OGENGA OTUNNU. Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979. African Histories and Modernities. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Pp. xv, 369. $109.00. Hardback. ISBN: 978-3-319-33155-3.

According to Ugandan native, historian of Africa, and scholar of global refugee and forced migration studies, Ogenga Otunnu, nations of the world can be classified according to four typologies of state power. They can be despotically and infrastructurally strong, despotically and infrastructurally weak, despotically strong but infrastructurally weak, and, most ideally, despotically weak but infrastructurally strong. Since its creation as a predatory, kleptocratic, despotic, and conflict-ridden state at the onset of the African colonial period, in 1890, Uganda has oscillated among the first three typologies but it has never achieved the fourth. In Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979, Otunnu explains this situation by analyzing the history of Uganda from the precolonial period to the fall of Idi Amin in 1979. He argues that Uganda suffers from a severe and persistent crisis of legitimacy or a “legitimation deficit.” This deficit is shared by the state, its institutions, its incumbents, and their challengers. It is the result of factors that are contemporary and historical as well as foreign and domestic. Most importantly, this deficit remains “the most significant factor accounting for the intense political violence” in the country today (1, 321). Addressing this crisis is vital to stemming political violence and turning Uganda into a rights-based and developed nation that is inclusive, representative, and respectful of its citizens.

The work under review here is the first installment in a two-volume series about the origins, persistence, and effects of political violence in Uganda. (Otunnu’s second book has the same title, is due out in 2017, and will take the narrative from 1979 to 2016.) The dates featured in this title—1890 to 1979—form the core of Otunnu’s chronological focus. Three eighty-page chapters explore Uganda’s colonial era (1890-1962), the Obote regime (1962-1971), and the Amin regime (1971-1979). And yet, Otunnu wisely sets the stage for these three main sections with an opening chapter that surveys the history of several polities in precolonial Uganda, from roughly 1500 to 1889. The societies analyzed here—Bunyoro-Kitara, Buganda, and Acoli—showcase the diversity of social and political structures that were inherited and/or disrupted by the British colonial regime. Otunnu traces, for instance, how a kingdom like Buganda evolved form an independent monarchy in the precolonial period to an agent or “mask” of British imperial power in the colonial period. Similarly, Otunnu demonstrates a traditional system of legitimacy that the Ugandan state has yet to successfully revive. As he argues, the many precolonial and decentralized polities of Acoli in the north fit the ideal model of a state that was despotically weak but infrastructurally strong. As such, Acoli was characterized by democratic traditions and practices, government accountability to civil society, widespread feelings of legitimacy, and a lack of both corruption and violence.

Otunnu’s next chapter on the colonial era sets down the policies that British administrators used to secure dominance over the region and its people. These policies include selective genocide, indirect rule, divide-and-rule, economic marginalization, slave labor, land enclosure, sexual violence, crop destruction, the establishment and enforcement of arbitrary boundaries, and the fostering of ethnic consciousness. Here Otunnu also devotes space to critiquing the underlying logics of the colonial historiographies which sought to justify this violence. In the subsequent chapters about Obote and Amin, Otunnu explores how these leaders navigated their country’s crisis of legitimacy through moments of international, regional, and domestic pressure. Whether Obote navigating the “lost counties” crisis between Bunyoro and Buganda in the 1960s or Amin responding to an influx of refugee warriors from neighboring nations in the 1970s, we see how the decisions that Uganda’s presidents made were informed by the tenuous nature of their authority. Otunnu excels at breaking down how these leaders maneuvered the politics of legitimacy in given moments. One such moment is Amin’s posthumous repatriation and public funeral of the Kabaka of Buganda, Mutesa II. Another is his staged reception of British envoys during African Refugee Day in 1975.

In reading Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence, it is clear that the work derives from a lifetime of labor. Otunnu exercises a command of historiographies in fields as diverse as African and Ugandan history, colonial historiography, global political violence, developmental theory, and oral history theory. To this literature he adds extensive archival research and oral histories that he has undertaken in some form of another for the past thirty-four years. Moreover, Otunnu’s thoughtful introduction prepares the reader by carefully defining his three primary categories of analysis: crisis, crisis of legitimacy, and political violence. Building off of various scholars, Otunnu employs broad definitions of these concepts that emphasize both actions and divergent perceptions of those actions, include state and non-state actors, and avoid reproducing several specious distinctions that have flawed previous studies (for example, the assumption that crises can only be short-lived phenomena or that certain acts of violence can be overlooked on the basis of the perpetrator’s identity).

Throughout this study, Otunnu foregrounds one central belief: peoples’ ideas of what constitutes political violence and legitimate rule are subjective, situational, and relative to a variety of complex and localized factors. In key moments of the historical narrative, like Amin’s coup against Obote in 1971 or his expulsion of Ugandan-Asians in the following year, Otunnu is careful to parse out how every domestic and international constituency perceived of the event and for what reasons. In doing so, he successfully balances numerous lines of identity. These include, but are not limited to, religion, ethnicity, social class, district, party affiliation, national allegiance, political ideology, refugee or citizenship status, and economic philosophy. Perhaps Otunnu’s greatest strength is his ability to unpack the same event from multiple perspectives, paying special attention to the motives of the different players involved, be them the army, the international and domestic press, the Cabinet, the refugees, the empowered and persecuted groups, and global and regional powers like the UN, the OAU, interested foreign states like Israel, and neighboring African governments like Tanzania. Otunnu clearly articulates the conflicting viewpoints of these constituencies. Meanwhile, he rarely avoids an opportunity to point out a party’s inconsistencies. He is critical of hypocrisy across the board, whether it emanates from a former colonial power or a neocolonial state.

Historiographically, Otunnu positions Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence against the concept of “stage theory” and “developmental dictatorship.” This is the belief that, while every nation characterized by violence strives to achieve stability, not every nation meets a set of “necessary preconditions” that make such stability possible. These include “national integration, liberal democracy, liberty and economic development” (192). While such conditions are nonexistent, proponents argue that freedom and human-rights should be temporarily suspended. Put more simply, “developmental dictatorship” is the concept that political violence can play a painful yet necessary role in a country’s path to liberal and capitalist development. It has been embraced by international capitalists in developed countries like Britain, as well as African dictators like Obote. To Otunnu, however, this theory is an alibi for colonialism and a pretense to justify the perpetuation of undemocratic regimes and conditions of political violence. Deferring civil liberties may have worked to launch those counties that are now developed into their current positions of power, but Uganda has been on the receiving end of this relationship. As such, its pathway to becoming a despotically weak and infrastructurally strong state is shaped by a seven-decade history of colonial rule during which human rights were actively suppressed. It is for this reason that Otunnu advocates breaking away from universalistic theories about national development. African nations, Uganda included, “should define a different equation of economic development and liberties” (22).