Uganda politics is a mixture of religion and ethnicity

I have been involved in Uganda politics at theoretical and practical levels since 1960 when I was in high school (senior two). I participated in district and national elections as a polling officer in former Ankole and Kigezi districts. I was also involved in student politics and the political processes that culminated in the Moshi conference before Amin fell from power in 1979.

At the height of political activities during the 1970s I worked in Brussels (Belgium), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Lusaka (Zambia), where Ugandans lived as refugees (Lusaka), workers at ECA and OAU (Addis Ababa) and delegates to international conferences (Addis Ababa and Brussels). I moved to New York in the mid-1980s when politics among Ugandans was hot before the fall of Obote II government.

The conditions of my job in these places and my own neutral orientation offered me a unique opportunity to interact with many Ugandans. Throughout these interactions I did more listening than talking and got a feel of Uganda’s political pulse and the forces involved. My literary work about Uganda politics and economics has benefited from these interactions and the knowledge accumulated since 1960.

Uganda politics of the 1960s and the first half of the 1980s was more religion than ethnic-based led by Nilotic northerners under Obote. A UPC and DP supporter had almost invariably to be a Protestant and Catholic respectively with some ripples in family relations. I grew up in a family of Protestants and Catholics and we supported each other as required by extended family obligations. We also associated closely with our Catholic neighbors.

Then came politics in the late 1950s which had roots in Uganda eligions. It was not the politics of ideas. Parishioners were indoctrinated by their priests. In many cases they were instructed that their votes belonged to their church. One day I had a conversation with one of my aunts who was Catholic and whom I supported in many ways. I asked her whether she would vote for me if I decided to contest an election. She paused, moved her head sideways, sat stiffly in her chair and said: “My son, you know how much I love you. My entire family loves you because of what you have done for us. We grow our food on your land, we collect firewood from your tree plantation and you give us money and material things but I am afraid I will not vote for you because my vote belongs to my church”. Before our conversation ended she asked whether she can continue to grow food on my land because she was afraid I would retaliate by denying her access to the land – which I could not do.

In Ankole, it was relatively easy to allow Batutsi refugees from Rwanda and their cattle into that district not so much because they were cousins of Bahima but because they were Catholics and as such they would support the Catholic-based Democratic Party to which many Bahima belonged. This Bahima association with the Democratic Party was confirmed by B. L. Jacobs (1965) when he wrote that “the Bahima were, in general, acknowledged supporters of the Democratic Party”. Mr. Kangaho, a DP Member of Parliament (LEGCO) maintained that Batutsi refugees and their cattle should be accommodated in Ankole.

In spite of the historical antagonism between Bahima and Bairu, Bairu Catholics supported Bahima DP candidates over their fellow Bairu UPC candidates signifying the relative importance of religion over ethnicity. As an aside, Bahima who are mostly Protestants joined DP because they had less chance to stand as UPC candidates.

Since 1986 Uganda politics has been more ethnic-led by Nilotic Bahororo-Bahima people from southwest Uganda under Museveni and more religion-mixed than in the UPC-dominated period (1960s and early1980s). However as time passed, Catholic visibility has increased more than at anytime in Uganda’s political history You can check the validity of this statement by examining the composition of members of parliament and cabinet ministers for a start.

In practice the individual merit criterion ended up benefiting Catholics more than Protestants, hence rising complaints from the latter. Additionally, the retrenchment exercise undertaken during the structural adjustment program since 1987 affected Protestant UPC supporters disproportionately. In some districts Catholics are boasting openly that it is now their turn to ‘eat’!

Thus contrary to popular belief, sectarian and religious discrimination is still alive and well in Uganda and intensifying. Hopefully the forthcoming retrenchment exercise of public servants will not disadvantage non-NRM supporters.