Uganda – Africa’s Wildlife Frontier

Uganda: The Country in Brief

Area: 91,134 square miles Population: 17,477,000 Capital: Kampala (population – 773,000) Language: English, Swahili, Luganda Religion: Roman Catholic, Protestant, traditional Literacy: 48% Life Expectancy: 51 years Economy: Industry, agricultural processing, textiles, fertilizer, steel. Export crops include coffee, cotton, corn, tea, sugar, tobacco. Per capita income: $220.00 US

Geography and General Overview

Bisected from east to west by the Equator and from north to south by both the eastern and western forks of the Great Rift Valley, the small country of Uganda lies at the very heart of Africa. It encompasses much of the beauty, wildness, and variety of the whole continent. With the extensive rainforests of the Congo basin to the west, Lake Victoria on the south, the semi-arid deserts of the Sahel to the north, and the acacia-savannahs of the vast Serengeti ecosystem to the east, Uganda is a microcosm of African wildlife and environments.

Uganda is not as tourist-oriented as many of its better known neighbors. The rebirth of its natural history tourism industry is in its infancy, creating both excitement and challenges for the tourist and tour operators. There are not as many hotels or people trained as tourist guides; however, the existing accommodations are of good quality and the people are extremely friendly and enthusiastic about the possibilities for their developing nation.

Uganda History in Brief

It is reasonable to assume that people have been living in the region today known as Uganda for millions of years. Until about 3,000 years ago, most of Uganda was most likely occupied by hunter-gatherers. Subsequently, between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, Bantu speakers arrived in Uganda from West Africa. Oral tradition and archeological evidence indicates that a centralized form of government may have existed in the region south of the Nile and west of Lake Victoria as early as AD 1000. This was the Kingdom of the Batembuzi, whose contemporary leaders continue to be applauded with near god status in certain parts of Uganda.

Batembuzi history is shrouded in myth and legend, but the balance of evidence suggests they were Bantu people who practiced a mixed economy and ruled for at least nine generations. The Batembuzi were succeeded by the Bachwezi. Current knowledge of East African population movements suggests the Bachwezi were Cushitic migrants from Ethiopia; a widespread belief is that the Bachwezi introduced the long-horned Ankole cattle that are today so characteristic of southern Uganda. The Bachwezi ruled for only two generations (roughly between AD 1350 and 1400); however, they are still revered in parts of Uganda, and their leaders remain the focus of ancestral worship cults to this day.

Bachwezi rule seems to have been terminated by the arrival of the Luo speaking Nilotic from Sudan. Oral tradition suggests that the Luo leader, Rukidi, formed what became known as the Babito dynasty. Rudiki adopted many aspects of Bachwezi rituals and social structure, and quickly integrated his people into the local Bantu speaking population. Several of the modern dynasties of western Uganda, including the Banyoro and Ankole, trace their origins to Rukidi.

In the late 16th century, near modern day Kampala, the Buganda Kingdom was established by a Bantu speaker named Kintu. Buganda oral history identifies at least 35 successive Kabaka (kings), the last of whom, Kabaka Mutesa II, died in exile in London in the 1960s after the Buganda Kingdom was outlawed by former prime minister, Milton Obote. The royal line was recently reestablished when the Buganda Kingdom was reinstated and the 36th Kabaka, Ronald Mutebi, was crowned in 1993. Today’s president, Yoweri Museveni, agreed to call home the King of Buganda, who continues as titular and cultural leader of the Buganda Kingdom.

From 1600 to relatively recent times, regional politics have been dominated by territorial rivalry between the Buganda, the Bunyoro, and the Ankole.

Arab slave traders arrived in southern Uganda in the mid-19th century. Buganda was then the most important kingdom and was ruled over by Kabaka Mutesa. Mutesa allowed slave traders to operate from his capital, and he collaborated with them by helping to organize slave-raiding parties. Mutesa presumably did this to consolidate Buganda’s dominance over neighboring kingdoms. The Muslim traders converted several Bugandan clan chiefs to their faith. When the Arabs were joined by two rival missionary factions, French Catholics and British Protestants, both of which attracted further clan chiefs away from traditional beliefs, Mutesa’s court became a hotbed of religious rivalries and rapidly dissolved. Tensions were compounded by threats from neighboring kingdoms.

Rival European powers were all keen to gain control of the well-watered and extremely fertile kingdom of Buganda; however, Buganda became a British Protectorate in 1892. The Kabaka’s powers were handed over to a group of Anglophile Christian chiefs. The modern shape of Uganda was more-or-less decided by the Buganda Agreement of 1900, which effectively put the whole country under joint British-Buganda rule. The colonial government formed centralized legislative and executive councils, while Baganda officials were appointed to regional posts.

The Buganda Agreement antagonized non-Baganda leaders. Banyoro leaders refused to cooperate with the Bagandan officials, who were driven out of Banyoro. After British intervention, the Bagandan officials were reinstated. Few Europeans settled in the country, but Asian settlement was encouraged and this small Asian community soon dominated the economy. Between the two world wars, non-Baganda leaders put increasing pressure on the colonial administration to end Bagandan dominance. Tensions between Britain and Buganda led to the temporary expulsion of Kabaka Mutesa II in 1953. Mutesa returned to Uganda after a new agreement was created in 1955. In theory, this agreement was meant to curb Bagandan powers, but in practice it merely created a greater centralization by allowing Mutesa to appoint his own government. Several new nationalist parties emerged in protest and Britain was forced to succumb to the growing pressure for independence. The 1962 general election was won by Milton Obote and full independence was granted to Uganda on October 9, 1962.

The original idea for post-independence Uganda was for a central elected body to legislate national affairs. The traditional kingdoms would still be recognized and their kings would retain a certain amount of autonomy regarding local issues. Bugandan and Bunyoro rivalries, as well as accusations of corruption and theft, ultimately convinced Obote to order the abolishment of all the kingdoms in 1966. His army, led by Idi Amin, stormed the Kabaka’s palace and forced him into exile. Subsequently, Obote became increasingly reliant on force to maintain a semblance of stability. In January 1971, while Obote was out of the country attending a Commonwealth conference, the Commander of the Army, Idi Amin, staged a military coup and declared himself president for life.

Uganda’s recent political history is well documented. In 1972, Amin forced foreign-owned businesses to close and expelled all Asians from the country, “africanised” their businesses, and commandeered their money and possessions for “state” use. This action proved to be an economic disaster. Having destroyed the country’s economy, Amin began a reign of terror over the people of Uganda. As Amin’s unpopularity grew, he attempted to forge national unity by declaring war on neighboring Tanzania. Tanzania retaliated by invading Uganda, meeting with little resistance. To the joy of most Ugandans, Amin was forced into exile in April of 1979.

After a couple of short-lived coalition governments, supervised by Tanzania, an election was held in December 1980 and Obote was returned to power. Obote introduced economic policies which were mildly successful, but otherwise he continued using the same strong-arm tactics of Amin. In 1982, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), an army led by Yoweri Museveni, declared war on the government. The country was plunged into a full scale civil war and, in August 1985, Obote was knocked from power during a military coup. Finally, in January 1986, the NRM swept into the capital and Museveni was sworn in as president.

Museveni shied away from the retributive actions that had destroyed the credibility of previous takeovers. He appointed a broad-based government that swept across party and ethnic lines, reestablished the rule of law, appointed a much needed Human Rights Commission, increased the freedom of the press, and encouraged the return of Asian and other exiles. On the economic front, he adopted pragmatic policies and encouraged foreign investment and tourism. The international community has responded with increased monetary and technical assistance, and today is rapidly rebuilding an infrastructure to support Uganda’s regrowth.


Uganda’s population is nearing 17,500,000, with an annual growth rate of approximately 2.5% and with the majority of its people concentrated in the south and west. The most populous ethnic group is the Bantu speaking Baganda, who account for about 20% of the population and are centered around Kampala. Other significant Bantu speaking groups are the Ankole, Toro, Banyoro, and Basoga. The eastern and northern parts of the country are populated by several groups of Nilotic and Cushitic people, including the Iteso, Karimojong, Acholi, and Langi.


The official language of Uganda is English, which is spoken as a second language by most educated Ugandans. Some 40 local languages are spoken in different parts of the country. Most of these belong to the Bantu language group and include Luganda, Lusoga, and Lutoro. Several Nilotic and Cushitic languages are spoken in the north and east; some of them by only a few thousand people. Many Ugandans speak a limited amount of KiSwahili, a coastal language which spread into the East African interior via the 19th century Arab slave traders. English and KiSwahili are the most useful languages for travelers to Uganda.