A region in retrogression – revision

To retrogress means going backward to earlier and worse conditions. The Great Lakes region of Africa is not only in distress politically, economically, socially, culturally and ecologically but it is also drifting toward European middle Ages conditions of poor housing, poor clothing and poor feeding etc. Unfortunately comprehending this sad situation has been severely constrained by those who equate ‘stability’ with military dictatorship and ‘Big Brother’ tactics and ‘prosperity for all’ with GDP and per capita growth rates and low inflation. Those like me who cherish peace, security, dignity, freedom and development for all may find this article disturbing. To prevent is always better and cheaper than to cure. That is why this article has been written. It seeks to expose what is happening in the region so that citizens and their friends in the international community can take pre-emptive measures.

Three European ideas

To understand what is going on in the region requires an understanding of the meaning and application of three ideas which originated in Europe (1) feudalism and its three principle elements of protection, tribute and prayer; (2) specialization or comparative advantage and exchange, and (3) race.

Feudalism (feudal system) is a political, economic and social system of European origin in the Middle Ages in which vassals (dependants) gave goods and services to their lord in return for his protection and the use of land which the lord owned. The system subordinated people to the dictates of the leader. The system included the clergy who prayed and cared for souls and extracted tithe (10 percent of peasants’ or serfs’ output) for that service. In short, serfs who constituted the majority worked for both the lord and the clergy and ended up with less food and less labor time for their own sustenance.

In 1817 David Ricardo developed the theory of comparative advantage in which he argued that specialization (division of labor) and trade maximizes production, consumption and standard of living of everyone.

European racial theories divided people into superior and inferior races. White people were superior and black people (Negro) inferior. Whenever and wherever the two races met, the white race governed and the black race was governed because the latter was not capable of governing itself. Up to now – in 2009, it is not uncommon in southwest Uganda to hear Batutsi boasting that anyone of them is worth 1000 Bairu.

Application of European ideas in the Gt. Lakes region

Nilotic Luo-speaking people who came from southern Sudan around the 15th century brought the ideas of feudalism and specialization. In Ankole they became Bahima, in Rwanda they became Batutsi and in south west Uganda (including Ntungamo and Rujumbura) they became Bahororo (Batutsi from Rwanda).

In Rwanda Batutsi long-horn cattle herders introduced a feudal system when they arrived in the area 500 years ago (16th century). Under the feudal system, land, property including cattle and people belonged to the king. Bantu communities who had settled peacefully in the region for 3000 years and practiced mixed farming (cultivation and livestock herding including short-horn cattle) lost not only their land and cattle, but also their freedom and their institutions like kingship. They were reduced to serfs or slaves and labored for Tutsis in return for protection. Tribute was particularly heavy on wealthy Bahutu (serfs) to marginalize them and weaken their potential for resistance. During periods of drought, famine or political instability Bahutu people suffered terrible hardship. In desperation they would beg Batutsi men to adopt them as their ‘sons’ in order to get some food (milk) in return for services.

Hutu-Tutsi relations were summarized in a report dated March 20, 2005 to the U. N. Tribunal on Rwanda. It says in part that “The Tutsi vs. Hutu relationship in Rwanda has been marred in gruesome human rights violations committed and perpetrated by Tutsis for centuries. Belgian colonialism did very little to alleviate the brutality, enslavement, dehumanization and all sorts of suffering which Hutu endured for centuries at the hands of Tutsi minority who controlled that country with an iron hand. Hutus were nothing but slaves of Tutsis. Each Hutu was obliged to perform ‘UBURETWA’ which was labor performed by Hutus which symbolized the most degrading and humiliating form of servitude. Hence, a Hutu was required to put in a day’s work at a property of a Tutsi master without pay. The harvest of the land belonged to Tutsis who had the right and privilege of enjoying whatever the Hutu labor produced… Needless to say, land belonged to Tutsis and Hutus had one duty and that is working on it for the benefit of the masters. Such institutionalized impoverishment forced many Hutus to seek paid employment in Uganda [and]… in Congo. Whenever a Hutu slave/servant failed to perform his duties at the Tutsi master’s property punishment was 8 lashes by kiboko – (a whip made out of a dry skin of a hippopotamus).

Education opportunities were for only Tutsis, thus creating a mass of ignorant and uneducated population of Hutus… Government positions, from king down to the lowest level, were exclusively for Tutsis.

The brutality of Tutsis over Hutus had no limits…. For instance, Umwami, (king) official drum and symbol of power, called Kalinga, was decorated with dried penises of Hutu men. The Queen Mother, who wielded significant power, had her two spears – symbols of authority – anchored in two Hutu babies or adults.

A Tutsi had a right to kill a Hutu for any reason, including simple displeasure of a Hutu’s looks….

The dehumanization process reached a terrible depth that Hutu were barred from crying if and when such atrocities were inflicted upon them. The consequences of shedding tears at the presence of brutal injustices were fatal. As a result of centuries of dehumanization and odious brutalization, Hutus do not cry but rather freeze or become petrified and weep internally. These are but a few examples of the brutality Tutsis exercised over Hutus for centuries”.

Professor Yash Ghai graduate of Oxford and Harvard universities and distinguished scholar of constitutional law, human rights and democracy prepared a report in 2009 for the Commonwealth regarding Rwanda’s application to join that body. He was assisted by Lucy Mathieson. They wrote “Our conclusion is that the state of governance and human rights in Rwanda does not satisfy Commonwealth standards. Rwanda does not therefore qualify for admission” (CHRI 2009).

In mid 17th century a branch of Tutsis colonized northern and southwestern parts of Uganda into the kingdom of Mpororo which disintegrated around mid 18th century. A section of them (Bahororo) under Rwebiraro fled to and colonized Rujumbura with the help of Arabs slave traders and European weapons. Relations between Bahororo and Bairu were similar to those between Tutsis and Hutus of Rwanda. For example, Bairu in Rujumbura were not supposed to cry under any circumstances.

Bahima/Batutsi/Bahororo also introduced the concept of specialization. They specialized in cattle herding and occupied grazing land and reduced Bahutu/Bairu to cultivating crops an economic activity that was beneath the dignity of cattle people. The idea of specialization was linked with trade between the two ethnic groups. Instead of being a symbiotic, complementary and mutually-beneficial relationship, the exchange turned out to be terribly unequal and exploitative. In most instances, Bahutu/Bairu were loaned cows to produce cow dung as manure to fertilize their land or were given infertile cows or bulls in return for foodstuffs, drinks and labor.

John Hanning Speke introduced the idea of race in the region in order to explain who developed the magnificent civilizations he found in the region in the 1860s. He erroneously concluded that it was the work of Bahima and Batutsi of ‘white race’ (actually they are black people and darker than Bantu) who had invaded the region from Ethiopia (also erroneous because they are from southern Sudan) and civilized the inferior natives (Negro). Speke decided further that Batutsi/Bahima were more intelligent than Bantu (Bahutu and Bairu or slaves) and were born leaders while Bahutu/Bairu were stupid, ugly and fit only for menial labor.

These ideas were popularized by researchers such as Charles Gabriel Seligman and colonial officers such as Harry Johnston in Uganda. Educating Bahutu and Bairu was therefore a waste. The missionaries accepted these racist ideas and applied them in education and church administration. In short, the military, civil service and church administration jobs went to Batutsi and Bahima and Bahororo wherever they ruled. Education was reserved for the sons and daughters of Bahima/Batutsi and Bahororo. In Uganda King’s college Budo was built for chiefs’ sons and Gayaza High School for chiefs’ daughters to prepare as spouses of future chiefs.

With independence based on democracy and majority rule, the situation improved for Bahutu and Bairu who enjoyed numerical superiority. They got good education, good jobs, owned cattle, regained their freedom and climbed the ladder to prosperity at the expense of their former lords whose inferior numbers disadvantaged them electorally. In Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda former lords resorted to military force to recapture power which they had gained in 15th and 16th centuries by military means and subsequently subjugating Bahutu and Bairu people. According to Speke Bahima invented the epithet (term of abuse) of Bairu which means slaves (Speke 1863) for Bantu-speaking people south of the Nile. Bahutu is equivalent of Bairu in Rwanda and Burundi. These terms have in subtle ways remained in use to the present day in 2009.

Retrogression begins

Since 1994 when Batutsi regained political and military power in Rwanda, Bahutu are regressing fast. They have lost their land just as they did when Batutsi arrived in the area five hundred years ago. In 2001 Human Rights Watch reported in Uprooting the Rural Poor in Rwanda that in implementing government-created villages (imidugudu), local officials confiscated land from cultivators most of whom received no compensation. The National Habitat policy was also imposed by the government violating the rights of tens of thousands of people. They were obliged to destroy or cede their property without due process and without compensation. Those who spoke out against the policy were punished.

Michael Mann (2005) reported that the Tutsi-led government won overwhelmingly the 2003 general elections largely because it had banned most Hutu Parties. Tutsis dominate the government, the towns, the monetary economy (and security forces). Hutus have been mostly forced back into subsistence agriculture. This is a division of labor that is driving Hutus deep into abject poverty.

As noted above Ghai and Mathieson recommended that Rwanda should not be admitted to the Commonwealth because the state of governance and human rights does not satisfy Commonwealth standards.

In Uganda there are credible reports that Bahororo (Tutsis with origins in Rwanda) rulers in NRM government are behaving more or less the same as their cousins in Rwanda. They are grabbing everything – land, cattle, buildings, banks, security forces, top or key positions in strategic ministries like finance and foreign affairs (and now the oil sector). The ministry of foreign affairs is particularly worth mentioning because the top positions at headquarters are in their hands as well as key and strategic embassies around the world. They have reasoned and insisted that they are the ones or those who have married their daughters with a comparative advantage to head those institutions without producing proof in terms of education or experience. Those who oppose are thrown out of government, impoverished and forced to beg for a return to government positions similar to what we saw above in Rwanda where hardship forced Bahutu to beg for adoption by Batutsi men in order to get some food in return for tribute.

In Uganda, education which is a key factor to progress in all areas of human endeavor has been divided into public schools for poor people that are poorly funded and staffed while children of rulers are going to excellent private schools. The quality of public education is so bad that most graduates are unemployable. Hunger is spreading and deepening among the poor while the NRM government continues to export large amounts of food to earn foreign exchange that does not benefit peasants who produce the food.

In desperation, the poor, hungry and unemployed whose suffering has been ignored by Bahororo-led government in Uganda are flocking to churches which have sprung up in all corners of the country for consolation. They are being told to reject the earthly riches in order to prepare themselves for the afterlife which will be better than the earthly life (M. M. Lwanga. Daily Monitor September 15, 2006). For that prayer service the clergy is scooping out of the worshippers’ pockets most of their meager earnings, rendering them even poorer and more desperate for further prayers.

A piece of advice to conclude with

The retrogression in the Great Lakes region and its adverse impact may be likened to what Nathan Barber reported on peasants in his book titled European History (2004). “Throughout history peasants have consistently demonstrated one thing regardless of when and where they were: when they get hungry and when they believe they are being overtaxed [or exploited, marginalized and impoverished in other ways] there are going to be problems. Nowhere was this more true than in Europe during the middle Ages. Peasants, the poor who had lived and worked in the countryside, always numbered more than any other demographic group during the middle Ages. However, under feudalism, the greatest financial burden fell on the peasants. Peasants knew this but they were trapped [as they are being trapped in Uganda right now in 2009]. The one thing that kept them hanging on was the promise that the afterlife would be better than the earthly life. So as a result, the European peasants behaved themselves most of the time. When food supplies ran low, though, peasants tended to get cranky. When they felt overtaxed, in addition to being hungry, peasants often created problems for governments”.

The September 2009 riots in Uganda’s capital by unemployed sons and daughters of peasants who have been pushed out of the countryside by poverty, famine, drought, floods and political instability to look for jobs in towns they cannot find triggered their rioting against a regime that is armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons – some of them paraded on major national events.

The fact that they resisted for three days unarmed signals what lies in store for Uganda and the whole Great Lakes region where conditions are similar. Time has come for soul-searching. We need sober minds and a helping hand from our development partners to prevent deadly riots by finding short, medium and long-term solutions. Political will is a principal factor in this effort. The barrel of the gun and ‘Big Brother’ manipulations that are being employed in the region may not work all the time.