How yesterday’s oppressed have become today’s oppressors

Friday November 8 2019

Benjamin Rukwengye

Benjamin Rukwengye 

By Benjamin Rukwengye

The elderly man was evidently broken from having to relive his trauma. Eyes welling up, he found the voice to ask, “What is going on in a man’s head when he is doing something like this to another man?”
In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, asks: “How can the oppressed, as divided unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be “hosts” of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible.”

Let me explain. In a video clip reviewing the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the elderly black man referenced at the start of this column, is appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s. He is facing his tormentor and in that moment, recollecting how the apartheid era policeman had made him squat, naked, over a drawer, and then repeatedly used the wooden compartment to smash his balls.

“What is going on in a man’s head when he is doing something like this to another man?”
If you prod hard enough as some have done in the past, you might find an excuse for apartheid – colour and classism. You might also condemn it but understand why a white police officer in the US will shoot a black unarmed man. Colour and privilege can be blinders to the value of life.

But here, in Uganda, it doesn’t make sense. There is no colour, and the violent enforcers are essentially outsiders to privilege – the oppressed, so to say. So what is going on in a man’s head when he is aiming a water cannon at another man, knowing it could kill him? What is going on in a man’s head when he is beating up a 19-year-old student whose only crime is protesting against tuition? What is going on in a man’s head when he aims his rifle at an unarmed civilian whose only crime is to disagree with the politics of the day’s government? What is going on in a man’s head when he is stealing and selling drugs meant to treat his countrymen?

The growing spate of incidents where policemen and soldiers are ‘giving it’ to citizens, students, journalists and Opposition politicians, with reckless abandon, is what Freire writes about. They don’t seem to see the stark similarities between themselves and those they are violently hounding because without the identity of the oppressor, they do not exist.

All of us grew up listening to stories about our ugly violent past, with stories about government-sanctioned terror and brutality against citizens. It is in fact the very foundation of the NRM revolution. So how did yesterday’s oppressed become today’s oppressors? How have we not learned from our past?


Here is a simple activity to help you understand how young people relate to power and the danger in that. Randomly ask a teenager to tell you what they would do if they were president or army commander for one day.
There might be those who, because of age, don’t have to worry about being around in future. But a country with our kind past cannot afford this repetitive cycle of violence. It makes no sense now and portends danger for the future. It is hard to imagine a police force, army or intelligence service that respect the rights and dignity of citizens even in 30 years, if we are raising the next generation of Ugandans as victims or witnesses of kibokos, teargas, pepper and bullets.

Let me, if you will, introduce you to a phrase – Irreducible Minimums. Basically, the term refers to “the least amount of attributes necessary to maintain function and identity.” For example, consider the parts of a tree - leaves, branches, trunk, and roots). A backbone, if you like.

You look at Uganda and wonder what ours are? What it is that forms our backbone? What do we agree on? How are we to fathom a future together without knowing what the fundamentals are? Who is supposed to define them? When will they? Do these things even matter? Should they?
“What is going on in a man’s head when he is doing something like this to another man?” because the answer is where we shall find the future we (hopefully) envision.”

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.