In the past few weeks, Ugandans have been inundated by news of tribal conflicts of one form or another. Yet this is not just a problem of yesterday; it is something that has been building up over the years and in early July, we witnessed a full-blown tribal conflict in the Rwenzori region of western Uganda pitting the Bakonzo against the Bamba, Babwisi and Basongora.
Earlier, we had witnessed similar conflict in 2009 where the Baganda, Baruuli and Banyala drew blood over sovereignty. President Museveni who has distinguished himself as a champion of the minority naturally sided with the Banyala and the Baruli, refusing the Kabaka to exercise his sovereignty over the smaller tribes originally thought to be part of Buganda. The result was bloodshed!
Last week, another tribal conflict reared its head, this time in eastern Uganda’s Mt Elgon region after a splinter group of the Bagisu/Bamasaba calling itself Babukusu inaugurated the biennial circumcision ceremony at Bududa, two weeks ahead of the “official” Bamasaba function slated for August 19 at Mutoto cultural grounds.
Clearly, what is emerging is that these conflicts seem to be rotating around the issues of identity. In the past, tribal or ethnic identity was mostly defined by language and communal residence and was expressed in speech, song and dance. But increasingly, the new tribal identity is defined not just by the language spoken but by a cultural leader or king blessed by President Museveni who has jokingly referred to himself as the Ssabagabe (king of kings).
It does not matter that many of the tribes do not have a history of kingdoms and have, therefore, never had a king! It’s a kings’ galore! Thus in the Rwenzori region, it was the clamour for and installation of Omundingiya (king) of the Bamba against the wishes of the Omusinga (king) of the Rwenzururu (dominated by Bakonzo) that lit the fire. And in the wings came two other claimants to kinship; the Babwisi and Basongora!
Neither the Bakonzo, nor the Bamba have a history of kingship; and the same applies to Babwisi and Basongora.
In Bugisu, the feud is between Umukhuka (king) of Bamasaba and Umukhungu (king) of Bukusu! And they all lay claim to their rights to have or create a king to the 1995 Constitutional provision that said any ethnic community that so wishes can have a king!
Clearly, this problem seems to have started with the 1995 Constitution that “tribalised” Ugandan citizenship by defining a Ugandan as anybody who belongs to the listed “indigenous” communities – 65 in all, some of them differentiated by dialect or simply how they pronounce different letters of the alphabet but sharing everything else from customs to food!
This was a fundamental departure from the 1962 and 1967 Constitutions that provided for citizenship on the basis of birth in Uganda to a parent (or grandparent) who was a citizen or a birth outside Uganda to a father who was a citizen, in addition to defining how one can acquire citizenship. No tribes were listed, and no reference was made to indigenous or non-indigenous tribes.
Because of this tribalisation of the constitution, the Maragoli – a community that has been living in western Uganda since the 1920s and for all intents and purposes its member are covered in the successive constitutions as citizens – do not feel Ugandan enough until they are included in the third schedule of the 1995 Constitution listing of tribes!
In the next round of constitutional amendments, we are likely to see similar clamour of new tribes seeking recognition and this will be granted in anticipation of their votes that will be cemented by recognising their new “king” who will now be entitled to the monthly state stipend of Shs5 million and a shiny Japanese-made 4x4 vehicle.
In the short run, this tribalisation of Uganda citizenship might serve political ends but in the long run, it may break this country. We, therefore, need to get the courage to detribalise the Constitution by scrapping the list, thus taking away the basis of those who want to use tribes to further their personal interests – monetary or political!