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 of the north, whose people (though not the Baganda) walked naked during the early years of this century (and still do in Karamoja), would readily recognize themselves among the author’s labels of proletariat, kulak, or petty bourgeoisie. A Ugandan identifies himself by his clan, tribe, age set, and religion; only secondarily by his occupation. Let us examine some of Mr. Mamdani’s labels more closely.

Proletariat: Who is this proletarian? In Mamdani’s pages he tends to be a category or a statistic—identifiable by occupation or wage.

In the flesh we know him as the man in a thin white shirt who, as the early morning sun comes up and the kites fly out to the garbage dumps, patters barefoot into town from the outlying slums and shanties, shielding his head with a banana frond when it rains. We see him in a torn singlet squatting outside his place of work at midday, slowly chewing a roasted corn cob or a handful of peanuts for lunch.

He is the man who gets drunk on crude spirits (waragi) when he cannot afford beer, and when he is drunk, falls down, sometimes on the sidewalk or in the gutter, where he lies till a “brother” helps him home or the police take him in.

He is the patient man who queues all day at the hospital with his feverish child, hoping that his turn will come at last, that the doctor (who in Kampala may be a Korean) will have not only time to examine his child but the drugs to cure its enteritis.

Kulak: Who is this “kulak” (which is a Russian word meaning “fist”)? He is a small farmer with a cow or two and some goats, a banana plantation with papaws and wild fig trees in it, or coffee shrubs hung with white blossoms like a wedding dress. He is an Acholi with cotton and peanut plots which he has cleared by slashing and burning, and using a curiously bent Nilotic hoe, among great tracts of thorn bush.


This sort of peasant farmer has replaced his thatched roof with corrugated sheets. He has poor relations or hired laborers to help with the work. His children attend the local primary school where they learn English—the cleverest boy or girl may be away at a secondary boarding school. To find the school fees, which amount to several hundred shillings a year, he must sell his cotton or coffee berries or his matoke plantains, or use his married daughter’s bride price payment, or borrow from relations and clansmen.

He takes his turn with his neighbors in organizing home-brewed beer parties. He observes old tribal ceremonies of birth, marriage, and burial. He may be a polygamist. He is the backbone of Uganda: a traditionalist, linked to the modern world through his educated children, articulate in wisdom if not in book-learning, member of an extended family unit and of a clan rather than of a class.

Bourgeoisie: Among the bourgeoisie are the clerks (in Mamdani’s terms, “petty bourgeoisie”) and the civil servants (“the bureaucratic stratum”). The latter are educated men with furnished flats or bungalows provided by the government at a nominal rent. They own cars and have smart wives who do secretarial work, or are teachers, nurses, bank employees. Despite Uganda’s recent troubles and the rapid turnover of senior administrators, the civil servants have generally retained a reputation for decency and consideration and—if they are not interfered with or put under pressure—integrity and efficiency.

Mr. Mamdani’s bourgeoisie includes—or used to include—a great many Asians, from the prosperous city-based wholesaler to the upcountry dukawallah (storekeeper) who worked day and night for small profits, often in some dusty little trading center, and crammed his family into cubicles behind his shop, where they slept among packing crates, horoscopes, and bowls of plastic flowers. Also members of this class of industrious Asians were Sikh furniture makers and long-distance lorry drivers with their own small transport businesses, the engineers in a public works department or the self-employed motor mechanic who improvised brilliant repair jobs in a small workshop.

Both Africans and Europeans have had a love-hate relationship with Asians. Both appreciated the goods and services that Asians unfailingly supplied. Yet Africans called them cheats—meaning that they would have preferred to be cheated by their own brother Africans—and Europeans could not understand the mentality of people so dedicated to making money.

Africans resented the relative affluence of Asians, their dominance of shopping and business enterprises, the ubiquitous presence of their children in school classes, their ostentatious weekend car parades in city centers. Above all, Asians did not become integrated; and only a minority had opted for or received Uganda citizenship. Once criticism began to focus sharply on this question of citizenship, the Asian community felt vulnerable. When Amin threatened it (“You are sitting on fire”), the community—Ugandan and non-Ugandan citizen alike—was done for.

Economic War: Africans naturally acclaimed Amin’s declaration of economic war after he took power in 1971. Asian shops and businesses that were not given to soldiers were quickly allocated to black Africans, many of them, in Kampala, Moslem “Nubians” from the north. The euphoria did not last long. Stocks left behind by the Asians were soon sold off. Problems of transport and distribution and lack of foreign currency led to shortages and high prices of commodities. It was now the new class of African traders whom people accused of exploiting the customer, of cheating and behaving like “black Patels.”

Africans, as Amin has said, have a right to be the masters in their own house. But rapid elimination of the old commercial and trading class and its replacement by people without business training have been a bitter experience for Uganda. The lesson may have been necessary. But under a leadership that understands only despoliation, and has relied on doles of Arab money to pay its expenses, the experiment in Africanization has ended for the time being in bankruptcy.

Asians were the true founders of modern Uganda. They supplied the economic drive, the capital, the goods and services, introducing these things into what was a rural vacuum. A young Kampala Sikh has written a poem (“Brown Jews”) in which he laments the ingratitude shown to the Asians in East Africa:

For the sweat is dry
That built the railways,
And black blood must forget
Swamp sleeping savagery of greenness
That bursts into an Indian bazaar.

The ordinary Ugandan African, alas, had come to see the brown men as aliens clustered densely round the honey pots.


Soldiers: Attached to or absorbed within Mamdani’s bourgeoisie—currently indeed its most notorious component—are police, security agents, and army and air force officers, the sharp end, in effect, of the “state bureaucracy.” These men develop a middle-class style as cash and easy living attract them more and more out of their barracks.

Under President Obote’s rule soldiers generally enjoyed little prestige. Amin himself was widely regarded as a good-natured oaf. True, Obote called in his army to help put down the troubles that erupted throughout Buganda in 1966 when he used soldiers to storm the royal Lubiri palace in Kampala and drive the Kabaka into exile. And the army later helped Obote’s police enforce the state of emergency that Obote clamped down on Buganda from 1966 up to the time of his dismissal. But Obote generally kept the soldiers out of sight in their provincial garrisons. It was his special force of well-armed security police that Obote primarily used for maintaining internal security and order.

One of Amin’s first acts, after coming to power, was to disband Obote’s special force; many were killed. Amin abused the police (“You are cowards and drunkards”), stripped it of essential equipment and transport, and delegated one of its main tasks—the hunting down and shooting of armed robbers (kondos)—to the army.

Amin’s takeover ushered in the day of the soldier. Privates and corporals became lieutenants and captains overnight, “reliable” officers were promoted, the “unreliable” (those, for instance, who belonged to Obote’s Langi tribe or to the neighboring Acholi) were eliminated.

During 1972 and 1973 Amin rewarded his soldiers with the loot of the departing Asians and Europeans. The lucky ones who got their hands on the abandoned houses, cars, shops, and businesses now had a vested interest in supporting Amin as their benefactor. They in turn could dispense patronage of their own. They brought their friends and relations to help run the newly acquired bars and shops. Since then, like those of any other member of a “commercial bourgeoisie,” their fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the general state of the economy.

The unlucky officers and the rank and file who did not get their share of the loot have nursed a grievance. Envy and resentment at the better fortune of colleagues have worked like a poison within Amin’s army. When robbers fall out over the spoils, they fight each other. Feuds, conspiracies, and killings within Amin’s army have helped to ruin it as an effective fighting force.

Mr. Mamdani asserts that “soldiers do not form a social class; they serve social classes.” In another passage, he rightly points out that “members of the officer corps are being integrated into the emerging commercial bourgeoisie.”

I watched this process taking place—saw a police officer’s wife take over a sophisticated pharmacy (and make a very good job of it); and saw Amin’s recently promoted officers and their families move with their chickens and mattresses into the suburbs of Kampala. Not that they behaved or looked like members of the residential class they have displaced. Their wives and daughters—strong Nilotic women with gaps in their teeth where the incisors have been drawn, and with scarified cheeks—carried bundles on their heads. They squatted on the once elegant lawns, braiding their hair among untidy washing spread on the hibiscus bushes to dry. The officers tethered goats to the neat municipal hedges and parked their military trucks and grocers’ vans among the flower beds.

These latest recruits to suburbia enjoy status now. But to the local Baganda they remain banagwanga, outsiders, intruders from the north.

Education: Where the Asians introduced trade into Uganda, the British colonial power brought two things—education and the Christian religion—that have changed the minds of Ugandans forever.

Education was largely concentrated at first in mission schools. Its object, says Mamdani, was to produce “not only an educated native, but a loyal educated native.” He describes the system as “not education, but training; not liberation, but enslavement.”

“The boarding school,” he goes on, “was a total environment, much like a jail or an insane asylum. Its purpose was to turn out a particular breed of men, ‘loyal’ Afro-Saxons—the collaborating class.”

I shall not argue this point, though it must be said that African children and youths, often straight from villages, who are going to use Western techniques in a modern society have to develop some elements of Western mentality and attitudes. Educational curricula have in any case been Africanized for some years past. Even the English language books now used in Ugandan schools have been written by Africans; and literature syllabuses for the higher grades contain plenty of African anti-colonialist protest writing.

As for the “jail-like” atmosphere of boarding schools in Uganda, during my teaching years there I found them full of busy, happy, and healthy pupils. There were disciplinary problems: drunkenness and pregnancies, tension during exams, grumbles about food. These were controlled by sanctions that the parents themselves wished to be enforced.

The native domestic servant earns notice in this book—“exploited and humiliated,” says Mamdani, by those who were “the personification of colonial rule.” (I wonder what my old house servant, whose lined face I last saw watching me from a court bench during my trial in Kampala for sedition, would say to that.)

There is one Ugandan character whom Mamdani does not mention though he is known and feared by all. He is the kondo, or armed robber, a menace in villages (especially after cash crops have been sold, and there are bank notes tucked away in mattresses, tins, and thatch), the scourge of householders and car owners in towns. No sanctions have been able to eliminate the kondos. Amin boasted at one time that his soldiers had killed them off. Ordinary citizens knew better. A new type of kondo, the soldier-bandit, had taken over instead.

Protest: Mamdani’s original study will last as an invaluable source of material and reference for students of the political and economic developments of modern Uganda up to 1972. He has an excellent final chapter on Amin and his coup. In the light of subsequent events we see that it is the villager with his own food crops who is best able to survive Uganda’s economic collapse—his grandfather, as Amin would say, went without shoes, paraffin for his lantern, and a bus service, and it can be done again. It is Mamdani’s “urban proletariat” who is most desperate in his search for food and the cash to buy it with. The deepest moral commitment to remove the tyranny of Amin is felt by the intelligentsia.

Yet students of Makerere University (and of other institutions of higher education in Uganda) have been accused of passive acceptance of the rule of soldiers. It is not unnatural that they should have generally preferred private grumbling to open protest. Makerere students recall how their spokesman Emanuel Tumusiime had to fly abroad for his life after standing up to criticize Amin’s economic policies in 1972. They remember the fate of Vice Chancellor Kalimuzo—seized in his house and never seen again—and of my own former student Karuhanga, strapped to a tree and shot by a firing squad as a “guerrilla.” The long delayed student demonstration of early August—preceded by a smaller incident in May—has predictably resulted in Amin’s taking a cruel revenge.

As for the educated Ugandan exiles abroad, there is not only a conflict of loyalties between those who are identified with former President Obote in Tanzania and others in England and America. The exile dare not raise his voice in open protest against Amin for fear of reprisals against the family and relations he has left behind.

So Amin’s rule continues to batten on habits of fear, of fatalism, and of self-preservation, as expressed in the common Ugandan saying, “I have only one life. My children must eat.” When the killers call and a man is taken away, his wife and kin lament, but their first thought must be for their home and children. When Amin’s wife Kay was chopped into five pieces, and he was photographed standing in an open, patterned sports shirt over a sheet covering the butchered remains, Kay’s aged parents were forced to attend this grisly obsequy in the presence of her murderer.

Britain and Amin: Mamdani rightly reminds us that the British government was the first to recognize Amin’s regime and he quotes the premature delight with which the London Times welcomed the event (“Obote was no longer worth protecting”).

Britain’s hasty approval of Amin’s takeover was a piece of miscalculated optimism. For long Britain ignored the inhumanities of his government. Not until the expulsion of Asians and the seizure of British assets hurt the tax-payer’s pocket did British politicians protest; by then it was too late.

In its dealings with Amin, the British government has been for too long inhibited by concern for its financial interests in Uganda, and for the safety of the British expatriates who (of their own choice) are still there. The Israeli commando raid on Entebbe has at last called Amin’s bluff. Britain’s recent—and belated—decision to break off diplomatic relations with Uganda (July 28, 1976) is intended to isolate Amin still further and to accelerate his end.

Mamdani’s final comment—“the Amin clique…wields power through sheer force of arms from its imperial watchdogs”—must of course be reread in the light of Amin’s subsequent switch to Russia and Libya as his chief source of arms. Ironically, this self-appointed champion of the Palestinian cause has not been rewarded with the oil deliveries that he vitally needs.

African apologists for Amin claim that he has realized an African dream—the creation of a “truly black African state.” Others say that he has destroyed souls, and like a rogue elephant trampled and torn up what was a relatively stable and happy piece of Africa. For us, Amin’s unforgivable crime ought to be not that he has seized British and Asian assets and maltreated their owners, but that he has murdered his own black subjects, terrified and corrupted them. Abject and spiritless, people wait for Mungo (God) to remove their tormentor.

Amin does not love Uganda or Ugandans. He speaks of them as “brothers and sisters,” but Amin—like so many of the hard core of his mercenary troops and followers—comes from the Sudan border. The rich lands of the Bantu along the shores of Lake Victoria are the natural booty of the northern predators who, like Amin, have so often plagued Uganda in the past.

Ugandans fear the bloodshed that will accompany Amin’s inevitable fall. Some say that his immediate successor might even be worse. But no replacement is likely to be so formidable as Amin or so difficult to dislodge.

This Issue

September 16, 1976