A region in retrogression

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 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 with reference to medieval Europe experience so that citizens of the region 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 (3) race.

Feudalism (feudal system) is a political, economic and social system of Europe in the Middle Ages in which vassals (dependants) gave goods and services to their lord in return for his protection and the use of the 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’ 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.

European racial theories divided people into superior and inferior races. The 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 they are not capable of governing themselves.

Application of European ideas in the Gt. Lakes region

Nilotic Luo-speaking people who came from southern Sudan 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 about 500 years ago. Under the 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 institutions including kingship. They were reduced to serfs who produced food crops most of it consumed by the king and his kin and kith in return for protection. The serfs also provided free labor to the king. 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 ‘father’ in order to get some food (milk) in return for services.

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 male cafes in return for foodstuffs, drinks or labor.

John Henning Speke introduced the idea of race in the region in order to explain who developed the magnificent civilizations he found in the region. He erroneously concluded that it was the work of Bahima and Batutsi of ‘white race’ who had invaded the region and civilized the inferior natives (Negro). Speke decided further that Batutsi/Bahima were more intelligent than Bantu and born leaders while Bahutu were stupid 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 racial 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. Education was reserved for the sons of Bahima/Batutsi and Bahororo. In Uganda King’s college Budo was built for chiefs’ sons and Gayaza 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 and climbed the ladder to prosperity at the expense of the former lords whose inferior numbers disadvantaged them electorally. In Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda the latter resorted to military force to retain or recapture power which they had gained in 15th and 16th centuries by defeating militarily and subjugating Bahutu and Bairu people.

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 reports 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.

In Uganda there are credible reports that Bahororo rulers in NRM government are grabbing everything – land, cattle, buildings, banks, security forces, top or key positions in strategic ministries like finance and foreign affairs. The ministry of foreign affairs is dominated at the top and in strategic embassies. They have reasoned and insisted that they are the ones 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 hildren of rulers are going to excellent private schools from kindergarten onwards. The quality of public education is so bad that most graduates are unemployable. In desperation, the poor 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 until they go to haven where they are told afterlife will be better than earthly life. For that prayer service the clergy is scooping out of their pockets most of their meager earnings.

A piece of advice to conclude with

The retrogression in the Great Lakes region and its possible 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]. 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 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.