U.S. State Department Calls on Holly Hanson

Following this year’s dramatic series of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, the U.S. State Department wants to know if the “Arab Spring” will flow south to sub-Saharan Africa, and they’re looking to Mount Holyoke Professor of History Holly Hanson for guidance.

Hanson was one of the guest speakers at a forum this summer for members of the State Department and other U.S. government agencies. While the details of her presentation are classified, Hanson said she discussed the volatile political situation in Uganda as part of a larger panel focused on the wave of political protests that seems to have been inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt.

“As an academic and a teacher, I feel responsible for making better connections to the people who need whatever information I can provide,” Hanson said. “The audience members I was speaking with asked really great, insightful questions, and it was wonderful to see how well-informed they were. I felt like I could see my tax dollars hard at work.”

The government officials couldn’t have invited a better tutor when it comes to Uganda. Hanson has been studying the east African nation since she was a graduate student in African history nearly two decades ago.

“Before I came back to school to be an academic, I was working in rural development, and I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that people can have all kinds of capacities and a will to be united, but if you don’t have land, you don’t have food, and therefore you can’t have a viable society,” Hanson said. “I chose to focus on Uganda because I was really interested in how people get access to land, and Uganda was the first African country to turn communal forms of property into private property under British colonial rule.”

While Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962, its postcolonial history has been marred by political strife, including, most notoriously, the bloody military rule of Idi Amin in the 1970s. The country’s current president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in office since 1986, and discontent has grown as he has moved away from the inclusive and accountable standards his government set in its first years. Uganda’s political opposition, Hanson said, has sometimes been its own worst enemy.

“In the past, if you asked Uganda’s opposition leaders why Museveni shouldn’t be in power, they’d say, ‘Because I should be in power,’ ” she said. “In contrast to that somewhat narcissistic view, there was a series of public demonstrations in Uganda this spring, in which I can draw a line from statements made in Egypt’s Tahrir Square to what the opposition leaders in Uganda were saying. For example, there was a series of Walk to Work demonstrations in which these politicians who didn’t do so well in the previous election said they were going to walk to work in solidarity with the country’s poor population who can no longer afford public transportation. This was a significant step for the Ugandan civil society movement, and it was impressive to see these different politicians who had recently been in competition with each other manage to get on the same page.”

The protesters organized four Walk to Work days, in which political leaders and members of the upper and middle classes from the suburbs surrounding Uganda’s capital, Kampala, traveled by foot into the city—or at least they attempted to.

“Around Kampala you had these huge confrontations of military police and protesters,” Hanson said. “It was tremendously dramatic television coverage, especially surrounding a particular opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, who is a master at getting the police to harm him on camera. Besigye had recently been arrested, and when he was released from prison, the police told him he had to stay home on the next Walk to Work day. So instead of walking he drove his big SUV, and when police stopped him in a major traffic circle, he just stayed put in his car, blocking traffic. Police surrounded the vehicle, and you kind of understand their point of view, they needed him to get out of one of the busiest intersections in the city. But he didn’t move, and they eventually smashed his windows with a hammer and sprayed pepper spray into the car as if he were a cockroach. All the people in the SUV came rushing out, and plainclothes police shoved Besigye onto the truck bed of a police vehicle. The entire standoff was filmed and shown on the television news, and, of course, made its way to YouTube.”

This has led to a dangerous cycle of escalation, in which repression of protest has sparked more protest and even greater repression, Hanson said.

Given the political unrest all over Africa, including the tense situation in Uganda, it’s not surprising that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the National Intelligence Council turned to Hanson--who was previously invited to provide help in understanding Ugandan riots in 2009--for her assessment of the current situation and Uganda’s future.

“Clearly, people around the world were inspired by the ability of ordinary Tunisians and Egyptians to organize, to learn together, and to articulate their desire for a more just and accountable government,” she said. “Ugandan civil society groups have a steep learning curve to reach the same level of effectiveness, and a new generation of political leaders, who will put the nation above their own interests, will have to emerge. But Ugandans have tremendous resources of insight and will to work together, and I think that they--along with the rest of us--can learn how to create societies that are more equitable than the ones we have now.”

Hanson said the State Department experience has helped her realize the importance of teaching her students to become “public intellectuals.”

“I’m privileged to be able to study sub-Saharan Africa at Mount Holyoke, and I want to make sure that I’m taking what I learn and making it useful to the outside world--especially to those who can use that information to help them make critical decisions,” Hanson said.

“This is such a fantastic place to try to do that, because of the international student body and faculty we have. I realize every time I talk to other people in my field how unusual the College’s academic environment really is, because the world is having a conversation at Mount Holyoke. That’s who our student body is. And I’m so grateful to be a part of that.”