In the decades after World War II, European colonialism quickly faded, creating dozens of new states by 1970. In Britain's African possessions, local resistance movements accelerated the independence process. The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the early 1950s led the British to plan for the gradual independence of their African colonies over a period of two to three decades. However, further unrest in Malawi and East Africa in 1959 and 1960 forced them to expedite the process. As a result, Uganda and other nations acquired independence in the early 1960s without the established institutions necessary for a stable transfer of power. This institutional weakness, coupled with the multiethnic character of the new nations, created a serious threat of internal conflict.
Uganda's situation at the time of independence appeared promising. Prime Minister Milton Obote presided over the various groups within the country. The largest of these, the Buganda, enjoyed semiautonomous status in their homeland of Buganda; a role for their traditional ruler, the Kabaka; and a separate parliament, the Lukiiko. Obote sought greater power, however, and in 1966 he dissolved the National Assembly and produced a new constitution concentrating authority in his own hands. During the same period, he acted against the autonomy of the Buganda, removing the authority of the Kabaka and sending troops against the parliament. He formally eliminated the separate status of Buganda in 1967.
Obote had appointed Idi Amin head of the army in 1966. Amin, a former member of the British colonial army, had risen in status as a result of independence and the lack of trained officers in Uganda. In 1971, he took advantage of Obote's absence from the country and staged a successful coup with the support of the military. As a result of Obote's concentration of power, no institution existed to stand in Amin's way. Amin acted ruthlessly and began the systematic elimination of Obote's supporters. Because Obote's roots lay with the Langi and Acholi tribes of northern Uganda, Amin also ordered the wholesale slaughter of those groups. Over the eight years of his regime, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, as Amin eliminated anyone who appeared to oppose him.
As a former subject of British colonialism, Amin also sought to act against imperialism and its vestiges. He delighted in humiliating the remnants of Uganda's British community. More importantly, in 1972 he expelled much of the Asian population, immigrants from other areas of the British Empire (mostly India) who had gone to Uganda during the years of British rule. Asians were resented because of their prosperity and because the British had given them preferential treatment. Amin gained popularity by forcing them to leave and confiscating their property. He used the proceeds of the seizures to buy the support of the army. The departure of as many as 60,000 Asians, including much of the business and professional sectors, took a catastrophic toll on the already fragile economy.
Amin also tried to make a mark on the world stage as an opponent of Western imperialism. He purchased weapons from the Soviet Union and secured support from Saudi Arabia and Libya. His most well-known venture involved his participation in the hijacking of an Air France flight on 27 June 1976. Pro-Palestinian terrorists seized the plane and forced it to fly to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where they held 105 Israeli and Jewish passengers hostage (the non-Jewish passengers were released) and demanded the release of prisoners held by Israel. The Israelis agreed to negotiate but used the time to plan a daring rescue attempt. Two hundred Israeli soldiers landed at Entebbe, killed the terrorists, and successfully recovered the hostages on 3 July. Three hostages died in the operation. In the process, Amin's force of Soviet MiG fighters was destroyed.
In 1979, in an attempt to retain control of the army, Amin allowed the looting of parts of northern Tanzania. When the Tanzanian Army responded with an invasion of Uganda, Amin was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia. Obote resumed power in 1980, but his electoral victory was contested, and violence quickly broke out. Like Amin, he used ruthless force to eliminate his opponents. Again, thousands were killed. When Obote fell from power in 1985, Uganda lay in ruins, gutted by twenty years of authoritarian rule and internal violence. In 1986 Yoweri Museveni was declared president amid a chaotic power struggle and continues to serve in that position. In the years following his election, Uganda's economy experienced an impressive recovery. Museveni cracked down on corruption and invested millions in education and public health. Despite Uganda's economic miracle, it remains one of Africa's poorest countries.
Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2005.; Ofcansky, Thomas. Uganda: Tarnished Pearl of Africa. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.