We must confront ethnicity question

Saturday August 01 2020

Perceptions, even when wrong, can be powerful and dangerous. Yet they do not thrive without basis. There has to be some foundational facts that lead people to hold a certain view, wrong or right.

This week brought to the fore a phenomenal national debate, raging at least on social media if not in the wider public spaces. It is an old national question and conundrum: Ethnicity and the role it plays in determining access to opportunities, especially in government and the public sector as a whole.

A satirical production by a drama group rehashed a fact much spoken about in hashed tonnes – that citizens from one part of the country dominate the most powerful and lucrative positions in government, in key State institutions and access to government-funded projects in the private sector.

We can argue over the veracity and the lack of nuance in this assertion. But that is not the point. Uganda has an ugly history on the subject of ethnic representation, so we ought to have taken lessons to move away from past mistakes. Excesses and misdeeds of public figures, especially those wielding the means of coercion and financial muscle, tend to lead to group blame and sweeping condemnation of an entire community.

Past changes of government, always happening violently, spawned revenge killings directed not just at individuals previously in government, but to anyone unfortunate to have kindred relations, however remote, with the primary target. Today, it is a deeply held perception that the current rulers, who came to power by force of guns, have built a skewed system of access to opportunities that betrays a glaring ethnic thrust.

To be sure, there are dozens of different ethnic and sub-ethnic groups in western and southwestern Uganda, some of them in fact have no substantial presence in key government offices or representation at the pinnacle of State power (assuming that makes any difference to ordinary citizen).


They may be as ‘marginalised’ as any other ethnicity from the east or north. But the generalised and stylised portrayal in the public imagination is that ‘westerners’ are in charge and are the net beneficiaries of the system of spoils. Yet, there are no such a people as ‘westerners,’ in the strict sense of this category, just as there are no ‘easterners’ or ‘northerners.’

These labels are just a handy shorthand, easily usable and to great effect in constructing a narrative about those perceived to be beneficiaries of the system in place and those that see themselves as short-changed, marginalised and discriminated against.

There is no doubt that access to opportunities in Uganda today is glaringly unfair, unjust and inequitable across different identity markers, but especially based on ethnicity. In some central government offices in Kampala or Wakiso, where ordinarily the lingua franc is Luganda and the official language is English, it is quite plausible that official business could be conducted in Runyakitara.

This is a fundamental problem that requires sobriety and sincerity. Rather than default to spirited denials or criminalising those speaking and performing about what is a real national problem, we need an open, candid and concerted national conversation to rethink and reform the current system.

This is central to forging a viable, sustainable and harmonious Uganda. As it stands now, ours is a deeply fragile nation, susceptible to possible social disintegration particularly because we have the wrong politics driving the country.

The current rulers captured power preaching against sectarianism and making the case for a new national consensus and a patriotic culture.

However, the longer President Museveni has held power, the more his rule has become nepotistic and ethnically skewed, which is the proven course that most authoritarian regimes tend to take.

There are token appointments of what would be characterised as ‘outsiders’ while ensuring that most important offices and positions with critical levers of power and a bearing on power preservation are allocated not on merit or regional balancing, rather on loyalty whose foremost and trusted source is kindred ties.

Unfortunately, such systems of rule tend to have tragic endings. There is enough historical and comparative knowledge about this to warn us against keeping the current modus operandi and trajectory.

To change things and redirect course requires a collective effort and a conscious endeavour on the part of all Ugandans. But the ultimate responsibility, the primary duty, lies with those wielding State power and who have the necessary resources to engineer a positive and progressive imagination for the country.

Mr Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).