By Omar Kalinge-Nnyago
April 11, marked 34 years ever since Amin was overthrown in 1979. Therefore, as we mark the 34th anniversary of the overthrow of Idi Amin this month, we remember the blood of innocent Muslims that was spilled for no other reason, but that they had supported Idi Amin. We pray and hope that such incidents never occur again in our life as a nation. When a section of people is killed or displaced for belonging to the religion or tribe of a deposed leader.
Most records indicate that Islam reached Uganda at the very latest in 1844, when Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim reached the then Kabaka’s palace. It is however also believed that some other Arab/Swahili Muslims reached Buganda in the late 1830s, during King Ssuuna II’ s reign. It is also possible that Islam could have reached Uganda earlier through the northern axis, from Egypt and Sudan. What is not under dispute, however, is the fact that Islam arrived in Uganda at least 33 years earlier than Christianity.
Although Islam was not introduced in Uganda through a well organised missionary system, many people in Buganda including King Mutesa I nevertheless embraced it. Indeed, Islam was taught in the palace of King Ssuuna II. Ssuuna even received a copy of the Quran and by the time he died, King ssuuna had memorized four chapters of the Quran. Mutesa I, did not convert to Islam but also studied Islam, and directed his palace at Banda to become the first Islamic Education Centre.
The arrival of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries in Buganda in 1877 and the White Fathers in 1879 heralded a new era. Soon, Mutesa I’s belief in Islam was polluted and religious conflicts arose. Eventually religious wars erupted. The Muslims fought bravely although they were finally defeated.
On October 12, 1888, they defeated the Christians and forced them out of the capital of Buganda. They ran to Ankole organised and returned. The combined force of Christians and Mwanga eventually defeated the Muslims at the battles of Bankaabira, Kitebi and Balwaanyi. The Christians took over Buganda and European influence gained firm ground in the religion-politics of Buganda and eventually Uganda, to date.
Many Muslims made Hijra (migration), to many parts of Uganda hence spreading Islam outside Buganda. The Hijra as the Muslim’s reaction to defeat was later to turn out to be the major achievements of the religious wars. The Muslims turned a defeat into opportunity to sow the seeds of Islam whose frontiers extended well beyond the Buganda Kingdom. Today Muslims can be found in every part of Uganda.
The colonial period was a very challenging one for the Muslim community. Denied education, access to land and opportunities of leadership, the Muslims were sidelined to the peripherals of Uganda society. Independence that came in 1962 did not change things much for the Ugandan Muslim. With only one graduate at independence, Muslims in Uganda had to contend with menial jobs, driving, tilling the land and trade. Because Uganda is an agricultural country, a sizable number of Muslims did gather riches and it was not uncommon for the richest man in a village to be a Muslim. Trading in agricultural commodities and animals especially in cattle and goats, Muslims created a niche for themselves in the meat industry, and indeed monopolised the butcher business as the colonial laws had granted them the assumed right to slaughter animals for sale in public markets.
With some economic power, the missing link was education.
To address this deficit, Prince Kakungulu founded the Uganda Muslim Education Association, UMEA. Today, Muslim schools number hundreds. Muslims opened the first private university in Uganda, the Islamic University in Uganda in 1988. Muslims are still a marginalised community in Uganda but have become more assertive over the years. They are financially weak, politically insignificant and critically deficient in civil society organisation. Wrangles in the apex body, Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC), have persisted, with no end in sight.
But they thank Allah, their God, for one man – Idi Amin Dada. It was during the eight years of Amin’s rule 1971-79 that the Muslims as a community made their lasting achievements. For the first time Muslims had come nearer to the corridors of power, finance and education. Although Muslims did not, in any way, participate in bringing Idi Amin into power (as he had done so through a classic military coup), Muslims not only in Uganda but elsewhere provided critical support to Amin. For doing so, they were later to pay a price when Idi Amin was overthrown on April 11, 1979. In reprisal killings, hundreds of Muslims were massacred especially in Kampala, Bombo, West Nile and Westen Uganda. The lucky ones escaped into exile, mainly in Congo (then called Zaire), the Sudan and Kenya. The Kakwa (Amin’s tribe) and Nubians, a purely Muslim cultural group, were without doubt, the most affected.