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Geopolitical hotspot: Uganda.

In May, one of Uganda's main opposition leaders, Kizza Besigye, an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2006 and 2011, was prevented from boarding a Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi to the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Besigye had travelled to Kenya to undergo medical treatment for injuries sustained when he was arrested for taking part in protests against high food and fuel prices. Although the Ugandan government denied any involvement in the Nairobi incident, Besigye's supporters took to Kampala's streets in protest.

The timing of the episode was significant as it happened a few days before the inauguration of President Yoweri Museveni was due to take place. The Ugandan government was reported to be concerned that Besigye would attempt to disrupt the event, which was rumoured to have cost more than US$1million.

A landlocked country of about 240,000 square kilometres located in East Africa, Uganda is bordered by Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Rwanda and South Sudan. The population of 33 million is ethnically mixed, with at least ten different groupings, including the Baganda and Basoga people.

Uganda gained its independence from the UK in 1962, although it remained a member of the Commonwealth. Four years later, the country began its descent into instability when then prime minister Milton Obote hounded the president, Mutesa II, from the country, suspended the constitution and assumed all government powers. The next year, he instituted a new constitution that abolished the traditional kingdoms and declared the country a republic.

In 1971, army commander Idi Amin overthrew the Obote government in a military coup, ushering in a particularly brutal period of Ugandan history, during which some 300,000 people died and Ugandan South Asians were expelled from the country. Uganda's society and economy were devastated. When Amin declared war with Tanzania in 1979, it proved a step too far, as Tanzanian forces invaded and he fled to exile in Saudi Arabia. A military coup in 1980 saw Obote return to power, but he was ousted again in 1985. The next year, forces loyal to the current president took over and he has held office ever since.

Notwithstanding his questionable democratic credentials, Museveni has earned praise for ushering in a new generation of post-colonial African leaders. He has enacted crucial economic reforms, but his presidency has also witnessed conflict and tension, within and beyond Uganda. The ongoing civil war in the country's north with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which is campaigning to turn Uganda into a theocratic state, has seen tens of thousands of civilians killed. The Ugandan government has also been complicit with the civil war in the DRC and other regional conflicts around the Great Lakes region.

Post-Amin Uganda was one of the world's poorest countries. In 1998, it became the first nation to be declared eligible for relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, set up by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It has since received US$2billion of debt relief.

The Museveni government's reforms have helped to encourage economic growth in Uganda, as well as development of the country's substantial natural resources, which include fertile agricultural land and deposits of minerals such as copper and cobalt. There are also reserves of oil and gas, which remain undeveloped.

Eighty per cent of the population works in the agricultural sector, and during the mid-1980s, coffee provided hall of the country's export earnings. Today, the services sector is Uganda's major income earner, a situation aided by the return of some of Uganda's South Asian entrepreneurs.

One major area of future concern is the emergence of South Sudan as an independent nation. Uganda is both a major export partner with Sudan and a haven for Sudanese refugees. It was recently estimated that some 200,000 Sudanese are now living in Uganda, alongside nearly 30,000 Congolese and 20,000 Rwandan refugees. Meanwhile, Ugandans fleeing the brutality of the LRA continue to seek refuge in South Sudan.

Taken together, this serves as a reminder of Uganda's significant geographical position as it negotiates uncertainties to its north and east. President Museveni is set to remain in power until 2016, and it remains to be seen whether he can finally halt the LRA's bloody campaign, while cementing Uganda's post-Amin recovery.

KLAUS DODDS is professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and editor of the Geographical Journal
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Title Annotation:HOT spot
Author:Dodds, Klaus
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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