History of the Great Lakes Region of Africa

Why this essay and why now?

Some readers of my blog www.kashambuzi.com and my two books titled (1) Uganda’s Development Agenda in the 21st Century and Related Regional Issues, and (2) Rethinking Africa’s Development Model, in which I wrote about ethnic rivalries in the Great Lakes region, have asked me to condense the scattered information into one very brief and user-friendly essay for easy reference and wider readership. Many commentators feel that there has been an overemphasis on events of the 1994 Rwanda genocide in which moderate Hutus and Tutsis were murdered but ignored war crimes against Hutus that took place inside Rwanda and in eastern DRC during and after the genocide and subsequent human rights abuses. There is also a strong feeling that ethnic relations should be studied in a comprehensive, historical, impartial and regional context to be able to draw informed conclusions and make appropriate recommendations. For example, the 1972 genocide in Burundi in which Hutus were murdered by Tutsis which may have encouraged the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was totally ignored by the international community including then Organization of African Unity (OAU).

This essay will therefore go beyond Rwanda and 1994. It will cover the Great Lakes region with a focus on Rwanda and southwest Uganda in a comprehensive and historical manner going as far back as the earliest settlements in the region; origins of the two ethnic groups (Bantu-speaking and Nilotic Luo-speaking people) who inhabit the region; and economic activities and lifestyles of each group before and after the two ethnic groups interacted with each other in the region. We shall use ethnic and not linguistic categorizations of the two groups to enable readers understand the relations between the two groups.

The essay is also being written now because new information has become available that needs to be shared more broadly than has been the case so far. It is important to underscore that an understanding of the historical developments in the region needs to put emotions aside – important as they may be – and focus on facts.

Symbiotic versus antagonistic relations

Apart from oversimplification (cultivators versus pastoralists) and distortions (intelligent and born leader Tutsis versus stupid and barbaric Hutus), the history of the region has been dominated by two mutually-exclusive schools of thought: symbiotic versus antagonistic ethnic relations.

Symbiotic ethnic relations

Using Rwanda as a case study the first school of thought endorsed by Tutsis and supported by many Western historians reasons that relations between the two groups were generally symbiotic until the arrival of colonial powers in the late nineteenth century. While agreeing that Tutsi kings ruled over most of Rwanda during the pre-colonial period this school contends that many administrators had been Hutu and that patron-client relationships between and within groups were flexible and mutually beneficial. Northern Rwanda remained independent until defeated by colonial troops and placed under Tutsi chiefs during colonial indirect rule. Tutsi tended to be cattle owners and Hutu were usually cultivators, but these distinctions were not rigid. (How this division of labor came about and what benefits were conferred on each group is not explained).

This school further argues that it was first Germany and later Belgium after the transfer of colonial authority during World War I that ethnic distinctions sharpened (admitting that distinctions existed in pre-colonial times) during the implementation of the system of indirect rule giving Tutsis more powers over Hutus. Borrowing from John Hanning Speke’s (1863) racist ideas, European ethnographers of the time treated Tutsis as superior to the rest of the population. They were selected to head church and local administration. According to this school, it was European demand for resource extraction through taxes and forced labor that forced a small group of Tutsi administrators to oppress the Hutu majority and thereby polarize and harden ethnic identities (making a bad situation worse for Bahutu).

Antagonistic ethnic relations

Also using Rwanda as a case study, the second school of thought endorsed by Hutus and supported by other historians has dismissed the symbiotic ethnic relations arguments as untrue. They argue that long before Europeans colonized Rwanda Tutsi rule had imposed a discriminatory two-tier system, recalling King Rwabugiri’s harsh rule including the introduction of forced labor applicable only to Hutu people. This school insists that the colonial powers only formalized, institutionalized and made worse a pre-existing system by taking steps like issuing identity cards on racial basis and affiliation.

These two schools of thought equally apply to relations between Bahima/Bahororo and Bairu of southwest Uganda, and Batutsi and Bahutu in Burundi. Readers should be able to judge which of the two schools is correct after examining below ethnic relations after the two groups came into contact with each other over 600 years ago. Let us now examine the origin, economic activities and lifestyles of the two groups before they came into contact with each other in the Great Lakes region.

Origin and lifestyle of Bantu-speaking people

There is a general consensus that Bantu-speaking people originated in Cameroon/Nigeria border some 3000 years ago. They arrived in different waves through the Congo forest and settled in the Great Lakes region. Prior to their arrival, the area was occupied by hunters and gatherers. They were absorbed through intermarriage with Bantu people and the remnants moved deeper into the forest to avoid extinction and still live there in very small numbers.

Bantu people brought with them short-horn cattle, goats, sheep, and iron technology. The interlacustrine region (between lakes) – surrounded by Lakes Tanganyika, Kivu, Edward, George, Albert, Kioga and Victoria – where they settled was ideal for a wide range of farming activities. The region was endowed with a cool climate, fertile soils, high and regular rainfall, and numerous rivers. Equipped with iron machetes, axes and hand hoes, Bantus were able to clear wide swaths of land to grow a wide range of crops and graze livestock. They planted nutritious foodstuffs of millet, sorghum and beans, peas and other vegetables which grew very well with good harvests. These crops were supplemented by yams, bananas, plantains and coco yams which grew very well in wetter ecological areas. This rich source of foodstuffs was complemented by meat and milk from domesticated livestock as well meat from wild game and wild fish together with wild fruits and vegetables. The abundance of food in quantity and quality resulted in rapid population growth and high densities. Surplus food over and above domestic needs was bartered in local and regional markets to accumulate wealth and permit specialization to maximize productivity and total production. The abundance of food, suitable ecological environment and other resources such as minerals and timber enabled people to become sedentary, minimize conflict and foster specialization according to resource endowments.

Besides mixed-farming (cultivation and livestock herding), the availability of iron ore, clay, salt deposits, timber and wetland materials such as papyrus, many manufacturing activities formed an integral part of the economy. The manufactured products included a wide range of iron implements such as spears, hoes, axes, processed salt, pottery and basketry and a wide range of timber products like canoes, mortars and pestles, spoons, walking sticks, clogs, combs, beds and chairs, milk containers (ebyanzi) etc. As time passed farmers began to specialize with many taking to herding as a full time profession. Others engaged in medical activities that included caesarian section like in Bunyoro.

Pre-colonial comparative advantage increased wealth through trade. Different areas produced different products. In the regional markets were traded sorghum, peas and honey from Kigezi and Rwanda; millet from Nkore and Toro; dry peeled bananas from Bwamba in Toro, Buganda and Zaire (DRC); coffee from Karagwe and Buganda; skins and hides from Rwanda, Mpororo, Nkore and Mwenge in Bunyoro; bark cloth from Buganda; copper from Rwenzori hills; iron products from Buhweju in Ankole, Kayonza in Kigezi and Bunyoro; goats from Bunyoro and Rwanda and Rukiga in Kigezi.

Iron products played a special role in the region. Iron was not only an industry but also a vital means of exchange especially in southwestern Uganda particularly in Buhweju and Kayonza where the best iron products were manufactured. Bakimbiri among others were renowned for their high quality iron products. Iron smiths were professionals and kept the trade to themselves thereby becoming a hereditary occupation. Iron smiths were not only highly respected but were also very wealthy.

Genesis of governance and protection systems

Specialization, population growth and concentration in sedentary communities required a system of governance and protection. As time passed, it became necessary to develop an administrative system to maintain order and order, settle disputes over property and human rights abuses, and protect the population against encroachment from neighboring groups. It has been estimated that as early as A. D. 1000 small states began to emerge in parts of the interlacustrine region. By A. D. 1200 there were numerous small kingdoms with chiefs and kings. In Rwanda Bahutu kings were called Mwami. They also developed traditional religions including the Kubandwa sect.

Findings of archeologists

Many years of research have revealed how Bantu people developed governance and protection systems and evolved into specialized professions including herding. Excavations at Munsa, Ntusi and Bigo archaeological sites have been particularly important in this regard. At Munsa site there is abundant evidence that the earliest occupants were farmers growing crops and herding cattle. They were also an integral part of a trade network that extended from central Africa to the Indian Ocean.

At Ntusi, an older site than Bigo, there was extensive cultivation of cereals which played a crucial role in the area’s economy besides large herds of cattle. Bigo site is more famous for its concentric earthen embanked ditches six miles in circumference and twenty-two feet high. There is more evidence of cattle herding signifying that settlers there had become more specialized in herding than in crop cultivation.

Studies have confirmed that settlement patterns and economic specialization were driven more by internal economic and social dynamism of the indigenous Bantu speakers than immigrants. Indigenous communities coalesced into permanent settlements that dominated the geography of the Great Lakes region. They evolved into states due to a combination of economic activities which included cattle husbandry, manufacturing activities, cereal and especially banana cultivation. These developments have led many historians to conclude that the evolution of cohesive states and kingdoms was an ancient process rooted in traditions of Bantu-speaking peoples of the Great Lakes region. They emerged naturally during the economic evolution. This conclusion is underpinned by linguistic evidence that Bantu-speaking communities established new political functions after A.D. 1000 without borrowing from their Cushitic neighbors or from subsequent newcomers from the north. Linguists have also amply demonstrated the continuities between Bantu political vocabulary that existed before and after the arrival of immigrants from the north.

The case of Buganda

The Bantu-ruled kingdom of Buganda amazed visitors including John H. Speke by its rich civilization. The kingdom had an elaborate agricultural system with a variety of foodstuffs including maize, bananas and plantains, coffee, beans, cassava, sugar cane, sweet potatoes and millet. Generally, the ecological system was not suitable for livestock herding. Bridges and a network of well maintained roads facilitated transport and communications between the capital and the countryside. The king’s capital contained well built and clean, cone-shaped huts enclosed by well maintained fencing. Along the court yard grew fig trees the bark of which was used to make fine dress materials. Buganda had developed an admirable system of centralized administration which would later be adopted in other areas.

In conclusion, there is overwhelming evidence that Bantu-speaking people who originated in Cameroon/Nigeria border region and settled in the Great Lakes region some 3000 years ago developed an elaborate economic system that provided adequate food in quantity and quality, specialized according to resource endowments including exclusively in cattle herding. Bantu people were industrious and developed high skills in manufacturing a wide range of products that were exchanged in local and regional markets and accumulated wealth.

As populations grew and concentrated in permanent locations, it became necessary to develop systems of governance to maintain law and order, settle disputes when they arose and protect settlers against encroachment from neighbors. They formed states that were ruled by chiefs and kings called Mwami in Rwanda. Bantu were therefore not stateless people and were not confined to cultivating crops. Many specialized in herding cattle, others in manufacturing activities and medical services, etc. This was the situation before Bantu people came into contact with Nilotic Luo-speaking people from southern Sudan. But before we record the impact of interaction between the two groups, let us first examine the origin, economic activities and life style of Nilotic Luo-speaking people.

Origin and lifestyle of Nilotic Luo-speaking people

Let us begin with one clarification and two corrections to clear the confusion.


It is important to understand clearly from the beginning that Nilotic Luo-speaking people who moved into the Great Lakes region adopted new names and local languages.

(1) In Mbarara district of Uganda they are called Bahima or Hima and speak a Bantu language of Lunyankole.

(2) In Burundi and Rwanda they are called Batutsi or Tutsi and speak a Bantu language called Kinyarwanda.

(3) In Ntungamo District and Rujumbura County of Rukungiri district in southwest Uganda they are called Bahororo and speak Bantu language of Lunyankole. Bahororo are Batutsi people from Rwanda who settled and have lived in southwest Uganda since the middle of the 17th century. A group of them moved and have lived in Rujumbura County since 1800, three generations after the disintegration of Mpororo kingdom.

(4) In eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) they are called Banyamulenge and speak mostly Kinyarwanda language.

(5) All the people mentioned above have one common ancestry and are therefore cousins.

(6) They have retained their Nilotic distinctiveness (although they are linguistically the same as Bantu, they are ethnically distinct) because overwhelmingly the men do not marry Bantu women. When Bantu men marry Nilotic women, children become members of their Bantu father’s ethnic group.


There are two main corrections that need to be made upfront, namely their race and origin.

First, it is now established that these Nilotic Luo-speaking people are black and not white people as John H. Speke portrayed them. Speke made the mistake while trying to explain who was responsible for the magnificent civilizations he found in the Great Lakes region which he did not believe were developed by Bantu people (Negroes). His distortion of history has caused many problems including the two genocides of 1972 and 1994 in Burundi and Rwanda as will be shown later.

Speke wrote a book titled The Discovery of the source of the Nile published in 1863. In chapter 9 – History of the Wahuma (Bahima) – The Abyssinians and Gallars – Theory of Conquest of Inferior by Superior Races – The Wahuma and the Kingdom of Kitara – Legendary History of the Kingdom of Uganda – Its Constitution, and the Ceremonials of the Court. Under this chapter Speke elaborated in part that “In the earliest of times the Wahuma … regarded all their lands bordering on the Victoria Lake as their garden, owing to its exceeding fertility, and imposed the epithet [term of abuse] of Wiru [Bairu], or slaves, upon its people, because they had to supply the imperial government [of Wahuma] with food and clothing. Coffee was conveyed to the capital by the Wiru, also mbugu (bark-cloaks) from an inexhaustible fig-tree; in short, the lands of the Wiru were famous for their rich productions”. Speke added that “In these countries [Great Lakes] the government is in the hands of foreigners [white people], who had invaded and taken possession of them, leaving the agricultural aborigines to till the ground, whilst the junior members of the usurping clans herded the cattle – just as in Abyssinia, or wherever the Abyssinians or Gallas have shown themselves”. Speke believed that judging from the physical appearance of Wahuma, they could not be of any other race than the semi-Shem-Hamitic of Ethiopia – hence birth of the Hamitic Myth.

Charles Gabriel Seligman elaborated on Speke’s Hamitic Theory in his book titled Races of Africa published in 1930. He taught (and was believed) that Hamites (Wahuma) or white people were responsible for civilizations that were found in Africa because the Negroes were too primitive to embark on such developments on their own. Until their arrival Africa was a Dark Continent and darkness is not a subject of history! Speke, Seligman and other well known scholars like Professor Egerton of Oxford University and geologist Carl Mauch the first European to visit the 12th century Bantu site of Great Zimbabwe were convinced that these civilizations were the work of white people. As recently as 1965, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote that “There is only the history of the European in Africa. The rest is largely darkness”.

The Hamitic Theory was put into practice by colonial officers and missionaries. In Uganda, Sir Harry Johnston stressed that the institution of kingship in Uganda was brought by pastoral invaders from Ethiopia. Using this argument Johnston established a link between Speke’s theory and late 19th century aristocratic intellectual fantasies.

In Rwanda colonial administrator Pierre Ryckmans like his counterpart in Uganda stated that Batutsi were born to rule because their fine features gave them great prestige over the inferior Hutus. He determined that Hutus were less intelligent, simple and let themselves to be enslaved without ever daring to revolt (not true).

Using tapes and scales people in Rwanda were measured and weighed to determine their race as follows.

Tutsi Hutu Twa

Weight (in pounds) 126.6 131.2 106.7

Stature (in inches) 69.5 65.9 61.1

Total arm length (inches) 30.9 30.0 27.2

Nose width (in inches) 1.5 1.7 1.8

Nose length: Tutsi nose is on average 2.5 millimeters longer than Hutu’s.

Fortunately subsequent scientific research findings including the groundbreaking work of Joseph Greenberg, an authority on the classification of African languages rejected the Hamitic Myth of Europeans invading, conquering the Negroes and introducing civilizations in Africa. Additionally, serological studies confirmed that Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo people are black. Even Bachwezi whom they erroneously claimed to be their ancestors were black people. Further studies have elaborated that not only are Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo black people but are also darker with thicker lips than Bantu people. Finally, the Hamitic Myth and Nilo-Hamitic Myth (mixture of Nilotes and Hamites) have been abandoned.

Notwithstanding the rejection and subsequent abandonment of the myth, Bahima, Batutsi, Bahororo and Banyamulenge continue to claim superiority over Bairu and Bahutu. Since Bahororo/Bahima-led NRM government came to power in Uganda in 1986 and Batutsi-led RPF government came to power in Rwanda in 1994, the superiority complex of these Nilotic cousins is now practiced openly although it is illegal because of anti-sectarian and anti-divisionist laws in Uganda and Rwanda, respectively. Hiring and promotion in government strategic positions, security forces and ownership of big and lucrative businesses leaves no doubt as to who is in charge. They claim that they are better than others and there is nothing to apologize about. And they have very strong support in many developed countries. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda has made many Europeans and others to believe that Bahutu are barbaric and should be hunted down. They have conveniently ignored the genocide of 1972 in which Bahutu in Burundi were murdered by Batutsi as well as the massacres of Hutus in Rwanda and DRC during and after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. We shall show later how these stereotypes were and are being implemented. Let us now consider the second point of correction.

Contrary to what John Speke and his followers made us believe, Wahuma and their Watutsi and Bahororo cousins did not come from Ethiopia. Research from various credible sources including by Catherine Watson and M. de Villiers and S. Hirtle has found no evidence of a trek or language from Ethiopia.

Origin and lifestyle of Nilotic Luo-speaking people

If Wahuma, Watutsi and Bahororo are not white people and did not enter the Great Lakes region from Ethiopia who are they and where did they come from?

There is sufficient evidence to conclude that they are Nilotic Luo-speaking people who originated in Bahr el Ghazal region of southern Sudan. They practiced nomadic herding of long-horn cattle. Nomadic pastoral life takes place in hostile environments where there is perpetual mobility and struggle for pasture and water and against cattle rustling and bovine diseases. In order to survive, they fight most of the time to increase or restock their herds. History shows that since time immemorial, nomadic herders have destroyed more than they have constructed. And this has happened in the Great Lakes region as well resulting in loss of human lives, livestock and destruction of property. For example, according to Maurice R. Davie (1929) during their internecine wars Bahima aristocracy must have destroyed a quarter of a million people over the last fifty years (from 1929). The wondering nomadic life with large herds of cattle has also seriously damaged the environment.

Nomadic pastoral life involves seasonal movements in search of pasture and water or running away from enemies. Accordingly this type of economic activity does not promote the development of advanced material culture or centralized political systems. Nomadic pastoralists therefore have simple lifestyles. They live in makeshift grass thatched huts and wear simple clothes and cow-hide sandals.

That was their status when they moved into the Great Lakes region where their many years of fighting experience were to enable them (as we shall show later) to defeat, subdue, subjugate and impoverish the once well-fed, well-governed, peacefully settled and wealthy Bantu people whom they gave new names of Bairu in Uganda and Bahutu in Burundi and Rwanda, meaning slaves. In the process economic activities and lifestyles were fundamentally altered and reversed, resulting in impoverished Bairu and Bahutu people who were reduced to growing food crops and providing free labor for their new Nilotic masters.

The impact of interaction between the two groups

As already noted, Bantu people were enslaved, humiliated and abused during pre-colonial and colonial times. They resented their new status and waited in pain and silence after their resistance was crushed.

Bahutu exploded in Rwanda in 1959 resulting in a Social Revolution. To pre-empt a social revolution in Burundi, Tutsis/Himas assassinated a moderate prime minister popularly elected under a multi party system. In Uganda the commoners took over the reigns of power in 1962.

Those commoners’ gains were reversed in 1986 and 1994 when Museveni and his Bahororo-led rebels forced their way into power in 1986 and Kagame and his Batutsi-led rebels ended Habyarimana’s regime by force in 1994. These military changes of governments in Uganda and Rwanda had very strong foreign backing. These Bahororo and Batutsi led governments are determined to stay in power indefinitely by force of arms using fake elections as a cover. Bahutu in Rwanda and Bairu and the rest of Ugandans are being pushed back into servitude through subsistence farming or rampant unemployment which authorities interpret as ethnic laziness or drunkenness. These developments have raised many questions about what to expect in the future.

What we have learned so far from the region’s history since pre-colonial times is that while these people live on the ‘same hill’, speak the same language, go to the same church, they are totally different in material wealth and ethnic composition. Since these two ethnic groups met in the 15th century, their lifestyles have reversed. The formerly poor nomadic pastoralists have become wealthy by defeating, dominating, exploiting and impoverishing the once peaceful, healthy and wealthy Bantu people. The Bantu people are putting up resistance contributing to perpetual instability in the region. Let us trace how this reversal happened since the two groups came into contact with each other some six hundred years ago.

Inter-ethnic relations in pre-colonial times

In northern regions of Uganda, Buganda, Bunyoro and Toro, the newcomers from southern Sudan mixed extensively through intermarriages and entirely new mixed-farming communities were established. However, in southwest Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, intermarriage was terminated and ethnic assimilation into Bantu communities was abandoned in favor of dominating Bairu and Bahutu. In short, Bahima and Batutsi and later Bahororo and now Banyamulenge in DRC avoided intermarriage with a view to sticking together in order to dominate and exploit the abundant wealth and labor of the majority Bantu people they found in the area. One researcher wrote that the newcomers had decided to live together with Bantu people in order to dominate them, not to mix or socialize with them. They even went further and prevented Bantu men from marrying Nilotic women by preventing Bantu from owning cattle that is required for dowry. In effect Bahima, Batutsi, Bahororo and Banyamulege have remained Nilotic genetically.

The implementation of the concept of domination politically, economically and socially was most extreme in Rwanda except in the north until the arrival of European colonialists.

In Rwanda a feudal system similar to that in medieval Europe was instituted. All the land belonged to Mwami or king. The king would apportion it out among his chiefs and sub-chiefs, while retaining title to it, as his fief. The king also owned all the cattle and his subjects. Bahutu in Rwanda became serfs on land that was theirs. The land was mainly used for grazing Batutsi long-horn cattle on hill tops that replaced short-horn cattle that belonged to Bahutu that subsequently disappeared from the region. Bahutu were pushed into valleys where they cultivated the land to produce food for the king and those around him. Through contact with Batutsi, Bahutu lost their access to adequate food in quantity and quality explaining in part why they are on average shorter than Batutsi (Bahutu and Bairu children in Rwanda and in Uganda who are eating well and living healthy lives are taller than those in pre-colonial and colonial days implying that the problem is sociological and not genetic!).

In Nkore, Rwanda and later in Rujumbura (where Batutsi/Bahororo sought refuge in 1800 after their short-lived Mpororo kingdom had disintegrated), Bairu also lost ownership of cattle and were reduced to cultivation. Loss of productive cattle as in Rwanda and Burundi denied them much protein in their diet and as a means of wealth accumulation, store of value and a means of exchange. They were allowed to own infertile cows or bulls in exchange for their products and labor services.

Furthermore, for ‘protection’ provided by Bahima and Batutsi; Bahutu and Bairu were required to pay tribute in various forms including supplying foodstuffs and drinks, constructing and repairing the king’s and chief’s buildings, carrying them and their relatives in litters when they travelled, attending the king and chiefs at night, carrying messages, cooking food for them and working the chief’s gardens. Although still controversial some historians have recorded that transactions between masters and servants were largely carried out by force.

As noted already, to preserve their privileged and dominant position, Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo severely restricted intermarriage between the two ethnic groups. Like the eugenicists (believers in maintaining high quality of human life), even inter-marriage between poor and wealthy Bahima/Batutsi/Bahororo was prohibited. Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo from royal families married among themselves as in medieval Europe and still do. The ostracized poor Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo were classified as Bairu and Bahutu on economic grounds but intermarriage with the latter group remained problematic. Apart from few exceptions, poor Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo men do not marry Bahutu and Bairu women. Like the aristocratic group, they use them for sexual pleasure only.

On the other hand wealthy Bahutu and Bairu were and still are given Batutsi/Bahororo and Bahima women mostly from non-royal families and subsequently become ‘tusified’ and abandon their ethnic group. These are the distorted intermarriages you read in the press and hear at conferences to justify unity in the region. So far intermarriages have been overwhelmingly one way: Bahutu and Bairu wealthy or well educated men marry Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo women and are afterwards convert into Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo. And to confirm total conversion to Tutsi culture, the ‘tutsified’ Bahutu and Bairu change their accent to sound like Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo.

There were also double standards in legal matters between the two ethnic groups. For example in Rwanda, when a Hutu man raped a Tutsi woman, he was executed. But when a Tutsi man raped a Hutu woman, the case would be settled by compensation, if at all.

In the Great Lakes region, political and economic structures were designed in such a way that Bahutu and Bairu were made to be permanently dependent as a social group. The dominant position was maintained by making sure that Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo exclusively possessed physical force through administrative and military structures. As we shall show later, these arrangements have intensified in Uganda and Rwanda since Bahororo and Batutsi came to power in 1986 and 1994 in Uganda and Rwanda respectively.

Because of the injustices and double standards mentioned above, there were many revolts in many parts of the region against the Nilotic rulers. Influenced by the cult of Nyabingi, Bahutu and Bakiga revolted against the Rwanda kingdom but they were defeated. The armed conflicts in the late pre-colonial period became increasingly ethnic in character.

In Rujumbura and Kinkizi regions, Bahororo with support from Arab and Swahili slave traders and with help of European weapons were able to crush Bairu resistance against Bahororo rule. As one historian wrote “The important social effect of the coming of the [Indian ocean] coastal traders on the people of south-western Uganda was the arms trade. Weaker societies were raided for slaves while interstate warfare became rampant”.

In conclusion, there is overwhelming evidence that overall inter-ethnic relations were not symbiotic and harmonious in pre-colonial times. In particular pre-colonial Rwanda was unquestionably one of the most centralized and rigidly stratified societies in the region. Representing approximately 85 percent of a total population estimated at 2 million at the turn of the 20th century, Hutu peasants were clearly at the bottom of the heap, socially, economically and politically. Being voiceless and powerless, Bahutu peasants had no alternative but to suffer in silence until an opportunity presented itself in 1959 as will be shown later.

Inter-ethnic conflicts in the colonial period

At the beginning of the colonial period, the Great Lakes region was broadly characterized by poor Bahutu and Bairu as well as the ostracized poor Bahima/Batutsi/Bahororo (hutuized or de-tutsified) comprising one social class or caste on one hand. On the other hand were the few tutsified (de-hutuized) wealthy Bahutu and Bairu and wealthy Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo. Intermarriage between the two castes was severely restricted by denying poor castes to own cattle used as dowry.

The colonial officers and missionaries maintained these caste relations and added a racial layer. They used Nilotic Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo as civil servants with the title of chief to administer the colonies on their behalf through the system of indirect rule. As noted above the decision was based on the fact that physically Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo look like Europeans. They described them as light-skinned (which they are not), tall and slender people with high brow, thin and long noses, thin lips (which is not true) and beautiful shinning teeth; intelligent and born leaders.

On the other hand, Bantu-speaking people were described as short, ugly, squat featured or thick set with flat noses and thick lips and unintelligent credited only for hard menial labor. Accordingly they were dubbed Bairu in Uganda and Bahutu in Rwanda and Burundi meaning that they are slaves for Bahima, Batusi and Bahororo, stereotypes that have remained in force directly but mostly in subtle forms to this day in 2009. These value-laden stereotypes inflated (and continue to inflate) Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo ego and thereby crushed the feelings of Bahutu and Bairu “until they coalesced into an aggressively resentful inferiority complex”.

Europeans also chose to rely on minority Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo because they knew that the latter as a minority ethnic group was vulnerable and would need white support for its survival and would collaborate with Europeans in containing the majority Bahutu and Bairu through using institutions of law and order – police, judiciary and prisons.

In return for collaboration, the Nilotic so-called superior race of Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo got educated, got employed in colonial administration and missionaries, increased their incomes and lived better lives. In contrast, the majority Bahutu and Bairu were denied education and jobs. Instead they were heavily taxed in addition to tithes to the church, were forced to work for free for colonial governments and chiefs and were paid very low wages. Because of these harsh conditions poor Batutsi and Bahutu had to seek better paying jobs in Uganda since the 1920s. The Hutus worked on farms mostly in Buganda producing coffee and cotton for export whereas Batutsi worked on ranches in Ankole, Buganda and eastern and northern provinces. Besides being illiterate, Bahutu and Bairu were impoverished and marginalized politically, economically and socially in spite of their numerical superiority.

Fundamental changes after the Second World War

After WWII, major changes in race relations, politics and human rights took place with a fundamental impact on the Great Lakes region. The race theories lost support in Europe and elsewhere. The adoption by the United Nations in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stressed freedom and equality of all peoples and races. With support from the United Nations born in 1945, peoples of Asia and Africa demanded independence based on democracy and majority rule. Young generations of missionaries and colonial officers from lower social classes like Flemish from Belgium who had suffered racial discrimination replaced older generations from aristocratic classes. These young missionaries and colonial officers emphasized fairness, justice, democracy and majority rule and identified themselves with the poor and marginalized.

Sensing trouble, the minority Batutsi in Rwanda pushed for independence before the Bahutu understood their human and political rights hoping they could get a minority ruled independent country similar to what happened in South Africa in 1910. In Rwanda political parties were ethnic-based while in Burundi the largest party was multi-ethnic. In Uganda they were religion-based. Whereas Batutsi were favored over Bahutu in Rwanda and Burundi, in Uganda Protestants (almost all chiefs and senior civil servants were Protestants) were favored over Catholics.

In Rwanda, the elections were won overwhelmingly by Bahutu and Bakiga coalition (Bahutu from southern and central, and Bakiga from northern Rwanda) resulting in a “Social Revolution of 1959” ending the monarchy and driving rigid aristocratic Batutsi into exile. In Uganda the commoners won elections with the first prime minister from northern Uganda. In Burundi a moderate prince won elections and became prime minister. These fundamental changes marked the beginning of the post-colonial period. They were resisted by Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo who lost power in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda thereby planting seeds of conflict and violence that have characterized the post-colonial period since 1962. Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda all became independent in 1962.

Conflicts since independence

Knowing that numerically the aristocratic groups were inferior and democracy through majority rule would never return them to power, they resorted to manipulation and divide-and-rule tactics using networks they had established over many years especially during the colonial period. Divisive concepts of ‘meat eaters versus vegetarians’ in former Kigezi district and ‘science and syndicate’ in former Ankole district emerged in political discourse. The whole idea was to divide the majority (Bairu) in both districts and weaken them so that they lose political power which the aristocratic groups would grab by force if necessary (indeed they grabbed it by force in 1986 and have retained it by force until now in 2009). They believe that once you have political power you strengthen yourself economically and militarily and sustain yourself in power indefinitely (irrespective of your numerical minority status).

In order to stay in power they have to align themselves with foreign powers by supporting them (foreign powers) in various overt and covert ways. They support donor positions at international conferences including those sponsored by the United Nations even when their own interests are hurt. They also open up their countries for experiments in economics and religion matters and other activities. Let us review briefly political processes that took place before and after independence in the Great Lakes region.

In pre- independent Uganda, Protestant commoners in UPC (Uganda Peoples Congress) formed a coalition with Protestants of Kabaka Yekka (King only) party. They were able to defeat the DP (Democratic Party) of Catholics and formed a government at independence in 1962. In 1966 the Constitution was changed and the monarchy was abolished.

The aristocrats and Catholics agitated. In this environment of agitation and foreign disapproval for introducing socialism in a cold war environment, the UPC government was overthrown in 1971. Amin, a gentle-giant military man became president and was sustained in power by foreign powers for eight years. Originally popular among Catholics and aristocrats and their supporters, he disappointed them when he turned out to be a ruthless dictator relying on his tribesmen who were overwhelmingly Muslim and ex-guerrillas from southern Sudan.

Aristocrats, Protestants and Catholics combined forces and with the help of Tanzanian troops drove Amin and his Muslim supporters out of power in 1979. After bitter campaigning and elections of 1980, Obote and UPC returned to power and excluded the aristocratic, Catholic and Muslem groups from joining the government, which was a terrible and costly mistake.

Sensing that they would not win an election democratically and could not be part of a coalition government which UPC rejected, the defeated groups took to the bush in 1981 under the National Resistance Movement and other groups. After five years of human, property and infrastructure destruction, they came to power in 1986, led by Bahororo and Bahima with strong support of Catholics and Muslims.

To give him time to consolidate Bahororo position, President Museveni formed a broad-based government supposedly in the name of national unity and a defeat to sectarianism.

He promised that recruitment, promotions and especially scholarships would be based on individual merit. The national assembly passed a bill which became law against sectarianism barring anyone from using sectarian language whatsoever even when sectarianism was being blatantly implemented by those in power. Meanwhile Bahororo and Bahima got educated and moved into strategic positions in government, in security forces and in parliament (and now in the oil sector). A few elite Catholic supporters were given some visible positions without much substance and power. Eventually, the truth of what was happening could not be hidden any longer. Ugandans especially Protestants realized that they were being sidelined politically and economically. They began to grumble calling on their priests for rescue. The government has become authoritarian threatening the human rights of dissenters. If not handled carefully, this development could result into a new phase of conflicts. What about Rwanda?

In Rwanda two groups of commoners (Bahutu from southern and central Rwanda, and Bakiga from northern Rwanda) formed a coalition and won elections, abolished the monarchy and drove out Batutsi who had launched the struggle for independence wishing to retain minority control. From independence in 1962 the government of President Kayibanda was dominated by Bahutu from central and southern Rwanda at the expense of Bakiga from northern Rwanda. The latter were marginalized and felt betrayed. In 1973, they mounted a successful bloodless coup against the government of Kayibanda. Habyarimana from Gisenyi in northwest Rwanda came to power as president. The Bakiga dominated the government and in turn marginalized Bahutu from southern and central Rwanda. This was largely intra-ethnic and not inter-ethnic marginalization. From 1973 to 1994, the Bakiga and Bahutu split politically. The split was more pronounced than the inter-ethnic divide between Batutsi and the rest of Rwandans. Therefore, between 1962 and 1994 the struggle inside Rwanda was intra rather than inter-ethnic.

The disgruntled Bahutu, the so-called moderates, joined with exiled Tutsi and prepared to remove Habyarinama government by force. The first Tutsi-led invasion of Rwanda was launched in 1990 from Uganda where their cousins led by Museveni were in power since 1986. Habyarimana’s government was removed in 1994 by Tutsi-led RPF with foreign backing and at a very high price. It is estimated that between 800,000 and one million moderate Hutus and Tutsis were murdered. The figure does not include the massacres of Hutus inside Rwanda and in DRC during and since the genocide of 1994.

With foreign cover, the Tutsi hard-liners are in control determined to keep Bahutu down as before elections in 1959 that led to independence in 1962. As in Uganda, Batutsi in Rwanda have dominated government, security forces and business forcing Bahutu into subsistence economy. A report prepared for Rwanda’s consideration for admission into the British Commonwealth Club recommended against it because the government did not meet the requirements contained in the 1991 Harare Declaration. What about Burundi?

In Burundi the post-colonial period has been bloody. The first post independence government was formed by King Mwambutsa’s eldest son, Ganwa (Prince) Louis Rwagasore, a moderate politician who had a Muhutu wife and who led a multi-ethnic party to a landslide victory and became prime minister. Within a month after assuming power, Rwagasore was assassinated by those who lost the elections. The country was thrown into chaos and Bahutu and Batutsi/Bahima began killing each other resulting in the 1972 genocide committed by Batutsi/Bahima against Bahutu thinking this would constitute a ‘final solution’ to Bahutu problem in Burundi.

Under foreign pressure to go democratic, Burundi held elections which were won overwhelmingly by Bahutu. Batutsi would not accept to be governed by inferior though majority Bahutu. The elected president was assassinated beginning another wave of killings. It is estimated that up to 300,000 Burundians were killed in 1993 alone.

Realizing that in the end force would not win, the various warring factions decided to resolve their differences through negotiations for a government of national unity. A formula was worked out for sharing power in parliament, government, cabinet and the armed forces. All the warring factions have agreed to join the government and work together for a common cause. It is hoped that those working for a Tutsi empire in the region will not torpedo this young and still fragile coalition.

Conclusion, lesson learned and recommendation

The conclusion to be drawn is that the Great Lakes region has been on the whole marked by violence since the 15th century when the two ethnic groups met in the region. And the general lesson to be learned is that zero-sum games and military solutions have not succeeded in bringing about stability and total defeat of the enemy. Therefore a new solution needs to be found based on article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article I states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Short of that the region will remain trapped in political turmoil, human rights abuses and economic backwardness irrespective of human and natural resources abundance.

Citizens of the region are called upon to rethink their relations with their neighbors and to abandon zero-sum games in favor of win-win solutions. The international community is also called upon to extend a genuine helping hand in that effort.