Islam in Uganda

The Muslim Minority, Nationalism & Political Power


Thank you for taking part in the African Griot! Can you please provide an overview of your book Islam in Uganda?

The book situates Islam and Muslim practices within a ‘religious field’ that includes non-Muslims as well especially since other religious powers (mostly protestant and catholic variants of Christianity) have influenced Muslim life in multiple and varied ways. The focus has been on contemporary aspects of violent statecraft which have historical antecedents spanning the political life of Uganda beginning from the 1840s to the current government of Yoweri Museveni. 

The main thematic concentrations regard various debates about: the internal and differentiated diversity of the discursive tradition within Islam, the relationship of secular power and Islamic articulations, the multiple of articulations of state power under different political regimes, the relationship of emerging issues to Islam, the role of Islam and Muslims in a secular state under non-Muslim power, and the critical role of colonial governmentality (governance) in applying principles of statecraft borrowed from other jurisdictions (for the British, India). 

The book establishes a seminal place for the British colonial rulers in Uganda who fashioned a Muslim ‘community’ where it did not exist as a political category. Using the divide and rule policies implemented in various political institutions, Muslims were also divided according to their settler or native identities (what I call multifurcation), leading to the formation of representative elites and associations to link them to power. This was the lasting legacy of colonial rule that successive political regimes in Uganda attempted to apply, of course with varying degrees of success or failure. 

The book also engages questions internal to the Muslim public by looking at debates about Islamic reform. For the Ugandan experience, the debate regarding reform of Muslim practices articulated multiple possibilities including a recourse to intra-Muslim violence, which alienated the very Muslim public it targeted to reform. As a result, the reform movement invited the state to transform the reform debate into an intra-Muslim civil war.

Do you look at a specific time period in your book?

My book focuses on the epochs of particular political regimes in Uganda’s history. Looking at periodization as a method of historical inquiry to tease out what was general and peculiar across regimes regarding the relationship of Islam and Muslims to existing power. What practices ceased or continued across epochs and why. Two political regimes however stand out: Muteesa I (1856-1886) and Idi Amin Dada (1971-1979) because they are the only attempts by political power to Islamize the state owing to various reasons. In these two exceptional periods, Islam and Muslims attained a foremost status and pedigree within the state, whereas in other periods, Islam moved to the defensive and later to a mediatory political role within the state. Successive political regimes in Uganda’s history have however cultivated a space for Islam and Muslims within the state and in turn a space for the state to intervene within the multiple Muslim publics.

What is the history of colonialism in Uganda?

Uganda becomes a colonial state in 1894 when Kabaka Mwanga signed a “Protectorate” Agreement with Captain F.D.R. Lugard the then representative of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) to “secure” Uganda for the British. Before this, British interests had been limited to the trade concerns of IBEAC. Early British explorers such as John Hanning Speke who visited Uganda in the early 1860s also wrote wonderful tales about the Baganda, whose system of administration they modelled on the British monarchy. When Christian missionaries arrived in 1877, they went about establishing mission schools and hospitals and undertook widespread literary education and later founded vocational schools. This missionary system formed the genesis of the colonial state in rudimentary fashion. 

British interest in Uganda was nearly ended by the bankruptcy surrounding IBEAC’s operations until the missionary societies lobbied the British government to intervene, paving the way for the 1894 Agreement. Captain Lugard was instrumental in ensuring the end of the religious wars in Buganda, which he did to support the protestant variant of Christianity. Lugard reorganized the political administration and securitized power from what he perceived as known “Muslim” threats. Such delicate balancing enabled Lugard to extend British influence outside Buganda to new areas such as Ankole, Tooro, and Bunyoro by 1896. A new British administration over Buganda was confirmed in 1900 when Harry Johnston signed a new Agreement with Buganda regarding sovereign relationships, land distribution and political administration. Successive similar agreements were signed by the other territories of Tooro, Ankole and later Bunyoro, paving the way for the colonization of larger parts of Uganda. The British administration henceforth proceeded to use the Ganda model of administration as the agency system to administer other areas of Uganda. The above agreements were always reviewed and modified basing on circumstances and context such as when Buganda desired for a special federated status within the larger Uganda or even secede from it only for a legal intervention to claim that Buganda’s agreements with the British colonial regime could not be modified by unilateral decisions from Mengo, the official seat of the Buganda kingdom. The British colonial state officially ended in October 1962 when Uganda was granted political independence.

Who was Milton Obote and why is he important to your work?

Milton Obote was one of the firebrand political actors that participated in the anti-colonial debates that eventually formed national organizations (political parties), which received power from the British in 1962. Obote identified as Acholi from Northern Uganda and he came to participate in the anti-colonial struggle by aligning with the Uganda National Congress, which later morphed to form the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC). Obote comes across as a seminal figure in the history of Uganda’s post-independence politics for various reasons (and this is why he is important to my work). 

First, Obote became an actor in epic circumstances that shaped his agency but the nature of his responses also reveals his character in articulating a vision of political power and at the same time marshal multiple tools of statecraft to solve such “questions”. In terms of moment, Obote and his interlocutors were required to respond to key questions: what kind of political dispensation would replace British colonial hegemony over Uganda? What would be the status of former settlers within a new multi-racial Uganda? These, and other, questions immersed political actors and the masses into a series of debates: to choose the pre-colonial model where each political kingdom governed its territory and inhabitants using its administrative structure; to choose a unified state under the Westminster model of government; to choose the federated model (Buganda emerged as the ardent admirer of this system); or to federate with other East African countries and form an East African Federation. Whereas all these options were available to the political actors, it fell to the political skill of Obote to weave through a plan that alienated the majority political party dominated by Catholics (religion was/still is a significant factor in political party membership in Uganda) and secure an alliance of an all-protestant party uniting Buganda’s federalists and Obote’s unitarists. As an Acholi required to govern in Buganda, Obote articulated the nationality question as a matter of residence and argued that everyone (Africans, Europeans and Asians) was free to live wherever they desired. As prime minister, Obote went about securitizing (in Lugard’s fashion) known threats to his power, by political marriages of convenience. For him, Buganda’s central location and political influence were the political underbelly to his government and he went about positioning an agenda that alienated his enemies but at the same time concentrated the implements of political power in the person of the prime minister and later the president, when he made Uganda a republic. When he discovered that his actions invited Buganda’s rage, Obote founded specific organizations to work with non-royal Ganda Muslims who were in political limbo so as to legitimate his political project within Buganda. Thus, was born the phrase “Obote’s Muslims”. 

Third, Obote’s political machinations appeared ingenious at first but actually culminated into despotic tendencies that ushered Uganda into a dark political phase igniting tribalism, sectarianism, parochial politicking and phases of military rule. 

On the whole, Obote’s importance to my work lies in his capacity to take initiative from existing historical forces especially how he married a historical question on nationality to the Muslim relevance to the post-colonial state. Obote’s brazen approach to political governance, using cunning oratory power endeared him to many political actors in the UPC that gave birth to many leaders like Yoweri Museveni. 

Islam in East Africa is a neglected field, and this is especially the case for Uganda, on which very few monographs on Islam are available, why do you think that is?

There could be many reasons why Islam in East Africa is a neglected field but the main one I can think of has to do with the kind of conceptual lenses scholars initiate to make meaning out of Islam in the region. There are many conceptual lenses one could choose from but I think the main, which have been used are two: a linear history of Islam in East Africa can be a good start. The challenge with this approach is that it could show how Islam came from Arabia and entered the region through various routes. This lens would make Islam fundamentally a foreign religion, which would stick to the ethos of old anthropology about Islam, popularised by early scholars like Clifford Geertz (Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, 1968)and Ernest Gellner (Muslim Society, 1981). The other conceptual lens has been to treat Islam as a discursive tradition beginning with the primary sources that inform Muslims’ articulation of Islam. Such a lens would ultimately engage with all the forces that affect/influence Muslim’s articulation of Islam, including secular power and capitalistic impulses (Talal Asad, ‘The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam’, 1982). The critical issue is for scholars to avoid researching Islam using non-Islamic lenses (for example Christendom, or Civilization Mission) but to provincialize how Muslims themselves understand their articulations of Islam. 

How did you go about your research? Was there anything you found that especially surprised you?

In beginning my research, I initially formulated questions that had a Muslim audience in mind as respondents. But in the process of mining the archive, I discovered that non-Muslims leaders like Apollo Kaggwa had been important players in arbitrating matters regarding Muslims in the early 1900s. When in the 2010s Muslim clerics were being murdered, non-Muslim leaders were also heard tasking the state to investigate and eliminate the insecurity. These incidences reminded me that a study about Muslims as a political minority under secular power could only proceed with seeking audience with non-Muslim leaders (secular, catholic, protestant, etcetera) to ask questions fundamental to understanding the historical power relations and dynamics that shaped Muslims acquisition and loss of political power and how their shift from an offensive to a defensive political posture humbled them and undergirded new forms of political relations. What surprised me, even though it merely confirmed what I knew, is that the claims to secular governance is made as a deceptive strategy to anchor the religious principles of the dominant political group in power, which also confirms what Saba Mahmood (Religious Difference in a Secular Age, 2016) has always emphasized that the politics of the secular state continues to reproduce inequalities regardless of the state’s claim to archive the contrary. 

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

My book tries to present a genealogy of the broader Muslim question in Uganda as articulated under different political regimes in history. I think readers can appreciate the multiple historical incidences, circumstances, episodes, ideologies and forms of governance that worked to influence the political subjectivity of Muslims and the role of Islam in various articulations of power. I also hope that readers can try to think about my use of genealogical approach in the Western intellectual tradition as imagined by Friedrich Nietzsche (On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Douglas Smith, 1998) and Michel Foucault (Language, Counter-Memory Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, 1977) and juxtapose it to genealogy in the Islamic intellectual tradition. The biggest take away from the book, I think, is how political subjectivity can be achieved in spaces where competing claims to sovereignty are made. Desperate to enforce its will on political subjects, the secular state pushes through an intrusive project whose intention is to enhance its self-interest against all competing logics and articulations of politics. 

Islam in Uganda


Hardcover, 9781847012432

July 2022, 224 pp.

£65.00 / $95.00

Religion in Transforming Africa

James Currey



Related titles

More from the Religion in Transforming Africa Series

JOSEPH KASULE is a Research Fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research, Makerere University, Kampala.