Kenyans were gripped by the arrest of KTN anchor Joy Doreen Biira last week during the conflict in Kasese region in western Uganda, but the recent tragic events are just the latest chapter in a complex and intractable problem.
The bloodbath that engulfed the palace of the Rwenzururu Kingdom on November 27 reflects the extent to which successive Ugandan governments have perpetuated and even fortified the divisive legacy of the colonial policy of indirect rule.
Perhaps to deal a final blow to “tribal” militants who have launched repeated attacks on civilian and military targets since 2010 and who slew 14 police officers only a day earlier, the army stormed the Kasese-based palace, set fire on it, slaughtered at least 46 royal guards and arrested Omusinga (king) Charles W Mumbere. The king, who was manhandled like a petty criminal and dragged to a police station, has since been charged with murder.
In terms of human casualty, the Sunday onslaught is by no means the worst since the conflict started six years ago. On July 5, 2014, more than 100 people were massacred when alleged members of the Bakonzo ethnic group loyal to the Rwenzururu Kingdom attacked members of smaller ethnic groups in Kasese, Bundibugyo and Ntoroko districts as well as military and police installations. Alongside a ruthless counterinsurgency operation led by the army, some members of the smaller ethnic groups — Basongora, Banyabindi and Bamba — retaliated by allegedly detaining unspecified numbers of Bakonzo civilians in private homes in Bundibugyo and mutilated, killed and buried them in unmarked graves.
Two narratives dominate the debate on the cause of the violence. According to President Yoweri Museveni, the conflict is a tribal affair driven by the “chauvinism” and “sectarianism” of sections of the Bakonzo who do not want to see any cultural institution in the Rwenzori except Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu (Rwenzururu Kingdom). If societies were fighting over their own tribal affairs, why would they identify the state as their prime enemy and constantly launch attacks against it? President Museveni does not tell us what his government did to the Bakonzo.
The second explanation blames President Museveni for driving tension in society by continuously creating districts and kingdoms along tribal lines. This narrative treats the creation of kingdoms and districts as a top-down phenomenon orchestrated by the government. The explanation does not pay attention to the popular demand for tribal homelands to which President Museveni is responding. To contextualise the conflict, we shall go back to the colonial era.
It was the policy of the colonialists to govern “natives” as separate tribes, each with a separate tribal chief, separate customary law and native court, and separate tribal homeland.
A “native” who appeared in the territory of another tribe was treated as a foreigner and faced discrimination. Such a “native” would potentially be deported in the same way a Congolese may be repatriated from Canada. For example, between February 1952 and November 1953, the Principle Court of His Highness the Kabaka of Buganda deported enough Batoro from the Kingdom to constitute a whole file named “Deportees” at Kabarole District Archives. In the Rwenzori, however, no tribe, except the Batoro, had a tribal chief through which the British could rule. The British therefore decided to submerge all the tribes of the Rwenzori under the tribal authority of the Batoro.
Since the British recognised a “native” only as a member of a tribe and allocated homelands and resources on that basis, it meant that the submerged tribes did not have recognised homelands and suffered discrimination. In the early stages of the Rwenzururu Movement, the Bakonzo and Bamba demanded recognition as natives of Toro like the Batoro so that they may overcome discrimination. When this demand was not granted, the Bakonzo demanded for a separate district and later for a separate nation. In a letter dated 6, June 1962 to the Colonial Secretary in London, Rwenzururu activists said, “We wanted to be recognized in the new Toro agreement that Toro is formed of three major tribes Batoro, Bamba and Bakonjo. The Batoro [o]pposed this point fearing that Bakonjo and Bamba will demand equal rights.” This war for a separate tribal homeland would have been inconceivable if the colonialists had not made tribe the basis for accessing rights.
The challenge for post-independence African leaders was to deal with the polarised societies that they inherited from the colonialists. Many of these leaders, including Uganda’s Milton Obote who abolished kingdoms purportedly to unite the nation, decided to perpetuate and exploit tribal divisions to entrench their rule. It was President Museveni, according to academic Mahmood Mamdani, who attempted to detribalise Ugandan society. In the territories he controlled as a rebel leader in the 1980s, especially in the Luwero Triangle, Mr Museveni’s National Resistance Army replaced descent (ancestry) with labour (residence) as the basis for participating in politics. This meant that a non-Muganda who worked or resided in Luwero, including the Banyarwanda whose presence was considerable, had equal rights with an ancestral Muganda to represent the village on the village council. When Mr Museveni captured power, he abandoned this reform as the “natives” of Uganda resented the huge presence of Banyarwanda in top military and government leadership positions.
Whereas individual members of a tribe considered alien might be tolerated, tension builds up when there is an influx. In Banyoro-majority Kibale and Batoro-majority Kabrarole districts where many Bakiga have settled, the right of the Bakiga to contest for political office is fiercely questioned.
To overcome such discrimination, smaller societies often accused of not being true natives have sought the solution in breaking away to form separate districts or kingdoms. President Museveni himself defends his creation of new tribal homelands as necessary to emancipate marginalised societies. As soon as he bowed to the pressure of the once marginalised Bakonzo and recognised the Rwenzururu Kingdom in 2009, a race for new kingdoms in the Rwenzori started. By granting this kingdom, President Museveni hoped to reverse the electoral defeat he suffered in the Bakonzo-dominated Kasese District in the 2006 election. But his hope was shattered when he recognised a breakaway kingdom for the Bamba and appeared to sympathise with two other smaller societies — Basongora and Banyabindi — that are aspiring to break away from the Rwenzururu Kingdom and from Kasese District. Sections of the Bakonzo reacted by identifying two enemies — the separatist societies and the state that is eager to recognize split-ups.
Thus sections of the Bakonzo, like some Baganda who reacted with anti-state violence in 2009 when the Kabaka was prevented from visiting a separatist part of Buganda Kingdom, launched attacks against these societies as well as military and police posts. The majority of the Bakonzo also punished President Museveni by voting for the opposition in the 2016 election. It is this tension that culminated in the invasion of the palace.
A few conclusions can be drawn. Whereas President Museveni is seen as the instigator of the demand for new districts and kingdoms in the Rwenzori, the quest for tribal homelands is popular and comes from below. This popular and subaltern quest should be seen as the legacy of colonial rule, which made tribe the basis for accessing leadership and resources like land. Second, President Museveni’s mode of governance resonates perfectly with this popular pursuit of tribal territories and he is eager to recognise them. Third, the violence that has ensued should not be seen as a result of tribal or cultural differences, but as the outcome of the manner in which Uganda has been governed in the past and the present. Fourth, if the conflict is historical and political, it follows that the solution should be sought in politics, not in military onslaughts on palaces or prosecution of kings.
Yahya Sseremba is a doctoral student at Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda.