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Rich Baganda, poor Acholi

By Joseph Were

New report reveals economic imbalance among Uganda’s tribes

From a distance it looks like a giant quilt of different shades between brown and black spread on the side of the gradually slopping hill. Getting nearer, however, reveals tinny brown unbaked brick buildings, squashed next to each other and separated only by gullies filled with soggy brown water and house refuse. The mixture of rusted corrugated iron sheets, black polythene bags, and mangy papyrus mats used as roofing give it the quilt-like look. This Acholi Quarters, the unofficial name given to Banda I Village in Mbuya, a Kampala suburb.  It is called Acholi Quarters because, although it is right across from the Banda Palace of the king of Buganda in central Uganda, it is predominantly home to people of the Acholi tribe from northern Uganda.

‘The Acholi first came here in 1932 to work on a rubber farm owned by an Asian that was here,’ says the village LC-I chairman Gabriel Bongomin.

The issue of immigration has become a hot issue since a month ago when Daily Monitor newspaper published a letter purportedly written by President Yoweri Museveni that proposes the exclusion of settlers, mainly Bakiga, from prominent political positions in Bunyoro.

The issue has been linked to ethnicity and disparity in economic well-being between groups.

Like most men and women in Acholi Quarters, 46-year old Bongomin ekes a living by stone quarrying. He has an engineering technician’s diploma but jobs are not steady. Others wash cars for a fee in a sewerage infested stream in the valley below. Many others are simply jobless. All have either little or no income.

Such migrations, whether voluntary or forced, create diversified populations but they also make people more aware of their ethnic distinctiveness and antagonism.

A new report ranking Uganda’s ethnic groups by their level of economic well-being is set to add fuel to the raging debate as to why some groups are doing better than others under President Museveni’s government.

Compiled by the independent think tank Fanaka Kwa Wote, whose focus is on prosperity, peace and progress in the Great Lakes, the report exposes stark and skewed levels of wealth and poverty among different tribes/ethnic groups.

Fanaka’s stated objective for producing the report is ‘to shift the focus from politics to policy, in hope that Uganda’s diversity can be harnessed productively and in a way that benefits the entire nation, not specific individuals, families, ethnic groups or regions.’

Basing on the evidence provided, however, the report is likely to ignite the kind of debate that Fanaka seeks to stifle.

The question will be asked, for example, why the Baganda and Banyoro, who are the two leading ethnic groups economically in Uganda, are at the centre of agitation for more resources. Perhaps it is because they feel that others, who were previously far less privileged, now threaten their position at the top of the food chain.

Why ethnic tension?

The Fanaka report shows clearly that while the Banyoro are the most prosperous group under Museveni after the Baganda, the Bakiga are at number 11 of the 21 ethnic groups ranked.

Significantly, however, the Bakiga (at about 2 million) are the fourth largest ethnic group in Uganda while the Banyoro (at 715,000) are the 10th largest. The pressure on resources by the growing Bakiga population, therefore, impacts on their Banyoro hosts. The Banyoro, for example, have the second highest level of literacy after the Baganda but the Bakiga are catching up fast.  Between the two censuses, literacy levels among Bakiga have improved by 20% compared to 14% for the Banyoro.

Such differentials in achievement between settlers and indegenes accentuate inequalities. If Asians prove to be better shopkeepers than Ugandans, they are deported. It is the same between the Banyoro and Bakiga, the indigenous Kenyans and coastal Arabs, the Muslims and Sikhs in India, the Uighurs and the Han Chinese and Tibetans.  The same pressure is felt elsewhere. The Banyankole are now the second most populous group, followed by the Basoga, Iteso, Bakiga, and Langi.

In fact, most countries around the world have been faced with ethnic strife. Tensions are however held in check if there is mutual self-interest and benefits like improved economic status and power for all.

The Fanaka report is based on analysis of data from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) Census 1991 and 2002, and the 2008 UBOS study, ‘Spatial Trends of Poverty and Inequality in Uganda: 2002-2005’.

It focuses on the 21 most populous ethnic groups that comprise 94% of the population of Uganda based on the 2002 National Census. It ranks according to nine indicators of economic well-being. It does not explain why some groups are better off than others, although seeking answers to that question is inevitable in any attempt to analyse the findings. Conclusions like ethnic tensions appearing as these huge groups scramble for more resources, especially land, are to be expected.

The poor, the rich

The report has a ‘composite index’ that ranks ethnic groups by their level of consumption of basic necessities like sugar, soap and blankets, employment in jobs other than subsistence farming, ownership of property like permanent houses and radios, health and education.

According to this ranking, 10 of the well-off ethnic groups are from east, central, and western Uganda. Of these 10, 50% are from western Uganda.

The Baganda lead the well-off list followed by Banyoro, Batoro, Banyankole, and Bahororo.

On the other hand, 10 of the worst-off ethnic groups are from northern and eastern Uganda. Of these 50% are from northern Uganda.

The Karimojong are the worst-off among the worst followed from below by the Acholi, Langi, Madi, and Iteso.

According to the report, the Karimojong have the worst education levels, worst consumption of sugar and soap, worst level of toilet usage, worst permanent house ownership, and use virtually no electricity.

The Bahororo have the best school enrolment, best literacy, and best use of toilets.

The Baganda lead in literacy but compared to other groups over time, they have had the least percentage increase in literacy meaning that although Baganda are the most educated, the other groups are catching up fast. According to the information, between the 1991 and 2002 national census, the percentage of literacy in Buganda increased by just 9.4% compared to 22% among the Bakhonzo, 21% among the Banyankole, 20% Bafumbira, and 20%  Bakiga.

Museveni’s strategy

President Museveni is not the first politician in Uganda to use ethnicity as a political strategy based on the sharing of power and resources.

Museveni is accused of using ethnic solidarity to mobilise groups that feel oppressed or inferior in status or those who feel that their superior claim to resources of the state is threatened. As such, the ethnic groupings have become interest groupings. They are pursuing less the right of belonging to an ethnic group and more the right to enjoy certain benefits like status, jobs, or economic and political power.

Without tribal politics, experts say, Museveni would have difficulty making concessions and being rewarded for it. Small units like myriad districts and ethnic groups make it easier for him to offer them bait that hooks them to supporting his continued stay in State House. It is more politically profitable for Museveni to be seen to ‘ring-fence’ jobs for Banyoro. They will remember it at the 2011 polls.

But Dr Simba Sallie Kayonga of the political science department at Makerere University says economic imbalance between ethnic groups dates back to the pre-colonial period. ‘Even the post colonial government failed to reduce the imbalance,’ he says, ‘it’s not something of today and has nothing to do with the politics of the today.’

Other economists have differing views on the current disparity.

‘The north has been unstable for over 20 years and has been less economically active .The west has seen no insecurity apart from the ADF rebellion that lasted 2 years from 1998 ‘“ 1999 [ADF rebellion broke out in November 1997- editor]. The central region is the hub of economic activity,’ says William Oketcho, an MP on the Parliamentary Committee on the Budget and the Committee on Finance, Planning and Economic Development.

He says the Buganda and Bunyoro are selfish by agitating for more resources in spite of being on top of the food chain.

‘They have everything in their favour,’ he says.

Arthur Kiiza, the director in charge of the budget at the ministry of finance, says Buganda and Bunyoro should not be complaining because the two regions have all the advantages on their side. ‘The proximity to the market and the infrastructure are all on their side,’ he says.

He agrees that the north is poor because of the civil war.

‘It is a (potentially) very rich area,’ he says.

Way forward

Ethnicity is used here to mean those historically, culturally, and linguistically distinct groups that comprise Uganda, the nation-state. It may be used interchangeably with tribe, which at this basic level is understood to mean people who speak the same distinct language through kinship. It refers to the 56 ‘indigenous communities’ listed in the third schedule of the Uganda constitution 1995.

The word ethnicity is not used to imply subordination by a dominant group or common religious or behavioural traits.

The section of the Constitution that deals with ‘National Unity and Stability’ deals quite clearly with ethnicity. In Section III (subsection II &III) entitled ‘National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy’ states that ‘every effort shall be made to integrate all the peoples of Uganda while at the same time recognising the existence of their ethnic, religious, ideological, political and cultural diversity.’

The Fanaka report notes that ‘Uganda’s long history of political upheaval, beginning from the time of colonisation, has often revolved around ethnicity. On multiple occasions, those in power have used their position to benefit their kinsmen at the expense or to the exclusion of other ethnic groups.’

It points out that ethnicity has been an identity by which people can be relatively easily mobilised and collectively to make demands but warns that it has sometimes led to unfavourable outcomes, including destruction of lives and property. It gives examples of ethnic-based conflicts in Rwanda, Kenya, Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It points at issues of land and power that have pitted ethnic groups against one another, and urges the government to enact nationalistic policies that effectively address these longstanding issues.

Sociologists have argued over the years that the growth of nationalism depends not on government propaganda but on social structures. They argue that growth of cities with advanced communications, education, industrialisation, and employment makes groups less tribal or local and more national.

When asked if living in Buganda has impacted negatively on the Acholi in Mbuya, LC-I Chairman Bongomin disagreed.

‘People here are too busy trying to survive,’ he said, ‘there is no focus on tribal differences.’

Bongomin’s view fits in with some ethnologists’ belief that urban life leads ethnic groups to lose their distinctiveness. Instead of members of an ethnic group emphasising ascription, attention shifts to individual achievement. Uniform economic and political conditions have the same effect while disparate situations accentuate ethnic distinctiveness.

Ironically, as in Acholi Quarters which is a poor area at the edge of the relatively rich Bugolobi, Mbuya, and Luzira suburbs, social structure changes create new disadvantaged groups. This creates fresh ethnic tension because ethnicity is not static. Therefore, treating it as such is to miss the full import of its mutation, especially into new social category called class.

That Ugandan society needs to move into a class society as a precondition for multi-party politics is an old Museveni line. Unfortunately, he was forced to ditch his no-party Movement system into multiparty politics before the community transcended ethnicity. That may explain why he is revertion to ethnicity as a tool of mobilisation appears incongruent to the times. Unfortunately, that leads to disparity in economic well-being between ethnic groups.

The aim of this report is to expose the gaps for policy makers to design appropriate interventions.

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