Uganda in the 1980s bore the imprint of complex stratification systems that had evolved well before colonial agents arrived in the area. These, in turn, were shaped in part by the Arab slave trade that flourished in the mid-nineteenth century, providing laborers for French sugar and tobacco plantations on several Indian Ocean islands. Tens of thousands of slave captives were taken from northern Uganda, where societies had been organized primarily around descent rules, ritual needs, and cattle. British imperial agents arriving in the north in the late nineteenth century encountered many small villageand lineage-based social units specialized for mobility and warfare.
Karamojong societies in the northeast were highly segmented, allowing people to move away and rejoin a group without disrupting social relations or their pastoral life-style. West of the Karamojong, Acholi and Langi peoples developed a more sedentary economy relying largely on crop cultivation. In most northern societies, status distinctions were based on age, gender, and, in some cases, spiritual prowess. Men with military expertise were also important, but these societies did not develop powerful kingdoms as did those that would dominate southern Uganda. In the south, a more favorable climate contributed to the formation of highly stratified kingdoms, relying in part on labor from the north. Patron-client relationships bound individuals of different strata to one another, and military elites sometimes dominated society, especially in times of war. By the late nineteenth century, British imperial agents saw Buganda as an orderly kingdom with extensive commercial ties throughout the region, ruled by a king who welcomed those who proselytized on behalf of world religions- -an ideal environment for establishing a colonial presence.
In 1900 Baganda chiefs agreed to protectorate status for the region in return for title to freehold land, and even in the 1980s, many of Uganda's wealthiest landowners were Baganda who had inherited or purchased that land (still known as mailo land because it was measured in square miles) from these early landowners. Similar landowning classes were created in Toro and Ankole, where the British granted freehold tenure to a small group of chiefs, and to a lesser extent in Bunyoro, where the omukama followed suit to appease his most important clients. These agreements displaced lineage and clan heads, who became trespassers on ancestral land they had formerly controlled, and the shift from dispersed, temporary power centers to a petite bourgeoisie of African landowners began. Asians, who came to dominate retail and wholesale trade, and a few highranking civil servants were also among the new elites.
Tenant farmers began to exercise their political power as the triangular relationship among landlords, tenant farmers, and the state achieved a sort of balance. The state demanded taxes from both landowners and tenant farmers; landlords demanded rent (and a portion of the produce) from their tenants; and farmers threatened to reduce their crop yields if the demands of the other two became too onerous. At times, disgruntled farmers were so successful in withholding production that the state stepped in to impose limits on demands by landlords, thereby protecting the state's ability to tax both landlord and tenant farmer. Successful landowners received government loans at low interest rates, and some of them used the money to purchase facilities for processing cash crops, which would become especially lucrative after independence. Wealthy farmers organized agricultural cooperatives--and eventually, political parties--to implement their demands during the pre-independence years. They recruited members among their own ethnic or religious groups, however, and therefore most peasant farmers remained poor.
During the years surrounding independence, land ownership was an important factor in the new nation's social organization, but colonial policies also entrenched racial and ethnic differences that hampered the accumulation of wealth by most people. African business people were unable to compete with Asians in many areas of commerce because of discriminatory government licensing regulations and red tape. Urban unskilled workers, lacking both land and political organization, were hampered from organizing nationwide labor actions, and in general the poor found their avenues to middle-class status blocked. Most northerners remained peasants or laborers because agribusiness, commerce, transportation, and educational centers were centered in the south.
Each government after independence altered the identity of the major participants in the national economy without changing the basic nature of that participation. The 1960s government of Milton Obote reduced the privileged status of the southern kingdoms, especially Buganda, and brought northerners into business and politics in increasing numbers. During the 1970s, Amin expelled the Asian commercial bourgeoisie and eliminated many others from the entrenched elite. By expropriating their wealth and nationalizing foreign businesses, Amin's followers acquired substantial resources for patronage purposes, and as a result, former peripheral groups, such as the Nubian military community, assumed new power and wealth. Many uneducated, untrained military recruits also received important military and political appointments, but by the end of Amin's term in office in 1979, the state's resources for rewarding political clients had begun to dwindle.
Under these conditions of political and economic uncertainty, many skilled workers, even from urban areas, reverted to subsistence cultivation in order to survive. Urban and rural elites fled from state terror tactics and economic destruction, and many who could afford to travel went to other African countries or Britain. Cities and towns stagnated. At the same time, shortages of basic commodities and foodstuffs provided new avenues to wealth through black-market operations and smuggling. For many citizens, the institutions of government became almost irrelevant to social progress.
As the government lost its ability to impose economic and political order, a few people were able to accumulate impressive wealth through open manipulation of illegal economic networks. A specialized vocabulary for black-market activities, termed magendo, and its most successful participants, mafuta mingi ("dripping in oil"), came to symbolize the importance of this thriving sector of the economy. Local economists estimated that during the early 1980s, magendo activities generated as much as one-third of the national output of goods and services, and mafuta mingi, both those in government office and "private-sector magendoists," constituted the wealthiest class of Ugandans. Together with its lower-class beneficiaries--including those who carried out risky smuggling ventures, ran errands, and stored goods for their superiors, as well as those who were simply thieves (bayaye)-- magendo was thought to provide a living for about 7 percent of the population.
President Amin also embarrassed many Ugandans with his uneducated style as president; his example and tolerance of brutality were viewed with revulsion. Government agents committed much of the violence, provoking violent revenge, and ethnic identity became the basis for much of this revenge. Pervasive violence heightened the destructive impact of widespread corruption. When Museveni seized power in 1986, none of the four administrations that had succeeded Amin had been able to restore order or public confidence in government. The restoration of a viable middle class began, and some urban activity revived, but continuing warfare delayed nationwide social programs. Economic disaster loomed again when international coffee prices plummeted in 1989, and the policy of coopting former rebel opponents produced a burgeoning, expensive military establishment. Museveni's fledgling democratic institutions provided some hope of peace and economic recovery in the 1990s; many members of the small but very wealthy Ugandan elite, however, had accumulated wealth under earlier regimes. Middle-class workers and farmers were struggling just to provide for their families. Government workers were sometimes unpaid, and many civil servants found it necessary to hold more than one job. Urban workers often farmed or had members of their families cultivate rural plots of land for subsistence and profit. Unskilled workers and peasant farmers--i.e., the majority of Ugandans--appeared likely to remain poor.
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