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How near to a coup?

Last week Uganda was very near to a coup. Rumours of plotting and of coups d'état are endemic in Uganda politics, and have become to some extent self-perpetuating – to a rumoured plot there is always the gossipy answer of a counter-plot. Yet the present crisis, which is nominally about allegations of money gained by important Ugandans as a by-product of the Congo rebellion, is by far the most serious since independence. And the rumours of impending military action against government figures are far better established than before.

The allegations that gold and ivory were brought out of the Congo by 'General' Nicholas Olenga's Congolese rebels from 1964 onwards is entirely true. We can vouch for the fact that some large ivory consignments reached the Sudan early last year. The Congo rebels controlled some of their country's gold mines, and poaching elephant was an easy way (with automatic weapons) of raising cash outside the Congo for services rendered. Undoubtedly similar arrangements were made in Uganda, as alleged in Parliament by the opposition leader, Mr. Ochieng.

When the Uganda Parliament debated a motion to set up a Commission of Enquiry into the allegations, only one member – John Kakonge – voted against it. This was the setting for the full political crisis, which is still not over although it has been concealed from the world.

A split in the ruling Uganda People's Congress has been slowly but progressively widening during the last year. The two camps are partly formed by personality rivalries. But they broadly fall into:

(a) the 'Northern' leadership of the UPC, including Prime Minister Obote, his brother-in-law A. A. Nekyon (Minister of Planning and Community Development), and Felix Onama (Minister of Defence). Some 'Southern' radicals, such as Kakonge, are within the camp.

(b) the 'Southern' UPC leaders, together with many of the young Baganda intellectuals. The latter tended in the past to stay with the Baganda nationalist party, the Kabaka Yekka. But the last year has seen a decisive number of KY members cross the Parliamentary floor to join the UPC. There is no doubt that this was a deliberate decision (for at least a number of them, who were not just looking for government patronage) to try to work within the ruling party, rather than feebly oppose it from outside. Among the floor crossers was also the former official Leader of the Opposition, Basil Bataringaya of the Democratic Party, who was rewarded with the  Ministry of Internal Affairs.

This has been a classic power struggle. The special position of Baganda in the country's geopolitical centre, and of the Baganda with their long educational leadership, has led to fears of discrimination against them by Mr. Obote's fellow 'Northerners'. The alliance of progressive Baganda with other 'Southerners' in the UPC is the basis of the present challenge to the Prime Minister. He is immensely skillful and resourceful, and the odds must still be that he will weather the storm. But the old political alignments are bound to be shaken up. The immediate scene of the flare-up, however, was in the army.

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