Izaka Seme: “We are one people” – lesson for Uganda

Early this year (2012), South Africa celebrated 100 years marking the founding of African National Congress (ANC) as an independent country with a democratic black majority government. Originally named as South African Native National Congress, ANC was founded at a conference that took place at Bloemfontein (South Africa) on January 8, 1912.

Pixley ka Izaka Seme (Zulu), the founder of ANC earned a degree from Columbia University (USA) in 1906 and later a law degree at Oxford University. He returned to his home country, South Africa, to start a law firm and practice law. “When he arrived in Johannesburg, he found that he wasn’t allowed to use the sidewalks, leave his home without carrying as many as twelve official passes, venture out after 9:00 PM, or vote”. Outraged and appalled, Seme organized a conference at Bloemfontein to “unite all the black South African factions as a single political force”. This was the first unified political organization in colonial Africa composed of black Africans.

Seme observed “We have discovered that in the land of their birth, Africans are treated as hewers of wood and drawers of water”. He added that liberating black South Africans had been constrained by centuries of ethnic rivalries and hostilities. “We are one people,” Seme pleaded. “These divisions, these jealousies, are the cause of all our woes”(Lorraine Glennon 2000). Through ANC, the conference resolved to force the government to end racial discrimination which occurred in 1994. The tools would include trade unions and peaceful propaganda and passive resistance in the Gandhian tradition. After the 1960 bloody Sharpeville massacre of peaceful African demonstrators by government troops, ANC decided to use violence to change the minority apartheid regime.

Seme’s message of 1912 has relevance to today’s Uganda in 2012 – one hundred years after Seme convened the Bloemfontein conference. Pushing bags of charcoal and jerry cans of water on wheel barrows is similar to South Africans hewing wood and drawing water. It is an outrage that University graduates are roasting chicken and maize on charcoal stoves in the streets of Kampala to make ends meet. Similarly, as Seme noted with respect to South Africa, the problem in Uganda is that while “we are one people” entitled to enjoy the benefits of Uganda’s economic growth equitably, we have been unable to do so because “These divisions, these jealousies, are the cause of all our woes”.

Museveni has managed with relative ease to stay in power for twenty six years now with many of the ministers he started with in 1986 and will likely continue to do so because of our religious, regional and ethnic divisions and jealousies that make us fail to come together. Rhetorically, we have said we are one people and Uganda belongs to all of us. However, at the practical level, we are still different people although sadly united together in abject poverty, illiteracy, sickness, hunger and insecurity. Stuck in our religious, regional and ethnic enclaves, we have allowed Museveni and NRM to treat us the way they have.

NRM divides up the country into economically unviable districts and we applaud when we know we have no money to run the affairs of a district. Museveni gives one group an extra cabinet post and that group garlands him when we know the development budget has been reduced to meet administrative costs of that extra cabinet post. The country imports used products with a short life span which destroy domestic industries and jobs and we thank His Excellency for importing cheap products. Museveni and NRM encourage farmers to produce food for cash and export rather than for the stomach and we oblige knowing full well that our children will starve or feed on nutritionally poor cassava and maize with all the health hazards. The fault is not with the president. It is with our members of parliament who are policy and decision makers. The president makes recommendations, he does not decide. It is also the fault of opposition groups that can’t unite, oppose and change the regime. The steps toward opposition unity underway need to be consolidated quickly. Friends who would want to consider helping us are unable to decide because we are not solidly united yet.

With stories of new appointments in the intelligence department, Ugandans should expect more abuse of our rights and freedoms at home and abroad. They will succeed only if we let them. They are humans like us. They have families like us. They feel pain like us and demand freedom like we do. Let us identify their agents and publish their names and they will leave us alone. Engaging in the exercise of one group destroying another is not how a nation is constructed for present and future generations. It only succeeds in planting seeds of trouble ahead.

We in the opposition must match rhetoric with actions and stand together. The French and Russian revolutions of 1789 and 1917 respectively succeeded because French and Russian people including their soldiers and priests stood together. The French and Russians have different religions, regions and ethnicities like us Ugandans. But they pushed the differences aside and joined hands to liberate themselves. Where are our priests? Uganda needs the Abbe Sieyes of France and the George Gapons of Russia. Where are our soldiers? We know most of you are suffering like most Ugandans. Learn from the Iranian, Philippino, French and Russian security forces experiences of joining their civilian brothers and sisters when all the forces were needed. During their revolutions, many French soldiers deserted the National Army and joined the peoples’ National Guard commanded by aristocratic Marquis de Lafayette. The Russian soldiers mutinied and joined workers, peasants and parliamentarians who refused to adjourn parliament (Duma) on orders of the Tsar, forcing abdication of a tyrant Tsar Nicholas II, his son Alexei and his brother Michael.

Together as one people for a common cause that is regime change and launch of a transitional government that is all inclusive, we cannot fail. But failure will be thrust upon us if we continue to talk unity and practice division because of rivalries and hostilities.

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