Uganda National Congress

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Uganda National Congress (UNC), Uganda's first political party, was formed in 1952 by Ignatius Musazi, and its first Secretary General was Abu Mayanja. It replaced the Uganda African Farmers Union after it was banned by the British colonial administration.

Following the ban of Uganda African Farmers Union in 1949, Musazi next organized the Federation of Partnerships of Uganda African Farmers (F.P.U.A.F.) in 1950. (Apter, D.E. 1961: 310-313) The "partners" registered at the Registry of Companies and Business Names were twenty men described as farmers. These included I.K. Musazi, Peter Sonko, George Lwanga, Erieza Bwete and others who had been prominent in the 1949 riots, Bataka Party or UAFU.

The Federation had links with Fenner Brockaway, the British Labour Party liberal M.P. and enjoyed the warm support of the Congress of the Peoples against Imperialism. Unlike its predecessor, the UAFU, which was virtually limited to Buganda, the Federation was spread in most parts of eastern and northern Uganda. The Federation received immense technical assistance from foreign co-operators, and volunteers suggested by Brockaway were active in Uganda working for F.P.U.A.F. (Apter, D.E. 1961: 311) among such volunteers was an American, Dr. George Shepherd who Musazi had met in London.

Dr. Shepherd was an idealist whose strong sympathy with the poor and oppressed had been shaped when, as a young boy, he lived with his missionary parents in China. (Stonehouse, J. 1960: 48) The arrival of Dr. Shepherd in Uganda in 1951 injected into the Federation very crucial elements in its management and eventual transformation into a political organization, the Uganda National Congress, the following year.

Not only did he bring in badly needed management skills, he brought in political insight as well. There is evidence that he was a key catalyst in getting Musazi launch the Uganda National Congress (UNC). Dr. Shepherd himself was to write: "I soon decided that it was important, both for the welfare of the people of Uganda and the co-operative movement that a political party be launched. This would take the pressure off the Federation of Farmers to be a political unit itself. And it would bring into the field an organization that would openly deal in the political issues, which after all were the decisive ones."(Shepherd, G.W. 1955: 94)

The other source of the germ of the formation of UNC was a group of radical political activists who discussed the idea of the formation of an anti-colonial movement with Musazi in London. One of these radicals, Fenner Brockway was to write: "It is quite possible of course that Musazi thought of establishing Congress after the riots of 1949, but I don't think it took a very concrete form in his mind before the discussion which we had in London. I would not claim to be the author of the idea but certainly it was discussed by George Padmore, Dr. Leon Szur and myself. We urged Musazi strongly to establish a movement of this character and Dr. Szur particularly was responsible for insisting that it should be of an inter-racial nature. For this reason it was called the Uganda National Congress rather than Uganda African Congress. In practice, I don't think Indians or Europeans have joined but Musazi agreed that membership should not be limited to Africans in the hope of bringing in sympathizers of other races."(Ascherson, N. 1956:8)

In the absence of sizable participation of the Asians and Europeans, the anti-colonial movement led by Musazi consisted of essentially two tendencies: the ambivalent nationalism typified and led by Musazi, and the true (Kohn, H. 1964: 64) nationalism yet unorganized and leaderless.

In his endeavors to constitute a political organization, due to his ambivalence, Musazi first approached a respected Muganda chief who he thought had the appropriate stature and qualities to lead the movement. (Shepherd, G.W. 1955: 168-170) When this chief refused, and not discouraged from his search for an appropriate Muganda of stature to provide leadership, Musazi next approached Kabaka Mutesa (sic) himself, who also turned him down.

Reluctance to participate in a nation-wide anti-colonial movement did not limit itself to the leadership of Buganda—it pervaded the Ganda masses as a whole. Not only did the Baganda believe their interests were being catered for within the 1900 Agreement, but given the feudal character of their society, all political leadership, thought and organization was taken to repose in the Kabaka.

There was no way a true national movement would make headway in the Buganda of those days. George Shepherd did observe: "The Uganda National Congress might have died at birth if it had not been for the interest which was shown in it by several leaders from tribes other than Buganda."(Shepherd, G.W. 1955: 169-170) And so it was from leading chiefs and elders of Lango, Teso and Toro that Musazi found enthusiastic support for the formation of an anti-colonial movement, the UNC, launched on March 2, 1952.

The following year Buganda got engulfed in the Kabaka crisis, during which the Kabaka was deported to Britain. Following that deportation, much as the Baganda had never really liked UNC, UNC became the only organ through which the Baganda could agitate for the return of the Kabaka. As a result Baganda joined UNC in droves.

Emergence of Obote[edit]

It was in the throes of these fleeting developments toward independence that Apollo Milton Obote emerged. Obote had returned to Uganda in 1956 from Kenya where he had gone to work. (Gertzel, C. 1974: 47-51) While in Kenya he had got deeply involved in the anti-colonial struggles over there: he had been a very active member of the Kenya African Union before it was prescribed, and later was one of the leading members of Nairobi African Congress Party.

At the time of his return, Lango, his home district, was represented in the Legico (Legislative Council) by Yakobo Omonya, a man of limited political skills. With Obote, one of the first people from the district to reach Makerere University, a man who had been forged into a consummate politician in the struggles in Kenya in the theatre, it was not long before Omonya was prevailed upon to make room.

Subsequently, in December 1957, Milton Obote was elected to represent Lango District in the Legico. He took his seat in March 1958. Apart from using the Chambers of the Council to relentlessly and courageously wage struggles against colonialism, he also joined other national-democrats in the "opposition to Protectorate government proposals which accorded Buganda differential political treatment from the rest of the country." Within a short time in the Legico, he had established himself as the most articulate anti-colonial spokesman and was generally recognized as the leader of the unofficial members of the Council.

In the UNC, too, the party under whose umbrella he had been elected to the Legico, Obote's political fortunes were fast rising. When in December 1958, the UNC split and a section of it formed the Uganda Peoples' Union (UPU), Obote who remained in the UNC rapidly acquired a commanding position in the dominant wing of the party. This position was to prove a major asset in the ideological crisis that UNC was later to undergo.

Crisis in UNC[edit]

The crisis arose out of a need for the UNC to transform itself from a 'primary' or 'secondary' resistance movement (Ranger, T.O. 1968: ; Stokes, E. 1970: 100-106) which both the Bataka Party and Uganda Farmers Union respectively had been, into a modern anti-colonial movement which would not only be anti-imperialist but would also champion the aspirations of minorities. At one time this need had caused a number of the younger members of the UNC to break-off and form the abortive United Congress Party. (Apter, D.E. 1961: 333)

The issue which came to be symptomatic of the crisis was the UNC office in Cairo. John Kale or Kalekezi (or Kalisa), after his expulsion from Makerere University, had gone to Cairo and opened an office for UNC. This office did propaganda work with Radio Cairo, and acted as a link between the anti-colonial movement in Uganda and the democratic forces in the anti-imperialist world. (Apter, D.E. 1961: 333)

The merits of this office were disputed, and the UNC was to seriously split over this disagreement. A section of the membership of UNC led by Musazi felt that the Cairo office was not only a means of trading "the imperialism of one country for that of another, especially a country (meaning Egypt) that had for 2500 years controlled the whole Nile Valley, but also communism."(Apter, D.E. 1961: 334 footnote 59)

The other section of UNC, consisting of elements younger than Musazi, but with greater exposure to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles elsewhere, not only believed in maintaining contacts with the anti-imperialists world, but desired a more radical nationalist movement of the mobilizing type, striking firmly for a united Uganda while attacking the parochialism of the Lukiiko and Baganda.

The contention between these two political lines came to a head on January 12, 1959. The previous month three senior members of the UNC (Abu Mayanja, Jolly Joe Kiwanuka, and Dr. Kanunka) had attended the Pan-African Congress in Accra, Ghana. They had participated in passing resolutions which among other things, recommended that "those African traditional institutions whether political, social or economic which clearly have shown their reactionary character and the sordid support of colonialism be condemned."(Apter, D.E. 1961:334)

Returning from Accra via Cairo, where they called at the controversial office, Kiwanuka defended the Cairo office and identified the real issue at stake: "Uganda cannot remain an island in a sea of Pan-African and universal nationalism. Our establishment of a national office in Cairo has marked a great era in our struggle. It has broken the chains of isolation, and focused world attention on the seriousness of the Uganda people in our unshakable upsurge for freedom." (Apter, D.E. 1961: 334)

To Musazi, that was sacrilege which could not be tolerated in Congress. He proceeded to expel some six of the most significant officials of the UNC who supported the Cairo office. (Apter, D.E. 1961: 334) The response of the six and their political line did not take long to come: at the Annual Delegates Conference held on January 12, 1959, Ignatius Musazi, President of UNC, was expelled from the Congress and Apollo Milton Obote elected to replace him. The conference also went on to endorse all the resolutions taken at the Accra Conference.

The significance of these events are succinctly captured by David Apter's observation: "the old Congress ended . . . Congress had now entered the Pan-African phase of nationalism."(Apter, D.E. 1961: 334) From then on too, the non-Ganda joined UNC in large numbers; "formerly under Ganda leadership, it made little headway."(La Fontaine in Low, D.A. 1971: 254 footnote 64)

Not too long after this conference the Obote wing of UNC merged with the Uganda Peoples Union which had been formed in 1958 to form the Uganda Peoples Congress. From that point UNC was virtually dead and Musazi's political career had essentially come to an end.


  • Ascherson, Neal "The History of the Uganda National Congress," July 1956; unpublished notes written for the East African Institute for Social Research, Kampala and deposited at the Library of Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, U.S.A.
  • Apter, D.E. "The Political Kingdom in Uganda," Princeton. University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1961
  • Gertzel, Cherry, "Party and Locality in Northern Uganda, 1945-1962," London, Athelone Press 1974.
  • Kohn, H. "Nationalism", in "International Encyclopedia of Social Science" Volume 7. London, McMillan 1964.
  • La Fontaine, J.S. "Tribalism among the Gisu," in Glliver, P.H. (Editor) Tradition in East Africa," Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969.
  • Ranger, T.O., "Connections between `primary resistance' and modern mass nationalism in East Africa," in Journal of African History Volume IX 1968 No. 3 & 4.
  • Shepherd, George "They Wait in Darkness," New York: The John Day Company, 1955.
  • Stokes, E. "Traditional Resistance Movement and Afro-Asian Nationalism: the context of the 1857 Mutiny in India," in "Past and Present," Volume 48 August, 1970: 100-118.
  • Stonehouse, J. "Prohibited Immigrant," London, Bodley Head, 1960.