Ethnic relations in the Great Lakes region are antagonistic

Let me begin with two statements.

First, when my article on “How Rujumbura’s Bairu got impoverished” appeared in (Uganda) Observer, some Uganda readers were convinced that I was sectarian and hated Bahororo (another name for Batutsi who sought refuge in Rujumbura when the short-lived Mpororo kingdom disintegrated and Rwanda and Nkore troops moved in). Since 1986, Uganda government has been led by Bahororo many of them from Rujumbura or with roots in Rujumbura. With Uganda currently experiencing un-preceded poverty, hunger, unemployment, marginalization and functional illiteracy, many Ugandans have revisited the above article and drawn parallels with how the whole country of Uganda has been impoverished.

Second until the 1960s, the history of the Great Lakes Region was dominated by followers of J. H. Speke, C. G. Seligman – British explorer and academic, respectively – and African scholars mostly from aristocratic families who shared the two British biased opinions led by Alexis Kagame, a Catholic priest and historian associated with Rwanda royal court. The writings of these people were extremely biased in favor of Batutsi (Bahima, Bahororo and Banyamulenge are clans of Batutsi) who were described as white or black Caucasian, intelligent, well built, civilized, wealthy through invasion and plunder of Negroes and born to rule. On the other hand they portrayed Bantu-speaking people (dubbed Bairu and Bahutu {slaves or servants} by Bahima) as reported by J. H. Speke (1863, 2006) as black Negroes, without a civilization, poorly built or ugly and short, unintelligent and born to serve the rulers. They used these racist and psychological instruments to rob Bantu-speaking people of their true identity, civilizations and wealth and reduced them to servants or serfs as in Rwanda.

Since the 1960s, a new breed of scholars is re-examining the Great Lakes history. Work contained in Zamani and Economic and Social History of East Africa edited by B. A. Ogot;, General History of Africa sponsored by UNESCO; African History edited by Toyin Falola; and individual researchers such as Philip Curtin et al, and Robert O. Collins and colleagues, is shedding new light on true history of the Great Lakes Region. So what are we learning from the new research findings?

First, we are learning that Batutsi are not white people but black and darker than Bantu-speaking people (J. Hiernaux, 1974). Second, we are also learning that until the interaction between Bantu-speaking peoples who entered the region through the Congo basin 3000 years ago, and Batutsi (Nilotic Luo-speaking people) who entered the region from southern Sudan about 500 years ago (from 16th century), Bantu speaking people were wealthy and healthy through a combination of crop cultivation, hunting and gathering wild foodstuffs, fishing, and manufacturing enterprises of all sorts. They were sedentary and had a system of governance that differed from the definition by western scholars, which maintained law and order and settled disputes when they arose.

On the other hand, Batutsi were nomadic people who lived a precarious life due to drought, animal diseases like the rinderpest of the late 1890s and cattle theft. They lived in temporary grass thatched huts, wore simple clothes including cow hide sandals. They were constantly fighting over pasture, water supplies and stealing cattle to boost or restock their herds. Because of their frequent movements, they were not in a position to establish centralized systems of governance. Overall they destroyed more than they constructed (B. Davidson, 1966). Upon contact with Bantu-speaking people, Batutsi adopted Bantu languages, religions and Bahutu king’s title of Mwami in Rwanda. Accordingly, it is Bantu-speaking peoples who had civilizations and not Batutsi.

How and when did the relations reverse and become antagonistic?

As warriors and with subsequent Arab support and supply of arms Batutsi were able to defeat Bantu speaking people who had lived peacefully and lacked experience in fierce fighting. Batutsi then denied Bantu the ownership of productive cattle which were a source of wealth accumulation and food, a medium of exchange, a store of value and a symbol of prestige. Furthermore, before colonial rule, the Great Lakes region experienced frequent and severe droughts, famines and political instability (P. N. Stearns, 2001) disadvantaging farmers more than herders as the latter spread in search of pasture and water.

In desperate need for survival, Bantu-speaking farmers would approach Batutsi and ask for protection in return for services to the protector. Batutsi took advantage of that and exploited Bahutu/Bairu ruthlessly. In Rwanda Bahutu were – for all intents and purposes – reduced to serfs. Serfdom reached the peak during the reign of king Rwabugiri who introduced forced labor applicable only to Bahutu.

When Bahutu and Bairu were loaned cows by Batutsi, Bahutu and Bairu benefited from cow dung which fertilized their gardens (after eating Bahutu’s/Bairu’s grass!) to increase food productivity which resulted in more tribute to the cow owner. There is no evidence in Bahutu and Bairu diet that they drank milk from the cows they were loaned. When lucky they were given infertile cows or bull calves.

Because of these antagonistic and exploitative relations, Bahutu/Bairu rebelled quite frequently but were often defeated, thoroughly subjugated and totally silenced. This was the situation when colonialism began at the start of the 20th century. The subjugation and total silence of Bahutu/Bairu by Batutsi was interpreted as symbiotic relations between the two ethnic groups which colonialism built on and Bahutu/Bairu were suppressed even more through taxation, cheap and free labor and tithes. The social revolution in Rwanda of 1959 and the rejection of the restoration of former Ankole kingdom have their origins in these antagonistic relations.

With Batutsi/Bahororo again in power – this time over the whole of Uganda – since 1986 and in Rwanda since 1994, the antagonistic relations between the two ethnic groups have begun all over again. It is no secret that in Uganda Batutsi/Bahororo leaders led by President Museveni are being blamed for the unprecedented extreme suffering the majority of Ugandans are going through.

In Rwanda the 1994 government coalition of Batutsi and moderate Bahutu did not last long. Most of the moderate Bahutu in the cabinet were fired. The rest of Bahutu have been pushed back into subsistence economy with no hope of rising above the poverty line.

Donations and concessional loans that have been and are still pouring into these two countries are being used by Batutsi leaders in large part to suppress Bahutu in Rwanda and non-Batutsi people in Uganda.

The above relations constitute antagonism from pre-colonial times to the present.