Why ethnic tensions are intensifying in southwest Uganda

My career has enabled me to interact with many people from and outside Uganda and to hear many stories (many of them distorted) about who is who and who is doing well and not so well economically in Uganda. There is a general feeling that all south westerners are doing well at the expense of other Ugandans since Museveni came to power in 1986. In other words they think that all south westerners are Bahororo, Bahima, Batutsi and Banyamulenge (all represented in Uganda). This is the group of Nilotic Bantu speakers led by Museveni that has made tremendous progress in wealth accumulation. The other group of Bantu speakers known by the epithet of Bairu (slaves) or commoners in south west Uganda is extremely poor because of historical exploitation by the Nilotic Bantu speaking group since the two groups interacted about four hundred years ago.

I know some readers are not comfortable about this Bahororo and Bairu diatribe. I do not like it either. Actually it was dying out until Museveni came to power and re-established hostilities by suppressing Bairu through the implementation of structural adjustment that has pushed many back into poverty. Museveni is a divisive leader that seems to enjoy the suffering of others. This may explain why he has refused to support school lunches for kids from poor families but he has money for funerals – how else can you understand it.

As reported in separate articles, I have great difficulties with Museveni’s priorities (East African political federation for example which will cause tremendous difficulties for Uganda) and policies that have put Uganda’s interests on the back burner.

Museveni’s eagerness to introduce anti-sectarian law was designed inter alia to prevent Bairu from expressing their grievances because he knew he was going to suppress them (and other Ugandans), recall the Bahororo meeting of March 15, 1992 presided over by Museveni himself, a president for all Ugandans.

That is why I am campaigning for his defeat so that we can end tribalism in our region (which is getting out of hand recall the recent decision to incorporate Bairu land into Rukungiri municipality without consulting them) and the rest of Uganda.

I can tell you Bairu have highly educated people many of them studied under very difficult conditions but where are they in Uganda’s governing establishment? But Museveni will appoint his less qualified and some corrupt tribes people and skip highly educated Bairu – this is very disturbing to say the least. Museveni thinks Bairu are still agriculturalists only fit to scratch the earth like moles to find something to eat. Until this problem is resolved I am afraid we shall continue to address it. If you do not want to read this story and those to follow please skip them.

Since I began writing on these and other related matters some light has been shed on the complicated history in southwest Uganda but some confusion still remains about Bahima, Bahororo, Batutsi and Banyamulenge as a group and how the group has interacted with Bairu people. The clarifications and questions I continue to receive are encouraging because it shows that there is an interest in the topic otherwise readers would not bother to follow-up.

Bahima, Batutsi, Bahororo and Banyamulenge have one common ancestry: Nilotic Luo speakers from southern Sudan. They are cousins. They have all adopted Bantu language and local names names. Those who settled in Nkore are Bahima. Those who settled in Rwanda and Burundi are Batutsi. A section of Batutsi in Rwanda founded short-lived Mpororo kingdom and the people became Bahororo. When Mpororo kingdom collapsed some parts were taken over by Nkore which later absorbed other kingdoms like Igara and Buhweju with British support to form Ankole. Some Bahororo returned to Rwanda where they have retained their identity. A section of Bahororo fled former Mpororo kingdom to Rujumbura. Banyamulenge are Batutsi from Rwanda that have settled in eastern DRC. In effect we have Batutsi in Rwanda and Burundi, in DRC as Banyamulenge and in Uganda as Bahororo.

One common feature about Bahima, Batutsi, Bahororo and Banyamule is that men do not marry from outside their Nilotic group. Consequently they have retained their Nilotic identity wherever they live (many are in Buganda, eastern and northern regions but adopt local names and speak local languages

Another characteristic is that these cousins know and help one another. During Luwero Triangle guerrilla war 25 percent of fighters were Batutsi. In order to continue to connect with one another the women have formed Bashambokazi Kumanyana, raising questions as to whether or not this is a sectarian organization.

When these Nilotic groups met with Bantu in Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and DRC they had one goal in common: to dominate, exploit and impoverish them. Bantu were dubbed Bairu in Uganda and Bahutu in Rwanda and Burundi. Bahutu and Bairu which mean slaves were dispossessed of their property including cattle and land in Rwanda. Through tribute and free labor Bahutu and Bairu were ruthlessly exploited including carrying their masters and mistresses in litters and their luggage.

The education which was originally designed for children of chiefs was finally opened to Bairu and Bahutu children. As they acquired education they began to resent exploitation and demand their political and civil rights.

By the 1940s educated Bairu who had been exposed to the Charter of the United Nations (1945) and Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) became aware of their political and civil rights and challenged Bahima and Bahororo hegemony. These changes upset exploitative relations and Bahima and Bahororo resented them. From then on the two groups became openly hostile to each other (G. K. Kahangi 2003).

With the majority on their side Bairu made further political, economic and social advances after independence. Museveni who is a Muhororo did not like these developments and that is why he and some friends at Ntare School developed a staunch hatred for Obote (B. A. Ogot 1999) because his policies were benefiting Bairu and narrowing the gap between the two groups.

Museveni’s revolutionary and military training motives were I believe primarily to put an end to Bairu advance which he has effectively done since he came to power. Structural adjustment gave him the strategy to cripple Bairu. Clinics have no drugs. Many schools were closed, others downgraded to force Bairu children to drop out of school. (Museveni targeted education specifically because he knows that it was education that helped Bairu to become aware of their rights in the 1940s and those Bairu giving him headache are the educated ones. Without education many Bairu in the future will not know their rights and they will be squeezed to death). The educated have been denied jobs. The area has been denied development projects.

Rich Bahororo people from Rujumbura do not invest in the area so they do not create unskilled jobs for Bairu yet they seek their votes at election time and get by giving a half kilo of salt because Bairu are too poor to resist. Imagine selling your whole birth right for half kilo of salt and you send someone to parliament for five years who won’t remember you until the next election if you will be still alive!

Consequently absolute poverty is very high in southwest Uganda among Bairu causing too much suffering. Some Bairu have committed suicide because they cannot raise tax money and do not want to go to jail. “In Rukungiri, two poor peasants were reported to have committed suicide, fearing jail and torture for non-payment of tax” (M. Mamdani 1995).

This together with many other problems facing Bairu and Ugandans in general has forced me to openly confront Museveni’s regime after quiet diplomacy through discussions and letters failed to yield any results. I am sure many other Ugandans are doing the same on behalf of our voiceless and powerless brothers and sisters. Believe me I do not enjoy this confrontation with Museveni’s leadership. I just have no other choice.

The purpose of this article was four-fold:

(1) to show how Bahima, Bahororo, Batutsi and Banyamulenge are related by having one common ancestry of Nilotic Luo speakers from southern Sudan (and not Ethiopia as originally assumed) and how they work together to advance their interests and in the process have squeezed Bairu in southwest Uganda since pre-colonial days.

(2) to demonstrate how acquiring education helped Bairu people to understand their political, civil and economic rights and to fight to end their exploitation by Bahima and Bahororo. This Bairu achievement upset Bahima and Bahororo people forcing them into the bush under the leadership of Museveni to marginalize Bairu (and other Ugandans) as agreed at Ntungamo and Rukungiri Bahororo leaders meeting in 1992.

(3) to give concrete examples of what has been done under structural adjustment to squeeze Bairu economically and the unprecedented poverty that has culminated leading to suicide to end their misery.

(4) to advise that south west Uganda is not monolithic in ethnic terms and distribution of wealth. Speaking the same Bantu language has masked wide differences about who controls military, economic and political power and associated rewards. It is a very small Nilotic group of Bahororo, Bahima and Batutsi led by Museveni that has gained tremendous economic benefits at the expense of better qualified Bantu-Bairu people. Bairu are resisting strangulation thereby heightening tensions between the two ethnic groups.

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