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SECTARIANISM: THE FALLACY ABOUT TRIBALISM IN UGANDA
J Atwoki Birungi in Toronto

The independence celebration and open expression at the Queensdale Tavern in Toronto was a stimulating occasion.  In an open forum free flowing expressions on ways to a better Uganda were made between gulps of beverages.  My expression was in response to the catch word  “tribalism”  in response to an articulate expression by a brilliant young Ugandan law student at UoT.  In this article I would like to expand on the subject  following what others contributed. 

Outright, I am one who will readily call for substituting the word tribe with a more politically acceptable term like ethnic identity.  My rejection of the word arises not from militancy or denial but true understanding of what it connotes.  Way back  Prof. Musa Mushanga pointed to a class of his students that a tribe by definition   is a group of savage families under a chief.  In fact the Oxford dictionary concurs but preferring to refer to a group of primitives.  Think about it, ethnicities numbering over  6 million like the Zulu, Igbo, Yoruba etc are tribes, but the term is never used to describe the Dutch, the Corsicans, the Basque or any one of the several small ethnic groups in Europe.  No scholar refers to the Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English as the tribes of the United Kingdom. 

Regardless of its political correctness, the reference to tribalism in Uganda as the root cause of problems is a dubious theory advanced by quasi western pundits then unfortunately adopted by many of us as  truth.  Many of our own scholars have subscribed to the notion.  In fact a good dissection  of ‘tribalism’ in Uganda may jolly well be a fallacy.   In my view  what is observed as tribalism is an external manifestation of a fundamental problem – totally nothing to do with individual ethnicities.  It is an expression of a problem – not the problem itself. 

In my view the malady  ( one wonders if it is linked to cultural dynamics ) is incipient, malignant sectarian indulgence.  Sectarianism is the practice of identifying and being pre-occupied with differences than with similarities.  Sectarianism is a dynamic notion and ranges from race down to sibling friction.  In its most basic it is summarized by the saying, “ me and my cousin against the neighbour, but me and my brother against the cousin after which it is me against my brother “.  Sectarianism feeds on any one of so many contributing factors.  Scarcity of resources and  deprivation in general are among key contributors.  Sectarianism  has been ceased upon and promoted by opportunists as a very effective means of control and manipulation.  The policy of “divide and rule “ was an effective colonization tool.  Prior to Idi Amin, Nubian was more like a clan than a tribal affiliation.  The Nubian in Kabarole closely associated himself with the boys and girls of Fort Portal and not the Muganda Nubian of Bombo.  I know for a fact that nearly every F.P boy who approached the then Minister of Commerce Noor Mohammed was well taken care of as a brother.  Hussein Sebbi one time protégé of Amin always used the expression "son of my mother" to refer to Batoro.

To inflict harm, communities and people have rallied to any one of so many identities to advance their justification.   Race difference, gender, religion and social status have all been used in fomenting discord and brewing strife.  In Africa we have seen it all.  Those old enough to remember independence celebrations will remember cousin maiming cousin’s cows because of different political or religious affiliation.  We knew of incidents of relatives destroying livestock or property in retribution to  membership in DP or UPC.  Now if a Mukiga catholic dude can chop off the adder of a cousin’s cow because it is a UPC one, how much more harm can such a person do to Okello who is Moslem, darker skinned, taller, and speaks a strange language!  Clearly it is not his ethnic instincts at work but his intolerance for difference and the greater the index of difference  the more sinister the harm such a person is likely to inflict. 

The strife and self destruction witnessed by the Somali people is persuasive to the conclusion that too much attention continues to be paid to the symptom (tribalism = fever)  rather than the identification of the disease and its eventual remedy. Why and how was it possible for a nation of one race, one tribe, one religion, one language to fracture, disintegrate and self destruct so effectively?  In fact they managed this feat with very little external assistance!!  Do we blame clans as the culprit?  No way, give me a break.  In fact these creative people having failed to find a visible viable seed of difference, reached out for their colonial segmentation and broke out along the seams of the Italians and the English divide.  Somalia against Somaliland!  It does not get better than this!  

Why does Haiti continue to this day to exist in turmoil nearly 200 years since independence?  There are no tribes in Haiti and religion does not seem to have been a factor!  Why do inner city youths in Washington, Detroit and Los Angeles continue to rally around gangs and steadily self brutalize outside of race motivated action?  Why do the  Christian inhabitants of Ireland continue the hatred perpetrated along sector difference?   One wonders whether an elusive malignant cultural dynamic may be at play!! 

In the Uganda of independence in 1960, Obote with a couple of Langis was surrounded by people from every corner of Uganda, in fact his strength did not come out of Lango but Buganda.  Ben Kiwanuka on the other hand had strong and loyal support from Acholi not Buganda.  When the dreaded Idi Amin came to power, the people dancing in the streets of Kampala, were not just West Nilers or Nubians.  It was not the Banyankole who made it possible for Yoweri Museveni to succeed in his mission.  Even the dreaded Joseph Kony has not unlished his onslaught on to the Bahima and Baganda - his atrocities go beyond ethnic monopoly.  So then why has this notion of tribalism persisted?   

If I could use a medical model, I would equate the relationship between sectarianism and tribalism with that between symptom and disease.  In its simplest, fever is an illness and so is tribalism but neither of them is disease.  They are symptoms or detectable manifestations of an underlying cause.  Both fever and tribalism can do a lot of damage and even debilitate and arrest the functioning of a system ( body or country).  Both can be moderated and their effects can be neutralized by applying  temporary remedial measures.  If the strategy is to get over the complications arising, that is fine; however to cure the disease a totally different treatment is imperative.  More accurately unless the nature of the disease is understood, there is no way of prescribing an effective cure.  Our experience with malaria and now HIV clearly illustrate my point. 

One approach to control of disease and  boost health is through the promotion of measures which enhance the ability to resist attack.  Among these measures is  immunization and enhanced diet.  The same model I believe can apply to the onslaught of sectarianism.  It would be presumptuous for me to set out to prescribe a regimen of treatment.  I am not an expert on these matters however I can safely guess that one enhancer has got to be improved wealth, welfare and literacy.  An atmosphere of deprivation cannot but breed anxiety and greed and in turn sectarianism.   In the medical model, immunization is an indulgence for health professionals while there is no restriction on indulgence to improve diet.  Along the same model I believe that while the onus is on politicians to immunize the masses against sectarianism, it is incumbent upon all of us to play a role in planting the seeds of a good social diet.   

Processes of change can take place either by evolution or revolution.  The latter is energy intensive while the former is time intensive but evolutionary processes tend to stand the test of time better.  Revolution requires a detonator while evolution requires a catalyst.  A catalyst is never spent whereas a detonator is spent.  Is it possible that we have paid too much attention to event triggered need to change at the top while neglecting seeding the catalysts for evolutionary processes of change at the bottom?  Evidence will show that in Uganda a great deal of attention has been paid to changes at the top and each time such change took place the firewood was allowed to burn out.  The result is that for 40 years we have been periodically scrambling for matches to relight the fire!  Why not have a strategy of keeping the ashes warm and the embers alive?   We need to do more as individuals to start the evolutionary process in every child in the village and town of appreciating what has created great and model nations.  There is need for all those who subscribe to a formal religious club of followers (church, temple, mosque ) to play a role in fostering a better political life here on earth tomorrow in addition to their prime motive of the life hereafter.   

The saying that it is futile to teach an old dog new tricks may jolly well apply to old politicians and leaders.   How many primary or secondary schools exercise the democratic practice of choosing school prefects and encourage their change if they do not perform?  The ten commandments do not pronounce the need for a sense of responsibility, the respect of public property, or  patriotism as is required in paying tax. We miss out on all these essential foundations of a viable democracy as flexible young minds and yet we expect deprived adults to head government departments and to continue living in tin houses! Give me a break!  Cruelty breeds cruelty and that an abused child often becomes an abusive adult   If we deny an elementary or high school student the ability to express dissent and if dissent is rewarded by unfair and cruel punishment, we clearly prepare that individual to practice the same tomorrow as a minister of government.   What we need to do even more than scramble for a chance to change the rigid minds of the occupants of the top 20 positions in the country is to strive to change the plastic mentality and outlook of the several million at the bottom.  In a decade or two they will be the pool for fishing the top twenty.  They will bring a different ethic to Government ministries and corporations.  It is from one of those that an occupant of State House will emerge.  One who will  implement and  preside over ideals which we who remember independence celebrations hope for but may not be lucky enough to live in our lifetime.