According to Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary a slave is, inter alia, (1) a bond servant divested of all freedom and personal rights; a human being who is owned by and wholly subject to the will of another, as by capture, purchase, or birth. (2) one who has lost the power of resistance, or one who surrenders himself to any power whatever… (3) …one who labors like a slave.
A number of developments with reference to the Great Lakes Region (especially Rwanda and south west Uganda) have forced me to revisit the issue of being a slave. First, my visit to Burundi, DRC and Rwanda in January/February 2010 and the detailed stories I heard in formal and informal settings in addition to information from other sources has made me realize that groups of human beings in the region have been deprived of their human rights. Reports about massacres or should we say genocide of Hutu people in Rwanda and Eastern DRC committed by Tutsi, the hidden mass graves of brutally murdered Hutu people some of them under buildings in Rwanda and DRC, the comments from people who should know better but think Hutu people – all Hutu people – are barbaric, wild beasts, genocidaires and assassins that deserve to be punished made me wonder where the world is headed.
Second, John Hanning Speke’s book titled ‘the discovery of the source of the Nile” first published in 1863 was reprinted in 2006 by White Star publishers and is available and read in all parts of the globe. In chapter 9: History of the Wahuma (Bahima), Speke wrote that in the countries he visited including Bunyoro and Buganda the government in these areas was in the hands of foreigners who had invaded and taken possession of them and leaving the agricultural aborigines to till the land, whilst the junior members of the usurping clans herded cattle. Speke added that the Wahuma imposed the epithet (a term of abuse) of Wiru or slaves upon the people they found in the area. They were called slaves because they had to supply the imperial government of foreign invaders with food and clothing etc.
Taking advantage of the concept of comparative advantage the Wahuma or Bahima and Batutsi in south west Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda reduced indigenous Bantu-speaking people from mixed farming (crop cultivation and livestock herding) and manufacturing enterprises to pure cultivators. All cattle but especially productive ones would belong to the ruling class of Bahima and Batutsi. Cultivation was below the dignity of the ruling class. But Ricardian classical comparative advantage was constructed on the premise that specialization would result in everyone being better off through trade.
However, in the Great Lakes region especially in Rwanda comparative advantage did not work or there was none. Bahutu, the equivalent of Bairu or slaves, lost their land and became serfs on land that had belonged to them for centuries laboring for their new masters virtually for free in return for so-called protection against invaders.
In south west Uganda, Bairu lost their grazing land to Bahima and later to Bahororo (Batutsi from Rwanda) and ipso facto their short-horn cattle which had served as a source of protein, a store of value, a means of exchange and a symbol of prestige.
These imposed and exploitative specialized arrangements were continued and made worse under colonial rule that introduced indirect rule using chiefs from Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo who had imposed the epithet of slaves on Bairu in Uganda and Bahutu in Burundi and Rwanda. Bahutu and Bairu were heavily taxed in kind and cash and provided free labor under forced conditions.
To make matters worse, Bahutu and Bairu were described by colonialists as unintelligent and educating them would be a waste. So education in south west Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda went to Bahima, Batutsi and Bahororo. Their daughters were educated initially to be informed wives of the ruling class. The educated class got jobs in the colonial and church administrations. They became rich while Bahutu and Bairu wallowed in abject poverty without any rights whatsoever. They resented their new status in silence because of severe subjugation.
The end of the Second World War was followed by demands for independence in Africa based on democracy characterized by free and fair elections and majority rule. Because of their numerical superiority Bahutu and Bairu won pre-independence elections in south west Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. Batutsi in Burundi would not tolerate that result and assassinated the prime minister and the Tutsi army ultimately captured power. Bahutu resistance was crushed in the 1972 genocide which the international community including the then Organization of African Unity (OAU) totally ignored. Bahutu took up arms in defense of their rights and regained power under the current coalition government.
Third having realized that in Rwanda and Uganda, Batutsi, Bahima and Bahororo will never win free and fair elections because of their extreme minority status and their unpopularity because of the brutal manner in which they had treated Bahutu and Bairu in pre- and colonial days decided to resort to the barrel of the gun with foreign backers.
In Uganda President Museveni, a Muhororo (some call him Tutsi) came to power in 1986 through armed force; in Rwanda, President Kagame, a Tutsi, came to power through the barrel of the gun; and in Burundi, Buyoya, Tutsi, became President the second time in 1996 using the barrel of the gun twice.
In Rwanda the Tutsi-led government is determined to enslave Bahutu, this time for ever. To achieve this goal three things are happening. First, at the psychological level, every Hutu is described as a genocidaire or assassin even those born after 1994 and could be thrown in jail or worse if they dare demand their rights. Second, economically, Bahutu have been pushed into a subsistence economy where poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease will reduce them to people of no consequence. Those that have tried to resist have been thrown out of government and others are being deprived of their rights like the right to form a political party. In this connection Michael Mann (2005) writes that “Tutsi dominate the government, the towns [where economic and social activities are concentrated], and the monetized economy; Hutu’s have been mostly forced back into subsistence agriculture”. Third, plans are afoot to keep Hutu down permanently. Some Bahutu think that the government-supported birth control program is primarily aimed at them.
But when Bahutu react in defending their rights, they are quickly branded genocidaires or beasts that should be hunted down and killed or jailed if lucky and the international community keeps silent. Consequently Bahutu are being pushed out of DRC where they are unwanted foreigners and are not wanted at home because they are barbaric.
When Tutsi were kicked out of neighboring countries and were not wanted in Rwanda, they took up arms with foreign backing and forced their way into the country and overthrew the Hutu government. What options do Bahutu have in the present circumstances?
In Uganda since 1986, key and strategic positions are firmly in the hands of Bahororo and Bahima minority ruling class which boasts that it has the comparative advantage for leadership because they were born so. Statements to the effect that one Muhororo is worth more than 1000 Bairu have been made at public rallies confirming their superiority. If you hear what is said about Bairu behind closed doors, you cannot easily accept that you are being told the truth.
To get jobs Bairu and increasingly other Ugandans have to literary beg regardless of their education and experience. And you keep the job if you are lucky to get a junior post at the pleasure of the president. Some Ugandans are beginning to hide their identity to avoid being mistreated from tribes that are out of favor in the corridors of power or are marrying from the ‘right circles’ to get a good job. Those who have done so know themselves. They do not have to reveal it to anybody involuntarily.
Those who are following recent developments in Rwanda and Uganda know that there is spreading and intensifying resistance against the ruling classes that are bent on staying in power indefinitely. Those groups that are living ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’ lives are beginning to make their voices heard. Therefore the rulers must listen, hear the ‘voice of the people’ and take appropriate action.
In case resistance from the rulers persists, we appeal to the international community especially development partners that have been backing these regimes to take notice and help to find a lasting solution. Short of that those that consider themselves to be treated like slaves may run out of patience and cause trouble. The world should not allow the situation to go that far.