In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Great Lakes States of Eastern Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Early Peoples of the Great Lakes Region
  • Emergence of Political Centralization
  • Bunyoro
  • Buganda
  • Nyiginya-Rwanda-Burundi
  • Other Great Lakes States
  • The 19th Century

African Studies The Great Lakes States of Eastern Africa
Rhiannon Stephens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0136


The states of the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa spread across modern southern Uganda, western Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and eastern Congo and have long and diverse, but overlapping and interrelated, histories. From the 9th century, communities pursued economic specializations broadly divided between banana farming on the one hand and cattle herding and cereal farming on the other. Political centralization into kingdoms was well underway by the 14th century. One kingdom, Kitara, became dominant, if only by exporting its political ideology. In the 16th century, the Babito dynasty took advantage of a drought to take control of Kitara, creating the Bunyoro kingdom, which became the major power in the region. Buganda, a small tributary kingdom to Bunyoro, began expanding in the mid-17th century and by the late 18th displaced Bunyoro as the dominant regional power. Rwanda was unstable and marginal until the mid-17th century. It became a powerful state in the 18th century, albeit continually riven by factionalism between royal lineages. Burundi was well established in the late 17th century, becoming increasingly assertive over the course of the 18th. Other kingdoms include Nkore, which was tributary to Bunyoro until the 18th century, when it asserted greater autonomy. Toro was founded in the early 19th century by a prince from Bunyoro, and Karagwe, while having a longer history in the traditions, only emerged as a substantial power in the 19th century. That century saw dramatic change and ended with colonial conquest by Britain and Germany. The historiography has been dominated by the twin concerns of political centralization and the relationship between pastoralists and agriculturalists. These have run alongside each other from the earliest commentaries by Europeans in the 19th century, who explained state structures by reference to a supposed immigration by “Hamitic” pastoralists. This explanation endured into the late 20th century, despite a pronounced lack of evidence in support and much to refute it. It was even applied to Buganda, where the categories of Hutu/Iru and Tutsi/Hima are absent. The vast majority of the historical literature has, however, demonstrated the inaccuracy of this simplistic approach. There is now a new emphasis on the role of gender in state formation, the importance of religious and healing practices inside and outside of states, the fluidity of various kinds of identity and specializations, the role of human interaction with the environment and climate change, and multiple forms of social complexity, all of which work to move away from racialized models of historical change.

General Overviews

The Great Lakes region has a long history of settlement, agricultural innovation, and interaction between diverse populations, both prior to state formation and since. The earlier essays offer short overviews: Ogot 1984 and Oliver 1977 on the early period of state formation, and Alpers and Ehret 1975 and Webster, et al. 1992 on the main period of state expansion and consolidation of power. These tend to reflect the academic emphasis, from the 1960s to the 1980s, on migration. More recent work focuses on internal dynamics to explain historical processes. Schoenbrun 1998 traces the history of the region from the first settlements of Bantu-speaking farmers some 3,000 years ago through the 15th century. Chrétien 2003 discusses the earlier history but focuses heavily on the monarchical states from the 18th century on, with an interest in unpacking the racialization of ethnic groups. Reid 2017 is focused on the northern Great Lakes, examining the region that became Uganda.

  • Alpers, Edward A., and Christopher Ehret. “Eastern Africa.” In The Cambridge History of Africa. Vol. 4, From c. 1600 to c. 1790. Edited by Richard Gray, 469–536. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521204132

    Overview of the wider region in the 17th and 18th centuries, with specific sections on the northern and southern Great Lakes region. Highlights political developments and includes useful discussion of Luo societies and their political formations. Available online for purchase.

  • Chrétien, Jean-Pierre. The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History. Translated by Scott Strauss. New York: Zone Books, 2003.

    English translation of L’Afrique des grands lacs: Deux mille ans d’histoire, first published in 2000. Survey of entire Great Lakes region, from earliest known human settlement to the late 1990s. Explores how racial theory shaped historical thought in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most thorough for period from 18th century onward.

  • Ogot, B. A. “The Great Lakes Region.” In UNESCO General History of Africa. Vol. 4, Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. Edited by D. T. Niane, 498–524. London: Heinemann, 1984.

    Brief but useful overview of important period of early political centralization in region. Emphasis on migration as a key factor, especially with reference to Hima/Tutsi and Luo, but acknowledges shift in academic thinking on this question.

  • Oliver, Roland. “The East African Interior.” In The Cambridge History of Africa. Vol. 3, From c. 1050 to c. 1600. Edited by Roland Oliver, 621–699. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521209816.011

    Offers general overview of region, including population change and economic history, with particular attention to early state formation. Emphasis on migration and “intrusion” reflects historiography at time of publication, but useful overview nonetheless. Available online for purchase.

  • Reid, Richard J. A History of Modern Uganda. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781107589742

    Focused on Uganda, this volume offers a wide-ranging overview of its history stretching back to early settlements and state formation. It picks up on many of the themes that reverberate across the Great Lakes region, including ethnic identity and its mobilization.

  • Schoenbrun, David Lee. A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

    Detailed history of region before 1500 that draws on sources from wide range of disciplines. Offers methodological overviews in addition to historical analysis of society in the Great Lakes area. Explores origins of centralization of political power, with discussion of tension between creative and instrumental power.

  • Webster, J. B., B. A. Ogot, and J. P. Chrétien. “The Great Lakes Region, 1500–1800.” In UNESCO General History of Africa. Vol. 5, Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Edited by B. A. Ogot, 776–827. Oxford: Heinemann, 1992.

    Useful overview of main era of state formation in the Great Lakes region. Particularly interesting due to space given to Nilotic societies and their political and cultural influence in the Great Lakes Bantu-speaking area.

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