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Museveni’s tribal politics

By Melina Platas

The facts, the figures and their implications

Over the last two weeks, the dispute on “indigenous people of Bunyoro”versus Bafuruki has dominated political debate in Uganda. Sparked off by President Yoweri Museveni’s letter to the Minister for the Presidency, Beatrice Wabudeya, the debate has been short on facts and figures. Now, The Independent brings you the statistics the ethnic composition of Bunyoro Kingdom.

According to Museveni, the ‘indigenous people of Bunyoro’ comprise the Banyoro, Bagungu, Bachope, Buruli, Banyala and Bahuma. Apparently, the evidence shows, that Banyoro are the most populous ethnic group with 43% followed by Bakiga with 13%, Alur 12%, Bagungu 4%, Lugbara 4%, Acholi 4%, Bafumbira 3% and non Ugandans who are 5%.

Yet with less than half the total population of Bunyoro’s four districts: Hoima, Masindi, Kibaale and Buliisa, there are 10 Banyoro MPs out of 14 MPs from the region; the others comprise of two Bagungu and two Bakiga. This means that in spite of the influx of Bafuruki into the kingdom, Banyoro “natives” have not been politically sidelined as the president’s letter seems to suggest.

Secondly, all the four districts have indigenous people as chairmen of LCV “ Masindi (Steven Biriija) and Bulisa (Fred Lukumu) both Bagungu (natives of the area) while Hoima (George Bagonza and Kibale (George Nyamyaka) are led by Banyoro. Therefore, the democratic process has progressively ensured the dominance of the indigenous people in top jobs. This also means that to ring-fence elective offices for the indigenous people would mean disenfranchising the majority of the population of the region.

Our statistics come from the 2002 Census, and were compiled by Uganda’s Deepening Democracy Programme, a multi-donor project, and by our Independent team. Migration of non-indigenous people (commonly known as ‘Bafuruki’) into Bunyoro has been heavy, and has affected local politics. Namely, there are now several non-indigenous elected officials in Bunyoro “ but mainly in lower local council jobs.

Yet Museveni’s letter calls for ring-fencing the top jobs only for the “indigenous groups of the area”. While music to the ears of some Banyoro leaders, this was a slap in the face to Bakiga and other non-indigenous people who have over the years migrated in large numbers into the region and penetrated the political sphere of Bunyoro.

According to the census, the Banyoro are the majority in Hoima district, comprising 57% of the population, but they do not constitute a majority in any of the three other districts in Bunyoro. The Banyoro make up 47% of the population of Kibaale, 31% of Masindi, and merely 2% of the population of Buliisa.

Indeed, in Kibaale where almost half of the population is Banyoro, the MP for Bugangaizi constituency is Bakeine Mabel Lilian Kamugisha, a Mukiga and the other, for Buyaga, Barnabas Tinkasiimire, is also a Mukiga. In Buliisa, the MPs are Steven Biraahwa, a Mugungu and MP for Buliisa County, and Beatrice Mpairwe, a Mugungu and Woman MP for Buliisa. Here, the “œindigenous people” hold the top jobs.

Museveni is essentially trying to grant political favors to ‘indigenous people” (actually read ethnic Banyoro) at the expense of democratically elected officials, including those who were elected in populations that were primarily non-Banyoro. But why is the President courting Bunyoro at this time? Moreover, why would he do so at the expense of angering and alienating the Bakiga and others who have long been some of his strongest supporters?

Though officially internal, the letter was circulated widely enough for one to question how accidental its leakage really was. The inflammatory contents of the President’s suggestions have left many observers and analysts scratching their heads as to the logic of such a move. Nonetheless, the letter’s contents, and perhaps even its release, are part of a calculated political strategy, however counterintuitive it may at first appear to alienate a group like the Bakiga. The cost of such a strategy, however, may fall squarely on the shoulders of ordinary citizens as ethnic tensions rise in their communities.

Wherever Museveni goes, he is faced with innumerable demands, requests and complaints “ there are no teachers, say the masses “ schools are burning, there is no medicine, and no food. Responding to at least some of these requests is important for Museveni’s continued support from the populace. So as he mixes among the wananchi, Museveni hands cash-stuffed envelopes to men, women and even school children “ for food, for school fees, for health care.

Bunyoro is no different. But on top of the usual requests, some Banyoro and other ‘indigenous’ people, especially those in positions of power, have another problem “ that their ‘territory’ is being represented or governed by migrants (although as we have seen this is an exception to the rule as most MPs and LCV chairperson are’indigenous’). The election of non-Banyoro officials in the region is not in and of itself a problem, and one can easily think of analogous examples in other regions throughout the county. But mass migration and political representation by those from non-indigenous groups may become controversial in the context of Bunyoro’s violent history under British imperialism.

The question is whether colonialism put the indigenous groups, and the Banyoro in particular, at an unjust disadvantage, either political or economic, that should today be corrected by a form of affirmative action. It is no secret that Bunyoro was laid to waste by British colonialists, with the help of Sudanese mercenaries and the Baganda, who were at the time great rivals of the Bunyoro kingdom. When met with resistance from then Omukama, the Bunyoro King Chwa II Kabalega, the British invaded the kingdom in 1893 and for five years waged a devastating campaign against the Banyoro. One British Capt. Thurston wrote in his war diary, “I have this month and will in future burn their houses, destroy their crops and cut down their banana plantations.” Such was the scorched earth campaign that destroyed the lives and livelihoods of many Banyoro. The resulting depopulation and general devastation of the Banyoro is an injustice they will not soon forget.

The question of land has also been a longstanding and related issue. There is the question of the ‘lost counties’ of Buyaga and Bugangaizi, which were Bunyoro territories given to Buganda by the British after the Baganda helped them to defeat Kabalega. A 1964 referendum saw the return of the lost counties to Bunyoro, but they remain predominantly inhabited by non-indigenous people, and some of the land is still owned by Baganda landlords. Interestingly, these are two of the Bunyoro counties represented by non-Banyoro in Parliament. As if to further fan the flames of the wildfire that is the ‘Bafuruki Question, Munyoro State Minister for Internal Affairs Matia Kasaija was last weekend reported to have told a meeting of Banyoro that Banyoro should reclaim their land. ‘We are saying Bafuruki should go and we distribute the land among ourselves,’ he was reported to have said in the Monday edition of the Daily Monitor, “We are not prepared to stop in our struggle. We are not against Bafuruki but what we want is our land and if they [Bafuruki] are to stay on our land, they should stay on it with terms.”

The President’s proposed affirmative action to correct the numerous historical wrongs now includes the ‘ring-fencing’ of political positions in Bunyoro, even if these positions already go almost exclusively to those belonging to an indigenous group. But the devastation of Bunyoro under colonialism is not a new revelation. And while it is not the first time Museveni has stepped in to support the Banyoro, his most recent letter is arguably the most dramatic step he has single-handedly taken in an attempt to right historical wrongs in the region. So what is at stake today that has not been so urgent for the past 23 years?

The population of the Banyoro is relatively small, around 700,000, according to the 2002 Census, and constituting about 3% of Uganda’™s population. Bunyoro is an NRM stronghold, and in the last election Museveni won nearly 170,000, or 81% of the vote in sub-counties where Banyoro were the most populous ethnic group. So Museveni does not appear in danger of losing many votes in Bunyoro come 2011. In terms of NRM support, Bunyoro performs much the same as the rest of western Uganda.

What sets the region apart, however, is oil. Last Thursday, at the same time Museveni was calling Bunyoro leaders to arrange for a meeting regarding the matter of his letter, British company Tullow Oil announced its latest oil field discovery. This new find would bring the estimated barrels in that region to over 700 million. The Ministry of Energy and Minerals development also recently announced that it is considering the construction of a refinery in the Albertine rift that would produce 50,000 barrels a day. Though Uganda is not likely to begin pumping oil for several years, it looks very much like a huge windfall of cash is on the way. Bunyoro is now looking like the future epicenter of Uganda’s economic power, which is all the more reason for Banyoro to start agitating for their rights to the land. The purpose of courting Bunyoro, say some observers like Augustine Ruzindana in last week’s Daily Monitor column, is “to ensure uncontroversial access to the oil discovered in the region.”

Members of the Bunyoro lobbying group, the Mubende Bunyoro Committee (MBC) have reportedly made numerous visits to the president, requesting for amendments to the oil sharing agreements. Then several weeks ago there was rumour of rebel groups in the Bunyoro region, which may have added on to the need for the central government to ensure the political and general security of the area. Security around the oil fields is already very high, oil companies with their own security units and the Presidential Guard Brigade stationed in the Albertine Graben. One source quoted by the Daily Monitor‘s article, “President Museveni’s new Bunyoro headache”, quoted a security source as saying that “Rebel talk benefits local Banyoro politicians who have dropped hints about bad elements. It’s meant to attract the President’s attention and cause him to tend to their concerns.”Thus, Museveni’s latest overture may be an attempt to assure any would-be rebels or rabble-rousers that he is on their side.

But in the politically advantageous process of courting oil-rich Bunyoro, Museveni has snubbed the Bakiga, and other ‘Bafuruki’. The Bakiga, who comprise around 32% of Kibaale, have, like the rest of western Uganda, historically supported Museveni. In total, they number nearly 2 million, a population nearly three times the size of the Banyoro. Museveni has even taken a swing at Buganda, whom he repeatedly referred to as ‘Mengo sub-imperialists’ in his letter. He also appears to be sidelining the demands of Buganda, including their long-standing request for federo, and instead turning his attention to their former rivals, the Banyoro.

The backlash against Museveni’s proposal by Bakiga, like Kibaale MP Tinkasiimire who has loudly denounced the plan, will likely make it impossible to succeed in ‘ring-fencing’ elected positions in Bunyoro. Many others have also criticized the proposition, arguing that it will set an unfair, unconstitutional and dangerous precedent. In his Abu Mayanja lecture last week, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani said of the ring-fencing proposal, “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.”

Given the uproar the proposal has caused, it is very likely that the matter will soon be dropped. While non-indigenous in the region, particularly the political types, may feel somewhat betrayed by the initial idea, Museveni will probably not lose much support once the matter is off the table. More importantly, however, he will have publicly demonstrated to the indigenous groups that he is concerned for their political, if not economic, well-being. Given that Museveni already wins much of the Banyoro vote, consolidating his support in Bunyoro will probably mean more for the oil project than the election in 2011.

Several analysts have argued, however, that with his letter, Museveni has opened a Pandora’™s Box of ethnic demands and subsequent tensions. Many of them are based upon historical wrongs, such as that of Bunyoro, or the late former president Milton Obote’s assault on the Buganda kingdom, or the 20-year long conflict in northern Uganda. But how does one determine who deserves affirmative action? And at whose expense will it come? Some may find it ironic that those who make the loudest ethnic demands“ like the Buganda and Bunyoro kingdoms “ are the same groups with the lowest poverty levels, highest literacy rates, and highest percentage of households with an employment income, business enterprises and a permanent dwelling. This is not to say that development is unnecessary for those groups who are better off, but that government policies “ like political or economic affirmative action “ may be better directed towards addressing issues concerning all the people of Uganda, and not only an ethnically organised few.

Playing ethnic politics is a quick and easy political strategy for Museveni. Being seen to grant favors to the political or cultural leadership of an ethnic group may be one of the cheapest and easiest ways to win a political support, by way of an ethnic block vote. Forty-seven years after the end of colonialism in Uganda, the divide and rule strategy is back in play. Unfortunately, the costs of such a strategy, including rising ethnic tensions, fall not on the ruler, but on the ruled.

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