Why has Rukungiri district become ungovernable?

Rukungiri is a small district located in southwest Uganda and far away from the seat of government in Kampala. Since Uganda’s independence in 1962, Rukungiri has been visited by Uganda presidents – Obote, Amin and more so by Museveni – or sent more delegations to Kampala than any other district in an attempt to understand and solve the district’s intractable problems. These problems of a political, economic, social and ethnic nature have included suicide, death or injuries from security forces’ gunfire, forcing people into exile or fleeing permanently from the district, snatching voting cards from opposition members at gun point and using some unsealed ballot boxes including in the opposition presidential candidate’s polling station.

Although many people do not want to hear it, the problem in Rukungiri district is the political and economic struggle between Nilotic Bahororo rulers and Bantu Bairu (slaves) ruled ethnic groups since pre-colonial days. Bahororo – a Batutsi and numerically very inferior group that entered Rukungiri district in 1800 from Rwanda via short-lived Mpororo kingdom located in southwest of former Ankole district – believe that God created them to rule others irrespective of their education and/or work experience. In fact Bahororo agree that God gave Bairu physical and mental strength to labor for the comfort of their Bahororo masters who have specialized in military strength. This superiority complex of Bahororo was consolidated during British colonial rule that used pre-colonial oppressive chiefs as their civil servants. Britain which never lost control over Uganda has continued to favor Bahororo over Bairu since independence.

With independence supposedly based on democracy and majority rule, Bairu with their numerical superiority were confident they would gain political power and access to economic benefits. Bahororo, the numerically inferior ethnic group, was not ready to accept that change. How then did Bahororo maintain the status quo?

Bairu within the ruling Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) were divided into Banyama (accused of eating the Kigezi constitutional head’s cow) and Baboga (vegetarians who refused to eat the meat). The latter group was led by Bahororo people. Bairu in the vegetarian group were unleashed by their Bahororo leaders and descended on Bairu meat eaters with all sorts of insults, physical threats and name calling so much so that many ‘Banyama’ families left the district permanently or temporarily as refugees. Bahororo retained their dominant status.

Bahororo have since independence occupied key political and administration positions with all the economic and social benefits. Right now in 2010 the Member of Parliament is a Muhororo, the only two senior presidential advisers are Bahororo, two senior civil servants in the Ministry of Finance are Bahororo and Ambassadors in key and strategic duty stations or senior civil servants in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are Bahororo by blood or marriage. Bairu including highly trained in diplomacy and economics have been ignored because they were not born to rule.

As an aside, it is important to understand that Bahororo are disproportionately represented throughout Uganda because they have settled in all parts of Uganda where they retained their Nilotic identity while adopting local names and languages. Therefore people in senior positions in politics and civil service like ambassadors who are recorded as Baganda, Itesot or Langi are Bahororo or their Tutsi cousins from Rwanda and Burundi who have settled in Uganda since 1920s. Bahororo with Batutsi and Bahima cousins are the rulers of Uganda since 1986 under President Musevceni. As noted elsewhere Banyarwanda from Rwanda and Burundi constituted 40 percent of Buganda‘s total population at independence in 1962.

Economic and political pressure on Bairu has continued to mount especially since Museveni, a Muhororo, came to power in 1986. Economic pressure and the inability to pay taxes has caused some Bairu to commit suicide, hunger at schools has forced students e.g. at Makobore School to demand more and better food which resulted in security forces using fire and killing a student and injuring others, the demand for change of political leadership has resulted in security forces opening fire at a political rally in Rukungiri town, killing one person and injuring others. A voter from the opposition committed suicide because his presidential candidate lost due to massive rigging by the ruling party in the district.

In 2010 two further disturbing incidents have already taken place with adverse impact on ethnic relations in the district. First, the demarcation of new boundaries for Rukungiri municipality have incorporated one ethnic group of Bairu in Kagunga sub-county when areas near town in Nyakagyeme where the MP comes from and Buyanja where the chairman of Rukungiri District Council comes from kept out because of the disadvantages that come with municipality, raising issues of injustice and possible genocide as landless, jobless and penniless Bairu people will suffer from a reduction in numbers (young men kept in prison for crimes to make ends meet and women dead from sexually transmitted diseases as they become sex workers to make ends meet) and/or mental stress.

Second, on July 28, 2010 during the opposition political rally demanding the removal of a partial national electoral commission, security forces used live bullets unlike anywhere else in the country to disperse demonstrators. Here is how the Daily Monitor team described the situation. “While the police successfully contained the demonstrations in Kampala, the activists battled the police in at least 12 other towns… The biggest battle between the police and the protesters took place in Rukungiri district, where live bullets; teargas and paper spray were used to disperse angry demonstrators who had pinned, in the town, pictures denouncing the Eng. Kiggundu-led Electoral Commission.

Panic engulfed the business community in Rukungiri, as the police struggled to arrest 21 suspected ringleaders. Some traders closed their shops while others ducked under tables for safety. The demonstration started at about 9 am and by midday, many people had fled for safety”

One lesson is clear: the use of political and security force in Rukungiri district has stiffened resistance to the NRM government which is spreading. If force continues to be used the consequences in loss of human lives and destruction of property will be dreadful. The solution is also clear: Bahororo should give up the insistence that God created them to rule others for ever.