While it is largely acknowledged that mass atrocities occurred in Uganda after Milton Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin and throughout Amin’s rule, less well-known is the continuation of mass atrocities after Obote was returned to power following a Tanzanian invasion. The mass atrocities committed in Uganda both during the presidency of Idi Amin and the second presidency of Milton Obote have roots in the latter’s first term in power. Obote was independent Uganda’s first prime minister and he quickly took steps to consolidate his power, naming himself president and declaring a state of emergency that allowed him to rule with impunity. His regime was marked by corruption and nepotism—particularly towards the ethnic groups most loyal to him: the Langi and Acholi. General Idi Amin led a coup against Obote on January 25, 1971, thus beginning his bloody military regime. Amin began by killing ethnic groups most loyal to Obote, but by the time he himself was overthrown in 1979, almost every ethnic group in Uganda had been a target of his purges. Obote returned from exile with the support of the Tanzanian military, and he regained the presidency in the 1980 elections. But Uganda’s violence did not end. An insurgency led by Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Army (NRA) violently contested the elections and Obote’s army responded with a brutal counter-insurgency, which became known as the Ugandan Bush War.
We treat these cases as one, because at no interim point until after the Bush War can we establish two consecutive years of violence against civilians dropping below the annual level of 5,000 killed.
We have not included violence related to the Lord’s Resistance Army (1989 – present), as perpetrated by either the LRA or the government forces, because while the cumulative number of civilians killed is estimated at 63,826-99,941,[i] we cannot establish credible annual figures as to enable us to ensure that the violence fits within the time thresholds that govern this project. Documentation of LRA crimes is exceptionally poor throughout the period when the LRA was most active in Uganda, 1989 – mid-2000s.
Part One: Idi Amin (1971-1979)
Violence under Idi Amin occurred in three primary phases. The first phase targeted the armed forces and police, occurring as a series of barrack massacres. Initially, the targets were soldiers from the Acholi, Langi, and other tribes who were assumed to be loyal to Obote. At the beginning of Amin’s reign, from January to May 1971, several hundred of these officers were killed. However, mass purges of Acholi and Langi within the military and police forces spiked from May to July of 1971. It is estimated that 5,000–6,000 Ugandans from these forces lost their lives, including in barrack massacres in Mbarara (~150–250 killed), Moroto (~120 killed), Jinja (~800 killed or disappeared), and Magamaga Ordnance Depot (~50 killed).[ii]
Over his reign, Amin’s army grew from 10,000 soldiers to 25,000. It was made up of mostly foreigners, further exasperating ethnic tensions.[iii] In addition to foreigners, Amin’s army was also comprised of a large number of Muslims, who compose a very small percentage of Uganda’s population.[iv] Purges of the armed forces decreased as Amin’s army became more international in its composition.[v] However, barrack massacres occurred in 1972, 1973, and 1977.[vi]
The second phase of mass killings was the less organized and more arbitrary targeting of civilians by the military. Specific dates and numbers for this phase are difficult to determine. Soldiers not only followed Amin’s orders to kill, but a 1971 decree gave the military the power to detain anyone who they thought was culpable for sedition.[vii] Therefore, soldiers often used their own discretion to kill those who were deemed to be a part of the opposition or abused their authority to target people as a means to settle the personal vendettas. Though tribes assumed to be disloyal to Amin, like the Acholi and Langi, were the first targets of Amin’s wrath, nearly every ethnic group had been a target of killings by the time he lost power.[viii]
The third and final phase of killings occurred towards the end of Amin’s reign. There were additional ethnic purges of military forces and a spike in civilian casualties as the rebel movements against Amin’s regime increased in strength. In 1978 Tanzanian soldiers discovered the bodies of 120 dead Ugandan soldiers close to Tanzania’s border with Uganda. It is not known for certain how the soldiers were killed or why their bodies were found in Tanzania, but the Government of Tanzania released a statement saying that the soldiers had been “dumped” in Tanzania after being executed in Uganda.[ix]
Backed by the Tanzanian army, the Ugandan National Liberation Front overthrew Idi Amin in a coup on April 11, 1979. A year before, Amin had chased political dissidents into Tanzania and subsequently invaded the Kagera Region along the western shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Tanzania’s involvement in the coup began as a campaign to reclaim this territory, but it ended with Tanzanian forces fighting with the Uganda National Liberation Front all the way to Kampala to overthrow Amin.[x]
However, instances of mass violence did not immediately stop. For example, after Tanzanian troops entered the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, young Acholi warriors massacred over one hundred people who were members of tribes from Amin’s homeland, the West Nile region.[xi]
The International Commission of Jurists provided the most accurate and widely cited[xii] estimation of the total number of deaths that occurred under Amin’s rule. In their 1977 report, Uganda and Human Rights, they state that:
It is still not possible to make any reliable estimate of the number who have died. Two former ministers, Mr. Kibedi and Mr. Rugumayo, agree that the death total in the first two years of President Amin’s regime was at least 80,000 to 90,000. Many sources believe that the figure is now well over 100,000.[xiii]
On June 15, 1978, Amnesty International presented a report to the Foreign Relations sub-committee of the U.S. Senate that stated 300,000 people had died under the rule of Idi Amin.[xiv] A 1999 Human Rights Watch publication, Hostile to Democracy: The Movement Systems and Political Repression in Uganda, cites an estimate given by the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on International Human rights that puts the number of deaths between 100,000 and 500,000.[xv] A USAID report estimates that at least 10,000 Ugandans died during Amin’s first year in power.[xvi]
Purges and assaults against civilians continued throughout Idi Amin’s time in power, declining only when the Ugandan National Liberation Front and the Tanzanian army overthrew Idi Amin in a coup on April 11, 1979. However, even with the ousting of Amin, instances of mass violence perpetrated by multiple actors continued in the time immediately after his demise. Further, his overthrow marked a change in the patterns of violence against civilians, not an end.
Part Two: Milton Obote
It is very difficult to separate patterns of violence against civilians from the general conduct of the civil war (1980-1986) that began within one year of Obote’s return to power. The war pitted Uganda’s government under Milton Obote (the Uganda People’s Congress or UPC) against Yoweri Museveni’s rebel forces, the National Resistance Army (NRA). Both sides of the guerilla war committed mass atrocities against civilians and the instability also produced massive displacement. Civilians were targeted based on their perceived political allegiance, which often was treated as synonymous with ethnicity. In contrast to the reign of Idi Amin in which spikes of violence were associated with threats, both real and perceived, the second presidency of Obote was characterized by sustained violence.[xvii]
Obote’s UNLA forcers were primarily made up of Acholi and Langi soldiers. His forces were poorly trained, undisciplined, and committed the same sort of acts that were committed against them under the rule of Idi Amin.[xviii] Museveni’s NRA also targeted civilians in order to discredit Obote and confuse the population by dressing in UNLA garb. As Museveni intended,[xix] this created even more confusion as to which side was conducting the killings.[xx]
By February of 1981, Museveni had established his militia in the bush of the Luweero District.[xxi] He immediately began to target people perceived as loyal to Obote; displacing thousands. At this point, Obote tried to improve his soldiers’ treatment of civilians[xxii] and on May 27, 1982 Obote issued an order that the military stop harassing civilians and pillaging.[xxiii]
While the entirety of the second Obote regime was brutal, the events of January 1983 marked a key escalation in the targeting of civilians. Obote launched what came to be known as Operation Bonanza in the Luweero Triangle. UNLA soldiers ransacked settlements and farms. This is the major spike in violence during Obote’s second presidency and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people died or were displaced during this campaign.[xxiv] By the December of 1983, most of the fighting in the Luweero District was over.[xxv] However, in January of 1984, thirty women and children were killed by rebels in Muduuma, a village near Kampala.[xxvi] Rebels continued to commit acts of terrorism in and around Kampala into the summer of 1984.[xxvii]
Milton Obote could not control all aspects of his security forces. There was “open communal conflict” within his military, and soldiers of Acholi descent frequently committed insubordination against their superiors. Rifts in the armed forces were widened further by competition between different ethnic factions for control of weapons and supplies. Museveni was able to exploit this fracturing by capitalizing on the unified front of the NRA. As UNLA soldiers lost their will to fight for Obote, many chose to defect to the NRA, further weakening Obote. UNLA Lietenant General Basilio Olara-Okello, who was an Acholi, seized on this loss of support and overthrew Obote on July 27, 1985.[xxviii]
In the Amnesty International 1985 report, the organization cites an estimate made by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs that between 100,000 and 200,000 people died.[xxix] The 1992 Library of Congress country study on Uganda states that estimates for how many people died between 1981 and 1985 is as high as 500,000 people.[xxx]
Thanks largely to the influence of Museveni and the NRA, public favor came to turn against Obote, who was overthrown in a coup d’etat led by Basilio Olara-Okello on July 27, 1985. The contradictions and infighting of Obote’s regime tore it apart internally.[xxxi] The violence declined even more significantly a few months later in January 1986 when Museveni’s NRA claimed control of the country.
We code this case as ending through military defeat of the government by insurgents, the NRA. We further note that there were multiple victims group across the span of the period of atrocities.
Amnesty International. 1979. Amnesty International Report, 1979. London: Amnesty International Publications.
Amnesty International. 1985. Amnesty International Report, 1985. London: Amnesty International Publications.
Avirgan, Tony, and Martha Honey. 1982. War in Uganda: The Legacy of Idi Amin. Westport, CT: L. Hill.
Decalo, Samuel. 1989. Psychoses of Power: African Personal Dictatorships. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Human Rights Watch. 1999. Hostile to Democracy: The Movement System and Political Repression in Uganda. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Ingham, Keneth. 1994. “Obote : a political biography,” London; New York: Routledge.
International Commission of Jurists. 1977. Uganda and Human Rights: Reports to the UN Commission on Human Rights. Geneva: Commission.
Kasozi, Abdu. 1994. The Social Origins of Violence in Uganda, 1964-1985, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Keatley, Patrick. 2003. “Idi Amin.” The Guardian, accessed November 14, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/ news/2003/aug/18/guardianobituaries.
Mamdani, Mahmood. 1984. Imperialism and Fascism in Uganda. Trenton, NJ: Africa World of the Africa Research & Publications Project,
Mazurana, Dyan and Anastasia Marshak, Jimmy Hilton Opio, Rachel Gordon and Teddy Atim. 2014. “The Impact of serious crimes during the war on households today in Northern Uganda.” Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, Briefing Paper 5, May. Available at: http://www.securelivelihoods.org/publications_details.aspx?resourceid=298 Accessed January 12, 2017.
Mutengesa, Sabiiti. 2006. “From Pearl to Pariah: The Origin, Unfolding and Termination of State-Inspired Genocidal Persecution in Uganda, 1980-85.” How Genocides End, accessed December 6, 2013, http://howgenocidesend.ssrc.org/Mutengesa/
Ofcansky, Thomas P. 1996. Uganda: Tarnished Pearl of Africa. Boulder, CO: Westview.
United States Library of Congress. 1992. “Library of Congress Country Studies: Uganda,” Washington, D.C. : Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. Accessed 1 Dec. 2013, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/ugtoc.html.
[i] Mazurana et al 2014.
[ii] Avirgan and Honey 1982, 31.
[iii] Avirgan and Honey 1982, 7.
[iv] Avirgan and Honey 1982, 8.
[v] Mamdani 1984, 42.
[vi] Avirgan and Honey 1982, 7.
[vii] Decalo 1989, 100.
[viii] Decalo 1989, 102.
[ix] Avirgan and Honey 1982, 69.
[x] United States Library of Congress 1992.
[xi] Avirgan and Honey 1982, 179.
[xii] Keatley 2003.
[xiii] International Commission of Jurists 1977, 167.
[xiv] Amnesty International 1979, 38.
[xv] Human Rights Watch 1999, 32.
[xvi] Human Rights Watch 1999, 32.
[xvii] Kasozi 1994.
[xviii] United States Library of Congress 1992.
[xix] Ingham 1994., 178.
[xx] Ibid., 179.
[xxi] Note, amongst Museveni’s forces were some Rwandans displaced into Uganda from periods of violence in their home country. Among them were Paul Kagame, who would later lead the Rwandan Patriotic Front and become President of Rwanda, and Fred Rwigyema (Waugh 2004, 40).
[xxii] Ibid., 186.
[xxiii] Ibid., 187.
[xxiv] Ofcansky 1996, 54.
[xxv] Ingham 1994, 197.
[xxvi] Ibid., 200.
[xxvii] Ibid., 202.
[xxviii] Mutengesa 2006.
[xxix] Amnesty International Report, 1985. London: Amnesty International Publications, 1985. Print, 108.
[xxx] United States Library of Congress 1992.
[xxxi] Mutengesa 2006.