For some five hundred years, the Great Lakes region has been marked by the triumph of war over peace. Notwithstanding the global surge of democracy around the world since the 1990s, the region remains mired in war. Western imposed regular elections as a condition for approving donations are conducted at gun point in the presence of international observers and foreign missions stationed in the region. Thus, the barrel of the gun has continued to triumph over the forces of democracy. Military dictatorship has become the order of the day. The war that raged in northern and eastern Uganda, the massacre of Bahutu people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the ongoing human tragedy in eastern DRC have been ignored by the international community or given lip service at best.
The international community has equated the absence of riots and destruction of property (because of suppression of human rights) with economic and political peace, security and stability. The riots and loss of life in Uganda’s capital city and the demonstrations against the president during his visit to the United States in September 2009 went largely unnoticed by the international media which was quick to condemn riots and loss of lives and property in Guinea.
The triumph of war over peace goes back to the time when the two ethnic groups (Bantu speaking people from Cameroon/Nigeria border and Nilotic Luo-speaking people from southern Sudan) met in the Great Lakes region. The wars of ‘internal’ colonization by the Nilotic people over Bantu people, the wars of succession among princes, the wars over cattle, the wars of external colonization by Europeans over Africans at the start of the 20th century, and post independence wars since the 1960s have left the region devastated in human and non-human terms.
The Nilotic Luo-speaking cattle people entered the region with military experience accumulated over centuries of constant fighting over pasture and water for their livestock. Warlike and relatively poor, they were able to subdue relatively wealthy Bantu people who had settled in the region much earlier and practiced a mixed economy of livestock, agriculture and manufacturing enterprises. The defeated Bantu lost their grazing land (and their short-horn cattle disappeared) to pastoralists of long-horn cattle and were reduced to producing foodstuffs most of which fed the new pastoralist rulers and their kin and kith in return for so-called protection. The exploitation was particularly severe on wealthy Bantu (Bahutu) communities, the principal intention of this exploitation being to impoverish and weaken them so that they had no means of resistance. The reign of King Rwabugiri from the mid-1860s connected with territorial expansion, cattle theft and introduction of forced labor on Bahutu in Rwanda was particularly harsh.
In Rwanda the symbol of authority was a drum hung with the genitals of slaughtered enemies (J. Reader National Geographic undated) mostly Bahutu. At the time of colonization, Bahutu in Rwanda had been completely defeated, humiliated and thoroughly silenced that there was no resistance at all when the Germans arrived at the close of the 19th century. The absence of dissent was interpreted as a sign of peace and stability except in the northern region where Bakiga were defeated by Germans and brought under Batutsi control during the colonial indirect rule.
In southwest Uganda occupied largely by Bahororo (Batutsi from Rwanda) war triumphed over peace as in Rwanda. In Rukungiri district the Kagogo war (orutaro rwa Kagogo) between Banyankole and Bahororo is still remembered for its viciousness and extensive loss of human lives and property. In Rujumbura County of Rukungiri district Bantu settlers suffered internal colonization by Bahororo who arrived there around 1800 sixty to ninety years after their Mpororo kingdom had disintegrated and overran by Banyankole troops.
With fighting experience acquired in connection with cattle theft and subsequently with slave traders and European weapons, Bantu settled farmers were thoroughly beaten and dubbed Bairu or slaves. They were reduced to producing foodstuffs most of it for the new rulers and their relatives. Paul Ngorogoza and Ephraim R. Kamuhangire observed that Makobore, a Mushambo and Muhororo chief of Rujumbura was restless, invaded and raided neighboring regions of Butumbi and Kayonza with the help of Arabs and other coastal traders (and European weapons).
Centuries of Bahutu abuse led to the social revolution against their Batutsi oppressors in Rwanda that preceded independence in 1962. Batutsi ended up in exile from where they immediately began war to regain political control and marginalize Bahutu once again. With the help of their Uganda Bahima/Bahororo cousins and external powers Batutsi entered Rwanda’s national capital of Kigali in 1994 with the help of guns. The negotiated peace settlement for national unity concluded in 1993 was ignored. In its desire and determination to seize power the RPF was prepared to sacrifice the Tutsi in Rwanda (L. Melvern 2004) who perished in the 1994 genocide together with many moderate Bahutu who opposed Habyarimana regime. The determination to sacrifice Batutsi and others in Rwanda is confirmed in a remark that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” (M. B. Umutesi 2004).
In Uganda since 1966 the country has been ruled by the barrel of the gun which intensified from 1971 with Amin installed as president. The first half of the 1980s was marked by instability and murder during the fierce guerrilla war and since 1986 by a civil war that has devastated the northern and eastern parts of the country. In the southern part of Uganda dissent has been suppressed through military dictatorship and an elaborate intelligence network that has left everybody paralyzed.
This truly is the triumph of war over peace in the Great Lakes region. To use the power of democracy to defeat the barrel of the gun, the international community has to first recognize that democracy does not exist in the region because of the power of guns. Donors should stop equating the absence of riots with economic and political stability. Then and only then can we begin to talk about the launching of democracy and reaping the benefits it brings!