North-South differences flare up Uganda’s body politic

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  • It could have started as a quarrel over the neglect of Uganda’s health system after Speaker Jacob Oulanyah was taken ill, but the standoff has since degenerated into a North-South divide as Derrick Kiyonga writes.

When Uganda Airlines Airbus A330-800neo carrying a stricken Jacob Oulanyah landed in the American city of Seattle on February 4, few would have predicted that it would reignite the touchy subject of the North-South divide in the country. The North is still grappling with the after-effects of a civil war that raged on for the greater part of President Museveni’s 36-year hold onto power.

When it came to light that Oulanyah’s voyage to the US had cost the taxpayer nearly Shs2 billion, a small group of Ugandans in Seattle voiced their dissatisfaction. The National Unity Platform (NUP)— a leading Opposition party, which is mainly dominated by Baganda, a southern ethnic group—came out to support the protests.

“Join our colleagues in Seattle in a peaceful protest against the Uganda dictatorship flying one of their corrupt and brutal officials for medical treatment in the US while the regime has rundown hospitals in Uganda,” a message on NUP’s Facebook page read.

The suggestion that Oulanyah—the Speaker of Parliament who is also the NRM’s vice chairperson for Northern Uganda and represents Omoro County—was wasting taxpayers’ money infuriated the Acholi Parliamentary Group.

“In a situation where our Speaker was taken for treatment and then NUP organises people to demonstrate that he should not be treated; this is not the first Ugandan to be taken out of the country,” Anthony Akol, the Kilak North MP, who belongs to the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), protested.

Mr Akol’s fellow Acholi Parliamentary Group members also reasoned that no dust was raised when southerners like Rebecca Kadaga (former Speaker of Parliament and now minister of East African Community Affairs), Francis Zaake (Mityana Municipality MP), and Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile (the fallen Bank of Uganda governor) sought specialised treatment abroad.

“We want to condemn the section of Ugandans who think our brother should not get treatment. This is an attack not only on him as an individual, but it is also an attack on all of us. Honourable Jacob Oulanyah is not the first Ugandan to travel abroad for specialised treatment, and so why should he be targeted as an individual?” Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, the MP of Bardege-Layibi in Gulu City who now identifies as an Independent having formerly been an FDC member, said.

Identity politics?
NUP has rejected allegations that the protests in the US targeted Oulanyah as a northerner, insisting that they wanted to shed light on something that has become a permanent fixture in the NRM government.

“Our people have protested about bad governance, they protested against Ronald Kibuule (former junior minister for Water), they protested against Judith Babirye (former Buikwe Woman MP)… No-one came out to say that it was a tribal affair, and no one is protesting against Speaker Oulanyah,” David Lewis Rubongoya, the NUP secretary general, said in a phone interview, adding, “What the protestors and everyone has been saying is that: let’s have proper healthcare. We can’t have important people being treated from outside when we have not invested in healthcare here in Uganda.”

Mr Norbert Mao, the Democratic Party president general, a political leader from the north, however, outrightly rejects this explanation.

He recently tweeted thus: “The same people who threw parties to celebrate the death of [former Deputy Inspector General of Police], Gen Paul Lokech are the same ones wishing Speaker Jacob Oulanyah dead. Their likes refused Milton Obote’s dead body passage through Luweero to Akokoro for burial! They betrayed Ben Kiwanuka. There is no truth in them.”

By citing the “betrayal of Kiwanuka” Mao sought to take Ugandans back to a standoff that precipitated the 1966 crisis. The crisis pitted a UPC government dominated by northerners against the Buganda Kingdom. 

In so doing, it essentially kick-started a north-south rivalry whose vestiges persist to date. This was not how the story was supposed to pan out after Kabaka Yekka (KY)—a Ganda pro-monarchist party—formed an alliance of convenience with UPC then headed by Apollo Milton Obote, a northerner, in 1962.

The alliance saw Mengo ditch Kiwanuka—a Muganda, and one of the founders of the DP. Obote and KY’s Edward Muteesa fell out spectacularly, resulting in the 1996 Crisis. 

In 1967, Obote abolished kingdoms; thereby kick-starting the north-south rivalry. Baganda musicians such as Dan Mugula and Christopher Ssebadduka came up with songs mocking Obote. The north-south divide could be traced back to the colonial times when Buganda was favoured in all spheres, bar the military. 

In fact, the central region—mostly Buganda and Busoga—was designated for cash crop production. The outlying areas of the north, west, and east were meanwhile sources of labour for plantation agriculture, public works, and the security forces.

Historical asymmetries
This further exacerbated regional economic and social inequality. Limited economic activities outside Buganda and the south of the Protectorate generally meant that people there had to look for employment outside their home areas.

“Limited levels of education--partly the outcome of limited educational opportunities—meant that the security forces offered the best opportunities for self-advancement,” wrote Frederick Golooba Mutebi in his paper entitled Collapse, War, and Reconstruction in Uganda.

He added: “It has been argued that the colonial administration consciously recruited people from groups seen as traditionally war-like, mostly from northern and eastern Uganda, for the armed forces. By 1960 the Acholi, a relatively small ethnic group, occupied a disproportionate share of non-gazetted ranks in the police force.

“The Alur, Japadhola, Iteso, Jonam, Kakwa, Kumam, and Madi, all small groups, were also heavily overrepresented. This pattern continued after independence, thereby arming some tribes and not others. This selective recruitment into the armed forces was to avail post-colonial leaders with the means to seize power and try to retain and impose their will using armed ethnic allies.”

The smouldering rivalry continued even when Idi Amin, a native from West Nile, northern Uganda, torpedoed Obote’s administration in 1971. When Amin was toppled in 1979, he was replaced with Prof Yusuf Kironde Lule—a southerner who had no real powers since these resided with the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF). The army was dominated by northerners, with Tanzanians pulling the levers of power.

Lule, who was accused of promoting a Ganda agenda, was ousted after a tenure of 68 days. His replacement—Godfrey Binaisa, a Muganda who was an Attorney General under Obote—lasted only 10 weeks. Binaisa’s ouster by the Military Commission—a powerful organ of the UNLF headed by Paulo Muwanga, a Muganda—came after he removed the all-powerful David Oyite-Ojok, who was the army’s chief of staff.

Ojok, who was a native of Lango, had been demoted to serve as Uganda’s ambassador in Algiers. The 1980 elections organised by the Military Commission ensured that Obote got a second bite at the cherry. 

DP’s Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere—a southerner—was widely believed to have won the poll. Museveni, a southerner whose party won only one seat in Parliament, protested the outcome of the poll by waging a civil war, using the Luweero jungles as his base.

North propaganda?
Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA), which marched onto the streets of Kampala in 1986, was dominated by southerners. Mao says it ensured southerners were in sympathy with it by deploying propaganda against the northerners.

“When the NRA was in Luweero, they mobilised as Bantu (southerners) against the Nilotics (northerners). That’s why they had songs like Sirina dollar nyanya. So, the alienation of the north has been an NRM project and, therefore, the solution is to stop the stigmatisation of communities,” Mao said.

In the 2021 presidential elections, Buganda and Busoga voted for NUP flag bearer, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu. 
In fact, it was the west joined by the north that ensured that Museveni gets the current term. Having struggled to get votes from the north throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Museveni now counts the region an NRM bastion. 

Observers say he has managed to curry favour with the region that once detested him by handing their own big positions in his government (Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, Chief Justice) and Oulanyah (Speaker of Parliament).

The Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (Nusaf) has also doled out a lot of money to northerners, making NUP’s work of loosening Museveni’s grip on the region that much more difficult. NUP did not manage to win a single parliamentary seat in the region during the 2021 polls.

“The Acholi and Buganda regions have been marginalised and now they are taking turns in marginalisation,” says Mwambustya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University.

He adds: “In the last terms of the NRM, the North didn’t have anybody in the hierarchy of government. Now when they got two they got excited because it’s their turn. On the other hand, Buganda has got nobody in the hierarchy. But most importantly both have no power. When you look at the current power structure, they are nowhere.”

Despite winning just two parliamentary positions (Jinja City Woman and Manjiya County) outside its Buganda stronghold, NUP insists that election malpractices contrived not to show the inroads the party made in the north during the 2021 polls.

“We have [Declaration of Results] forms that show we performed well in the north, in Bugisu, in Bukedi,” Rubongoya claimed, adding, “So, we have already done well in the north and this noise won’t deter us.”    

Members of the NUP Boston Chapter during a protest in the US last year. Some supporters recently protested against Speaker Jacob Oulanyah receiving treatment in the US. PHOTO/ COURTESY

Though it’s apparent the fight between northern leaders and NUP could play into the ruling party’s hands, Mao has continued to fire off tweets. He has not shied away from claiming that NUP’s main objective is to disorganise the Opposition.

“Tyrants don’t just erupt like a mushroom. The warning signs are always in plain view. If you think a party that seeks to silence others through insults and blackmail will guarantee your rights then you don’t deserve freedom. Freedom is for the brave,” he says.

He adds: “The project that evolved into NUP was conceived with the full support of the Shadow State and it is sustained by the same. They went to [the Electoral Commission] and disembowelled the original party constitution and substituted it with a forged pigeonhole one, giving themselves draconian powers.”

In his book Contesting Catholics: Benedicto Kiwanuka and the Birth of Postcolonial Uganda, Jonathon L Earle says Kiwanuka who was Uganda’s first Prime Minister, sought to create a nationalist movement that would expand political participation, advocate for social justice, and challenge Uganda’s entrenched socio-political hierarchies. This all didn’t auger well with Mengo.

Earle writes: “In the parliamentary election of April 1962, the UPC and KY coalition secured control of the government. The arrangement was electorally partitioned: UPC stood for all of the seats outside of Buganda; KY for those exclusively in Buganda. Benedicto Kiwanuka and DP vacated their short-lived tenure following the electoral defeat.

“Uganda’s government would be controlled by a coalition government between UPC, led by the northern, republican statesman Milton Obote, and KY, whose membership backed the southern, monarchical presidency of Sir Edward Muteesa II, the king of Buganda and first President of Uganda. The UPC-KY alliance was short-lived; it disbanded by August 1964.”

The disbandment came after Edward Muteesa—the Kabaka of Buganda, who also doubled as Uganda’s President, albeit with no executive powers—attempted to quicken an internal revolt in UPC through Grace Ibingira. The attempt was unsuccessful and two years later, Muteesa was forced into exile.

Reaction...Not tribal affair 
Our people have protested about bad governance, they protested against Ronald Kibuule (former junior minister for Water), they protested against Judith Babirye (former Buikwe Woman MP)… No-one came out to say that it was a tribal affair, and no one is protesting against Speaker Oulanyah,’’ Mr Rubo-ngoya, the NUP secretary general.