Thought and Ideas
Otunnu: Time for making peace and truth-telling
Posted Sunday, September 22 2013 at 01:00
This is the third and last segment of Uganda Peoples Congress president Olara Otunnu’s proposal, “Reinventing Uganda: Agenda for Radical Renewal”, in which he sets out a radical shift in the national trajectory. In the first installment, he focussed on regime change and 2016 ‘elections’. In the second part, he discussed the National Convention and the Buganda-Uganda Question. And in this piece, he turns to the National Project; Truth-telling, accountability and reconciliation.
Today, Uganda is deeply divided and polarised, especially along ethnic and regional faultlines. Discrimination and segregation are entrenched.
I have never seen in our country such anxiety about a person’s ethnic or regional origins. When a person meets you for the first time, one of the first things on their mind is most likely, “So where does he come from?’’ “Is he from the kop ango group or the agandi fraternity?” “Does his name begin with an ‘m’ or with an ‘o’?” From these furtive discoveries, apparently the rest follows. Ethnic and regional profiling has become commonplace and accepted.
When I was at Makerere [University], we had the Guild, for all students; UMSA, for all Ugandans; and equivalent associations for Kenyans, Tanzanians, etc. There was no Acoli association. Today there is Acoli association at university-level, and also one at medical school. Since 2001, ethnic caucuses have become systematic feature of Parliament. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this. Except that this development is revealing of something deeper. There has been a fundamental shift in our national consciousness.
In the face of systematic discrimination and segregation, most of it organised along ethnic and regional differentiations, Ugandans have naturally reacted by retreating deeper and deeper into their “primordial wombs “ , there to seek the solidarity and sense of common belonging which has collapsed at the national level . This largely emerged as defence mechanism in an inhospitable national environment.
The truth is that, for more than three decades, President Museveni/NRM has deliberately promoted and practiced toxic sectarian politics, in part as a strategy for gaining and retaining power. His pronouncements and those of his associates speak volumes about this. Museveni’s discourse divided Ugandans into mutually antagonistic universes: “Us” and “Them”; “Those people” and “Our people”; “Northerners” and “Southerners”; “ Nilotics” and “Bantus” ; “Those Baganda “ and “The Westerners” ; “Those are not people, they are biological substances”; “Oh yes, they came singing, and we massacred them; we really massacred them”. Songs of National Resistance Army are famously spiked with ethnic bigotry and gloating about killing compatriots.
A systematic programme of hate and racist indoctrination was put in place from the inception of the NRA project. Indeed, the Luweero insurgency campaign was explicitly built on and dominated by this factor. A ‘cadre’ graduate of Kyankwanzi Political School described it as an institution where “virulent xenophobia and racism is officially taught”. Absolutely.
Museveni/NRM has entered into the Penal Code crime of ‘promoting sectarianism’; precisely to silence those who would dare to expose his sectarian policies and practices. Through his programme of divide-and- rule, Museveni has successively set one ethnic group against another and one region against another.
As a consequence of the policies and practices described above, ethnic and regional origins have assumed a meaning never before witnessed in our country. One’s fate, in Museveni’s Uganda, is closely aligned to, if not sealed by, these identities.
We must repudiate this cynical politics of divide-and-rule. We need to embark on the National Project; this means a conscious mission to rebuild national unity. Incidentally, this has nothing in common with the current fraud, the so-called ‘patriotism classes’.
No country can achieve significant progress without a sense of common belonging and shared destiny among its citizenry. We cannot have Uganda without convinced Ugandans, without citizens who can say with real conviction and feeling, “We are Ugandans”. Otherwise Uganda becomes a mere flag of convenience, a far cry from a real nation state.
As we build national unity, we must at the same time preserve and celebrate our ethnic and cultural diversity. Uganda is a multi-national and multi-cultural society. We should construct national unity on that foundation, not against it. We have to weave the fabric of our unity from the threads of our diversity.
There is no contradiction in this. In the United States, I have encountered very few ‘plain Americans’. Most of the population is composed of ‘hyphenated Americans’ - - they are Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, etc. All are very proud of their tribal identities, while being fiercely patriotic Americans.
In India, a Gujarati or a Sikh is very proud of his ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic community, while being a very patriotic Indian. In Uganda, we need to accept and respect, not suppress, the four strands of our core identities - - ethnic, regional, religious and national. And weave them into a strong colourful fabric, a nation.
I dream of a Uganda in which a person can be a very proud Muganda (omusajja wa Kabaka) - - because there is much to be proud of in the culture and civilisation of Buganda - - and simultaneously be a convinced Ugandan nationalist. The same goes for his Acoli, Mugisu or Mukiga counterparts. And all this, without feeling that, somehow, there is something awkward about this configuration. I see no contradiction whatsoever in this dual claim of ethnic identity and national citizenship.
Let us reject manipulations by negative leaders to turn our identities into calling cards for privilege for some, and for discrimination and exclusion against others. When I was Guild president at Makerere, mobilising the country against the Amin regime, my rallying cry was: “We Have A Common Destiny.” Today, I want to shout this from the top of my voice, because it is even more salient in the current situation.