Tracing ethnic conflicts in the Rwenzori

Sunday March 20 2016

Rwenzururu King Charles Wesley Mumbere is carried on a chair. In Oc

Rwenzururu King Charles Wesley Mumbere is carried on a chair. In October 2014 Mumbere reconciled with Bamba cultural leader, Lt Col Martin Ayongi Kamya, and resolved to end the cultural differences among their subjects in Rwenzori sub-region. FILE PHOTO 

By Faustin Mugabe

Politics in the Mt Rwenzori sub-region has often been explosive, so much so that anything can be a detonator to the bubbling political tempo that has affected the area since the first ‘political eruption’ in 1961 that occurred in the present-day districts of Ntoroko, Kasese and Bundibugyo in western Uganda.

Since then, the sub-region has been seen as one of the volatile areas where a family dispute can spark off clashes between families, ethnic groups or even with security forces.

Last week, the clashes reoccurred leaving at least four civilians armed with clubs and stones dead and six others wounded when they clashed with security forces.
And whenever clashes happen in the sub-region, government has always used force to subdue the wrong elements.

The beginning
The earliest political clashes in the Rwenzori sub-region were ethnical. They were between the Bamba and Bakonjo against the Batooro.

At the time, the king of Tooro was supreme with his headquarters in Fort Portal while the Bamba and Bakonjo had very small chiefdoms in and around the Mt Rwenzori area. The two communities lived together in total harmony.

The Batooro despised the Bamba and Bakonjo partly due to their stature. Nevertheless, that did not anger the Bamba and Bakonjo until 1961 when Tooro, Ankole and Bunyoro – then the only recognised kingdoms in Uganda – signed another agreement with the British colonialists.


Earlier in 1960, Buganda Kingdom first threatened to secede from Uganda and also encouraged territories in northern Tanzania to break away.

The British got concerned and to avert the secession, they hurriedly signed a new agreement with Tooro, Bunyoro and Ankole to remain as part of Uganda and each kingdom made a new constitution.

What sparked earliest clashes
For the case of Tooro, the framers of their constitution included a clause that said to qualify to become a member of the Rukurato Rwa Tooro (parliament of Tooro), one must be “Omutooro Nyakabara” (a true Mutooro).

The Bamba and Bakonjo saw this as a deliberate attempt to keep them out of the Rukurato Rwa Tooro. So they decided to boycott the Rukurato in protest of what they saw as segregation and humiliation by Batooro.
When the boycott started, some radical Batooro framed a derogatory scheme and meted out violence to the Bamba-Bakonjo. The Bamba-Bakonjo ran to Mt Rwenzori to escape the violence.
While in the mountains, they reorganised themselves and armed with spears, machetes and clubs, they retaliated against the Batooro and the central government. Ethnic violence then started.

The Bamba-Bakonjo then demanded a district composed of Busongora, Burahya, Bunyangabu and Bwamba counties. But to get a district, they needed two-thirds of the votes in favour of the motion from Tooro District as well as Parliament of Uganda, which was impossible.

Technically, the Bamba-Bakonjo had lost the political battle. And that is why they opted for a rebellion, during which central government and Tooro kingdom property were destroyed and people killed.

First, the Uganda police was sent to curb the situation, but when they failed the army was called in.

After the situation calmed down, then governor of Uganda Sir Walter Coutts on September 6, 1962, appointed a commission to “inquire into and report to the governor on the underlying reasons for the recent disturbances amongst the Bamba-Bakonjo people of Tooro District and to make recommendations in light to their investigations”.

The three-man commission was chaired by Dr F. C. Ssembeguya, Mr Gaspare Oda and Mr J. M. Okae. The three were all Members of the Parliament of Uganda. The report was published on November 16, 1962.
Some of the findings recorded are: “The bitterness among the Bamba-Bakonjo is a direct result of the attitude adopted by the Batooro people in the past.”

The commission was also informed by the Bamba-Bakonjo that Batooro government officials were calling them apes, baboons, gorillas, insects, dogs, flies and pigs.

“But there was evidence that the situation was improving,” the report said. However, “no definite conclusion had been reached regarding the use of forced labour.”

On what should be done, the commission recommended: “We [the commissioners] appeal to the Batooro to do everything in their power to eliminate such attitudes and to welcome the Bamba-Bakonjo into all spheres of activity on equal basis.”

The report further recommended that the Bamba-Bakonjo should return to the Rukurato of Tooro and also stand for any positions in the kingdom if they wished to contest.

Obote government inherits Rwenzori feuds
The newly elected Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) government inherited the Rwenzori feuds in 1962.

However, efforts were made to calm the situation.
Capt Shaban Opolot took charge, deputised by Lt Augustine Karugaba to neutralise the Rwenzururu fighters.

When the situation stabilised, the army was withdrawn from the region. But it exploded again after the August 1964 collapse of the Kabaka Yekka and UPC alliance.

The army and police were again sent to contain the clashes largely caused by the Bamba-Bakonjo fighters against the Batooro.

Retired Inspector of Police Jotham Bakehenura from Rukungiri District in south-western Uganda participated in the 1965 operation against the Rwenzururu fighters. Bakehenura joined Uganda police in July 1961 and retired in 1997.

In early 1965, he was in the group that moved from Nsambya Police Barracks in Kampala to Bwera Sub-county headquarters in Kasese where they pitched camp.

Asked what caused the rebellion in Kasese, the retired police officer said: “The Bakonjo said the Batooro were mistreating them and they decided to fight them,” adding that “They only used spears, pangas, knives and sticks to fight the Batooro.”

He also told Sunday Monitor that his role as CID officer was to interrogate and compile files of the apprehended suspects for prosecution. Although the police sometimes carried out arrests, most of the patrols were conducted by the army.

During the operation that lasted about three months, no police officer or soldier was killed or injured by the Rwenzururu fighters.

“The people [Bamba-Bakojo] were not violent like you see today when they attack police. During the operation they would run away from us. And we would follow them to the mountain; from where they would throw stones at us and roll heavy rocks to stop us from arresting them.”

Politically, president Milton Obote attempted to curb the situation by giving jobs to some few educated Bamba-Bakonjo. While that eased the bubbling, the political tempo remained fluid.

Amin’s attempt to curb tempers
When Idi Amin became president after the January 1971 coup, he visited Tooro District in May purposely to acquaint himself with the situation on the ground.

While in Kasese, Amin on May 5, 1971, received a written communiqué from the Bamba-Bakonjo and the Batooro explaining their positions.

The Bamba- Bakonjo mentioned segregation, among other ills, from the Batooro and so they demanded their own district.

Afterwards, Amin appointed a commission of inquiry led by Vincent Ovonji to investigate the matter. Amin promised to act on the findings of the inquiry.

During the 1973 reorganisation of the local administrative structure, Kasese and Bundibugyo districts were created.

“The aim is to bring the services near to the people,” Amin said.

Many who thought that Amin had finally got a remedy to the Rwenzururu fighters were stunned when the Banyarwenzururu, who had since 1962 fled to the Mt Rwenzori, refused to recognise the district status.

They instead proclaimed that Rwenzururu was a kingdom under king Irema-Ngoma and therefore an independent state and so could not accept a district granted by another state.
Because the Rwenzururu remained in the mountains, Amin’s government was not troubled. But when Amin’s regime fell in 1979, the Rwenzururu came down from the mountains and exploited the security vacuum.

They levied taxes and terrorised the populace, especially the Batooro, using guns they had now acquired.

Because the Rwenzururu movement since 1971 operated in the mountains, it was not taken to be a security threat until 1980 when they almost paralysed the national population census in Kasese after they occupied a number of townships in the district.

Binaisa attempts to solve Rwenzururu issue
Because of the insecurity caused by the Rwenzururu fighters, particularly in Kasese District, president Godfrey Binaisa tried to defuse the tensions through dialogue.

He involved a prominent Kasese-born Mukonjo, Amon Bazira, who was at the time the director of National Security Service, a security agency, to be a go-between him and the Rwenzururu fighters.

Bazira took to State House Entebbe a Rwenzururu delegation that, among other issues, demanded the indigenisation of the posts in the Kasese District administration.

At State House, it was agreed that Mr Blasio Maate, a Grade Three primary teacher be appointed the district commissioner immediately.

During the function to celebrate the fall of Amin’s regime on April 11, 1980, in Kasese, a “Rwenzururu minister” read a letter from the Irema-Ngoma, a self-styled King of the Rwenzururu kingdom, appointing Mr Maate District Commissioner (DC) of Kasese.

The letter also said Maate was to receive orders from the king since it was him who appointed him DC and that in case of directives from both the government and Irema-Ngoma, the later’s directives would prevail.

This act awakened the rift between the Bamba-Bakonjo and the Batooro, especially those living in Kasese District.

This was manifested during the 1980 national elections when Bazira contested for Kasese North constituency in which Kilembe mines and Hima Cement factory are located.

Hima was and is a cosmopolitan urban centre with sizeable number of Batooro. Because Bazira – a spy-turned politician – was associated with the Rwenzururu movement, the Batooro openly attacked him.
The enraged Bazira at a political rally attended by his party president Obote, Bazira threatened to expel all the Batooro from Kasese District. He said he had received an order from Irema-Ngoma for the Batooro to leave Kasese District within one week. Many left for fear of being attacked. Those who remained were not allowed to register as voters in Kasese District.
The Bakonjo claimed the Batooro were discriminating and killing the Bakonjo on roadblocks in Kabarole District.

As a result, many Batooro were also killed in Kasese. The tribal clashes during the December 1980 elections in Kasese and Kabarole led to the government establishing another commission of inquiry led by Mr Mukama, the principal assistant secretary ministry of Local Administrations.

Through amnesty, the UPC government persuaded Rwenzururu fighters to abandon the insurgency and in 1982 many came and joined the UPC government.

July 2014 attacks
On July 5, 2014, armed people attacked security facilities killing several personnel and robbing firearms in districts of Kasese, Ntoroko and Bundibugyo.

Security agencies lost 24 guns in the attacks that took the country by surprise. Security agencies retaliated and shot dead more than 100 suspected attackers. Most of them were buried in mass graves.

The Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, flew to Bundibugyo and inspected the scene of the attacks.

The commanding officer of the Special Forces Command, Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba, twice appeared at the scene in Bundibugyo before departing for Kasese.

The government said these attacks bore the hallmark of tribal strife and soon started referring to the attacks as “tribal clashes” between the Bamba of Bundibugyo and the Bakonzo of Kasese.

President Museveni did not visit the scene but from afar joined the official voices describing the attacks as “tribal”.

More than 200 suspects were arrested. A total of 495 people, who reportedly surrendered to the army after July 5, 2014, attacks were granted amnesty.

In March last year, the army’s General Court Martial in Kasese set free 29 of the 54 suspects implicated in ethnic clashes.

On December 8, 2014, the same Military Court Martial, sitting in Bundibugyo Town, discharged 126 people accused of participating in the July 5, 2014 attacks in Bundibugyo District.

About 2016 clashes

A wave of fear and uncertainty hovered over Bundibugyo District after the February 28 clashes that left at least 12 people dead and more than 50 houses burnt.

The clashes ensued shortly after the declaration of the district LC5 results where Bundibugyo returning officer, Mr Daniel Nayebale, first declared Mr Jolly Tibemanya (Independent) winner against Mr Ronald Mutegeki (NRM) but later reversed the results in favour of the latter.

As the election anxiety escalated, the tension shifted from political to tribal. This was because the Bamba/Babwisi accused the Bakonzo of voting Ms Josephine Babungi as Woman MP and Mr Ronald Mutegeki as LC5.

The Obudhingiya Bwa Bwamba big-wigs in the area were not happy when Tibemanya and Ntabazi lost. They looked at this as a challenge to their newly installed kingdom because they suspected the flag bearers to be backed by the Bakonzo. This created fear among the supporters of Mutegeki and Babungi.

A senior police commander was last Friday wounded as the army moved in to beef up police in quelling what the authorities have reported as ethnic violence that broke out in Kasese on March 10 following the post-election fallout.

Six people have since died in the violence, including two civilians shot on March 11 by a man in military uniform, who was captured on video.

Police chief Gen Kale Kayihura’s preliminary investigations into the March 10 clashes indicated that the attacks were carried out by a militia linked to the Rwenzururu Kingdom.

However, lawmakers from Kasese District on Tuesday blamed the recurrence of the clashes on security personnel and accused the police chief of “lying to the nation”.

They dismissed the police version of a local militia allied to the Rwenzururu Kingdom being responsible for the violence as “a cover-up”.