By Herbert Munyomo
Do all West Nilers know their roots? Historical records indicate that some of them were Bagungu. Provincial papers available at the Uganda National Archives indicate that the Bagungu were, by the time of first European contact with Bunyoro, a bigger fishing community occupying a vast territory stretching from the east to west of Lake Albert in the present day DR Congo.
The Bagungu also settled along the banks of River Nile in Gulu and the West Nile.
The 1914 Anglo-Belgian boundary agreement which shows West Nile became part of Uganda on April 21 1914, split the Bagungu into two: The Bagungu in Uganda and those in Congo. In fact, the Bagungu were torn into three, if not four, as those in Uganda were further split into the Bagungu in Bunyoro, those in West Nile and the ones in Gulu, now Nwoya district. It happened that for some administrative reasons, somehow related to the enforcement of the boundary agreement, the Bagungu resident in West Nile and Gulu were barred from coming back to Bunyoro. In short, four divisions of Bagungu were created as follows: Bagungu Congo, Bagungu West Nile, Bagungu Gulu and Bagungu Bunyoro.
According to this boundary agreement, the south eastern part of the Mahagi strip was (in exchange for the West Nile) transferred to the Belgian Congo, which provided the town of Mahagi in Congo, access to Lake Albert. In effect, the Bagungu who lived on the western side of Lake Albert became the Bagungu Congo as Lake Albert came to be shared between Congo and Uganda. These ‘lost Bagungu’ in the Congo, West Nile, and Gulu have since been assimilated to Alur, Lugbara, Junam, Acholi and other tribes native to West Nile and the DR Congo.
Arguably, the 1914 Anglo-Belgian boundary agreement is thus one of the historical injuries that the Bagungu will leave to remember. The treaty is one of the factors responsible for their vulnerability, especially the minority status and the associated suppression, dispossession, discrimination and marginalisation, which have gone on to the present day.
Further to the issue of “lost Bagungu”, historical records also indicate that by 1917, the Bagungu Question (as Arthur Evelyn Weatherhead, the then West Nile commissioner termed it) had become a bone of contention between colonial powers. In fact in 1919, Weather had described the Bagungu Question as a source of the greatest trouble between West Nile district and Mahagi. By March 1919, the issue of lost Bagungu was triggering a series of diplomatic correspondences on the subject among the British and Belgian governments and Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom.
To cite a few excerpts, in a letter (dated March 12, 1919) to the Provincial Commissioner, Northern Province, H.A Mackenzie, the then District Commissioner Bunyoro writes: “… I have been asked by the Mukama and Lukiko of Bunyoro to approach you with a view to permission being granted for Bagungu … resident in West Nile districts to come back and reside in Bunyoro …. [However] the return of the Bagungu may be affected by Article 4 of the treaty with the Belgian government, as if the Bagungu in the West Nile come across here, those from the Congo may follow.…”
Reacting on Mackenzie’s letter, Commissioner Weatherhead, writes on April 4, 1919. She tells off Mackenzie and the Mukama that neither the Bagungu in the Congo nor those in West Nile were about to return to Bunyoro. In her six point letter entitled: “Native Affairs Junam, Panyamur: Bagungu”, Weatherhead thus writes inter alia: “...I most emphatically protest against further claims by the Mukama…”
The writer is the president of Lake Albert Indigenous Peoples Survival Movement