Supreme Court justice with one of Obote's former ministers, but, in 17 of the country's 126 constituencies, members of Obote's Uganda People's Congress Party (UPC) ran unopposed, thanks to intimidation and violence directed against opposition politicians.
The election itself was a sight to behold. Many residents of the capital city, Kampala, whose residents were largely anti-Obote, had to wait up to 18 hours to vote because the polling stations did not have enough ballots or boxes. When the results started to come in that the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, was doing well upcountry, Muwanga halted the counting and took charge of the situation, claiming that no results would be announced until he had personally endorsed them. Thanks to international pressure he reversed this decision a day later, but only after his work had seen the UPC regain the lead. And so on: one member of the Commonwealth team there to observe the elections claimed that "the election commission is the most incompetent that I've ever seen."
After the election Obote went on to rule Uganda for another four-and-a-half years before being deposed in yet another coup d'état. Even before the Tanzanian troops left - accused of banditry and cattle-stealing through the end of their stay - Yoweri Museveni had started a rebellion in the central area of the country in response to the corrupt election. The ill-trained Ugandan Army took over from the Tanzanians, and initiated a slaughter of the region's inhabitants, the Baganda, that ended up killing roughly the same number of Ugandans as were murdered under Amin - some 200,000 to 300,000 people - but in half the time, thereby making Obote twice the killer that Amin was.
Yet comparatively little of this massive violence reached the western press, largely for two reasons. First, Obote did not eat his captives, as Amin was (incorrectly) reputed to do, and his drinking problems and age did not make him as media-friendly as the buffoonish and boyish Amin. Second, Obote's acceptance of Uganda's first Structural Adjustment Program and IMF loans in 1982 endeared him to the West and was therefore given breathing room to carry out his massacres quietly. It was only thanks to the 1986 victory of Museveni and his National Resistance Army, unsupported by any outside forces for most of its campaign, that Obote and his bloodthirsty army were ousted.
Of course, one wouldn't expect glib media commentators to remember the details of post-Amin Uganda, just as many also seem unaware of, and uninterested in, the intricacies of post-Taliban Afghanistan. They continue to ask the eternally popular question, namely whether Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein or not. The problem is, of course, that trying to answer such a question is ultimately specious; as the New York Times noted in November 1980, "a year ago, the question given most currency in Uganda was whether it was actually better off without Amin. It is not asked quite so often now, but is still not easy to answer." Indeed - although one wonders what the response had the question been asked only a couple of years later when Obote and his army was in the midst of their massacres.
In the end one must avoid such an easy and popular question and instead ask a more difficult one, namely whether the Iraqi people will be allowed to select their future government without it being decided for them by the US. In answering this question one can only hope that post-Saddam Iraq will be spared the fate of post-Amin Uganda.