A very minority view: Why I love Uganda’s tribalists (Pt II)

Wednesday August 05 2020

So here we are, the last part of our conversation about the folly of the arrest of comedians of the Bizonto Comedy Group, for their satirical critique of tribalism (or sectarian or ethnic bias) in appointments to public office in Uganda.

We had argued that this ethnic bias is mostly the manifestation of a deeper structural problem – scarcity of opportunity. Faced with many candidates for a few State jobs, ethnicity becomes the basis on which they are distributed. Also, we argued that there is always a silver lining.

The certainty that, for example, a Japadhola or a Mukonzo will not get a job in a parastatal, is an incentive for them to hustle and invest their energy in private enterprise instead. The sense of victimhood and contempt for the moral deficit of the system that has excluded you, make the pain and humble circumstances that come with the struggle easier to bear.

And so, back to the lowly trench Jopadhola diggers and hustlers from Tororo District who swarmed Kampala from the end of the 1980s, when they couldn’t get on the gravy train. By the beginning of the 2000s, they had become small contractors littered all over Kampala, and some later established themselves, for reasons that remain mysterious, as tailors in Kikuubo and such places.

I have passed through Entebbe Airport enough times to fill a book over the years. By 2010, something “strange” started happening. I couldn’t pass through Entebbe Airport without having to stop to greet a Jap immigration or security official, ENHAS worker, or an attendant. They were so many (relatively), by about 2014, I was getting embarrassed about it.

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A very minority view: Why I love Uganda’s tribalists (Pt I)

Wednesday July 29 2020


Rely on the Ugandan State to make a fool of itself again, when last week it arrested four comedians of the Bizonto Comedy Group, satirising tribalism in appointments to public office in Uganda.

They made the well-established and long-running point that State jobs in this country are disproportionately dominated by people from selected parts of western Uganda.

Ugandans have now become very vexed over it, and increasingly express their grievance in very dark terms. It is also a fact that, as Uganda’s history and that of many African countries tells us, ethnic regimes usually end in tears.

Yet, for all that, I for one lose absolutely no sleep over this ethnic imbalance, and to the extent that it is bad, it is not because my Jopadhola are not represented in a big way in the inner sanctums of President Yoweri Museveni’s government. It boils down to I recognise, a very minority philosophical view (in Uganda) of the State, and the market.

I am generally anti-statist; it is a leech and burdensome, and should exist only in a minimalist efficient form. A government that represents the face of Uganda, would probably have a level of legitimacy that makes it so loved, and therefore having the credibility to reach into every aspect of our lives, and for me that isn’t a desirable goal.

I would rather have one hobbled by the illegitimacy of being sectarian, and lacking that credibility. But what does it for me, is how sectarian government takes away the best talents of a country from the private sector where its enterprise would create great wealth and build a strong nation, and corrupts and wastes it in the State.

If you are a genius doctor from, say, Rwampara, you have it in you to develop a Covid-19 vaccine in a private research lab, but because you have an influential relative in the State, you are offered and take the easy option of being appointed a Medical Officer in some district, with a pick-up to go with it.

Before long, you are making Sh10m a month transporting matooke and charcoal in the district ambulance, and selling government medicine to private pharmacies. If you had taken the harder road into research, you’d create a vaccine that makes a trillion shillings a year, and you could pocket Sh10 billion as the honest fruits of your labour.

Because this doesn’t happen, you have the persistent structural problem that gives rise to ethnic bias in government appointments. The real reason it happens is not because an Iteso or Mukiga permanent secretary loves his people and hates the other Ugandans. It is because opportunities are scarce. Ethnic appointments are not patronage.

They are a crude distribution mechanism people resort to because of scarcity. If there were more jobs and opportunities than there are Ugandans looking for work, you wouldn’t hear the present cries over tribalism.

And because the Uganda State is corrupt, these people who get in are soon feeding at the trough, and the inequality breeds anger and resentment.

Because I believe that for long-term political security, and for enduring wealth, people should work outside the State, often being excluded from the high table creates the best incentive for people to look for or create work in private enterprise, the non-State civil sector, to read more and improve their skills, or leave the country to go and work in more lucrative labour markets abroad.

My own Jopadhola (Jap) community is one of those small ones, and therefore, lacks the numbers to leverage for patronage.

After the economic liberalisation of 1988, and Ugandan economy started to tick, there was a boom in construction in Kampala. In the early 90s, the mobile phone companies came. Between National Water & Sewerage Corporation, the telecoms, and construction, there was a lot of trench digging all over Kampala.

Tororo being an area that was seen as having been pro-UPC, impoverished by the conflicts of the time, and without the numbers to be a political bloc of consequence, many Japs came to Kampala to dig trenches and do menial tasks at building sites. Soon the jokes about Jap trench diggers were plentiful.

I wrote a column then that within a few years, the guys doing the menial jobs at sites and the trench diggers would be small contractors. And, also, that as we saw with the humble cattle keepers and plantation workers who came from western Uganda to Buganda in the first half of the 20th Century, their children and grandchildren certainly wouldn’t be trench diggers.

I was correct. By the 2000s, newspapers were now carrying stories of Jap contractors who had been robbed by a presidential aide or big government official they had built a nice house for on a hill.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist,
writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3

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There was no Jap Transport minister, Permanent Secretary, big man at CAA, or in ENHAS. These, were the children or grandchildren of the trench diggers. In generational terms, they were the people who got on the lift from the ground floor. Their journey to the top floor is longer. Those favoured by sectarian appointment, get on the lift from the higher floors.

Their ride to the top is shorter. We say all this, however, to make the point that great caution is necessary. It leads to poor understanding of the problem of nepotism and sectarianism in the State, if you take a headline view, namely counting only ministers, parastatal chiefs, security chiefs, and so on.

Former minister, NRM Historical, and East African Community Secretary-General Amanya Mushega is a good friend. He was wont to make the point that tribalism clouds nature. He liked to point out, for example, that in parts of the west, which were supposed to be “eating”, children there were more stunted than those in areas of Uganda that were not represented at the NRM feast.

And that leads to one of the biggest damage a sectarian government does; if your region is supposed to be advantaged, it is harder to campaign against inequalities there. The rest of the country won’t listen, and the local elite uses the noise against tribalism to rally unity against the “others.” So, many remain poor, and only when the regime ends does your pain become evident, as we saw with the north after Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Then the next dangerous series of distortions happen.

First, the honest enterprise of people from so-called “privileged” areas gets diminished by generalisation, because it is seen as having been granted by a sectarian overlord, not justly earned. Second, there are always people who will oppose the local inequalities, but they are seen as “traitors” and face hostility, so the only way they can do it is from an extreme position. In Uganda, you see a bit of this tendency in the Opposition FDC – it is important to understand where it comes from. In Kenya and Nigeria, some of the opponents of their community’s hegemonic politics also tend to be extreme.

It can also then come to shape the general politics. Because you aren’t debating policy or philosophical matters (liberalisation vs State control of the economy) that can be argued with data, but red meat issues of blood, national politics becomes extremely poisoned, because you are drawing on deep emotional grievances of exclusion.

If you go back to the period, especially between 1988 and 2005 before the return to multipartyism, in some areas, the NRM State was more repressive than it is today. However, even where there was war, the political debate wasn’t as visceral as it has become in the last 15 years. Reason? With all its faults, the NRM’s “broad-based politics” was still a counter to runaway parochialism. The Big People might want to look in their old mirrors.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist,
writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3

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