Tragedy of the scourge of tribalism in Africa

Friday May 17 2019


By Harold Acemah

Daily Monitor of April 15 carried on its front page the following stunning headline, “Museveni warns army on tribalism”.

According to the story, Sabalwanyi urged soldiers of the UPDF to shun tribalism and embrace pan-Africanism and added that UPDF should always promote and safeguard the rights and interests of the masses.

He made these remarks, which by the way I concur with, while addressing soldiers at Nakasongola military barracks.

“Tribal armies could not defend their societies against colonialists because they were weak and divided, and as a result the whole of Africa was colonised by 1900, save Ethiopia. This should tell [us] that being divided is counter-productive,” he said.

Sabalwanyi alleged that past armies emphasised identities of tribe, religion and sectarianism which UPDF soldiers must not emulate and advised the army to work always for the good of Uganda and Africa.

Definition of tribalism

According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, tribalism means, “behaviour, attitudes, etc. that are based on being loyal to a tribe or other social group; the state of being organised in a tribe or tribes.”

In a book titled The trouble with Nigeria, Chinua Achebe (RIP) defines tribalism as follows: “Intelligent and useful discussion of tribalism is often thwarted by vagueness. What is tribalism? I will spare you a comprehensive academic definition. For practical purposes, let us say that tribalism is discrimination against a citizen because of his place of birth.”

I believe it was Prof Mahmood Mamdani of Makerere University who during the 1980s was among the first prominent Ugandans to raise a red flag and openly express concern and dismay about tribal tendencies in the then popular NRM government.

Today it is an open secret that tribalism is rampant in Uganda, especially in the public sector. Scriptures teach that we should judge people by their actions and deeds, not their words. It’s with this in mind that I am writing and in the same spirit I raised some pertinent issues in my opinion of February 17 titled, “Does UPDF reflect national character of Uganda?”

Let me refresh the memories of readers on a couple of issues raised. Unlike the defunct National Resistance Army (NRA), UPDF is a public institution and a state organ which is funded by taxpayers of Uganda who come from all districts, tribes and belong to all religions and political parties registered in Uganda.

Against this background, I proposed that, “in accordance with Article 210 (b) of the Constitution, MPs should, as a matter of urgency, demand publication of the list of all persons who are currently employed and serving in UPDF, ISO and ESO, together with details of their ranks, when they were enlisted and which districts they come from.”

In conclusion I argued that, “the NRM government has a duty and moral obligation to explain and allay the legitimate concerns, fears and misgivings of a large number of

Ugandans about UPDF.” If the ethnic composition of UPDF does not reflect the national character and diversity of Uganda, how on earth can one warn and expect the army not to be a victim of the obnoxious and shameful scourge of tribalism? How can one ask UPDF to always work for the good of the masses of Uganda and Africa when by its very nature the army appears to be designed to work for and advance some narrow and selfish and vested interests?

If the NRM government wants UPDF to genuinely shun tribalism and embrace pan-Africanism, the army must, first and foremost, be restructured so that it reflects the national character and rich diversity of Uganda at all levels, especially at the level of the officer corps.

After 33 years in power, it is dishonest and unacceptable to invoke the history of NRA and UPDF to explain and justify the glaring discrepancies in the unfair and unjust composition of UPDF whose enormous budget of about Shs4 trillion for the 2019/2020 Financial Year will be paid by all Ugandans. I believe Ugandans have a right to demand answers and value for their money.

 Mr Acemah is a political scientist and retired career diplomat.