A LEARNED FRIEND WITH A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
When a radio presenter recently claimed on his programme that if he was asked at a road-block to name all the districts of Uganda or face a firing squad he would certainly meet his death because of failure to do so.
I thought the joke was hilarious but since then I have reflected on the statement and regretted that unlike the time of our schooldays when we could recite all the districts as a matter of fact, today nobody can do so.
The number of districts is nearing 80, the latest three having been approved by parliament only last week. Many people have expressed fear that this balkanisation of the country will lead to disunity of its peoples and the usual chants of tribalism have been heard from politicians of the old school which tend to hold that the oneness of the country can only be expressed through unification.
This view is due to a misconception of the meaning of the modern state. Today, the world is divided into nation-states each of which claims sovereignty over a defined territory and jurisdiction over everyone within it. These nation-states use diplomacy, formal agreements, and sanctions against one another which may be peaceful or may involve the use of force.
Once the internal jurisdiction of the state is assured you can have as many administrative fragmentation as are desirable to cater for the diversity of our people subject only to economic viability. As one American politician, Ralph Ellis, said of his country in 1952: â€œAmerica is woven of many strands; I would recognise them and let it so remainâ€¦â€¦.. Our fate is to become one yet many.â€
The United States is a country of immigrants which means that most nationalities of the world are represented within its fold. This diversity has contributed to the vitality and creativity of that country by increasing the range of view-points, ideas, customs, and choices available to each individual in almost every aspect of life.
However, this has not prevented the people in the United States from discriminating unfairly against others on account of race, religious beliefs, disability or even on the basis of historical origin. Again, over the years since its inception the politics of the country has tended to pursue a policy whose aim was to turn everybody into an anglo-saxon following its colonial history.
As the importance of peoplesâ€™ cultural heritage became recognised more and more in recent years this so-called â€œmelting potâ€ policy has given way to the opposite heterogeneous approach towards â€œa mixed saladâ€. Under the latter policy, everybody is encouraged to promote their cultural expression and heritage so that in some parts of the United States such as the Dade county in Miami, Florida, laws have been put in place which require all children to start their education in nursery schools which use their mother tongue as the language of instruction. Here in Uganda the clamour for districts springs from our colonial history. Prior to the onset of colonialism, our people governed themselves in their small communities with their own languages or dialects, cultural practices and the like which gave each group its own identity and uniqueness.
All this changed when the protectorate was established pursuant to the Uganda Order in Council, 1902 which gave the governor power to divide Uganda as he deemed fit. The governor established 13 districts with boundaries which did not take into account peoplesâ€™ diversities but were based on the administratorsâ€™ assumed cultural affinity of the group concerned which in many cases traditional enemies were brought together as one which was resented. The constitutional conference in London which gave us our independence perpetuated this wrong which provided the office of cultural leaders for the simple reason of providing a nursery from which to elect the president of the country.
Soon after independence the demand for secession by certain communities started and resulted in the creation of a few more districts but this trend was halted by the onset of the military regime.
The current trend is accordingly not new and is in keeping with the trends elsewhere in the world. After the new districts have been formed, those who so wish can come together in a more meaningful union to form regions based on peoplesâ€™ own voluntary wishes and at this point we shall have solved the problem of administrative demarcations. In this respect, we share a similar history with the United States which also started off as a fragmented country but was able to develop a unity unmatched anywhere else in the world.
The American identity is defined by shared political values, principles and beliefs rather than by ethnicity, race, religion, class or language. A former president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said: â€œThe principle upon which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is always a matter of the mind and heart.â€ We can emulate this American experience by ensuring that our public policies always seek to promote and protect:
- The importance of the individual: The primary purpose of the government should be to protect the rights of the individual to life, property and pursuit of happiness. Secondly, the government should always promote the common good and thirdly, the individuals should always be assured of the right to differ about religion and politics and to express their view.
- Equality of opportunity and equal protection of the law. Public policy should promote equal opportunity, employment, housing and participation in the political life of the country.
With the jurisdiction of the state recognised by all and the above values ensured by the state there will be no reason for conflict and as such the great number of districts will not necessarily contribute to our disunity as claimed.