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Buganda, Uganda at crossroads

By Prof Mahmood Mamdani

This is an edited version of Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s presentation at the Abu Mayanja Annual Lecture on August 7, 2009 at Kampala International Conference Centre.

I am greatly honored to have been asked to give this lecture. I met the late Abu Mayanja in 1961. I was a student at Old Kampala SSS, and Mayanja was the new Minister of Education in the Buganda Government. I was also the Secretary of the Do-it-Yourself Physics Club at the School. In 1961, we held a Science exhibition at the school, and invited Mayanja to officiate at the opening. He was gracious enough to accept our invitation. I remember it as the first time I got to shake the hand of a well-known political leader.

The one controversial issue to which Abu Mayanja dedicated his political life was that of the political relation between Buganda and Uganda. It can be said that Mayanja straddled that relationship. He was determined to negotiate it as a pioneer, no matter the risks involved. This is why when I was invited to give this lecture several months ago, I had no doubt that it had to be on the question to which he had dedicated his political life.

I believe that we are today at a national impasse. Everyone knows that the Movement that came to power with the promise of fundamental change’ in 1986 turned around and promised no change’ in the multi-party elections that followed the adoption of the new Constitution in 1995. On its own admission, the Movement had a modest vision of change, limited to the realization of security: at least we can now sleep’. Having achieved this goal, at least in most of the country, its vision was exhausted. Its energies now appear to be invested in preventing change, an objective that no one in history has ever succeeded to achieve.

The Opposition is narrowly focused on the question of exercising power. Impatient to rule, it regularly protests the ruling party’s failure to observe the two term limit on the exercise of presidential power as no less that a subversion of the spirit of the constitution. But the Opposition does not observe the two-term rule in its own ranks. It has failed to practice what it preaches.

This is the least of our problems. For the political impasse we face is more than just electoral. It concerns more than just the question of transfer of power. The government that came to power in 1986 pioneered a radically new notion of rights. In the Resistance Councils and Committees of the Luwero Triangle, rights were based on residence, not on descent.

Today, this same government has turned around. Starting with a political fragmentation of the country into multiple districts, its political leadership has recently proposed to ring-fence elective political office from immigrants, albeit in one region. If implemented, this policy will divide Ugandans all over the country into two groups, one defined as indigenous and the other as non-indigenous, and escalate tensions between them.

The proposal indicates a dramatic narrowing of political vision. The familiar anti-colonial language of indigenous and non-indigenous, native and settler, only conceals this change from us. To understand the full magnitude of the proposed change, we need grasp how this proposal defines the settler, and thus, the native.

During the nationalist struggle, the settler was identified with the colonial power. In the Amin period, the settler was identified with Asians, whether Ugandans or not.Now, the settler is every Ugandan who does not come from a particular district. Given that the market economy tends to move people ” and not just products ” from one place to another, a growing number of Ugandans, indeed a majority, if not now then soon, will find themselves branded settlers where they live.

The real shift is in the definition of citizenship. Nationalists defined citizenship as Ugandan, regardless of origin; Amin defined it as black Ugandan. But, today, it is proposed that the core rights of citizenship ” the right to political representation ” be defined on a tribal basis.

The NRM is the first government in the history of independent Uganda to propose a dilution of national citizenship in favor of a tribal citizenship. If we adopt this proposal, we shall be returning to an arrangement resembling colonial rule.

Every government in Uganda’s post-colonial history has had to face the colonial legacy. In moments of crisis, every government has been tempted to adopted measures from the colonial handbook, but none has dared to suggest as wholesale a return to colonial methods of rule as does the NRM leadership today.

The NRM began by championing a national citizenship. After two decades in power, the Movement has changed course, turning to a programme of ethnicizing rights and power. The context has been the onset of electoral competition following the 1995 Constitution. The NRM’s governing strategy has been to fragment the population to the maximum, administratively and politically, so as to present itself as the unifying force. The first step in this project was marked by a programme of district creation. New districts have been created at a galloping rate. The number of districts has gone from 33 [1990] to 44 [1997] to 78 [2006] to 80 [June 2009] with a further increase to 94 awaiting parliamentary approval.

Recently, the party leadership has proposed a second step in this program. If introduced as policy, it would divide the population in each district into natives and migrants and reserve right of access to both land and elected political office to the native section of the population. Urban areas are said to be an exception to this. There is an uncanny resemblance with the colonial period: the country will be divided politically between urban and rural areas, with rights national in urban areas but tribal in rural areas.

The Buganda Question

The Baganda are the largest ethnic group in Uganda, yet when it comes to politics they behave like an imperiled minority. The reasons for this psychology are historical, not biological. They have to do with relations between Buganda and the Central Government during the post-independence period. Whenever post-independence governments have faltered in building majority support around implementing a positive programme for social change, the tendency has been to demonize a minority as a national threat against which to scare the majority into silent submission.

From this point of view, we can divide the post-independence period into two. The first period begins with the demonization of the Baganda in the post-1964 period; the second period begins with the demonization of the North after 1986. I shall focus on the consequences for the Baganda.

It would seem that Buganda has come out of this experience both steeled and scarred. On the positive side, it is determined to safeguard its unity and integrity against all odds. As a result, Buganda is today the only part of the country with the capacity to resist central government-led fragmentation into so many mini kingdoms or mini-districts.

On the negative side, Buganda seems imbued with a political psychology that is not only oppositional but also isolationist. The result is to succumb to a form of politics that is mainly reactive. This is no doubt at a price, which is a diminished capacity for leadership.

This is why the real challenge for contemporary Buganda is in the domain of political leadership. Having experienced demonization, can it provide an anti-dote to demonization? Having resisted fragmentation from the centre, can it develop a democratic alternative to fragmenting strategies from the centre? Having gone through the experience of the Luwero Triangle in the 1980s, during which the NRM successfully built unity in a multi-ethnic population, can Buganda remain loyal to the experience of Luwero at a time when the leadership of NRM has forgotton, if not betrayed, those same lessons?

Let me state the challenge differently: Can Buganda move beyond the politics of victimhood, beyond always thinking of itself as a potential victim, to exercising leadership, thereby representing all victims, by turning its own particular experience into a source of general lessons, and incorporating its own particular grievance into a more general demand?

I have no direct answers to these questions, at least not today. But I do have some observations and suggestions about how to go about answering these questions.

The first is to suggest that we begin by drawing lessons from past experience. Four such experiences merit reflection: the 1966 crisis, the 1979 twagala Lule’ demonstrations, the 1980-85 guerrilla struggle in the Luwero Triangle, and the debate around the Land question in 2008. Consider the following:

If there was a lesson in the 1966 crisis, it was a harsh reminder that Buganda is irrevocably a part of Uganda. In other words, Buganda has no choice but to give up the ways of bachelorhood and find a solution within the political marriage called Uganda, even if that marriage was born of abduction in 1900.

The message of the twagala Lule’ demonstrations of 1979 was more mixed. On the positive side, they demonstrated ” Gandhi-style ” that it is possible to mobilize peacefully in the face of armed force, and that such a mobilization could generate great political and moral force. On the negative side, they demonstrated the inability to of the demonstrators to move from resistance to leadership. For, to do so, they needed to build the ethnic resistance into a multi-ethnic movement.

The guerrilla struggle in the Luwero Traingle showed the way out of this dilemma. The lesson was all the more dramatic since the Luwero Triangle was a small part of the country, with a minority population. In spite of being waged in a small area, the struggle in the Luwero Triangle attracted support from the bulk of the country.Why? Because the NRM showed the political capacity to weld together a multi-ethnic movement in the Luwero Triangle, thereby assuring that a movement limited to one part of the country would not necessarily translate into narrow ethnic domination in the country as a whole. The basis of this assurance was the RC system that replaced the colonial notion of native rights with a revolutionary notion of resident’s rights.

The last great learning experience was last year’s debate on the Land Question. The strength of the central government flowed from the fact that the issue it raised was real; it was not just manufactured. This issue concerned the rights of tenants, both documented and undocumented, and the main focus was on the question of security of tenure.

But this debate also revealed the weakness of the central government position. It was surely curious that the same government that claimed to represent the weak and the oppressed was unwilling to practice a democratic politics, to consult and persuade others by entering into a process of give-and-take. Instead, it was determined to force its views on those who were not convinced. This single fact explains why critics were able to checkmate the Government by persuading the population in Buganda that the Central Government must have a ”hidden agenda ” why else would it be unwilling to consult and negotiate? If its proposals were in the interests of the majority, why would it need to force those same changes down the throats of that very majority?


Buganda is the most multi-ethnic of any part of Uganda. If you go back far enough, most Baganda are Bafuruki. Many of the new Baganda, like myself, do not have a historical connection with Buganda. The challenge for historicals is to broaden membership to include non-historicals on the basis of equal rights. If it falls prey to the temptation to proclaim native rights at the expense of Bafaruki, the movement called Buganda will only have repudiated its own history, its incredible capacity for absorption and openness. For this reason, it will also have a dim future.

It is worth looking at this issue in more general terms. How do we reconcile a particular cultural identity ” whether ethnic or religious ” with a national political citizenship? I have suggested that the answer lies in combining a historical sensitivity with a forward-looking political consciousness.

To be sensitive to history is to acknowledge that you can never start afresh, as if the slate were wiped clean. The assumption that you could start as if there is no history is an arrogance that sometimes afflicts revolutionaries. To be historically sensitive in today’s Uganda is to recognize Buganda as a historical entity. This is the cardinal principle of federo, its just core. For that just demand to resonate with all Ugandans, its leaders need to be forward-looking politically, to be inclusive, to resist the temptation to insist on privileges for historicals ” by ring-fencing them ” but to make room for newcomers.

Let me close. Today the situation is ripe for a national alliance between all those who are determined to resist the politics of fragmentation, regardless of political party, or region. This alliance needs to be based on two recognitions: first, the demand for federo is today the forefront of that resistance; second, this demand needs to be articulated in an inclusive manner, as indeed it was in the Luwero Triangle.

I thank you.

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