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

Wednesday July 29 2020



Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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.

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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