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The Rwenzori regional eruptions: The problem cannot be tribalism

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Added 27th April 2016 11:28 AM

Various causes of the clashes have been mooted, among which is tribalism or sectarianism.

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Various causes of the clashes have been mooted, among which is tribalism or sectarianism.

By Mukwanason A. Hyuha

As it is now common knowledge, recently, there were serious clashes in Kasese and other parts of the Rwenzori region that led to many unfortunate deaths and sorrow and grief felt by almost all Ugandans. Various causes of the clashes have been mooted, among which is tribalism or sectarianism.

I argue in this write-up that the cause of the clashes is not tribalism or sectarianism; I attribute the clashes to various causes and unresolved issues in the area, such as deep-rooted problems—including oppression of the masses, rampant and persisting poverty, fierce fights over scarce economic and other resources like land and bad governance. The underlying causes or problems are common not only in the Rwenzori region but in many other parts of Uganda, if not the entire country. Thus, the eruptions appear to be ‘a tip of the ice bag’, so to speak.

It is my strongly held view that tribalism or sectarianism does not lead to such fierce eruptions, unless fueled by unresolved issues and the deep-rooted problems alluded to above. However, without deep analysis, tribalism may be blamed or cited as a cause for eruptions of that type and wrangles and other misunderstandings. This line of thinking is rather dangerous because, policy-wise, one may concentrate on fighting sectarianism, rather than identifying, delineating and combating the actual, usually covert, underlying causes. In such cases of wrong or misguided identification and specification of the cause(s) of the social malaise, the policy promulgated and implemented may lead to the worsening of the situation or the inappropriately diagnosed malaise. Hence, the importance of properly identifying the actual cause(s), or malaise, cannot be overemphasised.

I want to use Ntare School and Bukedi District of the good old days as case studies to advance my argument and viewpoint. The school and the district were crucibles, melting pots of various nationalities or ethnicities/tribes, religions and other diversities. Despite these remarkable attributes, the school and the district were devoid of internal divisions, wrangles, eruptions, or differences based on the stated diversities.

Like numerous other secondary schools in Uganda during the colonial days and almost up to the mid-1970s, Ntare School had students from all over the country, irrespective of ethnicities and religions. For instance, during my days at the school, I found myself sharing a dormitory, classrooms and other facilities with students from other tribes and religions in eastern, western, northern and Buganda regions as well as Rwanda. Some students from various kingdoms in Uganda espoused royalism, while the others (like me) were doubtlessly republicans. Occasionally, students would debate among themselves over these diversities and in rare cases some students would demonstrate to others that they were what they were, but in a calm and peaceful way. For example, during one of the annual parades at the Omugabe of Ankole’s palace in Kamukuzi to mark the Omugabe’s birthday anniversary, some republicans refused to salute the Omugabe — thus evoking subsequent punishment from the school. All in all, since the school was a microcosm of Uganda almost in all aspects, there was unity, understanding, cohesion and trust amongst the students in spite of their origins and diversities. That is, the Banyankole, Bakiga, Batooro and the ‘Badokora’ (those originating from outside Western region) were peacefully and harmoniously living together as members of one entity, Ntare School.

This co-existence and interactions amongst students of various diversities created trust, immense unity and togetherness and did enhance patriotism and nationalism. I do not recall any case(s) of eruptions, upheavals, wrangles or misunderstandings among students based on our diversities. We all lived in harmony as brothers, with a common goal to excel academically. Although there was considerable competition amongst students to beat one another in academics, the competition never turned physical or vulgar. The liberal, non-denominational school did a lot in building our characters individually and enhancing our behaviour and human relationships. Doubtlessly, the school contributed immeasurably to our careers in academics and management of institutions and society at large. What the school did not do (and I thank the Almighty Allah for that) was to encourage or enhance tribalism or other forms of sectarianism amongst its students. Hence, an old boy of the school has an enviably wide spectrum of friends, belonging to various ethnicities and other diversities

That was the Ntare School I knew and was (and is still) exceedingly proud of. As for Bukedi District, it was a district with six counties, namely, Samia-Bugwe, Tororo (East Budama), West Budama, Bunyole, Bugwere and Pallisa—sharing a capital (Mbale) with Bugisu District. The district was occupied by various tribes, including Basamia, Bagwe, Iteso, Badama (Jopadhola), Banyole, Bagwere and some Basiki. Members of these tribes belonged to different clans and religions, although they were basically all republicans.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Bukedi was one of the most outstanding districts in Uganda in regard to education, provision of other social services and development. For example, as regards primary and junior secondary education in the country, Bukedi College Kachong’a was among the best (if not the very best) primary (later on, junior secondary) school in the country. The school’s performance in the Primary Leaving and, later, the Junior Leaving, examinations was exemplary. In addition, the district was very well administered, and the district’s share of the national cake was equitably and transparently distributed amongst its tribes. The district was a haven of unity and peace to the extent that whenever some of us were asked as to the area of origin, the answer was ‘The United States of Bukedi’. For example, during the 1961 uprising in the district in opposition to the high, unfair taxes levied on the adult people of Bukedi by the British colonialists, the entire district was up in arms in unison; no clashes amongst tribes. The colonial masters had, therefore, to rescind immediately their draconian laws/regulations on poll tax.

Bukedi District has since been balkanised or dissected into smaller pieces, some of them technically not viable economically. The fragments are, namely, Busia, Tororo, Butaleja, Budaka, Kibuku, Butebo and Pallisa Districts and Tororo Municipality. This balkanization was ostensibly aimed at bringing services nearer to the people. However, apart from distributing sheer poverty amongst the fragments, the dissection has led to disunity and confusions amongst the former Bukedi District tribes. Each district is inward-looking, basically unwilling to share its resources and employment with others; thus, for example, Butaleja District jobs and resources are only for the people of Butaleja, who are mainly Banyole. This makes it difficult for a Munyole (from Butaleja District), for instance, to get a job in other parts of the former great Bukedi District.

Was the fragmentation also supposed to unite people in the district? The answer cannot be a definite ‘yes’. Cohesion appears to have eluded the Bagwere and Iteso in Pallisa and Budaka districts, while citizens of East Butaleja and West Butaleja appear to be at loggerheads with one another, although they all speak the same language, Lunyole. For instance, during the campaigns leading to the February 2016 general elections, one politician from East Bunyole is alleged to have ferried some hired people from West Bunyole to go and beat up some of his opponents in East Bunyole. The ensuing fights were grave and led to some deaths, although, to people’s surprise, hardly any news media reported the nasty incidents(s). That the incident occurred is a fact beyond dispute. Further, distribution of the cake within a district leaves a lot to be desired.

Thus, Bukedi was united, more cohesive, more peaceful, more patriotic and better governed before its balkanization than after its fragmentation. Tribalism and other forms of sectarianism did not rear their ugly heads in the district, yet, currently, cohesion appears to be eluding, at a worrying pace, the new districts curved out of the good old Bukedi District. Similarly, it appears that the schools which had/have a crucible of tribes as well as good governance were/are bound to be cohesive, patriotic and able to perform well in academics, compared to those which lack these attributes. Unfortunately, except for city and other urban schools, schools these days are not microcosms of Uganda, tribe-wise and otherwise; hence, not much nationalism and patriotism can be created by the institutions, as it was during the good old days.

The causes of eruptions appear to be beyond tribalism, although sectarianism may worsen the situation by ‘pouring more petrol on the raging fire’, so to speak. As pointed out earlier, my considered view is that it is the unresolved issues and deep-rooted problems—including oppression of the masses, rampant and persisting poverty, fierce fights over scarce economic and other resources, and bad governance—that are the actual causes of the heinous and unwanted eruptions. Although this may not specifically or entirely apply to Kasese, in some areas like Kapchorwa and Doho in Butaleja District, the eruptions may occur also as a result of unresolved land ownership issues. Land ownership wrangles and related issues are common in many parts of Uganda, and such problems will continue emerging as the population increases in the face of a constant stock of the land resource. The continuously decreasing fertility of the land—caused mainly by overuse of the scarce resource by suboptimal and inefficient farming activities and overgrazing—considerably exacerbates the situation. Thus, other than capital and other financing sources and handouts from government, land will continue to be one of the scarce resources that will cause fierce fights and misunderstandings amongst the masses in Uganda and other banana republics in the world.

Further, despite the fact that various authorities in the country have been repeatedly issuing pronouncements and churning out statistics showing that poverty in the country has significantly declined over time, the actual picture on the ground does not seem to bear out these claims and statistics. Fueled, among other factors, by high unemployment among the youth, poverty is indeed a serious problem in Uganda. In addition, food security in the country (especially in the rural areas) is at its minimum, if not below the minimum. A hungry person is an angry individual. As a matter of fact, in many villages in Karamoja and Eastern Uganda, the situation is so grave that most families can hardly afford two meals a day; in fact, even one meal a day is a strenuous struggle. This situation has brought about unease and misunderstandings amongst the masses, confusions that may eventually lead to overt eruptions. Can anybody convince someone in his/her right mind that sectarianism is the main cause of eruptions, and, hence, that land and other ‘deep-rooted problems’, including poverty, must be ruled out of the eruptions equation?

Resource misuse, mismanagement and misallocation, and lack of equity in distribution of financial and other assets, reinforced by grossly insufficient, inefficient and inequitable supplies of education, health and other social services to the masses (in the face of increasing demands), as well as rampant corruption in almost every corner of Uganda, are serious governance problems in this country. These problems are common at both the local and the national levels. I believe these factors—more than tribalism or sectarianism—generate a lot of heat amongst people in various parts of the country. Over time, the masses feel increasingly oppressed; and, did Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao Tsetung and others not warn us of the consequences of oppressing the masses? To use some vivid imagery, as the problems persist over time, they naturally metamorphose and turn into and accumulate ‘massive heaps of dry grass ready for anyone to light a wild fire’. Political dissent and discontent will add more fuel to this raging fire. It is definitely possible that, if not well-handled in time, maybe, sectarianism can generate additional fuel for the fire.

Consequently, in formulating economic and other social policies to combat misunderstandings, wrangles, eruptions and other upheavals in the country, the generated policies must be focussed at the right or appropriate causes, rather than at symptoms or perceived, erroneous causes. Do the policies formulated and being implemented to combat the Kasese or Rwenzori regional eruptions take into account the factors discussed in this paper? For example, have the concerned authorities properly identified, and are, therefore, tackling the right causes or problems, rather than the erroneously perceived ones? Time will tell.

The writer is a professor of economics


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