What happened to Uganda historians?

In many countries, history or civics is a compulsory subject in schools. The idea is that students should know where their ancestors came from, how they have interacted with others over time and how they are governed.

Because Africa was considered a “Dark Continent” at the time of colonization, Europeans assumed it had no history and darkness was not a subject of history. Thus during colonial days, we were taught the history of European explorers and missionaries in Africa. The little Uganda history we were taught was about kings and their royal courts because first colonial and missionary officials came from aristocratic families in Europe and were not interested in peasant or commoners history. The first batch of Uganda historians was either from royal families or connected with the royal court. So for some years after independence, Ugandans continued to be taught the history of royal courts and British work in Uganda.

A new breed of historians emerged after independence led by Prof. B. A. Ogot, Kenyan mathematician turned historian who taught me in Nairobi. They began research into the history of Africans which led “to abandon certain formerly accepted terms and to introduce others”. Uganda historians began to write a new history of Uganda about who Ugandans are, where they came from and where they live and how they have interacted with one another.

Studying Uganda’s history cannot avoid ethnic and religious issues. However, because they were considered divisive, NRM passed a law – the Anti-sectarian law – prohibiting discussion of ethnic and religious matters. Thus, the study of history has been undermined. That is why many Ugandans – especially those born after 1986 – do not know the history of Uganda. And the political economy history of Uganda since NRM came to power is not something to be proud of. One can write history without being divisive if one sticks to facts. Below is a snapshot of Uganda’s history.

Bantu settlement

Uganda is occupied by two main ethnic groups: Bantu and Nilotic peoples. Bantu entered Uganda through the Congo basin in southwestern corner. There is consensus that they originated in the Cameroon/Nigeria border and arrived in Uganda about 2000-3000 years ago. They began migration about the time of Christ. They brought with them short horn cows, goats, sheep and poultry, crops and iron technology. They settled in fertile lands, produced enough balanced food and manufactured a wide range of products especially those based on iron ore. They lived in settlements, multiplied quickly and developed a governance system with kings, chiefs or council of elders that provided law and order, settled disputes when they arose and protected settlements against external invasion, using peaceful means including diplomatic techniques as appropriate.

Nilotic settlement

Nilotic migrations into Uganda consisted of two groups: Plains Nilotes entered Uganda through the north east direction. They included Kumam, Itesot and Karimajong; and River/Lake Nilotes (Luo speaking) entered Uganda from Bahr-el-Ghazel area of southern Sudan. The main economic activity was herding. Bantus already in the area had a mixed system of herding but dominated by crop cultivation.

Note: contrary to popular belief, there was no group in Uganda that was stateless. Some had centralized systems like Buganda and Bunyoro and others had simple governance structures that met the needs of the day.

Nilotic and Bantu interactions

In northern and eastern Uganda, Buganda, Bunyoro and Toro Bantu and Nilotic peoples interacted extensively through comprehensive intermarriages that produced new ethnic groups and cultures based on a mixed farming economy of herding and crop cultivation, hence hardly any ethnic problems.

Sharing Bantu names, language and religion and nothing else

1. Bahima and Bairu. When the Nilotic Luo-speaking people entered what later became Ankole, they took on a new name. They became Bahima. They adopted Bantu language and Bantu names. They however refrained from intermarrying with Bantu later dubbed Bairu people (slaves of Bahima). To this day in 2010 Bahima men do not marry Bairu women because they consider them to be of a low class as Kesaasi confirmed recently in her article in Uganda Observer. Thus although they speak Bantu language and use Bantu names Bahima have retained their Nilotic identity.

2. Bahororo in Uganda. In mid-1600s a group of Batutsi from Rwanda founded a short-lived Mpororo kingdom in northern Rwanda and southwestern parts mostly in Ankole. Batutsi changed the name and became Bahororo (people of Mpororo kingdom). The kingdom lasted less than 100 years. When it disintegrated, the parts in Uganda were taken over by Bahinda kings (Bahima) of Ankole and Bahororo became commoners. Many returned to Rwanda and others under Rwebiraro took refuge in Rujumbura around 1800. Others remained in Ankole or drifted to other parts of Uganda. Although scattered over a large geographic area they have tenaciously clung together whether in Rwanda or Uganda or elsewhere. Like Bahima, Bahororo refrained from marrying Bantu women or other women except those from their Nilotic group. Like Bahima, Bahororo consider women from other ethnic groups of low social class. Like Bahima, Bahororo speak Bantu language and use Bantu names but have remained distinctly Nilotic. To avoid being called commoners, Bahororo used Bahima name. For example, in Rujumbura there are no Bahima but Bahororo although registered as Bahima. That is why Bahororo were not known until Museveni who is a Muhororo came to power in 1986.

3. Nubians in Uganda. The Khedive of Egypt stationed Nilotic Nubian troops from southern Sudan along the Nile and into present-day northern Uganda for strategic reasons. They were cut off when a Mahdi rebellion broke out in Sudan in 1882. The troops were moved further south in the Lake Albert area for safety. In 1900 Captain Lugard hired them in his troops to fight Kabarega. They were later absorbed into a standing army to continue the task of being used to conquer Uganda. Ultimately, they were allowed to stay in the country. They did not like rural life and most chose to stay in towns like Bombo. Because they are Muslims, they refused to send their children to Christian Schools. Like Nilotic Bahima and Nilotic Bahororo, Nilotic Nubians do not marry outside their ethnic group. As an aside, the three long-serving presidents of Uganda: Obote, Amin and Museveni are Nilotic from southern Sudan!

4. Asians in Uganda. The shortage of African labor on Uganda railway construction was overcome by bringing in workers from the Indian subcontinent. When construction ended, Asians stayed on in East Africa including in Uganda. They engaged in business and commerce and thereby blocked African progress outside agriculture. Because Britain declared that Uganda land belonged to Ugandans mostly peasants outside Buganda, Asians could not own land except land leases to grow sugarcane and a few other export crops. Thus, Asians were and still are confined to towns. Like Nubians, Bahima and Bahororo, Asians do not intermarry with other Ugandans.

5. Uganda’s first major challenge. Thus one of the serious challenges is this lack of interaction socially through intermarriages and economically as well. You will rarely find a Muhororo/ Muhima or Asian doing business with another ethnic group. Since 1986, the Nilotic-Bantu speakers (Bahororo and Bahima) and Asians have done extremely well economically and socially at the expense of Bantu and northern and eastern Nilotic people. The result has been increasing poverty and frustration among those left behind who cannot even manage to fix school lunches for their children. When the rich advise the poor to pack lunches for their children they are either ignorant or they do not care. If the poor cannot provide dinner or breakfast because they do not have food how are they expected to fix lunches? The reason there is no food is either because bread winners are unemployed or have no land on which to grow food. And the NRM government has refused to even entertain the idea of providing lunches or temporary employment like other governments in developed and developing countries do when economic times are very tough like now. The filthy rich should refrain from giving reckless advice to impoverished and vulnerable people lest they are misunderstood.

6. Arrival of migrant workers who stayed. A combination of push factors (hard economic and political conditions in Belgian Rwanda and Burundi) and pull factors (economic and employment opportunities in Uganda (mostly in Buganda initially) since the 1920s attracted many Hutu and Tutsi workers from Burundi and Rwanda. Hutus worked in Buganda’s cotton and coffee farms. Tutsi were more scattered in Ankole, Buganda, eastern and northern Uganda especially in Teso and Lango where there is cattle herding. Many of them chose to stay. Bahutu integrated rather easily and many married Uganda women but Batutsi clung to their tradition of marrying Batutsi, Bahororo or Bahima women and remained culturally distinct including their dresses. Most of them stayed in Uganda. At independence in 1962, 40 percent of Baganda were Banyarwanda and more have come in since then making it difficult to know who the indigenous Baganda and how many they are.

7. Arrival of Tutsi refugees. The social revolution in Rwanda in 1959 saw the Tutsi lose their supremacy. They fled the country with their cattle and most ended up in Uganda. British authorities did not like the idea of refugees and encouraged them to settle with relatives in Uganda. Consequently one third of Tutsi refugees settled in Ankole and Kigezi putting pressure on already overcrowded Kigezi and forcing indigenous Bakiga to move to Ankole, Rujumbura, Kanungu, Bunyoro and Toro. Those Tutsi refugees that could not find relatives to stay with were advised to move to other parts of Uganda in small groups with few cattle so as not to alarm the indigenous people. One group of Bahima and Batutsi moved into Buganda including in Sembabule and Mawokota, with all the political conflicts with indigenous Baganda.

8. Anyanya come to Uganda. Amin recruited Nilotic Anyanya (poison) from southern Sudan who had been fighting the Khartoum government and were idle after the ceasefire. The Anyanya and Nubians joined Amin in the overthrow of Uganda government and went on to pillage Uganda politically, socially and economically until 1979. They took a lion’s share of Asian property which they squandered in no time and resumed pillaging poor Ugandans. In the end fifty percent of Uganda troops were southern Sudanese and Nubians, 25 percent from Zaire (now DRC) and 25 percent Kakwa and other West Nile groups. Some have reasoned that from 1971 to 1979 Uganda was under foreign occupation.

1. Tutsi refugees in National Resistance Army (NRA). The NRA had a strong foreign presence in its midst including foreign money contributors, military hardware and Tutsi refugees that numbered roughly 25 percent of the total guerrilla force. Tutsi government in Burundi advanced $8 million. The leadership of NRA was also dominated by Tutsis. Ugandans were given administrative or diplomatic assignments away from the center of power – commanding guerrillas or controlling intelligence and counter-intelligence operations. In short, military commanders and intelligence leaders had many Tutsis. According to Uwe Freisecke “Fred Rwigyema … was a major-general of the NRA and its deputy commander. Paul Kagame was a major in the NRA and head of intelligence and counter-intelligence. Dr. Peter Baingana was also a major and head of the NRA medical services. Chris Bunyenyezi was a major and commanding officer of the NRA’s 306 Brigade. Major Sam Kaka was commanding officer of the NRA’s military police” (New African November 2002). For this reason, many think Uganda was occupied by foreigners and possibly still is.

2. Foreign ownership of Uganda property. Under structural adjustment, NRM government invited Asians and returned their property possibly including properties where compensation had been given. NRM also opened the country to foreign investors and sold state-owned assets. Unlike any other country in East Africa or elsewhere, NRM government privatized everything including even strategic assets such as the post office at throwaway prices. The purpose of privatization was in part to generate resources for investment in public infrastructure and institutions. Instead Uganda has ended up with dilapidated infrastructure and institutions for lack of funds.

3. Uganda’s second major challenge. Uganda has had the misfortune of being invaded and occupied by foreigners from southern Sudan and Tutsi from Rwanda and Burundi. Their impact is still felt as many of them are still actively involved in Uganda’s political economy. Daily bus loads of travelers between Kampala, Kigali and Bujumbura cannot fail to raise an alarm that Uganda may be in trouble. The East African community is being used as an excuse for free human mobility among member states of the community. How many Ugandans have relocated to Rwanda and Burundi? There must be reciprocity or else the East African project should be recast as well as the implications of the political federation. What is in there for Ugandans? Under globalization Uganda’s assets have been privatized en masse! What is remaining is land. And once Museveni succeeds in breaking through, which he is likely to try if re-elected in 2011 Uganda will be a country under virtual foreign control and ownership. Globalization was meant to benefit everyone. Ugandans in power are obsessed with keeping their ‘juicy’ jobs and do not want to be bothered. That is the tragic part of our so-called leaders.

4. Uganda’s third major challenge. Meanwhile, Uganda’s land is subtly being taken over by foreigners or the rich Ugandans. In southwest corner including Ntungamo, Rukungiri and Kabale indigenous people are being squeezed out. The extension of municipality boundaries deep into rural areas (dubbed rural-urban to confuse people as in Rukungiri) is meant to bring more peasant land under municipal authority which will then be open for sale to the highest bidder. And who has the money or access to credit? Those who are not connected to the center of power and happen to be indigenous groups do not have money or access to credit and will surely lose their land. Because many Ugandans are concerned about constituencies for parliamentary and district council seats, they have lost sight of the larger municipality picture – losing their land through sale to foreigners under the pretext of attracting investments and creating jobs. NRM government needs to realize that we know what games are being played. We lack the means to prevent or reverse these harmful decisions. But we know! And that is why recording history is very important so that there is a record for future use should changes in land ownership become necessary. We need our historians more than ever before.

5. Challenge for the youth. I can tell you without hesitation that your seniors have not created a springboard for your growth into sustained and sustainable development. Uganda has been consumed by corruption, greed, selfishness and foreign manipulation that most of us have forgotten the future of our children. It is therefore upon you – the youth – to begin to lay the foundation for your future. If you are still at school, invest more time in studying and graduate with functional qualifications so you can find a good job. Spend less time and money or no time and no money at all on alcohol and rap music. These are costly diversions put in your way by people with different perspectives. If you are already working, save as much as you can and sink it in investments that can make a better tomorrow for you and your family. You must have a dream and plan to realize it and it is not easy. Do not wait until you get to the river. You may not have the momentum to leap across. By way of encouraging you, I have written ten books but it took me fifty years. I began preparing when I was in senior three at Butobere School in Kabale district. Visit www.kashambuzi.com for details.

6. Challenge for Uganda historians. You have a duty to keep your fellow citizens informed of their history for the past affects the present and the present the future. So there is a clear inter-linkage among the past, the present and the future.

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