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Museveni meets Kagame: This story is 120 years old
Charles Onyango Obbo
Posted: 3 weeks 6 days

A while back, I was having coffee with a famous Ugandan doctor in Nairobi at a fancy café in the suburbs.

We spoke about exile life of Ugandans in Kenya in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the status of affairs back home in the Pearl of Africa.

Very casually, he threw me a mind-bender: “You know, in the 1960s, the Ugandan middle class was larger than Kenya’s. In fact, it was the biggest in East Africa. Today, it is so much smaller than Kenya”, he said. “That really sums up the tragedy of Uganda’s lost years.”

I had never even remotely heard anything like that. I have looked at various numbers, read lots of stuff, but I haven’t conclusively resolved that claim by my doctor friend.

If you figure that the colonial experiences of Kenya (a settler colony), and Uganda’s (a protectorate governed through indirect British rule) were different, you can see how the fact that Uganda had a larger indigenous land-owning class nearly five decades earlier than Kenya, where they only “fell into things” after independence in 1963, it begins to make sense.

Which begs the question, how did Uganda’s middle class form around land? There are a 100 reasons how, but one is particularly intriguing, and little understood – or denied.

Recently, Rwanda and Uganda have been having their seasonal bouts of bad political blood. On Sunday, the leaders broke the ice when Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame visited and held talks with President Yoweri Museveni in Entebbe.

At the end, Museveni tweeted: “I thank him [Kagame] for honouring my invitation. Uganda is home to Rwandans, literally and metaphorically (emphasis mine).”

I would have added historically too. Conversations about Uganda-Rwanda relations since about 1981, have been framed largely in terms of gratitude. That Ugandans took in Rwandan refugees from 1959, and they should be grateful. That they were ungrateful for our hospitality, some joining Idi Amin’s intelligence services, and later Museveni’s Luweero war hence their persecution and expulsion in 1982-83 by the UPC government.

That they helped Museveni win his rebellion hence the NRM should be grateful to them. Or that we backed the Rwanda Patriotic Front, and therefore, Kagame & Co. should be grateful. And on, and on.

But it is not that easy. Belgian colonial rule sent thousands of Congolese, then Rwandese fleeing to Uganda from early in the 20th Century well before independence.

While, indeed, Britain divided Uganda broadly into a north that was a labour reserve, and later funnelled into “low value” jobs like being askaris, the south was slated for agriculture and to man the technocratic and bureaucratic ranks.But to fully understand this British decision, one needs to look at the “existing conditions” in the south that incentivised that decision.

Exploiting abundant cheap Rwandan (and some Burundian and Congolese) labour for its farming and cattle keeping, the south of what is Uganda today, was already slightly more developed than the rest. There was already some “infrastructure” that made the decision to concentrate agricultural development in the south logical.

But the decisive point came with the Rwanda revolution in 1959, in which thousands were massacred and the whole largely Tutsi ruling class fled. The majority of the Tutsi elite (teachers, catechists, small farmers, traders, government officials) of that time came to Uganda, along with the wananchi too.

(They had the kind of impact in the wider Ankole and Buganda, that Ugandan exiles had in Kenya. As this column noted before, the fact that you had Uganda university lecturers teaching secondary and even primary schools in Kenya during their years of exile, led to a highly-educated cohort who gave it the technological lead in the region of the last 20 years).

No other country in East Africa had such a high influx of an elite coming into its borders as refugees, and injecting in so much skilled labour in the first 60 years of the 20th Century as Uganda did – until, ironically, the Ugandan exodus to Kenya started in the 1970s.

The reverse process happened in 1990. When the RPA started its war in 1990, and then took power in 1994, it had a base that had received education and exposure in Uganda, and by now, many other parts of the world, that it wouldn’t have had if they had remained in Rwanda, oppressed by its quasi-apartheid system that kept Tutsi marginalised.

The (inconvenient) point here is that if you forget the last 50 years, and go back to the period between 1908 and 1968, the most decisive in shaping Uganda today and creating its early middle class, perhaps the most important African influence was what came from Rwanda.

And, then, the Kenya-Uganda Railway, because without it, independence would have come maybe in 1968, not 1962.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com.

Twitter@cobbo3