People in the Lakes region want peace through democracy

People in the Great Lakes region want peace through free and fair multi-party elections and government of majority rule that promotes liberty and justice for all but have been governed by military leaders from minority groups who can’t win in free and fair elections. When asked, people from different ethnic groups will tell you they have no difficulties living together. It is their political leaders that create divisions along ethnic lines to mobilize support.

After assassination of the president of Burundi in 1993 Hutus attacked Tutsis. One Tutsi who had escaped unharmed was interviewed and he said “The people who killed my family were Hutu from Frodebu (Hutu Party]. … We used to have no problems with them. But when they had the news from Radio Kigali, they said Tutsi must be massacred. We peasants don’t know why the putschists killed Ndadaye. But we are paying for what they did. They provoked the revenge of the Hutu on the Tutsi”(Africa Report Jan/Feb. 1994). I have travelled in the Lakes region and talked to many people and they all want peace. They don’t care who governs provided it is done properly through free and fair elections and the elected government takes good care of all citizens equitably.

Denying the existence of ethnic differences in the Gt. Lakes region is absurd

I have used the word ‘absurd’ after careful reflection. According to Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary the word ‘absurd’ means “clearly untrue or unreasonable; ridiculously inconsistent with reason, or the plain dictates of common sense; logically contradictory. An absurd man acts contrary to the clear dictates of reason or sound judgement. An absurd proposition contradicts obvious truth”.

Because some African leaders believe that ethnicity, tribalism or divisionism – be it religion or race – is the root cause of political instability and conflict, they have decided to deny that ethnicity exists or to legislate against its use in public discourse. In Uganda there is a law against ‘sectarianism’; in Rwanda the word ‘divisionism’ is the equivalent of sectarianism in Uganda.

At a workshop in New York about Rwanda some participants who had gathered to talk about post-genocide progress singled out the disappearance of ethnicity as the most significant achievement. They stressed that Rwandese had decided to put the past behind them and move on as one nation. They added that ethnicity was a colonial creation which should not be carried into post-genocide Rwanda. They emphasized that in pre-colonial days Rwandese not only spoke the same language, went to the same church, lived on the same hill but also practiced complementary economic systems as one people. These symbiotic relations were shattered following the arrival of Europeans and the imposition of divide-and-rule methods that favored one group over another.

Examining the evils of ethnic politics

All of us are familiar with ethnic groups, ethnicity, tribal groups and tribalism. Before tracing their application and impact in a political economy context, let us define ethnicity which is more commonly used than tribalism.

Ethnicity relates to a situation associated with a cultural, linguistic, racial, ancestral and religious groups or a combination of them within societies. Ethnicity has its roots in migrations, wars and other disturbances that trigger major population movements resulting in interaction with other groups in unequal relationships.

Because of this background, ethnicity is characterized by cultural prejudices, social discrimination and exclusiveness of its members. Generally, ethnicity finds expression in political domination, economic exploitation and psychological expression. The intensity, nature and forms of ethnic expressions are determined by the strength and cohesion of the ethnic leadership, courage, determination and nature of the underprivileged classes and the degree of foreign influence in a particular society.

In a multicultural setting where ethnicity is practiced social harmony becomes difficult to realize. It often results in violent conflicts for example in Burundi, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Also ethnicity can lead to endemic political instability such as in Uganda, Spain, Sudan, Nigeria, Belgium, etc or even a breakup of countries such as the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

Ethnic relations in the Great Lakes region are antagonistic

Let me begin with two statements.

First, when my article on “How Rujumbura’s Bairu got impoverished” appeared in (Uganda) Observer, some Uganda readers were convinced that I was sectarian and hated Bahororo (another name for Batutsi who sought refuge in Rujumbura when the short-lived Mpororo kingdom disintegrated and Rwanda and Nkore troops moved in). Since 1986, Uganda government has been led by Bahororo many of them from Rujumbura or with roots in Rujumbura. With Uganda currently experiencing un-preceded poverty, hunger, unemployment, marginalization and functional illiteracy, many Ugandans have revisited the above article and drawn parallels with how the whole country of Uganda has been impoverished.

Second until the 1960s, the history of the Great Lakes Region was dominated by followers of J. H. Speke, C. G. Seligman – British explorer and academic, respectively – and African scholars mostly from aristocratic families who shared the two British biased opinions led by Alexis Kagame, a Catholic priest and historian associated with Rwanda royal court. The writings of these people were extremely biased in favor of Batutsi (Bahima, Bahororo and Banyamulenge are clans of Batutsi) who were described as white or black Caucasian, intelligent, well built, civilized, wealthy through invasion and plunder of Negroes and born to rule. On the other hand they portrayed Bantu-speaking people (dubbed Bairu and Bahutu {slaves or servants} by Bahima) as reported by J. H. Speke (1863, 2006) as black Negroes, without a civilization, poorly built or ugly and short, unintelligent and born to serve the rulers. They used these racist and psychological instruments to rob Bantu-speaking people of their true identity, civilizations and wealth and reduced them to servants or serfs as in Rwanda.