Examining the evils of ethnic politics

All of us are familiar with ethnic groups, ethnicity, tribal groups and tribalism. Before tracing their application and impact in a political economy context, let us define ethnicity which is more commonly used than tribalism.

Ethnicity relates to a situation associated with a cultural, linguistic, racial, ancestral and religious groups or a combination of them within societies. Ethnicity has its roots in migrations, wars and other disturbances that trigger major population movements resulting in interaction with other groups in unequal relationships.

Because of this background, ethnicity is characterized by cultural prejudices, social discrimination and exclusiveness of its members. Generally, ethnicity finds expression in political domination, economic exploitation and psychological expression. The intensity, nature and forms of ethnic expressions are determined by the strength and cohesion of the ethnic leadership, courage, determination and nature of the underprivileged classes and the degree of foreign influence in a particular society.

In a multicultural setting where ethnicity is practiced social harmony becomes difficult to realize. It often results in violent conflicts for example in Burundi, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Also ethnicity can lead to endemic political instability such as in Uganda, Spain, Sudan, Nigeria, Belgium, etc or even a breakup of countries such as the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

By and large, the negative aspects of ethnicity overshadow the positive ones which include material and emotional support networks that help individuals in times of insecurity or distress. However, marginalized or impoverished ethnic groups find ways of preserving their identity until they are able to free themselves and reclaim their territory and properties.

There are many cases of ethnicity in practice from ancient times to the present. In ancient Sparta the defeated ethnic groups became helots (slaves or serfs). They and their descendants were confined to their masters’ land. Because of their slave and inferior status, helots were not allowed to intermarry with Spartan citizens. They remained unassimilated and ethnically homogeneous.

The helots were constantly on the watch for an opportunity to free themselves. During the war between Spartan and Theban armies, the helots joined the latter and defeated the Spartans. The freed serfs reclaimed their ancestral lands and identity.

In the 17th century, the Persian and Byzantine Empires were defeated because of the emergence of a new social force in the Middle East. The Persian Empire collapsed so quickly because of a new heresy (opinion contrary to the accepted doctrine on any subject). Although it was seen as an intellectual movement, the (religious) heresy was actually an expression of ethnic and social discontent. When a society is conquered and subjugated by its conquerors as in the Persian Empire, the ethnic sub-groups that comprise the empire retain their identity through religious forms that conflict with the official religion. Similarly, when they were subjugated by the Romans the barbarians preserved their identity by adopting a Christian heresy instead of the orthodoxy recognized by the state. Likewise, the Persians who were defeated by the Arabs preserved their identity by adopting the heretical Shi’a rather than the orthodox Sunni form of Islam. And the Scots and Irish have demonstrated their indifference with the Anglican Church by maintaining the Presbyterian and Catholic religions. The adoption of heresy (of any type) therefore marks an expression of dissent. Social and economic inequalities sharpen ethnic differences.

In the middle Ages most of the heresies were triggered by social dissent. In the early part of the Christian Church in the Middle East and Africa, ethnic tensions worsened by social and economic friction were disguised as religious heresy.

Because of strong colonial and post-colonial western factors in the Great Lakes region that have favored Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo and the destruction of traditional religions, the subjugated Bahutu and Bairu adopted a heresy largely of silence and inner resentment until an opportunity opened to free themselves. In Rwanda it came in 1959 and resulted in the Social Revolution.

In Rujumbura County of Rukungiri district in southwest Uganda, Bairu lost their grazing land and their short-horn cattle, among others, to Bahororo who arrived in 1800 equipped with fighting experience acquired largely through cattle raids. Bairu also suffered economic, social and political humiliation. Bahororo had been chased out of former Mpororo kingdom by Bahima and sought refuge in Nyakinengo of Rujumbura County. Bahororo were assisted by slave traders (Arabs and Swahili) who brought European weapons to consolidate and expand their territory by conquering other peaceful and sedentary ethnic groups. Able-bodied people from the defeated clans were sold as slaves and rulers in southwest Uganda participated in slave trade.

Bairu parents advised their children to get education to free themselves of Bahororo subjugation. Many Bairu children heeded their parents’ advice. They studied diligently and acquired good education in almost all areas of human endeavor. There are many BA, BSC, MA, MSC, MBA and Ph.D graduates. There are also medical and veterinary doctors, engineers, computer programmers, lawyers, teachers, nurses, etc.

Yet overwhelmingly, jobs at local and national levels have gone to Bahororo whose education and experience are not comparable to Bairu’s. Bahororo continue to enjoy political, economic and social dominance. The MPs, Ministers, Presidential advisers, strategic and senior positions in government and security forces have gone to Bahororo who falsely claim that they are better qualified for these jobs than Bairu.

It will not be surprising if all candidates on NRM ticket for parliamentary elections in 2011 come from Bahororo or those related to them through marriage.

Because of these rampant inequalities, ethnic tensions are rising as Bairu elite demand justice and human rights and Bahororo refuse to yield even an inch. Bairu’s dissent is being met with strong expressions of intimidation, threats to property, their lives and those of family members and relatives, as well as character assassination including accusations of sectarianism and tribal hatred.

We appeal to the international community to demand that the NRM government ensures fairness and justice for all in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts, waste of scarce resources and human suffering.

All of us should draw a lesson from Rwanda’s genocide of 1994 where warning signals were ignored.