Uganda: playing the ethnicity card

Ethnic diversity in itself is not a recipe for conflict. In the run up to next week's elections politicians should be celebrating Uganda's diversity, not playing the ethnicity card for political gain, says Jimmy Spire Ssentongo
Jimmy Spire Ssentongo
16 February 2011

It is often the case that in trying to occupy positions of privilege in society, people justify or rationalise their claims. In the case of Uganda, ethnicity has been instrumentalised to offer the necessary justifications and rationalisations. The ethnicity card is being played not only by communities and individuals, but also by a government that has little or no credibility in dealing with ethnic tension.

In the campaigning ahead of the presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections later this month, ethnicity not only features among the issues politicians say they will resolve -  for example by adopting federalism - but also as a consciousness to be further embedded. For more political than development gains, the incumbent president has promised the creation of districts in several areas. Most of these developmentally non-viable districts are created along ethnic demarcations, hence further entrenching inter-ethnic divisions in a country already suffering from ethnic tensions.

In Kibaale, one of the ethnically tense districts in Uganda, the native Banyoro been in violent opposition to leadership by non-Banyoro in their local government since 2002. The argument is over whether the Banyoro should exclusively occupy all top positions in the area since the area historically belongs to them. In fact in July 2009, such ring-fencing was also suggested by the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, as a solution to Kibaale’s problems. His suggestion only helped to polarise the warring groups farther.

In Buganda Kingdom, which borders Kibaale to the south, feelings of marginalisation by ‘outsiders’ hover among the indigenous Baganda. There has been intense rope-pulling between the Buganda Kingdom ‘government’ and the central government over power and resources, especially land. At the peak of these scuffles, there were violent riots in September 2009 leading to the death of over 30 people. These were sparked off by the central government’s decision to stop the King of Buganda from visiting one of the areas in his constitutional territory, with the explanation that the sub-ethnic group - the Banyala - were not interested in the King’s visit and wanted autonomy from Buganda. This was later interpreted by several Baganda as a deliberate move by central government to divide and weaken Buganda.

Uganda is an ethnically very diverse country, with over 57 ethnic groups recognised by the national Constitution. This ethnic diversity comes as a vital force for manipulation in political circles, and in competition for increasingly scarce resources, especially land. The scarcity of resources is mainly catalysed by rapid demographic shifts, with Uganda’s population growing at a rate of 3.5% a year.

The reasons for the centrality of ethnicity as an instrument to privilege are partly rooted in Uganda’s colonial history. For their convenience, the British governed Uganda through a ‘divide and rule’ system in which some ethnic groups were pitted against others for colonial advantage. For example, to curb the Banyoro’s long resistance against their rule, the British collaborated with the Baganda. When the Banyoro were eventually defeated in the 1890s, the British rewarded the Baganda by giving them most of the land in Bunyoro. Although in 1964 the Baganda unceremoniously left parts of Bunyoro, bad blood between Buganda and Bunyoro lives on, especially with regard to Bunyoro land that is held by absentee Baganda landlords.

Colonialism also worked along ethnic stereotypes in which some tribes were viewed as honest - and therefore fit for public service, some aggressive - and therefore fit for the army, and others like the Baganda were granted a superior status above others. In this way the politics of ethnic manipulation was entrenched into the consciousness of post-independence leaders. Besides the inherited rivalry, even after independence ethnicity has remained a significant card to be played for advantage. It is an effective tool used to exclude those of a different ethnic groups in the competition for power and resources. Since it known that issues of ethnicity draw emotional responses, which are solidified by narratives and memories, its instrumentalisation is very effective.

Ethnic diversity in itself is not a recipe for conflict. It only becomes so in situations where ethnicity is negatively manipulated.  Even in some areas where ethnic tension is witnessed today, people have lived harmoniously in diversity before.  Kibaale District, where there has been conflict between the Bakiga and the Banyoro over land and political positions,  serves as a typical example. The Bakiga started settling in Kibaale in the early 1970s and were welcomed by the native Banyoro. They lived cohesively until the early 2000s when conflict started emerging between the two ethnic groups. Large scale open violence took place between February and May 2002 when a Mukiga (singular of ‘Bakiga’) was elected as the District Chairman. The incumbent Munyoro refused to hand over power to a ‘foreigner’ and clashes ensued between Banyoro and the settlers. The Banyoro started to claim back their land. Violence again emerged in April 2003 when news spread that land that belonged to Bakiga was being allocated to Banyoro by the District Land Board. When the Bakiga started settling in Kibaale, they mainly came in as casual labourers and took a social status lower than that of the Banyoro. With this status, they were not a threat to the privileges of the Banyoro and were thus accommodated, but this changed with the Bakiga’s upward shift in numbers, economic status and, therefore, political might.

Tensions arose when the Bakiga started to mobilise along ethnic lines and won the some parliamentary seats and the position of District Chairman. This was violently contested by the Banyoro who preferred that all top positions be reserved for natives. Despite the fact that constitutionally any qualified person is allowed to stand in any area where they have stayed for six months or more, by presidential directive, the winner had to step down for a native Munyoro. The Banyoro are increasingly getting worried that, with the growing number of settlers in ‘their area’, they are going to run short of land and voice.

One of the tactics in instrumentalising ethnicity for access to resources and power is that of negative stereotyping. Essentialist identities of an exclusive type are conveniently attributed to the target ethnicity i.e. the perceived threat. Usually such stereotypes encourage the exclusion of the stereotyped group. For example, the Bakiga are stereotyped as arrogant, aggressive, uncultured and unclean. The Bakiga in turn stereotype the Banyoro as lazy and jealous. The Baganda are generically taken to be a tribe of intrigue, hence bad leaders.

Scapegoating involves the blaming of a despised minority for the misfortunes of the wider society in which it lives, hence arousing sentiments against the targeted group. Some Baganda, for instance, harbour a feeling that they are getting poorer because members of other ethnic group have rendered them penniless and later come in to buy out their land. The Banyoro claim that they are faced with famine because the Bakiga have encroached on and cleared most of the forests in their area due to insensitive farming. It is also argued that the culture of the native Banyoro is being weakened due to the influx of immigrants who in some cases refuse to adopt the native cultural norms such as adopting native pet-names and speak the Runyoro language. On the other hand the Bakiga claim that the area is not developing because it is led by ‘lazy’ Banyoro. In one of the electoral campaigns, one Mukiga politician went to the point of bluntly saying ‘I would rather vote for a Mukiga dog than for a Munyoro person’!

Most of the negative Banyoro-Bakiga sentiments emerged when the Bakiga started vying for political posts in the area. And despite the fact that there are several other ethnic groups in the area such as the Bafumbira, Banyankore and Alur who may not be practising native culture, the Banyoro tend to exclusively single out the Bakiga. The Baganda will point to the fact that the President belongs to the Banyankore tribe: each targeted group will reply with counter scapegoats.

Uganda certainly needs to transcend tribal politics for social harmony and integral development. It has been too long in this spiral of ethnic rivalry with our post-colonial history almost being reduced to a history of ethnicity. Instead of capitalising on our differences to the exclusion of others, we should celebrate our diversity. Government should be a neutral actor in this celebration instead of playing the ethnic card for power gains. Through education and sensitisation campaigns, ethnicity should be demystified. We should learn to appreciate each other despite our differences - right from the family and early school levels. Our cultures are rich in social cohesion and conflict resolution mechanisms. Where necessary, we should tap this potential.

Since the scarcity of resources is a key cause of ethnic instrumentalisation, improving on livelihood sources would serve to control the situation. This is what those who are vying for the various political offices in the upcoming elections should be telling people about, not opportunistically banking on their differences. 



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