Uganda's tribal districts are a ticking time bomb

A riot in Uganda's Rwenzururu kindom left a mother and child dead, pointing to a divisive trend in Ugandan politics which runs against the cosmopolitan experience of many young Ugandans.

Mubatsi Asinja Habati
20 July 2012

On July 6, a section of the Bamba/Babwisi people held a violent demonstration in Bundibugyo town and other parts of the district, protesting an earlier visit of Omusinga (King) Charles Wesley Mumbere Iremangoma to the area.  Omusinga Iremangoma had been to Bundibugyo on June 30 to mark the Rwenzururu kingdom’s 50th anniversary, an event attended by Uganda’s Premier Amama Mbabazi among other government officials. As part of activities to launch the celebration Iremangoma erected a shrine in Kirindi, a village in Bundibugyo district which is his place of birth.

Apparently, the Bamba/Babwisi who claim Bundibugyo is their district were unhappy with the king’s activities in the area. Therefore tensions were building right from the time Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu(Rwenzururu Kingdom) announced it would hold its 50th anniversary from Bundibugyo. The result was the July 6 riots that left one woman and her childdead (a fact still concealed from the mainstream media), six people hospitalized after sustaining serious wounds inflicted by machete-wielding gangs, a motorbike torched, houses burnt, property looted and people living in fear.

In its characteristic fire fighting style the government of Uganda has directed King Iremangoma to restrict his visits to Bundibugyo. The clashes found ICT minister Ruhakana Rugunda in Bundibugyo holding meetings aimed at calming down the tense Bamba/Babwisi community. (The ICT minister was trying to cool down the tensions caused by the King’s visit when the situation exploded into bloody tribal confrontations) Over the following weekend Uganda's Inspector General of Police Lt.Gen. Kale Kayihura and his team were in Bundibugyo monitoring the situation, which they have reported as having normalized. However, people on the ground say they are still worried.

The Bamba/Babwisi people claim Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu (OBR) is imposing its culture on them. On October 19th 2009 the government of Uganda officially recognized OBR as one of the many kingdoms in the country. The kingdom stretches across the famous Rwenzori Mountain where the people of Rwenzururu live. Rwenzori Mountain covers Kasese, Kabarole and Bundibugyo districts. OBR is the modern manifestation of the hereditary kingdom of the Bakonzo people. King Iremangoma is the son of Isaya Mukirania, who was king of OBR at the time of the abolition of the kingdom system in 1963. 

The Ugandan government restored kingdoms in 1993 by order of President Yoweri Museveni. The restored kingdoms were restricted to performing cultural functions. Before the 1967 abolition, kingdoms performed both cultural and political functions, and because of this had proved to be alternative centres of political power competing with the central government.

Unlike other kingdoms in Uganda, OBR is the result of a protracted freedom movement, which fought to liberate its people from British colonialism and the serfdom of theToro Kingdom (one of the oldest kingdoms that broke away from the famous Bunyoro Kitara Empire). The Bakonzo and Bamba had been forced into the Toro Kingdom administration by the British colonialists for easy administration.

In 1919, the two ethnicities (Bakonzo and Bamba) rebelled against the Toro colonial agents sparking a civil war – the Rwenzururu Freedom Movement – that led to the creation of the Kasese and Bundibugyo districts out of the Toro district. In Uganda, a district is one of the powerful local government administrative units through which the central government distributes resources and delivers social services like health, education and road infrastructure. King Iremangoma’s father, Isaya Mukirania, was a leader in the freedom struggle.

But when the government of Uganda recognized OBR as a kingdom, some sections of the Bamba/Babwisi people disassociated themselves from it arguing their culture was different from that of the Bakonzo people. Indeed, since 2007, some Bamba elders have been outspoken in their opposition to being incorporated in OBR. Be that as it may, some local politicians are taking advantage of the people’s anger to create confusion and cause violence in the community: their actions are purely for political expediency.

It is high time OBR realized that as an institution it is largely embraced by Bayira (Bakonzo) people, with support from only a few Bamba. The earlier we accept this and stop clinging to the past unity of the Bamba and Bakonzo’s joint fight for freedom from Toro domination, the better for us and for the peace in the greater Rwenzori region. It is true that Bamba culture is different from that of the Bakonzo, though there are some similarities like circumcision. The Bamba, just like any ethnic group, have a right to determine their cultural affairs. But using violence on other communities or tribes to achieve this should be condemned by all right-thinking people in society. I will treat with full contempt anyone who incites violence to destabilise our community.

However, the main challenge for OBR as the Bundibugyo incident shows is geographical. Tens of thousands of Bakonzo live in Bundibugyo, Kasese, and Kabarole districts especially on the slopes of Mt Rwenzori, although there are some Bakonzo in other places in Uganda too. It is on record that Omusinga Charles Iremangoma was born in Bundibugyo. Therefore, the geographical jurisdiction of OBR seems to be a very complicated issue. This is not helped by the trouble in Uganda today where people/leaders see districts as tribal political entities e.g. some think Kasese district is for the Bakonzo, Kabarole for the Batooro, and Bundibugyo for the Bamba/Babwisi, perhaps because these tribes form the majority of the population in those areas. So the people (Bamba/Babwisi) in Bundibugyo who already think the district is theirs feel concerned when OBR is executing its interests in the area. And rightly so, because OBR has subjects in Bundibugyo who love the institution and would glad see many peoples bear allegiance to it. Forcing other enthnic groups like Bamba/Babwisi to embrace OBR would be akin to what the people of the Toro kingdom did to the Bakonzo and Bamba in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is bad.

Personally I come from Kabarole district, one of the three districts where some parts fall under OBR by virtue of the tribal conotations and I am proud to be a Mukonzo of Uganda. I studied in Kabarole for all my Primary and high school education except the 2years of Senior 1 and 2 which I did in Kasese. Throughout my education I interacted with Bamba, Batooro, Bakonzo, Babwisi, Batuku, Basongora, Baganda, Banyoro, Banyankole, Bakiga, people from West Nile and Northern Uganda – among other Ugandan tribes – and I have friends from all these groups. We lived and continue to live peacefully. So the question is, why are we dividing ourselves now? And how do we move out of this geographic lacuna of a mindset?

Today, the world is fast becoming borderless. It is encouraging to hear elders in both conflicting communities calling for dialogue and asking their people to keep harmony. The defining factor of any community is now development – how many of its people are lifted from poverty every day, month or year. It is time OBR embarked on massive sensitization of what the institution stands for, to enable these people to diffuse the simmering tensions. As a cultural institution we should not be seen to force anybody – even the Bakonzo – to pay allegiance to the OBR. Instead OBR's development works should be testimony to attract people towards itself.

A previous version of this article was published on the blog Mubatsi’s thoughts.

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