Today’s impoverishment of Bahutu and Bairu must be eradicated

Because of my strong stand against the ongoing marginalization of Bahutu and Bairu in the Great Lakes region, I have been intimidated, abused, threatened (with my family) and called all sorts of names. In the media, I have been dubbed “a tribal hater, a sectarian full of hatred and an irritant like dandruff etc”. I have been accused of reopening wounds and advised to let sleeping dogs lie.

I am a very strong believer in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights especially Article I which 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”.

The Great Lakes region – which for the purpose of this message includes Burundi, southwest Uganda and Rwanda – is going through hard and antagonistic times reminiscent of the pre-colonial and colonial past. The region is occupied by two main ethnic groups: Bahutu/Bairu commonly but erroneously known historically as cultivators and Batutsi/Bahima/Bahororo commonly referred to as pastoralists. The former arrived in the area some three thousand years ago from the Cameroon/Nigeria border. They brought with them short-horn cattle, goats, sheep and iron technology. They settled in an area exceptionally endowed with good weather, abundant rainfall, fertile soils, grazing land, mineral, fishery, animal and tropical vegetation cover. These endowments enabled them to engage in a wide range of agricultural, fishing, pastoral and industrial activities. Until cultivation was imposed on them by Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo as a way of impoverishing them, Bahutu and Bairu had very diversified economic activities. Besides diversified production, they traded surplus in local and regional markets, had enough to eat for a healthy, active and productive life and accumulated wealth. Their population grew fast and resulted in settlements that led to the creation of administrative structures that gave birth to chiefdoms. They developed adequate governance institutions that maintained law and order, settled disputes when they arose and defended the communities against external invasion.

Some five hundred years or so ago, the Nilotic Luo-speaking pastoralists from southern Sudan entered the Great Lakes region. With their nomadic and fighting experience and later with the help of European weapons they defeated peaceful and settled Bahutu communities in Burundi and Rwanda. In southwest Uganda they were assisted by Arab and Swahili ivory and slave hunters.

Bahutu and Bairu were subjugated and reduced to cultivating foodstuffs much of it to feed their new Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo masters. The term Bairu in Uganda – and Bahutu in Burundi and Rwanda – which was coined by Bahima (John H. Speke 1863) means slaves of Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo.

Through the method of indirect rule in British Uganda and Belgian Burundi and Rwanda, Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo were used as paid chiefs (civil servants) to administer the new colonies. The new chiefs collected taxes from Bahutu and Bairu and maintained law and order with disproportional and/or humiliating punishments for non-compliance. They also extracted tribute for themselves which led to the impoverishment and marginalization of cultivators – Bahutu and Bairu. It is believed that Bahutu and Bairu are short in large part because they were deprived of nutritious foodstuffs especially animal products since they were prevented from owning cattle. Children of wealthy Bahutu and Bairu who are eating well are as tall as those of Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo!

The children of chiefs were given education and good jobs upon graduation in colonial administration while the children of Bahutu and Bairu and their parents constructed roads and public building under forced labor. When not working on public works, male Bahutu and Bairu worked for wages as tax money.

Independence in the 1960s in Uganda and Rwanda changed all that. With numerical superiority, Bahutu and Bairu got elected to political positions and appointed to civil service jobs. They sent their children to school, fed them, dressed them and housed them well. They competed with the children of their former masters. And the former masters did not like it. To regain their dominance, they resorted to military means since they had no chance of winning in fair and free elections.

In 1986 Batutsi/Bahororo-led army under Museveni shot to power in Uganda with heavy external assistance. In 1994 Batutsi-led army under Kagame shot to power in Rwanda also with strong external assistance. How would they repeat the marginalization of Bairu and Bahutu their arch rivals – this time permanently? Uganda was landed with structural adjustment or economic reform and Rwanda with genocide.

Economic reform in Uganda included retrenchment of civil servants and reduction in hiring, introduction of fees in schools and hospitals, hiring and firing at will in the private sector and making land a commodity for sale to the highest bidder under market forces and the principle of willing buyer and willing seller.

Some Bairu were retrenched under dubious circumstances, secondary schools in Bairu dominated areas were closed disproportionately in one case because they had been built by a Muiru education officer, Bairu sold their assets especially land to send their children to school or buy medicines or sustain their children while they looked for jobs upon graduation – jobs that the majority have not found. Right now, over 50 percent of graduates in Uganda are unemployed and Bairu constitute a disproportionately big number.

Without jobs, Bairu have become poor, sex workers, drunkards and criminals who are being jailed in large numbers. The IMF which has been a strong supporter of Uganda government insists that its economic reform program – of keeping inflation low in single digits, balancing the budget, diversifying exports by selling food while Ugandans starve, destroying forests to grow the export crops and measuring progress in per capita GDP – is sound and should be maintained. The IMF gives the impression it does not concern itself with issues of unemployment, spreading and deepening underdevelopment as manifested in the spreading diseases of poverty, rising crimes and excessive alcohol consumption, violence and rising mental disability including outright insanity due in part to eating too much cassava or maize without adequate nutrient supplements.

In southwest Uganda, it is Bairu men, women and children who are mostly experiencing these hard times. At this rate of degeneration, their future will be more brutish, harsher and shorter unless some corrective measures are taken – and urgently.

In Rwanda the Tutsi-led government is using genocide as a pretext to marginalize Bahutu whether or not they participated in the tragic events of 1994 or were born after 1994. Every Muhutu has become a genocidaire in one way or another. They have been massacred inside Rwanda including in one IDP camp and especially in eastern DRC under the pretext they are hunting Interahamwe murderers who should be killed.

In Rwanda, Bahutu who returned from neighboring countries have been pushed into subsistence agriculture (Michael Mann 2005) on much reduced land than they had before 1994. In rural areas where Bahutu are being herded schools tend to be of poorer quality than in urban areas where the majority of Batutsi are based enjoying the benefits of a modern sector. There are even suggestions of a deliberate policy to keep Bahutu down for ever (Stephen Kinzer 2008).

In his message marking the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, United Nations Secretary General said that today’s slavery practices must be eradicated, noting that one way of doing so is by remembering the past. In the same vein today’s practices of marginalizing Bahutu and Bairu must be eradicated. One way of doing so is by remembering the past as outlined in this message.

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