Intra versus inter-ethnic conflicts in Uganda politics

For quite some time, I have studied conflicts as a major deterrent in political, economic and social development focusing on Rwanda and Uganda.

Contrary to popular belief, my research has led me to conclude that the principle problem is basically within (intra) than between (inter) ethnic groups. This conclusion has led some people to consider me a highly controversial student of political economy, more divisive than uniting people and therefore unfit for public responsibility (recently FADDU that had contacted me to collaborate with them and I concurred changed its mind and dropped the idea).

We therefore need to understand this intra-ethnic dimension in Uganda politics to be able to make appropriate recommendations to break the current impasse. In the second part I will show that I am basically a uniter but you can’t unite people without articulating what has divided them. That is our challenge.

In Rwanda there has been a tendency to describe conflicts there as arising from inter-ethnic rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi. Closer and unbiased examination gives different results since independence in 1962.

The social revolution of 1959 excluded Tutsi from Rwanda politics until 1994. The Hutu from the north and south of the country formed the government between 1962 and 1994. Until 1973 the president, Gregorie Kayibanda, came from the southern region and favored Hutu from that region. The Hutu in the northern region complained that they were politically marginalized. In 1973 Juvenal Habyarimana from the northern region staged a successful military coup and became president. He in turn favored Hutu from his region.

A closer study of events since 1994 indicates that inter-ethnic conflict between Hutu and Tutsi might be less significant than intra-Tutsi conflict. We need more studies before a definitive conclusion can be drawn.

Writing a true story about Uganda politics since independence requires courage, risk and sacrifice because of its sensitivity. Uganda political conflicts since 1962 have been falsely reported as inter-ethnic between Bantu people in the southern region and Nilotic people in the northern region. They have also falsely been presented as inter-faith. Civic education is about truth telling. Thus, the true story about political conflict is intra-ethnic among members of one ethnic group whose people live in northern and southern parts of Uganda.

Until 1971 the politics of Uganda was dominated by UPC. After the election of Grace Ibingira as secretary-general of UPC at the 1964 Gulu delegates conference defeating Kakonge by two votes the struggle for power was between Ibingira a Nilotic (Tutsi/Hima) from Ankole and Obote a Nilotic from Lango. Until Ibingira was arrested and detained in 1966 UPC was divided into two camps. For example, the popular view was that in Buganda Lumu was pro-Ibingira while Binaisa was pro-Obote. In Ankole Kahigiriza was pro-Ibingira while Bananuka was pro-Obote. In Kigezi Bikangaga was pro-Ibingira while Lwamafwa was pro-Obote.

Following the detention of Ibingira in 1966 the struggle for political power was between Onama and Amin on the one side and Obote on the other side. The three men – non-Bantu – came from the northern region although not from the same ethnic group.

During the struggle to oust Amin from power the struggle was between Museveni a Nilotic (Tutsi/Muhororo) from Ankole and Obote a Nilotic from Lango. The guerrilla war mainly in the Luwero Triangle was led by Obote and his largely Nilotic commanders from the north against Museveni and his largely Nilotic (Tutsi) commanders from the south. The overthrow of Obote in 1985 was staged by the Okellos. The coup in 1986 against the Okellos was staged by Museveni a Nilotic.

The devastating war in the northern and Eastern regions was largely between Joseph Kony a Nilotic from the north and Museveni a Nilotic from the south.

If you look at the current leaders of the major political parties they are all Nilotic: Museveni (NRM), Muntu (FDC), Mao (DP) and Otunnu (UPC). This is a fact.

You can see that since independence we have not had inter-ethnic problems between Bantu and Nilotic peoples or inter-faith conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. It is purely an intra-ethnic problem.

At the risk of offending some people, I have deliberately presented this analysis as a guide as we prepare for 2016 elections. We must be pragmatic and include the missing elements in the political equation.

As a corrective measure, I have strenuously advocated since 2011 that the post-NRM government must be an all inclusive transitional one led by a presidential team to give a sense of shared responsibility at the highest political level in the land. There is complaint which is getting louder that presidents have come from two regions. During the transitional period every region must be represented at the presidential level. Then during the national convention debate Ugandans should decide how they want to be governed at the central, regional and local levels.

People who have criticized me as sectarian or worse when I express these views are those who want to maintain the status quo because it has disproportionately benefited them. Maintaining the status quo is simply unsustainable.

Let me say a few words about my role as a uniter and not a divider of people and those in doubt can check the record.

To be appointed a prefect reflected quality as a uniter of students. I was appointed a prefect at Butobere School (O Level) and at Ntare School (A Level). At Butobere I was also appointed a Scouts Troop Leader to unite the students in this extra curriculum activity.

While at Butobere School, I was elected president of Rujumbura students association at a time when the association was experiencing serious ethnic rivalries shortly after independence.

At the University of California, Berkeley campus, I was elected president of the African Students Association when members were divided over the Vietnam War.

At UNDP in Lusaka, Zambia I was elected chairperson of UN Staff Association when there were problems between internationally recruited and locally recruited staff.

In Lusaka I was a cofounder of Uganda Unity Group (UUG) of members from all regions of Uganda and we were admitted at the Moshi conference of 1979.

At UNDP in New York, I was a cofounder of Amicale to smoothen relations of African staff members from different regions.

Clearly this is not the profile of a divider of people. In carrying out my uniting responsibilities I have always – without favor or fear – pointed out the real cause of the problem. And this is exactly what I am trying to do as we struggle to unseat a failed NRM government through non-violent resistance in the first instance.

To sum up, we need a balance in the politics of Uganda and leadership that understands the root cause of the problem and how to fix it and then unite the people of Uganda on a sustained basis. Sweeping problems under the carpet for short-term gains isn’t a solution in the long-term. The intra-ethnic politics we have had since independence is unacceptable and has to be addressed without further delay in the interest of all the people of Uganda, not just a few.