Uganda’s most controversial and disruptive politician

A new book revisits the career of Uganda’s first elected prime minister, Benedicto Kiwanuka, his followers, and political ideas.

President John F. Kennedy Meets with Benedicto Kiwanuka, Chief Minister of Uganda. Image credit Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

To be honest, I have never thought that Benedicto Kiwanuka was particularly interesting. He was Uganda’s first elected prime minister, but his election in 1961 was an accident, for people in Uganda’s most populous region had boycotted the vote. His government was subject to the tutelary authority of colonial authorities, since Uganda was still under British rule. His party, the Democratic Party, was largely made up of Catholics, and its politics were staid and predictable. As the leader of government business, Kiwanuka was ineffective. According to archival research, the US consul in Uganda called Kiwanuka’s performance in the Legislative Council “lack-luster and inept.” He read his answers to legislators’ questions in a soft monotone, keeping his eyes fixed on the printed page. His chief opponent, Milton Obote, was by contrast “blunt, forthright, fluent and lightning fast” in debate. Kiwanuka’s party was in power for a bare seven months; when fresh elections were held early in 1962, it lost by an outsize margin. It was Milton Obote, not Benedicto Kiwanuka, who was to lead Uganda into independence in October 1962. Kiwanuka spent the rest of the 1960s composing bitter letters and angry petitions complaining against the electoral and political malpractice of Obote’s regime. One historian termed the Democratic Party the party of “sour and alienated” Catholics.

Contesting Catholics: Benedicto Kiwanuka and the Birth of Postcolonial Uganda (2021), a new book from historians Jon Earle and Jay Carney, aims to show that the Democratic Party was altogether more interesting, and more consequential, than its leader’s performance in the legislature suggests. Contrary to the diplomats’ view, Kiwanuka’s party was stirring up trouble, amplifying the voices of marginalized people, and mapping a multi-centered Ugandan politics. Earle and Carney take readers on a chapter-by-chapter tour of Uganda’s provinces during the late 1950s and 1960s, highlighting how Democratic Party activists cultivated constituencies in unexpected places. In western Uganda, party organizers found common cause with Rwenzururu rebels, who had launched an insurgency against the Protestant aristocracy of the kingdom of Tooro. In the southwest, it became the party of commoners who had been excluded from the aristocratic power of the ruling elite. In the northwest, Kiwanuka forged common cause with oppressed Catholics demanding that their homeland should be liberated from the government of the kingdom of Buganda. In short, the Democratic Party—as it emerges in Earle and Carney’s book—was dynamic, responsive to the demands of marginalized people, and sometimes inclined to challenge the cultural and social hierarchies that tradition upheld. That is why, I imagine, the authors begin their work with an unlikely claim: that fumbling Benedicto Kiwanuka was actually “Uganda’s most controversial and disruptive politician of the 1950s and early 1960s.”

Kiwanuka was convinced that—in life and in death—he was destined to be a source of inspiration and edification for the living. His personal archive is correspondingly voluminous: there are 4,900 pages, filed in 83 folders, alongside 900 pages of unfiled loose-leaf papers. Did he create the archive with sympathetic biographers like Earle and Carney in mind? The archive is both the source material and the occasion for Earle and Carney’s book, and they use it to good effect and singular purpose. Whole sections of the book are summaries of the relevant files in Kiwanuka’s archive. It is fascinating to watch Kiwanuka and his colleagues as they tacked between the divergent contexts in which the Democratic Party found its constituents. It is fascinating, too, to see some of Uganda’s most consequential figures brought to life on these pages. Earle and Carney are generous with their attention, and Cuthbert Obwangor (republican leader of opinion in Teso), A.D. Lubowa (newspaperman and royalist in Buganda), and a number of other important people are the subjects of carefully drawn intellectual biographies.

This is the singular achievement of Earle and Carney’s book: showing that Uganda’s local histories were never local, highlighting the cosmopolitan sources of inspiration with which activists could work. The most interesting parts of the book excavate the religious and ritual resources from which Democratic Party thinkers drew. It is fascinating, for example, to think that activists working to claim the “Lost Counties” for the kingdom of Bunyoro could draw from the hymns and prayers of the Sacred Heart tradition in French Catholicism. The canticles that believers composed in the wake of the French Revolution pled for mercy from a conquering God; years later, Lost Counties activists found them useful in claiming the attention and favor of a God who would, surely, bring justice to their land. It is fascinating, too, to learn that Kiwanuka saw himself as standing within the tradition of the Uganda martyrs, suffering—like his 19th-century forebears—for Christian principles. In these and in other instances, Earle and Carney show Democratic Party activists to be both people of the world and partisans of a particular tradition of interpretation.

But what would Benedicto Kiwanuka not say? What did he not know? The Kiwanuka who Earle and Carney show us is a man of many words, with something to say about virtually every issue in Uganda’s politics. It is harder to see where—outside the theater of formal discourse—Catholics lived political lives. The actors in this book were literate men, whose education and sense of vocation drove them to take positions, compose editorials, keep files, and store them in tin trunks and other archives. Men and women who were not in correspondence with Kiwanuka rarely appear on these pages. Augustine Kamya, whose claim to being the “most controversial and disruptive politician of the 1950s and early 1960s” outstrips Kiwanuka’s, is mentioned only in passing. Kamya, a Catholic, was the firebrand behind the 1958–59 boycott of Asian-owned businesses. His racism, his prejudice, his ribald speeches were meant to shape the social and financial relationships of urban Ugandans. His activism was not guided by the conventions that structure liberal democracy. Did Benedicto Kiwanuka not know Augustine Kamya? Or did he deliberately ignore him? Whatever the reason, Kamya finds no space in Earle and Carney’s book. This biography amplifies Kiwanuka’s knowledge and reveals the limits of his regard.

Contesting Catholics puts Benedicto Kiwanuka at the center of things. This is its strength and its weakness. The book is an important work of intellectual history. It is likewise an important work for Uganda, helping to reveal the connections between controversies and contexts that are often seen and studied in isolation. But in its ambition to resurrect one man’s pivotal role in Uganda’s history, Contesting Catholics draws a veil over forms of political life that Kiwanuka neither knew nor understood.

Further Reading