Horror in Uganda I: Amin’s Subjects

Politics and Class Formation in Uganda

by Mahmood Mamdani
Monthly Review Press, 339 pp., $16.50

In his carefully researched and closely argued book, using neo-Marxist analytical methods and categories Mahmood Mamdani traces the formation of those classes and subdivisions of classes in Uganda—the “proletariat,” “kulaks,” “petty bourgeoisie,” “feudal landlords,” and so on—which during the first decade of its independence, from 1962 to 1972, achieved a measure of political organization. The political events of that decade he explains according to “the historically created contradiction and struggle between the classes.”

As a specimen of the neo-Marxist “development” school of research, analysis, and interpretation of political events, Mamdani’s treatise contains a great deal of well-referenced and relevant matter which he has skillfully dug out and fitted into his chosen ideological scheme. The author makes his point. Classes had taken shape in Uganda. There was friction among them as they jostled for power and influence; and out of that friction Field Marshal Idi Amin emerged.

It is Mamdani’s general thesis that a colonial state—such as Uganda was before 1962—represents an absentee ruling class, the “metropolitan bourgeoisie,” which dominates economic life and does not encourage political activity. Political institutions are only added at independence; concurrently an indigenous ruling class of petty bourgeoisie begins to supervise the economy. The subsequent fragmentation of this class springs from a weak economic base. In its attempt to accumulate wealth the petty bourgeoisie embarks on nationalization, a form of “petty bourgeois Socialism” which transforms it into a dominant class of commercial bourgeoisie. (In Uganda, according to Mamdani, this phase was represented by the “Common Man’s Charter” of former President Milton Obote, who ruled from 1962 to 1971.) Next parliament is dissolved, and the army emerges as a brute coercive force. From now on, in the partnership between the bureaucracy and the army, it is the army that becomes almost synonymous with the state. Its means of coercion come from its imperial protectors.

Thus in Uganda Amin was at first identified with a reactionary petty bourgeoisie concerned with creating private property. As the Amin clique has lost popularity among the emerging commercial bourgeoisie, it has had to rely on sheer force of arms. These weapons are a “timely loan from its imperial watchdogs. The struggle against class rule in Uganda is not simply a struggle against the Amin dictatorship; it is principally a struggle against imperialism.”

One can quite legitimately view the recent political history of Uganda by analyzing its class structure. But this is not, of course, the whole story. There was friction of other kinds as well: between tribes and individuals, between religious faiths, between Africans and Asians, and between sects within the Asian community itself. Mamdani’s rigid argument restricts the range of experience he considers. Nor is there much flesh and blood in his labeled categories. He gives us only rare glimpses of the human beings who inhabit his Marxist version of Uganda, of their bewildering diversity.

Not very many inhabitants of this green and tropical country, stretching from cool lake sides in the south to the bush and cattle lands…

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