Building lasting peace to our identity-based tensions

Locals of the disputed Apaa land camp at Acoli Chiefdom palace recently. Amuru and Adjumani districts have been claiming ownership of the area. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Colonial-era exclusionary policies favouring specific ethnic or regional groups have sowed seeds of resentment, further heightening identity-based tensions in Uganda.

In the heart of Africa, Uganda stands as a vibrant tapestry of cultures, ethnicities, languages, and traditions, boasting around 56 recognised ethnic groups. Among them include Baganda, Banyankole, Basoga, Bakiga, Banyoro, Acholi, Langi, Banyarwanda, and Bagisu. 

Each group contributes to the country’s rich cultural diversity with its distinct heritage. However, beneath this cultural mosaic lies a complex history marked by identity-based conflicts.

Uganda’s past is marred by ethnic violence rooted in historical grievances, resource competition, and political factors.

The notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in the north, lasting more than two decades, serves as a harrowing example.

This conflict, with its intricate motivations, caused widespread displacement and suffering, with the Acholi and other northern ethnic groups bearing the brunt.

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed ethnic conflicts between the Acholi and Langi communities, intensifying during president Idi Amin’s rule.

This period saw numerous casualties, displacements, and unspeakable atrocities as both groups faced violence and persecution. 

In north-eastern Uganda, the Karimojong sub-region has a history of inter-ethnic violence linked to cattle rustling and resource rivalry. Ethnic groups such as the Karimojong, Pokot, and Turkana have clashed over the years.

The Rwenzori sub-region, home to ethnic groups such as the Bakonzo, Bamba, Basongora, Batuku, and Batwa, has grappled with inter-ethnic conflicts and tensions. These disputes often revolve around land and political representation.

Around 15 years ago, the Banyoro became embroiled in a protracted ethnic dispute over the rights of immigrants (Bafuruki) to own land or hold political positions in the sub-region.

The scars of these and many other past conflicts linger, cultivating fertile ground for future violence. Colonial-era exclusionary policies favouring specific ethnic or regional groups have sowed seeds of resentment, further heightening identity-based tensions in Uganda. Some political leaders have opportunistically exploited these divisions, using identity-based rhetoric to mobilise support or deflect blame.

Despite Uganda’s wealth of cultural diversity, social cohesion remains strained, with limited opportunities for inter-ethnic dialogue and mutual understanding.

Uganda urgently requires robust mechanisms and initiatives to navigate its intricate societal diversity and thwart the escalation of identity-based tensions into full-blown conflicts. 

1. Truth and reconciliation initiatives: These platforms provide a crucial space for acknowledging past wrongs, documenting historical injustices, and promoting healing and understanding among communities. Truth and reconciliation processes have been implemented successfully in various post-conflict societies around the world. Uganda can draw upon these, and its own experiences to design a process tailored to its unique context. Such initiatives encourage individuals to come forward with their stories and experiences, fostering a sense of shared history and empathy among different ethnic groups. 

2. Conflict resolution mechanisms: Strengthening local and national conflict resolution systems offers avenues for resolving disputes and curbing violence escalation. This includes training mediators, improving access to legal resources, and establishing community-based dispute resolution mechanisms. By providing accessible and fair avenues for dispute resolution, Uganda can address grievances before they escalate into violent conflicts.

3. Inter-ethnic dialogue: Supporting dialogue initiatives can foster mutual understanding, bridge divides, and build social cohesion. There are localised efforts to mediate conflicts and promote peaceful coexistence among different ethnic and cultural groups in Uganda today. While such initiatives are steps in the right direction, there is a need for a more comprehensive and coordinated approach at the national level. Government can facilitate and fund inter-ethnic dialogues that bring together representatives from various communities to discuss shared challenges, opportunities, and aspirations. These dialogues should focus on building trust and finding common ground.

4. Cultural exchange: Encourage cultural exchange programmes and initiatives that allow people from different ethnic backgrounds to learn about and appreciate each other’s traditions and customs. Cultural exchanges create personal connections between people from different backgrounds. Such relationships can transcend ethnic lines and serve as bridges for communication and conflict resolution. Additionally, cross-cultural interactions break down stereotypes and misconceptions. Oftentimes, it is ignorance and misconceptions that fuel ethnic tensions.

5. Education for unity: Implementing educational programmes that promote tolerance, diversity appreciation, and conflict resolution skills empowers Ugandans to reject divisive narratives. Education is a powerful tool for challenging stereotypes and prejudices. Involving teachers, religious leaders, and traditional authorities is vital given their significant influence within communities. Schools can introduce curricula that emphasise the value of diversity and teach conflict resolution skills. Additionally, extracurricular activities, such as cultural exchanges and inter-ethnic sports competitions, can promote positive interactions among students from different backgrounds. 

6. Civic engagement and inclusive governance: Encouraging participation in decision-making helps prevent political manipulation based on ethnicity. Investing in civic engagement platforms that facilitate constructive dialogue is critical, serving as early warning systems for potential conflict. Civic engagement initiatives can include village hall meetings, community development committees, and forums for citizens to voice their concerns and suggestions. Local governments should actively involve citizens from diverse backgrounds in planning and decision-making processes. This not only empowers communities but also reinforces the idea that every voice indeed matters in shaping their collective future. 

7. Responsible journalism: Media plays a pivotal role in fostering informed, fair, and inclusive public discourse. Promoting responsible journalism and media ethics curbs the spread of false information, hate speech, and divisive messaging. Given Uganda’s context, it is crucial to promote journalism that focuses on solutions, humanising stories, and highlighting efforts to resolve existing or emerging conflicts. Journalists should receive training on responsible reporting and conflict-sensitive journalism. Furthermore, media organisations should have mechanisms in place to address instances of hate speech and biased reporting.

8. Leveraging technology and innovation: Given Uganda’s demographics and the proliferation of technology, addressing ethnic toxicity will also require innovative approaches that leverage technology, community engagement, and education. For instance, young people must be challenged to develop projects and solutions aimed at promoting inter-ethnic harmony.

Developing online platforms and mobile apps that facilitate inter-ethnic dialogue, conflict resolution, and education on tolerance and diversity will be crucial. 

Such apps could provide guidance on conflict resolution techniques and connect individuals with mediators or counsellors when needed.

Leveraging things like Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies to create immersive experiences that allow people to virtually visit different ethnic communities, fostering empathy and understanding could be captivating especially for the youth. 

Using data analytics and artificial intelligence to monitor social media and other sources for signs of ethnic tension is key.

This can enable early intervention and prevention. Supporting social enterprises that address ethnic toxicity-related challenges, such as job disparities or access to resources, through innovative business models is also crucial.

Implementing these mechanisms and initiatives holds the potential to create an environment where diversity is not only celebrated but also leveraged as a source of strength. By addressing historical grievances, promoting understanding, and fostering unity, Uganda can significantly reduce the risk of identity-based tensions escalating into destructive conflicts. 

However, it’s imperative that these efforts are not short-lived but rather sustained and reinforced. Building lasting peace and reconciliation in Uganda demands a commitment to these strategies over the long term.

Only through a concerted and unwavering effort can Uganda successfully navigate its diverse society towards enduring peace and harmony.

Mr Crispin Kaheru is a commissioner, Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC)