Devastating wars in southwest Uganda

Since I joined Uganda politics I have been disturbed by the high propensity for war. It appears that Ugandans are eager to solve every problem through war. If you advocate peaceful means you are quickly called a coward. There are commentators who habitually dismiss peaceful change of regime in Uganda without explaining why war is a better alternative. You wonder whether these are saboteurs or genuine citizens. A large part of what we read and hear about Uganda is war mongering. There are Ugandans who are now getting ready to start war once the Syrian one is over because they believe it is Uganda’s turn. I believe war should be resorted to in self-defense. We therefore need Plan A (peaceful change of regime) and Plan B (military means for self-defense). Preparation for both should take place concurrently.

But those who want to start with Plan B don’t explain convincingly why Plan A can’t work although there is ample evidence that it can. Since the walk-to-work demonstrations started, there are changes already. Investments have declined and for the first time since NRM came to power in 1986, Uganda’s economy grew slower during the last financial year than the population. Negative per capita income means increased suffering (81 percent reported that they have become poorer) which raises the level of anger against NRM government. Investors seem to have adopted a wait-and-see position. Ugandans are abandoning NRM if we go by recent by-elections. The courts are becoming independent and calling for by-elections in constituencies where NRM stole. So non-violent actions are producing results the opposition wants without going to war. We need to build on this momentum and strategize how the opposition should field candidates to improve chances of victory.

Using military force to effect regime change is opposed for three main reasons. First, opposition military attack on NRM government will receive no external support in the region, continent and beyond. In fact Museveni will receive massive support which he will use strategically with devastating consequences. Second, military action is aimed at punishing former Ankole and Kigezi districts for producing and crowning Museveni as president of Uganda who has caused devastation in Luwero, northern and eastern Uganda while western Uganda has been spared. Lest we forget, Museveni was not supported and brought to power by westerners. He was supported and crowned by Ugandans who detested UPC and Obote and gave Museveni an opportunity he would never have received from the western region. Ankole and Kigezi were strong supporters of UPC and Obote and could not possibly have supported and crowned Museveni as president of Uganda. And Museveni’s initial backers were largely Tutsi mercenaries. Third, my research and/or conversations with Ugandans from all parts of Uganda led to the conclusion that war is unpopular in all parts of Uganda. Without popular support and a physical base like Luwero, a guerrilla war won’t occur or be sustained. Uganda should not be dragged into another war by one or few ambitious people like Museveni did in 1981-85 with devastating effects in Luwero Triangle.

Perhaps for no fault of theirs, many Ugandans are only familiar with the wars in Buganda, Northern and Eastern Uganda since 1981. But there have been devastating wars in the past whose wounds have not healed completely as in Bunyoro and southwest Uganda. Some Ugandans have complained bitterly about my motive of going back to the past which reopens old wounds and could incite unintended consequences. But you can’t understand the present without knowledge of the past. In doing so, you identify commissions or omissions that should be discarded or emulated. This is particularly important now that war is looming on the horizon. No Ugandan in the right mind who is fully aware of the negative impact of war would recommend another one unless in self-defense. Southwest Uganda has had a horrible experience with wars from the 15th century to 1979 when Tanzania troops entered Uganda through southwest in pursuit of Amin and his troops. Now let us see what war has done to southwest Uganda and the lingering adverse impact. Although statistics are hard to come by, southwest Uganda has lost millions of people in military and economic wars.

Before pastoralists (Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo) arrived in what later became southwest Uganda starting about 15th century, the area was occupied by Bantu speaking people, believed to have arrived in the area before AD 1000. They engaged in a wide range of economic activities including crop cultivation, harvesting wild fish, game and fruits and vegetables and processing iron ore and timber. In drier areas Bantu settlers specialized in animal industry herding cattle, goats and sheep (E. J. Murphy 1974). They also kept poultry. It is therefore totally untrue that Bantu had always been pure cultivators. They were reduced to cultivators by pastoralists (since independence Bairu in southwest Uganda have more cattle than Bahima and Bahororo).

Before pastoralists arrived Bantu ate well, the population increased and were tall. They resolved disputes peacefully and there was no need for keeping standing armies or purchasing sophisticated weapons. As July observed “People congregated where food could be produced – a fertile valley, a lake shore, a well watered pasture. People came together in mutual protection. … In time specialists developed that called for cooperation and protection” (R. W. July 1998).

Then came Nilotic Luo-speaking long horn cattle keepers. Unlike in Bunyoro where the tendency of pastoralist developing into a dominant force was resisted, they succeeded in southwest Uganda using their warrior skills, defeating defenseless Bantu and gaining political power which they used to exploit, impoverish and reduce them to cultivators. This was a devastating experience for Bantu indigenous settlers. They lost their short horn cattle as a source of food, store of value and medium of exchange. Bantu produced food crops and made beer mainly to feed pastoralists. One of the consequences of this war was that Bairu were deprived of balanced diet and developed short stature (Bairu children in wealthy families that eat well are as tall as anyone). This military and exploitative relationship was extended to Rwanda and Burundi.

Between the last quarter of 17th century and early 18th century, Batutsi from Rwanda founded Mpororo Kingdom stretching from northern Rwanda to southwest Uganda (present Ntungamo district and northern parts of Kabale neighboring Ntungamo) which was occupied by Bantu people. This was a volatile period resulting in many deaths and displacements. According to Ehret the key to holding short-lived Mpororo kingdom together “appears to have been the king’s reliance on the specialized pastoralists of the region, who were given important chiefly positions and allowed to seize cattle as booty and so enlarge their herds by participating in Mpororo’s wars” (C. Ehret 2002).

Cattle wars continued as Batutsi from Rwanda invaded southwest Uganda. During the second half of the 18th century, Mwami Kigeri of Rwanda using muskets purchased from Swahili speaking slave traders and standing regiments ruthlessly attacked Ankole, Kigezi, Burundi etc. He was more interested in cattle than territory but he left many people dead and others scattered (R. I. Rotberg 1965).

At the beginning of the 19th century, Bahororo fled their former kingdom with a standing army and sought refuge in Rujumbura. Together with Arabs and Swahili and modern weapons they attacked defenseless Bantu people defeated them and sold many survivors into slavery. Many areas were depopulated and were invaded by tsetse flies and wild animals until settlers from Kabale moved in and declared the area “New Kigezi” (Banyakigezi association has joined the old and new Kigezi which coincides with Mpororo word on some new maps written in such a manner that it stretches from eastern DRC border to Rwanda border). The Indian coast Arab and Swahili traders entered the area in search of ivory and slaves. On the latter “The coastal traders were also employed in inter-state raids for slaves. For example, Makobore, the [Muhororo] king of Rujumbura, employed them in his raids [for slaves] against Batumbi and Kayonza.

“The important social effect of the coming of the coastal traders on the peoples of south-western Uganda was arms trade. Weaker societies [of Bantu] were raided for slaves while interstate warfare became rampant” (Bethwell A. Ogot 1976).

Hopefully the above short story has amply demonstrated how the people of south-west Uganda have suffered extensive wars. Bahororo who fought and enslaved and impoverished Bantu/Bairu are now in power in Uganda. The method of depriving Bairu is still in force except this time they are using economic warfare. You visit southwest Uganda so-called home of Museveni and you will be angered by the spread and depth of poverty, sickness, unemployment and hunger among Bairu. Therefore those who insist westerners have gained from Museveni rule or crowned him as president need to revisit the premise of these conclusions.

The purpose of this story is to show that south-west Uganda has suffered military and economic pain under Bahororo for centuries (you see the key figures in the ministry of finance and related organs, foreign affairs, presidential advisers and security forces, you won’t find Bairu yet they are more educated and experienced than Bahororo. Bahororo never get embarrassed by – and adjust to – these revelations because for them Bairu are slaves and will remain that way. I would like anybody to prove me wrong). The knight classes at Makerere University were conducted in a rush to give NRM cadres mostly Bahororo degrees and get top jobs although they are mostly still functionally illiterate. For example, questions have been raised about how does someone graduate in education without doing and passing teaching practice? We will not advance as a nation until these challenges have been addressed. Keeping quite in return for popularity is a disservice to the nation.

Fellow Ugandans, instead of plotting to punish Banyankole (read Bairu because when fighting starts Bahororo who have caused suffering in Uganda will disappear with their wealth) who have suffered more than enough already, let us come together and in solidarity remove NRM government peacefully in the first instance (some key development partners have seen the harm done by NRM government and are beginning to complain in public). Let us identify those wolves in sheep skin in Buganda, Northern, Eastern and western Uganda that are doing us harm in the name of representing our interests and isolate them – not assault them please. That should be our first priority. From now on every leader must be checked for his/her background and family tree. This is not sectarianism but the right thing to do in national interest.