How the politics of Aids, and now Covid-19, shape Uganda

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

One of the most globally popular photographs depicting the brutal – and deadly – early enforcement of Covid-19 lockdowns in Africa, was that famous one by AFP showing a soldier (or was it LDU) beating female vendors in Kampala. Those kill-them-to-save-them-Covid early days partly explain the brutality against President Yoweri Museveni’s Opposition rivals in January’s election and their supporters have faced in recent weeks. And, in turn, it is traceable to the late 1980s and 1990s when HIV-Aids ravaged Uganda, and at time there were even references to the country as the “Aids epicentre”. It also offers some reason why we should be hopeful.

It probably needs a book, but the short of it that can fit in a newspaper column is that HIV-Aids, perhaps more than anything else, shaped Museveni’s rule, the character of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), and Uganda today.

When the NRA/NRM seized power in January 1986, it liked to claim it was a “people’s” and “peasant” movement. It was not. It was quite elitist, dominated intellectually by intellectuals who had supposedly “committed class suicide” and large exile and diaspora element. It was also closely allied to the land-owning class in the southwest. Those constituencies, brought a pragmatic and liberal democratic streak to both the NRA and NRM. The NRA and NRM was “cool” then, in the way the crowd at an innovation hub or Blankets and Wine event would be today. Its young dashing men were the country’s most eligible bachelors. HIV/Aids, and to a lesser extent, the continuing wars in the northeast and north, wiped nearly all of them out. 

A large number of the few who were left, then went to fight the war in Rwanda with the Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front.

HIV/Aids also laid a trail of destruction in the towns along the main highways where truckers, especially in Buganda, western Uganda, and parts of Jinja Road zone in the east. A lot of people in these towns were staunch NRM people, having fled the terror of the Obote army and the war in the countryside, and had been a major reservoir of recruitment for the NRA.

The devastation of HIV/Aids made NRM one of the most open government about  the disease in the world, in part because, it had killed nearly 30 per cent of the NRA. It is why by the end of the 1990s, Uganda was the world’s great HIV/Aids “success story,” becoming the first country severely hit by the virus, to roll it back, in large part due to an enlightened public awareness campaign. At the global political level, it did wonders for the Museveni government. Treated with suspicion by some in the West as “socialist menace” in the heart of Africa, it became their favourite adopted son, in large part through the politics of HIV/Aids.

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Internally, the NRM changed, opening up to a broader professional class (many of whom were not NRM card carriers) and the massive civil society that grew to battle the virus. Politically, it became a more pragmatic government, and expanded engagement with sections of Ugandan society it didn’t necessarily see as allies in its early years.  At the same time, several responses had the opposite effect. With the war raging in the north, it became popular propaganda by NRM’s adversaries to claim that it was sending HIV positive troops to fight the LRA and other rebels as some kind of chemical warfare. It radicalised some people in the north, and made the war more ferocious – on both sides. The demise of a vast section of the NRA/NRM’s youthful and open-minded members, and the near collapse at that time of the highway towns, meant that the army (and indeed the movement) went deeper into the “unspoilt” countryside to recruit. It introduced a very agrarian element in the rank and file of the security forces, which didn’t necessarily have a view of violence as revolutionary. To many of them, it was a crude blunt instrument.

As these elements rose to political and military leadership, they helped shift the view of violence further in the same direction at the State level. It’s barely a year, but a few things that happened are clear. That photo of the LDU whipping vendors, represents one of the few instances where market women (once a reliable Museveni constituency) were beaten for reasons other than enforcing city or municipal laws.

Covid-19 lockdowns also brought the State in confrontation with traders in Kampala’s arcades, in ways that hadn’t happened before. Unlike in the battle against HIV/Aids where persuasion and community engagement won out, this time it was force and death.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. 

Twitter: @cobbo3

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