Uganda in the process of understanding itself

Before colonial rule communities were identified by clans each with a totem. With colonialism, new notions of tribe, ethnicity and nations emerged and have submerged clans. Discussions regarding self-determination and good governance, have necessitated we know ourselves better. Some Ugandans prefer to revert to clans, others want tribes, yet others prefer ethnicity or nation. Let us focus on tribe and nation.

Tribe: According to the World Book Encyclopedia (1985), tribe is a term used to describe certain human social groups. It is generally a disliked term because it lacks precise meaning and has been applied to many widely different groups. Many groups consider the term to be offensive or inaccurate and prefer different terms like ethnicity or nation. The term tends to be used arbitrarily. Solon a Greek leader decided to divide the Ionian communities into four tribes according to wealth and landownership. Years later Kleisthenes divided the Ionians into ten tribes in honor of Attic heroes. Although Ionians continued to acknowledge their four tribes they ceased to play an important part in the administrative process (Robert Garland 2008).

Peter Gukiina (1972), a Uganda historian who appears to be uncomfortable with the term ‘tribe’ or ‘tribalism’ refers to Baganda as ethnic groups – not tribes or even clans. He records “Before colonization, the area was occupied by a diversity of ethnic groups, each with its own language, individual culture, political and social styles and traditions.

For at least two centuries most of these groups had existed as independent societies with their own kinds of political organizations”. Gukiina adds “the ‘concept of tribalism’ is often clothed in stereotypes and myths which some of the corrupt minds of nineteenth century imperialists and colonialists invented, exaggerated and sold to their people to justify and generate support for the colonial subjugation and exploitation of the African people”. For example, to subjugate and exploit the Bantu clans of Rujumbura county of Rukungiri district Bantu clans became Bairu (slaves or servants of Tutsi) and later on Bahororo under colonial rule. Within Bahororo the Tutsi group has dominated and exploited the Bantu since the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Gukiina advises “In order to have a clear and reliable understanding of Uganda politics one must abandon the use of the term ‘tribe’ and ‘tribalism’ and ‘tribal hatred’. These concepts or terms have been frequently used by colonial officials, former colonial officials, the western press, and, most unfortunately, by many African leaders in their search for power, money and prestige”.

Nation: According to the World Book Encyclopedia (1985), “Nation is a large group of people that unite for mutual safety and welfare. A common language, origin [ancestry] and culture characterize a nation. Nation is a vague term, and nationhood exists largely because a group considers itself to be a nation”. Herein lies the problem for Uganda where some have decided that there are fifteen nations that should form the basis for a federal system of government.

Gardner Thompson (2003) has written that “If a nation is a group of people who consider themselves alike, bonded, sharing characteristics and interests which, they feel, distinguish them from others, then in 1962, Ugandans were ‘not yet a nation’” . This observation applies equally to the so-called 15 nations.

Timothy H. Parsons (2010) has taken us through the background to ‘tribes’ and ‘nations’ in Africa. He states “In pretending to rule through local sovereigns, the British imported the Indian model of imperial rule to Africa. As in the Raj, British officials claimed to govern through African institutions of authority rather than ruling directly. This made the ‘tribe’ the basis of imperial administration. Confused by the range of fluid and often overlapping ethnicities of pre-conquest Africa, British officials concluded that Africans lived in unchanging tribal societies. In the imperial imagination, a tribe was a lower form of political and social organization that, with proper paternal guidance, might one day evolve into a nation. … Working in the service of colonial governments, anthropologists mapped tribal languages, social institutions, and customary laws to fashion the tools of imperial administration for district officers. The African tribe was thus a useful fiction to update the venerable imperial strategy of co-opting local institutions of authority”.

One can safely conclude that the 15 nations of Uganda came about through this fiction route. Eric