When Uganda made international headline news last year, it was probably in the context of bomb attacks and ‘civil disturbances’ in Kampala; or in the continuing mayhem caused in the Congo and the Central African Republic by the Lord’s Resistance Army. The international media also covered the recent fire that destroyed Uganda’s single man-made UNESCO world heritage site – the royal tombs at Kasubi and the struggle over the Anti-Homosexuality Bill which proposes to make homosexuality punishable by death in certain circumstances.
These events have all shaped worldviews on Uganda: how have they been perceived by Ugandans themselves?
The bomb blasts that cost the lives of 76 football fans watching the final match of the World Cup were quickly ascribed by the general public to ‘Muslim fundamentalists’ aggrieved by Uganda’s involvement in a peace keeping mission in Somalia. Soon thereafter, Kampala’s resident Somali community and other adherents to the Muslim faith felt it prudent to lie low: gratuitous retribution was never far from the surface.
The Kampala riots also cost lives. Gangs of youths suddenly reacted with fury to the news of the Government preventing the King of Buganda from visiting what they considered part of his kingdom. The police and army reacted harshly; more than 40 people died in the fracas. Widespread youth unemployment may have been one of the causes behind the riots, but for those directly concerned, this unrest was seen as the latest chapter in the long history of competition for power between the central government and the most prominent of Uganda’s ‘traditional kingdoms’, evicted from political power since the mid-1960s, but still very much part of the identity for Uganda’s largest ethnic group. As a result, excited youth targeted anyone whose physical features were not, in their view, sufficiently ‘local’, and especially those with the looks of Ugandans from the western region who are seen to dominate the organs of the central government - and to benefit disproportionately from them. If in doubt, the hapless victim was asked to sing the anthem of the Buganda kingdom on the spot and, if unable to do so, would join others in being at the receiving end of insults and beatings. In the same vein, the ‘evil hand’ of central government operatives, as arsonists – or at least instigators - was instantly identified by many of the kingdom’s subjects when fire destroyed the tombs of its kings.
As for the far graver misdeeds of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA’s campaigns of mayhem are now seen as even more distant for the ‘Ugandans that matter’, those who are not part of the long-impoverished northern part of the country, the home of their compatriots who are often stereotyped by fellow Ugandans as having lived in violence and depravity for as long as one can remember…
Finally, the anti-homosexuality bill: in this, Ugandans have found a rallying cry to defend their ‘national cultural values’ and the ‘evil of globalisation’, a useful diversion for many from far more pressing issues than the remote danger of youth being led into moral concupiscence…
Why such perceptions? To start answering this question, it may be useful to remind ourselves of three critical national characteristics. One is that, despite recent progress, Uganda remains desperately poor with a per capita income of $460 : competition for resources is thus a matter of sheer survival. The second is that a ‘Ugandan identity’ remains difficult to define: as an artificial colonial creation, with borders arbitrarily cutting across pre-colonial territories and a history of manipulation of the ‘ethnic card’, it is little wonder that, a mere 50 years after independence, the creation of national consciousness continues to preoccupy minds and government policies. Thirdly, and to a great extent as a consequence, the recent history of Uganda has been characterised by strife. The government has only been able to secure the entire national territory in the last few years: while it might preside over the first generation in independent Uganda that will live in relative peace, the memory of war and arbitrary regimes remains omnipresent.
Given these public perceptions, it is not altogether surprising that, at a national conference a key conclusion was that, by virtue of the nation’s history and its ethnic, political and religious composition, valuing and managing diversity is necessary for equitable and sustainable development. This reflects the fact that, in Uganda’s post colonial era, ethnicity and religious diversity have been used to manipulate allegiances to meet political ends and to determine the distribution of resources. In particular, patronage continues to pervade economic, social and political spheres: ethnicity is therefore neither about pluralism, nor about ‘tribes’, but an ideology of dominance that inevitably results in a significant democratic deficit.
The contemporary politics of inclusion and exclusion that determine access to vital resources prolong their colonial trajectory: during the colonial era, foreign religions compounded intra-and inter-ethnic factionalism, which was aggravated by ethnic tensions caused by the forceful integration of people of 60-odd different cultural backgrounds into a single administrative unit. The colonial policy of divide-and-rule fed into the pattern of collaboration and resistance to colonialism that kept religious divisionism and ethnic consciousness alive.
The autocratic rule of post-colonial governments in Uganda since 1962 has therefore reproduced rather than deconstructed ethnicity in Uganda. To many ethnic groups, the ‘independent’ state is an instrument for the advancement of their own interests, mainly under the principle of ‘winner takes all’. While successive governments have accepted ethnic diversity as a fact of life, they have also suppressed particular ethnic groups to promote the interests of the political leader’s group. Indeed, the historical factors determining the development of identity in Uganda are still relevant today. This validates what several commentators have termed the reproduction of the colonial state by post-colonial administrations, as with the current divide and rule stance of Government towards the traditional kingdoms, and the balkanisation of administrative units, which increases ethnic tensions as each group attempts to scheme for a territorial arrangement that will enhance its control over resources.
Uganda is a multi-ethnic society and these contradictions have fuelled socio-political conflicts that have threatened its unity, peace and spirit of co-existence. Forms of identity that impose limits to people’s access to resources are several, but are principally linked to ethnicity and nationality, in addition to political affiliation, class, religion, education, language and gender.
In such an environment, patronage and corruption thrive and result in the current perception that cultural diversity represents exclusion to the detriment of the collective public good. There are many signs that fundamentalist tendencies are spreading in many spheres, such as the way a person looks at her/his neighbour or the shrinking political space available for dissent. There are reasons to be found for this in the skewed access to resources, but also in the current absence of a nation-building project, amidst fractious identities. As the country moves into an active election period, tensions rise and the formal space that elective politics provide is open to misuse and generates uncertainty. For the future, therefore, effectively managing diversity appears as not only challenging, but as inescapable for Uganda’s national health.