Nearly 100 people have been killed in the clashes of recent days between “tribal gunmen” and Uganda army troops in the Rwenzori region.
Five soldiers, five policemen and at least 11 civilians were among the casualties.
This is how several international news agencies reported it, and here we quote just the case of the French news agency AFP: “Ugandan police say the attacks are ethnic battles, with the local majority Bakonzo people trying to kill the minority Basongora people because of ‘long-standing differences of culture and over land’,” police spokesman Fred Enanga told AFP.
“There is a tribal conflict. Some of the Bakonzo do not want the minority groups recognised as kingdoms within what they perceive to be the larger ‘Kingdom of Rwenzori’, with Bakonzo the dominant tribe,” Enanga added.
“[President Yoweri] Museveni said cultural groups in the region had been ‘actively fomenting sectarianism and tribal chauvinism – acting and talking as if the only thing that matters are certain tribes to which the respective traditional leaders belong’.”
When I first read these reports, I was taken aback a little. It is unusual for, especially, security people in Museveni’s Uganda to talk of “dominant tribe” and “tribal gunmen”, and the fact that they do shows a striking evolution.
Museveni first kept to the old “politically correct line” by referring to “fomenting sectarianism”, but then fell off the wagon too when he spoke of “tribal chauvinism”.
Compare this to the days of both the Alice Lakwena and Joseph Kony-led rebellions. Those conflicts were ugly, nasty, and brought out the worst in both the NRM operatives and UPDF combatants and the Kony limb-and-lips-hacking brigades.
Privately, some government and military officials would refer to “northern brutes”, but in public the most extreme government people would get was to refer to “backward forces” or “primitive forces”. Otherwise, the conventional phrasing was “reactionary forces”.
These were not just words. They flowed from a philosophical premise that impacted how the conflicts in the north, and elsewhere in the country, would be solved.
First, the idea was that people did not think differently because of their tribe. They did so because of their “material conditions”. If they were poor or hungry, they were likely to steal. Thus tribe X that lives in a district that is hit with famine, is likely to steal from the gardens of tribe Y that lives in the next district which hasn’t had a famine. Yes, tribe Y will come to view tribe A as “thieves”, but that would be because of their low political consciousness. If they were more ideologically advanced, they would see that it is the famine, not tribe to blame.
Now an “advanced” NRM cadre in the area would see that the problem to the food theft is not to arrest the thieves from tribe X, but to reverse the famine conditions through food relief and agricultural support. A “backward” cadre who is not scientific and doesn’t see that and thus insists on arrest, could end up arresting all of tribe X, and create a big political crisis out of a temporary food shortage.
Some years ago, Museveni and NRM leaders would refer to such a cadre as “ideologically confused” or having “regressed”.
The NRM of that time also liked to make a distinction between the “leaders” and “misled”. The former would be punished; the latter would be forgiven and rehabilitated. Lumping everyone together as part of a tribe, means you can’t make this fine distinction and you end up with collective punishment. We are seeing this in South Sudan in the killings between the Dinka (President Salva Kiir’s people) and the Nuer (his rival Riek Machar’s people). They turned an internal political struggle inside the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) over power and groceries, into an ethnic slaughter race.
So how come a contest over land, power, and cultural resources is now cast as the action of “tribal gunmen”? To take the most generous view, I think it tells us that finally the generational shift inside the NRM and its government is gaining critical mass.
What we might call the “Class of 1981-2001”, those whose political views were forged in the NRA bush war, and the first 15 years of the NRM have died, retired, being edged out, or given up. In short, NRM’s ideological intestines have truly changed.
The less generous alternative is that the NRM hasn’t changed much. Rather elements in its top leadership and of the security services, have adopted an awareness of themselves as a tribe(s).
It is that self-consciousness that they are now projecting into their analysis of national problems. You can choose to believe the best - or worst.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com): Twitter:cobbo3