Preliminary thoughts on the nature of ethnicity and modern state making in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo


Nixon Tasakana[1]Image

(Draft: Comments welcome. Please do not quote without permission)


Western Uganda can be regarded as an arena of ethno-political conflict that is microcosmic of ethno-political conflict in Uganda, the great lakes region and generally, Africa. Ethno-political conflict has dominated the socio-political landscape since historical times but its debate has recently gained currency in the academy, having replaced earlier human group categorizations such as race, class and tribe (Tambiah, 2000). In Africa, it has gained salience not only in the postcolonial discourse but also because of its banal and ubiquitous hold on national identities (Mueller, 2000). Yet this salience appears to obliterate the work of anthropologists and social scientists in the graphic description and reconstruction of African societies, at least before colonialism while at the same time challenging the tenets of colonial historiography.

            The region under discussion could be described as having a varied geographical landscape, generating ecological conditions that may have had a deep influence on ethnic group configuration as well as the development of identities. The Rwenzori mountains (5109m asl) as well as the Kivu graben could be regarded as the cosmological centres of the region marked by a string of fresh and saline lakes, lush rangeland steppe-like plains and a fertile plateau, made this region a zone of convergence rather than divergence, being environmentally ambient for any form of pre-industrial human activity. In effect, more immigration than emigrations into the region made an ethnic flux that yielded to new identities, new human groups evolved through ethnic group bifurcation or mergers or, communities resorted to autochthonous defence of ‘ancient’ identities. Others were gradually assimilated, ejected or eliminated by newer advanced, migrant groups. Yet no migrants came as organised groups but waves of migrant individuals (often hunters), families or clans that underwent ethno-genesis. While the reconstruction of the pre-colonial past has been complicated (Kamuhangire, 1980; 2006, Robertshaw and Taylor, 2002), newer studies such as Schoenbrun (1998) have used a multidisciplinary approach such as dialect chaining, glottochronology, semantic history, etymology and lexicostatistics to build on earlier genres of knowledge like Sutton (1993) and Vansina (2003) to reveal a lot more about the past societies[2]. These tend to reveal a common mosaic of peoples in this region[3]. With each community at its own level of state development, political developments went hand in hand with other forms of inter-group relations such as trade, centred on such key items as iron implements and salt from LakeKatwe and from Kibiro in Bunyoro as well as later trading in slaves, ivory and animals, dairy products, hides and skins. Leading traders were able to create niches in the region’s economy and became power brokers. It is not safe to assert that the pre-colonial past was a homeostasis, without conflict or without tranquillity. These punctuated each other and therefore, conflict has continued to exist as a marker of inter-group relations and ethno-political progression.

            Baluku (2008) asserted  that colonialism made an intervention and interruption in state development of African communities through the  introduction of  new values such as aspects of social boundaries, rigid geographical and social boundaries, redrawing the African map into hitherto unknown states that dismembered erstwhile states, introduced the ideas of civil law as opposed to customary law, redefined rights and citizenship and through work with Christian missionaries and anthropologists made a new resume of African societies described using alien frames[4]. We need to be reminded that Jean-Loup Amselle (1985, 1998) has hypothesised that there never existed stateless societies as stated:

            It appears that societies, cultures or ethnic groups called Fulani, Bambara, Mandingo…far from constituting isolated identities, comprise systems or paradigms. Apropos to this set, I make the hypothesis of an initial totality that by a process of declension gave birth to various societies various cultures…. The relationship between these elements must not be seen in terms of oppositions and cleavages but rather in terms of oscillation, of systole and diastole, of shrinkage and dilation, of belongingness, social life….(Amselle, 1998: xi)

Amselle’s hypothesis stated above stands in contrast with earlier anthropological works such as winter’s (1956) description of the Baamba’s stateless nature. Thus, anthropology was accused of having invented African tribes! Beyond this simple view, several questions emerge that inform our discussion, such as: from what raw materials did the anthropologist invent the African tribe? Was it all perfect in Africa, with a homeostasis, eclectic and tranquil without conflict and fundamental group differences and identities? In case the inventors of ethno-centrism were the colonial masters as Byarugaba (1998) argues[5], how then is it that four decades after the departure of the colonial state, the rediscovery of ‘independence’ has not brought desired tranquillity and instead enhanced sharp ethnic differences often resulting in genocide, ethnocide and fratricide? The answers to these questions can only be located within and contextualised in the spatial times right from pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial eras. Some may overlap. It is essential to examine the routes and actions that the State has taken to manage ethnicity especially its ubiquitous manifestation through conflicts.

            The region in question has many ethnic groups that among others include the following: Bakonzo, Batoro, Banyoro, Baamba, Batuku, Bahuku (Basua), Babwisi and Basongora, Banyankore (Bahima and Bairu)[6]. If the establishment of the colonial state is taken as the departure point, then the list extends with migrant groups such as Bakiga, Baganda, Bafumbira, Banyarwanda etc and also groups that have recently claimed to be ethnically distinctive and require recognition by both the State and neighbouring communities that include Banyagwaki, Baholu, Bakingwe, Banyampaka. This presents to us motley of ethnic groups. Therefore, it is vital to understand how the groups have generated group distinctiveness, maintained it, built identities and how yet more groups are merging or bifurcating within the discourse of ethnicity, how they have avoided the ‘melting pot’ scenario as presented by Glazer and Moynihan (1975), and how conflict has been central to this direction. We attempt to examine the centrality of the state (pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial) as a central actor in the promotion of reified ethnicity that is a harbinger to inter and intra-ethnic conflict. Further to this argument is the entry of individual or group identity defined through ‘political ethnicity’ where the state represents an arena in which both state agents and presumed groups are actors and within that narrow social space, ethnicity becomes a vessel to aggrandizing the available and scarce resources (Kasfir, 1970, 1976, 1979; Geertz, 1963). 

It has already been observed that the discourse on ethnicity has gained academic currency since the 1960s. Suffice to note that ethnicity is both emic and etic, ie it builds on the characterisation of groups in which individuals consider themselves to be of a kind, based on common characteristics (such as cultural values), therefore of a kind, bound together by an ‘imagined past’ (Ranger, 1992). In effect, this is used as a platform of distinction in which those outside this autochthonous definition are defined as ‘other’ and their characteristics are isolated as a marker of differentiation. In the same vein, the ‘other’ will also be characterising the characteriser. Thus, ethnicity entails group differentiation and the consciousness to maintain it and, requires more than a single group to exist. If an ethnos is a collective, I argue that within it are sub-ethnic currents that also inform intra-ethnic conflicts that lead to the bifurcation of a group, depending on a set of intrinsic values, goals and group interests. Besides, two or more ethnic groups may collaborate to conflict with a group they consider dangerous to their common existence. Therefore, ethnic consciousness becomes a basis for individual and group action and such group action is assumed to yield benefits like maintenance of group values, propagation of group existence, emancipation, maintenance of the status quo or even extension of territorial spheres (Rubin, 2000), especially in failing states (Zaartman, 2000). It is widely regarded that language is the key marker of ethnic identity, with an ethnos using a single language, say Lukonzo, Kusua, Kwamba, Rutoro etc. Language is no longer a valid marker of ethnicity in Western Uganda; peoples of the same language take different ethnic ethnonyms (as in the case of Batoro, Banyoro, Basongora, Batuku, Banyabindi as well as Bahima and Bairu in Ankole) and this is a key marker of ethno-genesis. Even within the same ethnic group, dialectal differences are marked depending on the geographical location and interaction with neighbouring groups, which essentially depicts the level of cognate loss. This brings us to our current views of ethnicity, which has been described by scholars as either being primordial (Geertz, 1963); thus able to reproduce itself through mutative channels of consanguinity and biological (genetic/phenotypic) networks. Geertz’s theory somehow reverses Weber’s (1922) hypothesis that ethnicity is imagined and therefore socially constructed, essentially a constructivist (Nagel, 1994, Yinger, 1985, 1994, Schlee, 2002) view. The last of the views is that it is instrumental (Young, 2007), being forged as a means for group survival and therefore apt to change according to the subjective circumstances prevailing in the socio-political arena, being manipulated by the leaders and the groups as well (McBeath, 1978).  Without indulging in deeper conversation, these will, in respect to western Uganda be treated as elements of the same continuum. It remains to be understood as to how and why individuals or groups are ready to kill, be killed or die for the sake of ethnicity. Traditions, culture and history are assumed to be the bedrocks of ethnicity and provide the philosophy for reification of identities as well as vilification of the other, giving base to conflict, especially in heterogeneous states as well as in monolithic ones that have ranked ethnicity (Horowitz, 1971, 1975, 1977, 1981) whether vertical or horizontal.

The pre-colonial state, ethnicity and conflict in western Uganda

It is generally agreed that there were pre-colonial states in Africa and each society was undergoing state formation at one level or another. Thus state borders were continually shifting depending on the strengths of individual states. New states emerged as others disappeared. People migrated or settled according to occupation and the social circumstance. Over time, group identities took shape but continually changed (such as groups would often be identified with the geographical territory they occupied. Sameness was associated with common origin, ancestry, experiences, blood relationships, common occupation etc depending on what a group called itself and the others called it (often with nick-ethnonyms). Thus Bakonzo was a reference to people of the mountains, just like Batoro was to Banyoro migrants that had moved into a territory called Toro. Often, it was a reference to occupation such as Bahuma/Bahima for cattle keepers. Common group characteristics were thus central to ethno-nomenclature and the consistent use of the ethnonym established its relative permanence and acceptability. These ethnonyms would change as occasion allowed, thus, Bakonzo can refer to their past identity as Bayira, to attain commonality with other groups that identify with the same mosaic as well as to claim aboriginality and first nation status. These were the raw materials from which earlier writers ‘invented’ separate ethnicities and the confusion is self-evident[7]. However, there were more of social boundaries defined by the afore-stated values than rigid state boundaries, which allowed trans-boundary migrations and subsequent acceptability in new communities. It was not a question of social porosity. It was possible for a Mukonzo to become a muhima and also for a muhima to become a cultivator[8]. Similar observation has been made in many societies around the great lakes region of Africa particularly in Rwanda where it was equally possible for a hutu to become a tutsi and a tutsi to become a hutu owing to the socio-economic status.

                Beyond collaboration and relations based on trade of items such as salt, meat, agricultural produce and dairy products, groups often conflicted, especially over land ownership, which was more communal with more powerful groups displacing or lording over the weaker ones. In this case, new state structures were layered over the destroyed ones without necessarily destroying the notions of past autonomy within the group. Thus, western Uganda was ruled, through a chequered history by the Batembuzi, then the Bachwezi and the Babito. The identities of the people ruled by the earlier two groups remains a puzzle, though it becomes more clearer that Banyoro as an ethnic group consisting of Bantu groups and Luo migrants into its northern territory had clearly formed by the time of the Bito rule. Yet ethnic stratification was a recipe for conflict which generated waves of migrants towards the south-west, first by the retreating Bachwezi, erstwhile legendary and semi-divine rulers of Bunyoro-Kitara, spreading over the present great lakes region (Apuli, 1994), with cattle keeping occupation and also the establishment of chiefdoms on Nkore, Rwanda, Buhaya, Buzinza, Buganda, Busoga, Wanga and later Toro (Dunbar, 1965; Ingham, 1975). They either adopted the languages of their new areas or the identity of place, such a Basongora, who came to the Busongora lowlands. This also marked the shrink in extend of Bunyoro-Kitara as an empire. The next wave of emigrants consisted of peasants who had been disinherited socially as they occupied the bottom rungs of the social chain. These became Banyabindi, Banyagwaki and Batoro[9]. One example that fits within the scope of our argument regards the attempt by Olimi Kaboyo to break free from his father, Kyebambe Nyamutukura III around 1830, to establish the kingdom of Toro. The ensuing conflict between king and son became the conflict of mainstream Banyoro and the former Banyoro, now Batoro, driving a wedge between them and forcing the later to ‘invent’ a different ethnicity. It also sucked in other ethnic groups, such as Bakonzo, who ambushed Kabalega’s forces on three occasions on Rwenzori’s northern spur, slaying many of them in the freezing heights. The other example regards an intra-ethnic conflict that related to succession in Toro following Nyaika’s death, whereupon, each of the thirteen or fourteen princes claimed the throne, causing divisions among the Batoro and allowing the revamped Kabalega’s Abarusura to sweep down into Toro and destroy the infant state. It is this state of ethnic mayhem that ushered in colonialism.

The Colonial State and Ethnicity

In propounding the ‘Dual Mandate in Tropical Africa’, Captain (later Lord) Fredrick Lugard argued for the skilful manipulation of existing bureaucratic structures and institutions in the more stately organised collectives such as Buganda. To ameliorate the shortage of imperial manpower in Great Britain, agents and administrative structures from these communities would not only be used in those particular communities but would also be rolled out and used to administer the ‘stateless’ ones. This was called indirect rule. For western Uganda, British hatred for Kabalega was already banal. The adventurous Lugard met the opportunistic royal fugitive prince Kasagama in Buddu and sensing an ally against Kabalega in the west, together they marched westwards. After a series of battles with Kabalega’s forces, Lugard placed Kasagama on the Toro throne and made Toro an existent kingdom by defining its boundaries to include confederated territories beyond Toro proper such as Busongora, Nyakibimba, Kitagwenda, Kitagweta, Mwenge (Ingham, 1975). At best, Lugard included various ethnic groups within this new ‘state’ in western Uganda, while at the same time Toro laid claim to Mboga and Bwamba. In addition, this weakened Bunyoro as it cut off the supply of guns and ammunition from the Zanzibari Arabs through Ankole. Lugard made agreements with Ntare, the king of Ankole and Kasagama of Toro, hence extending the British sphere of influence to the Belgian frontier. He constructed a series of forts manned by Sudanese soldiers under Selim Bey, whose miscegenation produced a half-Batoro, half-Nubian community still evident in Toro today. However, Toro became a colonial-client state and also applied client status to subordinate ethnic groups now under its realm (Steinhart, 1973) which, coupled with the ethnic ranking and stratification on the Bunyoro fashion formed the matrix of inter-ethnic conflict thenceforth.

                Thus, as opposed to pre-colonial state structures, colonialism introduced the structures of a modern post-1789 western state. There was taxation as opposed to tribute; formal education as opposed to informal and non-formal education; a king subservient to colonial orders, more less a prefect; the elimination of certain economies such as hunting and, the introduction of a cash crop economy. These were ‘strange’ replacements of the normative relations between king and subject as well as inter-group relations and individual group existence. The flux became more complicated when Toro became a district around 1910, making it motley of administrations with an unclear distinction between customary power, represented by the king and civil administration, represented by the district commissioner. Mamdani (1996, 2001 and 2002) has  observed that colonialism introduced the idea of a citizen as opposed to alien through the demarcation of arbitrary borders and, to these sets of categorisations, civil law was for the non-native while customary law was for the natives and rights were tailored accordingly.

                But colonialism was a system of imperial exploitation and economic accumulation, thus, elements of the colonial state included structures of a colonial economy with laws on land, hunting, minerals, taxes, cash crops and labour migration, which were strange to the ‘natives’. After 1905, plantation gardening was introduced in the region while allowing limited small holder/homestead cash crop cultivation. This limited the production of traditional food crops and sparked off labour migrations within and from outside the region, further changing the ethnic landscape of western Uganda. Labour camps, crop produce buying centres and the transformation of administrative centres into urban centres such as FortPortal meant new way of ethnic mixing similar to the American ‘melting pot’ phenomenon discussed by Glazer and Moynihan (1970). Therefore, the dawn of the 20th century also marked cosmic transformations in the way ethnicity had been defined in Western Uganda communities. We need to add that the protectorate borders were surveyed and completed between 1910 and 1926 (Bright, 1914). Thus, 1926 marks who is a citizen of Uganda and who is an alien[10] and the associated rights. In addition, this clearly demarcated the western stretch of the borders of the kingdoms of Toro, Bunyoro, Nkore and the community of Bakiga. But it arbitrarily divided ethnic groups, severing them from their kinsfolk across the border in Belgian Congo. Across this line (Bakonzo/Banande; Baamba/Batalinge/Bavira; Bahuku/Baswa/Bamvuba; Bakiga/Bafumbira) which planted the seeds of revanchism, irredentism and secessionism at the wane of colonial rule. This was the ‘original sin’ of colonialism[11]. The reactions above were entrenched by the participation, of peoples from this region in the first and second world wars (1914-1918) as part of the King’s African Rifles (KAR), who saw military service and gained war experience in lands beyond their own, yet giving them the distinct identity of ABASEVENI (ex-servicemen), who not only mingled with her colonial peoples but also gave them the opportunity to reflect on their communities’ marginal positions. They became instrumental in galvanising the communities in identifying themselves as oppressed people and demanded independence.

                Further discussion is required of the impact of colonial administrators, missionaries and early anthropologists in the development of identities in this region. Sir Harry Johnston became an icon of anthropology through his observations of the differences between the different communities in Western Uganda while Reverend John Roscoe made seminal observations on ethnic characteristics of particular groups. Often, these identities were tagged to the communities’ response to missionary work which defined civilisation as opposed to primitivism. Alongside, the missionaries operated schools and health centres near mission stations which assisted in the attainment of social capital. Language development, translation and literation were other tasks done my missionaries. Rev. Maddox translated the Rutoro Bible in 1905 (Ndolerire, 2008) but they also meddled in politics such as when Rev. Blackledge crafted a crown and crowned Kasagama into king in 1908, transforming Toro from a princedom to a kingdom. This as well led to conflict with traditionalists. They also conjured up traditions and made observations related to identity such as the now discredited ‘Hamitic hypothesis’ (Sanders, 1969). Fort Portal, Mbarara and Masindi became centres where these developments were concentrated while peripheral areas were marginalised. Johan Galtung has argued about centre-periphery relations[12]. In the midst of all this, we see a series of different and often conflicting layers of what Kopytoff (1987) has called ‘the African Frontier’ defined by traditions, colonial rule and Christianity.

                It must be stated however, that colonialism controlled open, ethnicity-related dissent using strong state structures, keeping its manifestation in abeyance temporarily till the wane of colonial rule, while using divide and rule as well. Key to what was ethnically contentious was land, since every ethnic group depended on it for subsistence. Early attempts to reorganise land tenure systems into the productive framework of the colonial economy led to the ‘mailo-land’ (mile land) system, which included the demise of the customary communal ownership and the private ownership of large tracts of land by the Omukama and the nobility (chiefs), (Uganda Protectorate reports, 1914)[13]. This alienation of land was to cause the earliest revolts against colonial rule in Western Uganda. In Bunyoro, the counties of Buyaga, Bugangaizi, Buwekula remained ‘lost’ after the British awarded them to Buganda and gave large tracts of land to Baganda landlords. The rebellion against land alienation combined with other vagaries of the colonial administration came in 1913, when Bakonzo peasants revolted against the new rule and then between 1919 and 1921, the latter often called the ‘Abayora’ rebellion[14]. Significant though, the use of indirect rule made the Batoro scapegoats of colonial ills and other communities viewed them as the oppressors hence anti-colonial sentiments translated into hatred against Batoro and therefore defined itself in terms of ethnicity. But it would be erroneous to assume that the whole Batoro community was vilified as those at the bottom rung were also affected by these State dynamics.

                The dynamics of the colonial economy required productive labour and some groups in western Uganda had either been branded lazy or primitive (Fisher, 1914). Thus, the colonial state encouraged migration from the already over populated Kigezi (Bakiga) into the region. They began acquiring land after 1955 and became settlers in areas of Mpokya, Karusandara, Kibale and Kitagwenda. Extra-regional dynamics such as the chaos in Rwanda had ensured constant waves of Banyarwanda migrants into the region as well, notable of these being in 1959 and 1974 (Prunier, 1995; Mamdani, 1996, 2001, 2002; Mafeje, 1991).

                It can be observed from the above that western Uganda experienced stately changes under colonialism. Ethnicity took new forms and conflict attained a new dimension when compelled to adjust to the refugee and settler influx as well as to the dynamics of indirect rule. For the colonial administrators, it was better to delay the implosion and transfer it to a nascent postcolonial state since all signs were that colonialism was waning.

The implosion of ethnicity: The postcolonial state and ethnicity

                The 1950s were full of signs that colonial rule would end anytime and it was incumbent upon the colonial State of Uganda to maintain itself as an entity within the colonially crafted borders. It is worth reflecting on what the meaning of independence was in a multi-ethnic setting, what the individual stakes of the key players would be and whether the independence would imply the recovery of lost autonomy or whether the ethnic groups themselves were getting the independence at the birth of the nation-state of Uganda. No sooner was the Ugandan state born than ethnicity became a key factor in defining state politics. Identity was either ethnic or national but not both. They were opposite ends of the same problem which have given thought to scholars over the configuration of postcolonial identities in Africa (Legum, 1962; Novati, 1996; Werbner and Ranger, 1996, Uzoigwe, 1982; Stavenhagen, 1996, Byarugaba, 1998).

                Lesser ethnic groups began making demands for representation while the more central ones were demanding for increased power through federal state arrangements and as Doornbos (1970) has observed, “ethnic conflict became a corollary towards Uganda’s independent statehood”. Similarly, Kasfir (1976) demonstrates that it was a Uganda wide problem that had been latent as controversies like ‘Mbale’, ‘the Sabiny’, ‘the lost counties’ and ‘Rwenzururu’ challenged the nascent state. Only then could Murkherjee (1985) argue about whether Uganda was an ‘historical accident’. Of course there are never historical accidents! As independence approached, two events can be sounded out: One, the pre-independence government of Benidict Kiwanuka awarded the Sabiny a separate district, separating them from the Bagishu in Eastern Uganda, an event that became an encouragement for other ethnos to fight for autonomy and Kiwanuka supposedly promised the Bakonzo and Baamba a separate district just in case they supported his party. Two, the departing colonial governor appointed a ‘commission of inquiry into the recent disturbances amongst the Baamba and Bakonjo peoples of Toro’[15] with the attendant irony of the report being submitted to the new prime minister on 10 October 1962, one day after independence when the one who had commissioned it had departed. Moreover, the political parties had been religiously defined such that the Democratic Party, which had been founded by mainly the catholic elite was branded ‘diini ya paapa’ (the religion of the Pope) while the Uganda Peoples Congress, which had been founded by mainly protestant elite was labelled ‘Uganda Protestants of Canterbury’[16]. But the sequel to this was the emergence of the more ethnically defined Kabaka Yekka (Kabaka only), struggling to implant the centrality of Buganda’s ethnic demands in the state of Uganda. Its translation was that protestant Baganda felt the safety of Buganda was not guaranteed in the new state. They had enjoyed the patronage of the British since 1900. Ethnicity took stage as the centre was conflicting with the periphery, since UPC represented the outside of Buganda, Uganda’s centre. Obote struck an alliance with Baganda of the KY on the premise that the Kabaka or any cultural leader would reservedly take the post of president in the independent state. While this brought the conflict of loyalties between custom and statehood and considerably weakened the central structures of the state, the break-up of the UPC-KY alliance in 1963 also culminated in the 1966 crisis as well as the 1967 abolition of kingdoms altogether. This argument has concentrated focus on the centre and neglected what went on in the periphery[17].

                A weak centre allowed the flourishing of ethnicity in the periphery. The state theatrics also played themselves out in the periphery. DP with her promises lost elections to UPC but Bamba and Bakonzo had voted for it overwhelmingly. Moreover, Ezironi Bwambale, the DP member of Parliament for Toro South (Busongora = area occupied by Bakonzo and other ethnic groups) crossed to UPC in 1963, who, so elevated to a ministerial post mobilised against the ethnic aspirations of this co-ethnics and was abducted for his anti-Bakonzo views by the Rwenzururu fighters while addressing a rally at Kinyamaseke cotton stores in 1964(Bazira, 1982, Kasfir, 1976). UPC could not grant the ethnic aspirations of the Bakonzo against the wishes of its Batoro buddies, after all, the former had voted for an adversary party. The Rukurato (parliament) of Toro became the narrow arena in which the political dynamics played out, just like the Eishegyero (parliament) of Ankole (Doornbos, 1970). Its composition provided a setting stage for the drama. Made up of fifty-six members, only eighteen were elected and were Bakonzo-Baamba representatives who had been added in 1961 after serious agitation. The rest were nominees of the Omukama (king), thus, with differing constituencies while the numbers remained odd for any democratic platform. Therefore, the divisions were clear: Batoro versus Bamba/Bakonzo; custom versus civility; protestant versus catholic; nominees versus elected representatives which implied no meaningful parliamentary deliberations. Placed alongside the other dynamics, especially the constitution making process and the Lancaster House Conference, the implosion was foreseeable when, on 13 March 1962, Bakonzo-Bamba representatives walked out of the Rukurato citing the ambivalent and intransigent nature by which Toro authorities had handled Bakonzo and other ethnicities in the seventy years since the various ethnic groups had been grouped together in the kingdom-district of Toro. The 1959 population census had given the following statistics according to ethnic grouping:

























Total                                       347,479                                   99.3%

Source: Nelson Kasfir, 1970: 329.

These were the key actors. But what is the ‘other’? These included smaller groups such as the Banyabindi, Basua, Batuku, Basongora, Bakingwe, Baholu, Bule Bule, Vonoma, Babwisi and why are they ‘other’? Their activities had not yet elevated their ethnic distinction to the kingdom’s arena that would entice them to seek recognition. Besides, their identities were treated by the state as negligible, giving them a collective category of ‘other’. They were not significant state actors. It may also be noted that from the table, those who identified their ethnicity as Batoro were 52% which implies that those who have identified themselves as non-Batoro make about half the kingdom’s population. Overall, the table shows how the state was using ethnicity as a classificatory category and, obviously reinforcing identity. Placed against the statistics of representation above, one sees an element of marginalisation based on ethnicity.

                I would like to briefly return to the constitution making process and the Rukurato dramas. Within a national framework, representatives and proposals were sought from the various kingdoms in Uganda following the Lord Munster and Wild Commissions of 1961. Toro selected a committee of ‘pure’ Batoro but upon agitation, included Isaya Mukirania and Yeremiya Kawamara, a Mukonzo and a Mwamba respectively, who were replaced shortly due to their ultra-ethnic rhetoric, to be replaced by Timothy Bazarabusa (a Mukonzo of moderate thought) and Felix Rwambarali (a Mutoro). Winter (1956) has argued that Baamba struggled to be toro-ised as much as possible! However, the district commissioner, Mr. Purcell arranged separate transport for Isaya Mukirania to join the rest of the committee in a meeting with the governor at Entebbe, a clear manifestation of ethnic manipulation. A few of the proposals are illustrative of how ethnicity and the political dynamics were to shape postcolonial conflicts in western Uganda. Bakonzo and Bamba required that the 1900 agreement be revised to cater for their presence as different ethnic groups in the kingdom but Batoro representatives retorted that ‘all people of Toro are Batoro’. Further prodding that the position of the Omuhikirwa (Prime Minister of Toro) should then be rotated amongst the principal ethnic groups, the Batoro stated ‘Only a Mutoro Nyakabara (a pure one) can become a Muhikirwa’ so the question remained: If all the people irrespective of what ethnic belonging are Batoro by constitutional definition, then what distinguishes a nyakabara from a non-nyakabara?  (Syahuka-Muhindo, 1994; Rubongoya, 1995; Kasfir, 1976). While one ethnic group was attempting to extend her boundaries, the others were resisting by trying to establish, ascertain and negotiate their own (Barth [1969], 1996). Scholars have sought to establish what generates such currents, especially in the post-colony (Herbst, 1984; Sanders, 2002; Howard, 2000; Fuller, 2003).

                Both the nascent postcolonial state and the kingdoms-states neither had a solution to the immediate challenges nor to the transferred leftovers of the colonial era, yet unfortunately finding themselves battling to establish nationalism against the rising currents of ethnicity. Against this impotence, they willy-nilly took up the recommendations of the Sembeguya commission[18] by rejecting the demands of the Bakonzo and Bamba for the sake of promoting a united nation-state of Uganda and against the idea of balkanisation and creation of uneconomic units. Without a solution to the initial problem, inter-ethnic violence increased unabated and a new commission of inquiry was established in 1963. It, just like the first one did not submit to ethnic demands and fell short of ameliorating an already volatile situation. The peak of this first wave of inter-ethnic conflict peaked in 1964 when whole villages of either ethnic group were killed in Uganda’s little documented ethnocide (Doornbos, 1970: 1109; Rubongoya, 1995: 75-92). The state deployed the army as well as police, but as Kasfir has observed, they arrived late; were often unable to intervene effectively of fraternised with one side. Hereunder is a court testimony of one police officer in case 823/64 of FortPortal:

            We were travelling in a police land rover with the bodies of six dead Bakonzo women and children in the back. As we drove towards FortPortal, I noticed the smoke of a burning house … [we] Decided to investigate …. When we arrived we found the house surrounded by approximately 300 Batooro, all armed with spears, pangas and sharpened sticks, the house was ablaze …[plus the] adjoining kibanja … had all been cut down. I saw the body of a dead Mukonjo woman …[with] a child with an injured arm was sitting on the ground beside her …[there was] confused roar of shouting … there are Bakonjo in that house armed with spears, we want to get them out of the house and kill them … (Mwene-Mushanga, 1974:158-159).

According to Doornbos, the Batoro, given their majority numbers, state support as well as the presence of their own kin and kith in state institutions allowed them the monopoly of violence as stressed below:

            …Toro bore primary responsibility … apparently instigated by Toro government officials, the Toro made a ten-day onslaught, primarily on the Konjo, which was unprecedented in brutality and indiscriminate killing, brought from Mwenge and other Toro counties on the plains and lower slopes of the Rwenzori, hundreds of spearmen together with local Toro killed numerous Konjo men, women and children…. Police and army arrived too late to intervene effectively and even they were powerless and unwilling to stop the Toro…. Caused wholesale flight of Konjo into the mountain


Why violence? An insight into the vitality of inter-group violence suggests that it is not a total group decision but a route chosen by the elite leadership of ethnic movements not only to achieve their social goals but also the political ones as well while concretising ethnicity as an ideology (Mwene-Mushanga, 1975: 160). It should be understood better that the state took sides in the conflict since it is composed of individual actors who are often inhibited by ethnic considerations.

                It is safe to argue that the changeover from colonial rule to independent statehood in the Ugandan state and its lower administrative structures has an important lesson, one that points out the poignancy of disorganised transfer of political power by colonial authorities. The new state leaders were bound to dialog between maintaining the colonially crafted state, irrespective of the ills of the colonial administration or to allow free balkanisation in which pre-colonial autonomous communities regained their ‘primordial’ identities. There was no nation called Uganda per se, at least such an identity which superimposes over ethnic loyalties did not and continues to be nonexistent. It was a state better referred to as a nation-state, bound together organically by skilful manoeuvres of Berlin 1884 and British patronage. But the different groups, in the absence of a superstructure of nationhood continued with ethnicity as the mobilising ideology and coalescence was around group loyalties based on commonality of tradition, culture, experience, threats, desires and goals. Both the centre and the periphery can be viewed ethnically, ie those in power were seen as an ethnicity that had replaced the colonial masters and the imperative was for every ethnic group to jostle and aggrandise on the resources in the national arena. For those already in a pole position, such as the Batoro and Bahima, the desire to maintain or strengthen the status quo was vital while for those groups that were at the bottom rungs such as the Bakonzo and Bairu, it was a matter of opposing what they were craving for, to oppose the status quo while desiring to establish a similar platform. In the absence of clearly defined socio-political routes, ethnic conflict was usually the resort. Independence must therefore be read against the existence of groups and not the nation. The nation existed at group level not at a heterogeneous level and was configured by intrinsic group loyalties and values rather than the colony. Independence did not mean the recovery of the earlier autonomy enjoyed by the individual groups before colonial intervention. Instead it meant groups subscription to new territorial rule. Against this, it did not mean a lot for individual ethnic groups since the initial loss remained and also presented new challenges of struggling for the stakes in the new nation-state.

                One of the routes through which the state has acted on ethnicity has been the media. Jean-Pierre Chretien (2003) has underscored the impetus of the media in promoting conflict, although equally the media can be an effective way of group cohesion. Using the Rwanda situation just before the 1994 genocide, a taxi tout founded a newspaper, Murwanashyaka, and another, Kangura, or even the hate Radio Mille des Collines which incited the Hutu to wipe off the Tutsi from the face of the Earth. In most cases, such media houses operate with covert or overt state support[19]. A few quotes give value to our argument here.

               …ethnic extremism was being mobilised. Starting in May, before the RPF attack, an obscure bus conductor from Gisenyi, Hassan Ngeze, supported by power networks behind the scenes, launched a periodical, Kangura (the awakening)…[which] launched hate-filled campaigns against the inyenzi, the Tutsi cockroaches and their Hutu accomplishes (ibyitso),… publishing an “appeal to Hutu consciousness” containing the “Hutu ten commandments” a gospel of hate banishing all relations, whether business or sexual, between the two “two ethnic groups” (Chretien, 2003: 323)

And from the same paper:

               Rediscover your ethnicity…. You are an important ethnic group in the larger Bantu grouping, the nation is artificial but ethnicity is natural…. A cockroach cannot give birth to a butterfly…if someone would contest this, it would be me. The history of Rwanda clearly shows that the Tutsi are always the same. That has never changed. The malice, the wickedness are what we have known in the history of our country (March, 1993)…. The Tutsi found us in Rwanda; they oppressed us; and we put up with this. But now we have left serfdom and they want to reinstate the chicote. I think that no Hutu will be able to support this. The war Gahutu leads is just. It is a battle for the republic (Chrétien, 2003: 324)

Murwanashyaka (the militant) newspaper went a little further:

               Certain realities cannot be escaped, even through dissimulation, as for example when one changes one’s ethnic group. When you are discovered, you are ashamed and your brothers won’t hesitate to treat you like a dog…. You may belong to an ethnic group on your official documents, but from which vein will draw the blood of this ethnic group that you claim to be yours? (April 1991) (Chrétien, 2003: 325)


            In western Uganda, the media played a vital role. From the 1940s newspapers began springing up. In Bwamba, Rev. Nyamusesa founded the Balyebulya (they’ll regret) society while from 1954, the Bakonzo Life History Research Society (BLHRS) was born. Around the same time, a pro-Bakonzo newsletter, Mwebingwa was produced. Each of these questioned the palpable status of Bakonzo and Bamba as ethnic groups under the Batoro. Communications allowed closer coordination. The conflict received a one-sided coverage in the national media, often justifying ineffective and partisan state measures. For instance, when the conflict broke out in 1962, the Uganda Argus of 05 September 1962, a state newspaper made several report such as the following letter written someone who identified himself as Kasoro:

               … I would like to make this clear that the Bakonjo-Bamba have no right… [they] are subjects of the Omukama of Toro… [I have] never heard that there existed in history, written or traditional, a kingdom known as Rwenzururu…. They made a mistake to write a memorandum to the Prime Minister of Uganda. It is the Rukirabasaija [superman] Omukama who is ruler of Toro…. Whoever applies for a new district or is supporting the idea is misusing his/her freedom.

But this could be taken to be the reverse of the letter, paraphrased from the Bible book of Daniel, chapter 5:21-28, that Isaya Mukirania, the Rwenzururu leader had written to the Omukama (king) of Toro which ran thus:

               …. The Most High rules the kingdoms of men and sets over it whomsoever he will…. God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end…. You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting…your kingdom is divided and given to the Bakonzo and Bamba


Rwenzururu: Open conflict, ethnocide, secession revanchism and irredentism

            We have argued that there were ethnic conflicts in western Uganda before, during and after colonial rule. Groups struggled to uproot what they considered ‘others’ that were presumed a threat to their niche. For instance, a Bakonzo onslaught on the northern Rwenzori had displaced the Bamba from the slopes of the mountains into the lowland Ituri forests; just like the south-westward Banyoro peasant and pastoralist expansion had driven the Bakonzo and earlier waves of peasant Banyabindi migrants into the mountains. It was a struggle for geographical, social and economic space and in this dynamic, communities often decayed. So the emergence of new social formations was not a surprise but a constant feature. There were areas of cooperation such as during circumcision/initiation of both Bamba and Bakonzo males, at least after 1876. It would thus be erroneous to argue that there was a tranquil past or a completely chaotic one, just like it would be for both Legum’s argument that ‘Tribalism is Africa’s condition’ and Davidson’s (1992) ‘black man’s burden and the curse of the nation state’.

            The 1962 rapture in ethnic conflict deserves further attention. Bakonzo and Bamba cooperated against Batoro in a collective called Rwenzururu, attempting to challenge the latter’s hegemony and domination of the region. This was an outcome of the activities of the BLHRS, the commonality of grievances and the approaches used by the authorities in both Toro and the central government in addressing the grievances raised by the afflicted ethnic groups vis a vis upholding the desires f the dominant ethnic group. The BLHRS established branches all over Bakonzo territory, to collect and document ‘Bakonzo customs that had been lost due to Batoro rule’. The findings were obvious: the Batoro were responsible for the present predicament of the Bakonzo; a lot of Bakonzo tradition had been lost and needed to be recovered; the nostalgia about the good old times before ‘Bakonzo country was taken up by Batoro; the abhorring practices of holding Bakonzo as slaves; the denial of education, religion and modern medical services; the verbal effrontery[20]; the non-recognition of their existence as different ethnic groups in both the 1891 and 1900 Toro agreements. Resort to cultural recovery was a chosen route to work towards propagating ethnicity. This soon translated into political ethnicity that demanded representation and recognition, taking advantage of, and interrogating the stakes of the ethnic groups at the wake of independence.

            Those who were elected to the Toro Rukurato became exposed to both the dynamics of the state as well as democratic practices in a customary-civil mix which occasioned the march-out of Bakonzo-Bamba representatives in 1962, declaring that they need a separate district from Toro. When this demand was not met, then secession from Uganda to establish an independent state of ‘Rwenzururu, Bakonjo-Bamba Central Africa’ was declared in 1963. Between then, ideas of convincing the Banande in Congo-Leopoldville (Democratic Republic of Congo-Kinshasha) were mooted in order to form a monolithic Bayira country ‘liberated’ from Congo and Uganda. The rapture became irreparable and enduring and Bakonzo demanded that the alien Batoro must be pushed beyond Munobwabrook/MuziziRiver, where the ‘ancient’ land of Bakonzo had extended in traditional times before the advent of Banyoro peasants and cattle keepers.

            State structures were inept to battle ideology and coordinated attacks made widespread violence possible but the administrative reforms of 1964 combined with the activities of the army were able to turn Rwenzururu into an intra-ethnic fratricide with Bakonzo killing each other on the bases of either rebellion or collaboration with enemy aliens. Further developments in the state saw the adoption of the Penal (Amendment) Act of 1966 whose sections 41 and 42 outlawed ethnic political parties (Kasfir, 1976:47) and, in 1967, all monarchical institutions were swept aside, removing the vestige and mantle of ethnic power, the visible element abhorred by the servile groups. In 1974, Idi Amin declared new districts of Rwenzori and Semliki for Bakonzo and Bamba respectively, but the borders were arbitrarily curved as to leave space for future conflict by leaving a section of Bakonzo in Bunyangabu County, within Toro and the recession of the Semliki border close to the hills sharing Burahya county, which also had a sizeable Bakonzo population.

            In 1979, the state imploded at the collapse of Amin’s dictatorial regime. Weapons and ammunition held by fleeing soldiers found its way into hands of miscreants[21], some of them landing into Rwenzururu hands, which strengthened the movement to the capacity of launching ‘operation liberating Kasese’ at the climax of which, the state, in a dialogue concession  and political stratagem, ordered all Batoro to leave Rwenzori district within one week in November 1980 as the Batoro retaliated by ordering all Bakonzo out of Kabarole (Toro) district within fourteen days in the same month. Long queues of displaced people walked from both ends on the basis of ethnicity. Besides, Iremangoma ordered the revision of Bakonzo as an ethnonym and declared that the true name was Bayira, an older form of identity. The operation also aimed at indigenising the administration of the district and, within the ambit of negotiations with the state, led by Amon Bazira, a former primary school teacher and chairman of the Busongora committee of BLHRS, Blasio Maate was made District Commissioner assisted by barely educated former Rwenzururu fighters as county chiefs. Three approaches by the state can be discerned; first was dialogue which had been shunned in the 1960s; second was the expulsion of minorities from particular districts to allow majorities have hegemony over the districts and, thirdly, the administrative reforms that concretised this. Coupled with the above scenarios, President Obote declared all districts whose names had ethnic connotations to change and use the names of their capital towns. Thus, Rwenzori, synonymous with Rwenzururu was changed to Kasese district in 1982 and Semliki was changed to Bundibugyo but Kabarole did not change into FortPortal! However, with the dialog gesture, the Rwenzururu movement voluntarily disbanded and handed over to the Uganda government in 1982, with the ex-king, Charles Wesley Iremangoma proceeding to the United States on a government scholarship. Significantly, the Rwenzururu movement is instructive in our understanding of the dynamics in western Uganda and the state responses to the challenge of ethnicity. First, it had endured all waves of state assault; second, it was effective in using the mobilising structures of ethnicity that whatever its shortcomings; it was preferred to the state of Uganda. Thirdly, it had established a parallel state, combining modern and traditional institutions, a complete replica of the Toro oligarchy which it had fought. Fourth; it had made an appeal, first for cultural recovery, then for territorial recovery, then for re-union with Banande and had forged, (at least up to 1967) a collaboration with the Baamba on a common ethnic agenda. From this platform, it attained an enduring legacy that translates itself for agency in every occasion faced by the Bakonzo.

            Suffice to state that we get nearly all dimensions of ethnicity in the Rwenzururu conflict in western Uganda. First, cultural struggle claiming tradition and culture as its base (Nagel, 1994) imagined or real (Anderson 1991); secondly, a struggle for equality and democracy within a state (Syahuka-Muhindo, 1994; Mamdani, 1996); third, a secessionist struggle to break away from a weak heterogeneous state of Uganda and form an autonomous independent and parallel duo-ethnic state of Rwenzururu Bakonjo-Bamba Central Africa; a irredentist state claiming former tribal lands and, a revanchist movement bent on a reunion with ethnic mates on the opposite colonial frontier, by incorporating Congolese Banande. It was a spectacular movement, especially in its capacity to mutate from a BLHRS to Rwenzururu Movement, Rwenzururu Secessionist Movement, Rwenzururu United Kingdom, and Rwenzururu Freedom Movement and presently as Rwenzururu kingdom. It was able to weather internal upheavals such as the death of its founder, Isaya Mukirane, the overwhelming defections of 1967-69, the destruction of its palace in Bulemba by Uganda Government forces in 1967 and 1969 and, the nefarious activities of a fanatical pseudo-religious state gang of Timoseo Bawalana in 1971.

The Aftermath of 1982: Ethnicity or the State?

                Rwenzururu had various lessons for different audiences especially through its effective use of ethnic mobilisation and the excellent use of terrain to withstand the pressures of the State, moreover having entrenched the concept of an ethnic homeland. Beyond 1982, the vacuum left by the disbanding of the secessionist movement provided base for further rebellions that kept the conflict environment in western Uganda living. First was the disillusioned group, who, not satisfied with the settlement of 1982 reverted back to the mountain bases, claiming that the objectives had not been achieved and the struggle must continue. They adopted Rwenzururu Freedom Movement (RFM) as their label and were led by Fredrick Kule Kinyamusithu. Importantly, they played a role in the political changes of 1985 when the rebel outfit, the National Resistance Army (NRA) pitched camp at Katebwa in April 1985. It can be asserted that the cosmic changes in State leadership had left Uganda without a coherent fabric in which Ugandans would be regarded as a community. It had lost agency to ethnicity and it was now ethnicity to take unabated, its pressures onto the State. It was easy for the NRA to manipulate the ethnic disillusionment to wage a successful guerrilla war. In western Uganda, two forces were instrumental: the first was the Batoro as an ethnic group who had lost their kingship during the republican reforms of 1967. Their king had gone back to exile after electoral defeat in 1980, where he was a candidate for FortPortalMunicipality for the Museveni-led Uganda Patriotic Movement and were unhappy due to the fragmentation of Toro by Amin, giving away resource-rich areas to Bakonzo and Bamba. They sympathised with NRA against the State. The second was the former Rwenzururu fighters, still in the mountain on the basis of ethnicity. NRA allied with the two opposing forces without publicly committing to satisfy their demands. Collaboration with both forces gave NRA the desired rejuvenation to take on the Obote-ledState and took power in Kampala in January 1986.

                Kinyamusithu made demands for the fulfilment of the private NRA promises and was instead given a bus and a house, then rebuffed and later attacked by his former allies when he provided succour to the PLC guerrillas fighting the Mobutu government in Zaire, an issue that had caused diplomatic furore between the neighbour states. For Kinyamusithu, the PLC represented Zairean Banande fighting State-inspired injustice just like the Bakonzo were still ‘marginalised’ in Uganda. He also allied with Amon Bazira, whose ethnic identity fluctuated between a Mukonzo and Munyabindi, a former Deputy Minister of Lands and Mineral Development in the second Obote government (1980-1985) where he doubled as Director of National Intelligence and had negotiated for the voluntary disbanding of the RwenzururuKingdom. Bazira had launched war on the Museveni government using the former Rwenzururu bases under the rebel name National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU). Bazira had hoped to use the ethnic factor in mobilising support but turned his guns on the Bakonzo when a whole resistance council committee of nine people for Kitolhu sub-county was murdered in cold blood on 09 October 1990 and a grisly murder of sixteen cotton peasants at Nyaruzigati in 1991. Kinyamusithu took refugee among the Bakonzo/Banande across the border where he was murdered in 1993. Bazira was also murdered in Nairobi in 1994.

                Was the state under Museveni government the new force to manage the postcolonial malaise – ethnicity? I argue that the initial military approach rendered it weaker than as the same forces it had applied to dislodge former regimes carried veiled trappings of ethnicity and their resurgence would render it impotent in the face of inter and intra-ethnic conflict. What remained of the State is the manipulation of ethnicity to maintain a divisionism among ethnic groups on the bases of ethnic differences in order to perpetuate the regime’s own continuity, leaving national consciousness far-fetched dream. I will return to this later.

                Within the scope of broad-agenda conflicts, mention can be made of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) that attacked through Kasese on 13 November 1996[22]. For our discussion, the identity of the new force was unclear but how it operated in a region with sharp ethnic differences is important. How did the different ethnic groups view it in light of the atrocities? First it claimed to be fighting to help Bakonzo fulfil their unfulfilled hopes under the Museveni government. Rejected, it resorted to widespread abduction, pillage and killings[23]. It was explained often as the resurgence of Rwenzururu and inter-ethnic accusations of culpability were traded. Some unexplained murders among the ethnics raised the tensions[24]. Significantly, ADF introduced a religious aspect to the conflicts in western Uganda. Its core was thought to be composed of Tabliq youths (a radical Muslim sect) that had altercated with police at the Old Kampala mosque in 1994 (Kayunga, 1994; Africa Rights, 2001).  Bakonzo living among Batoro in Burahya and Bunyangabu counties either went to camps in Kasese and Bundibugyo or close to where their ethnic majorities were. Roughly put, ethnic collectives means mutual security and support. This rebellion was defeated by 2003 but it had revealed further State dynamics stretching in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For instance, on 27 September 1998, Moses Kigongo, vice chairperson of the ruling NRM chaired a meeting at Mweya Safari Lodge and tabled ‘evidence’ of the involvement of the ex-Bakonzo king in the rebellion[25]. Only then did the people, after pressing the State learn that the Museveni government had cancelled Iremangoma’s scholarship, pushing him into involuntary exile. Pressed, the State negotiated for the return of Iremangoma in December 1998 and the euphoria of his return rekindled the deep seated sentiments of ethnicity and a conflicting sense of belonging besides the demand for recognition of a Bakonzo Kingdom with Charles Wesley Iremangoma as king within the aegis of the 1993 restitution of kingdoms as cultural entities in Uganda. Need be, a further examination of the State policies need to be undertaken to understand better the state manipulation of ethnic bigotry through political ethnicity.

The Rise of Political Ethnicity: Balalo and Basongora and the continuity

                Political ethnicity is a high order form of group expression in the arena in which hitherto social actors transform into political groups jostling for control and aggrandise the resources using the State machinery available. Ethnicity therefore does not stand as a negation of the State but a complimentary application of a symbiotic relationship where the State reinforces the parameters of ethnicity and reinforces the categories, ceases to be all-inclusive and hopes to thrive on divide and rule. In this case, no permanent alliances are built save for the ethnicity of the ruling elite. Ethnicity therefore represents political fortunes or misfortunes. The ruling elite are seen in the scope of their ethnic belonging and therefore assumed to be aggrandising the resources of the state for their co-ethnics. On the other hand the non-ruling ethnic groups struggle to replace the existing structure in order to take the same route. For instance, the feelings about the ‘Nilotic’ north are an ethnic (or probably racial) interpretation of the political opposite of the ‘Bantu’ south, which broadly lies at the core of the conflicts in the whole country, not necessarily Western Uganda.

                At the core of the above assertion is the erroneous thinking of ‘Bantu’ or ‘Nilotic’ as an overarching and coherent ethnic category while the subdivisions mean that the variety will also look at where does the particular ruling elite come from and Bayart’s (1993) ‘politics of the belly’ fits here. The conflict resulting from tensions in the arena are necessarily proportional to the size and amount of resources available as well as the rate at which it is shrinking. This becomes more critical in case a geo-strategic dimension and other external variables are added such as the continued involvement of the former colonial master.

                One instance is the continuing conflict between cultivators and pastoralists in western Uganda, for instance the former identifying as Bakonzo and the latter as Basongora; Baamba versus Batuku etc. It is fair to treat these as mere categories defining the sides to a conflict, categories that are manipulated by state actors. Besides, there is constant change of identities of groups depending on the fortunes or misfortunes and the overall objectives of the groups or its particular leaders. For instance the identity of Basongora has not been discussed but Struck (1914:286-287) showed the contention about this identity as quoted here below:

            5. Banyari “Wassongora” Emin’s “Wassongora”, Therefore have no connection with the Wasongola just mentioned.; on the contrary, they dwell between the Ituri and the Shari; and their proper name is Banyari….As for the name “Wassongora,” it is due to the Manyema, who at the end of the ‘eighties penetrated thither as is well known, it used throught the whole eastern Congo forest tribes who practice the custom of chipping teeth to a point. (Primitive Bantu, konga, “to sharpen”.) “Basongora” for instance , is a name given at Valya in the Bakonjo country to the forest tribes of the Balega-Babira….The well known Wasongora (Meno) on the Lualaba, north of Nyangwe, are also Balega-Babira; and Johnson expressly gives “Basongora” as a synonym for Babira….The name “Usongora” introduced into maps by Stanley, applies, however, to the steppe between Lake Albert Edward, Rwisamba and Ruwenzori, inhabited, as already mentioned by Bakonjo (with chipped teeth)….a dialect of the Bairu language of Nkole (similar to that of Toro) is spoken in Busongora….The appellations of Wassongora (Basongora) and Wahoku (Bahuku) should be avoided as far as possible on account for their possessing several meanings…

Besides, the Basongora revitalised a claim against marginalisation after a section of the pastoralist were evicted from the Parc Nationale des Virunga in DRC, entered Uganda and settled in Queen Elizabeth National Park, claiming it to be their ancient homeland. For some analysis, the reaction of the state to this question has had interesting lessons. The state has intervened to cause appropriation of public lands for the resettlement, often uprooting communities who, in return view the Basongora as belonging to a broader ethnicity that claim the same heritage as those in power[26]. Broadly, they go with the pseudonym of Balalo, a section of who are fanning inter-ethnic conflict with the Bagungu of Bunyoro and in Buganda. Balalo has become a symbol of political ethnicity as the State helps them to aggrandise land at the expense of the cultivators[27]. The expression of political ethnicity also expresses itself through the electoral process, especially in a multi-party democratic dispensation. Political alliances are formed based on discreet promises and voting patterns follow suit. In western Uganda, lingering feelings of marginalisation have demonstrated a pattern in which Bakonzo vote the opposition while the ‘Banyakitara’ minorities interspersed amongst them vote the incumbent government hoping to actualise their struggle against minority status against their majority Bakonzo neighbours. This phenomenon is repeated all over the region, often in the reverse. The other category regards the categories of Bafuruki and Banyoro in Kibale district and how the state has handled it, especially the infusion and manipulation of the conflict, giving it impetus and grounding. Balaalo, Bafuruki etc may endure and configure the next emerging ethnic groups in mid-western Uganda.

                The other issue to discuss is the absence of both official and national language accentuated by the sharp expressions of ethnicity. If language is the purveyor of culture, then we cannot speak of a Uganda culture. Every ethnic group has its language both at ‘official’ and ‘national’ levels and must secure space in national media such as the radio. Uganda has fifty-six different ethnic groups, at least according to the Uganda 1995 Constitution. Beyond this, the State has decreed the use of mother ‘tongues’ as medium of instruction, at least in lower primary school. Exceptions to this are the urban schools. The contradiction as earlier pointed out is that no homogeneous ethnic area exists. The choice of language to use without threatening to submerge the non-speakers is hard and would elicit claims of attempted acculturation and elimination. Every group attempts to reserve its language as the first line of preserve its cultural heritage and for the groups own survival from future extinction. Such an expression can be found in popular repertoire[28]. In Western Uganda, this adds salt onto a wound and will exacerbate conflict. Added to this, every ethnic group clamours for a district, to establish its own arena for resource aggrandising and Uganda’s districts have increased from 36 in 1990 to 85 in 2008. A group has only to make a political pilgrimage, promise political support and claim ethnic differentiation and marginalisation, secure the support of a key state actor and a proclamation of a district is made at the next political rally. This strategy removes the arena from the centre, albeit causing further balkanisation of the state. These are dilemmas of the postcolonial state in Africa.


The debate on ethnicity is certainly strong in the academy than it has never been before because of the ubiquitous and banal nature of the conflicts that are related to this force. In Africa, just like elsewhere on the globe, struggles of ethnicity vary in magnitude albeit existent. In western Uganda, the postcolonial era has probably seen the worst of ethnic conflict due to its continuous presence and mutable adaptation to new political situations. This however, does not qualify a sanitised and tranquil past. We generally argue that identity is human but its manipulation as to result into conflict relates to groups goals, threats and opportunities that can be politically translated in an arena that could be the state, region, district, province or any level of state structure. The attainment of an eclectic phenomenon is far from view. Perhaps Isaac Zartman’s appeal to the rediscovery of the traditional methods is relevant among many therapies that can be applied. States are on the verge of failure or have failed already due to ethnicity, yet ethnicity does not negate the state but as Mazrui (2001) puts it, ethnicity may be the strongest platform for mobilisation because it holds people together. In the region discussed, conflicts are on-going and the approach by the postcolonial state has been inadequate in ameliorating them or has furthered them either due to limited state experience by the leaders in solving colonially inherited problems or the deliberate desire by the leaders for self perpetuation depending on the divisions created by ethno-political conflicts. Thus, ethnicity and identity have been reified and translated into language related to biological transmission of characteristics where a declaration such as, “I am a Mukonzo by blood” or the desire to have a ‘Mutoro Nyakabara’ in a particular office related to the various discussed arenas is part of popular repertoire. Yet yesterday’s lessons seem not understood enough which limits state actors to attributing blame rather than seeking remedies. There has been identity, in varying degrees; there has been the State in various forms and, there has always been conflict of varying magnitudes. Neglecting the pre-colonial past seems to leave a vacuum in our understanding of the causality of conflict, a past that provided raw material for the colonial and postcolonial States with raw material. I propose that the re-examination of the centrality of the State in the conflicts and ethnicity will provide the key to approach ethnicity and conflict. In the mean time, ethno-political conflict will continue to rage; ethnicity having attained historical and biological attire will continue to be a benchmark of cultural identity. Its construction and imagination will continue and ethnicity will remain, at least in the foreseeable future an instrument of inter-group relations and group development. Noticeably, groups attempt to make majorities in order to cut a niche and be able to negotiate using numerical strength.


Bibliography and Further Readings


Africa Rights. Avoiding an Impasse: Understanding the Conflicts in Western Uganda (Kampala: Africa Rights, 2001).

Allen, Tim. ‘The Making of the Madi: The Invention of a Ugandan Tribe’ in De la Gorgendiere, Louise, King Kenneth and Vaughan Sarah (eds.). Ethnicity in Africa: Roots, Meanings and Implications (Edinburgh: Centre for African Studies, 1996).

Alonso, Anna Maria. ‘The Politics of Space, Time and Substance: State Formation, Nationalism and Ethnicity’ Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol.23, (1994), pp. 379-405 available at (accessed 24/04/2012)

Amselle Jean-Loup. ‘Beyond Marxist Anthropology’ Canadian Journal of African Studies/Revue Canadiene des Etudes Africainnes, Vol.19, No.1, (1985), pp.99-105 available at (accessed 22/04/2012)

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006)

Amselle Jean-Loup. Mestizo Logics: Anthropology and Identity in Africa and Elsewhere (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

Banton, Michael. Ethnic and Racial Consciousness (London and New York: Longman, 1997)

Barth Fredrik. ‘Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1969)’ in Sollors, Werner (ed.). Theories of Ethnicity: A Classical Reader (London: Macmillan, 1996).

Bates, Robert. Ethnicity in Contemporary Africa (Syracuse: Eastern African Studies Program, 1973)

Bayart, Jean-Francios. The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London: Longman, 1993).

Bell, Daniel. ‘Ethnicity and Social Change’ in Glazer, Nathan and Moynihan Daniel, P (eds.). Ethnicity: Theory and Experience (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1975).

Berman Bruce, Eyoh Dickson and Kymlicka Will. Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa (Oxford and Athens: James Currey and OhioUniversity Press, 2004).

Bozeman Adda, A. Conflicts in Africa: Concepts and Realities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).

Broch-Due, Vigdis. ‘Violence and Belonging: Analytical Reflections’ in Vigdis Broch-Due (ed.). Belonging: The Quest for Identity in Postcolonial Africa (Oxford: Routledge, 2005).

Buchanan Carole, A. ‘Perceptions of Ethnic Interaction in the East African Interior: The Kitara Complex’ The International Journal of Africa Historical Studies, Vol.11, No.3, (1978), pp. 410-428 available at (accessed 27/05/2012).

Byarugaba E.F. ‘Ethnopoiltics and the State: Lessons from Uganda’ in Salih Mohamed M.A and Markakis John. Ethnicity and the State in East Africa (Uppsala: Nordiska Africainstitutet, 1998)

Calhoun, Craig. ‘Nationalism and Ethnicity’ Annual Review of Sociology, Vol.19, (1993), pp. 211-329 available at (accessed 22/05/2012)

Campbell, Aidan. Western Primitivism, African Ethnicity: A Study in Cultural Relations (London and Washington: Casell, 1997).

Chrétien, Jean-Pierre. The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History (Translated by Scott Strauss) (New York: Zone Books, 2003).

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Appendix A.


Ethno-Cultural Composition of Kasese District, 1991


Ethnic group










Batoro/ Batuku/ Basongora





Banyankole, Bahima






























Banyoro/ Bagungu





Acholi/ Labwor










Alur/ Jonam





Bagisu/ Bamasaba















Lugbara, Aringa




















Badama/ Jopadhola























































Batwa/ Baswa





Bachope Bagwe











Source: NEMA (1997), Kasese District Profile, p.18         






Appendix B. Uganda’s population by ethnicity (by sex), 2002










































































































































Ik (Teuso)




























Kebu (Okebo)
























































So (Tepeth)








Other Ugandans








Extract from: 2002 Uganda Population and Housing Census, annex 2, p.36-37



Appendix C. Comparative increase in ethnic populations for Bakonzo and Batoro































[1] Graduate student in law and  political science with special  focus on Human Rigghts, conflict and  violence  , University of the Western Cape, South Africa

[2] Schoenbrun for instance argues that most of today’s linguistic groupings probably belonged to a single proto-Kivu mosaic that lost lingual inter-intelligibility between 500 and 2000 years B.P, while archaeological work at Ishango and Mweya indicates that artisanal people have been living in the rift valley since Iron Age. 

[3] Buchanan points out that the Kitara complex would support an argument that the people in Western Uganda belong to the same mosaic; See Carole, A Buchanan. ‘Perceptions of Ethnic Interaction in the East African Interior: The Kitara Complex’ The International Journal of Africa Historical Studies, Vol.11, No.3, (1978), pp. 410-428 available at (accessed 27/05/2012) This argument is supported by A. Syahuka-Muhindo’s (2008:17) hypothesis on the ethno-genesis and early social formations in the region.

[4] An example is drawn from Ruth Fisher’s work on Western Uganda, which alluded to primitivism and savagery at its worst. See Ruth Fisher. On the Borders of Pigmy Land (London: Marshall Brothers, 1994, p. 151) where she states, inter alia “The kingdom of Toro may be said to include a number of savage tribes with a portion of the pigmies who recognize no authority and rule outside themselves…the Bahuku are savages, possibly a cannibal race…they bought a corpse for between two and six goats from the lower class peasants”.  Similarly, Richard Taylor’s treatise on the Western Bantu as well as John Tosh’s (1973) study of colonial chiefs among ‘stateless’ Langi in northern Uganda, or John Roscoe’s (1915) work are illustrative of this early genre of anthropological knowledge.

[5] See Forster Byarugaba. ‘Ethno-politics and the State Lessons from Uganda’, in Salih, Mohamed M.A and Markakis John (eds.). Ethnicity and the State in Eastern Africa. (Uppsala: Nordiska Afrkainstitutet, 1998)

[6] For this sub-ethnic categorisation, see Justin Willis. ‘Clan History in Western Uganda: A New Perspective on the Origins of Pastoral Dominance’ The International Journal of the African Historical Studies, Vol.30, No.3, (1997), pp.583-600 available at http://www.jstor.rg/stable/220577 (accessed 11/07/2012) See also Martin Doornbos. ‘Kumanyana and Rwenzururu: Two Responses to Ethnic Inequality’ in Rotberg R.I and Mazrui A.A. (eds.), Protest and Power in Black Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970). Details of ethnic groups in appendix A and B.


[7] For the nature of the confusion in configuring ethnicities by early writers, see Randall Packard. ‘Debating in a Common Idiom: Variant Traditions of Genesis among the BaShu of Eastern Zaire’ in Igor Kopytoff (ed) The African Frontier: The Reproduction of Traditional African Societies (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987). Packard attempts to isolate and construct a BaShu ethnicity, the Bashu are a clan of the Banande in Eastern Zaire.

[8] For instance, the rinderpest attacks causing nagana and sleeping sickness between 1896 and 1923 in the Busongora lowlands decimated cattle herds and allowed the pastoralists two routes: either to become cultivators in the Muhindi and Kacungiro hills, becoming Banyabindi; or to migrate to Nkore, where they became Bahima or to areas beyond western Uganda such as Eastern D.R.C. Similarly, famine and drought among sedentary groups forced migrations into the mountains or migrate to distant and more fertile areas, often assuming the identities of the dominant groups in the new areas. Special mention should be made of pastoral groups that adopted the languages of the areas they settled easily. Women captured during war were married by their captors, while babies found abandoned after a battle were adopted in the founder ethnic group, with a lot of care, not to tell the true past. Assimilated groups were allowed co-existence and often accorded status or continuity of spiritual roles.

[9] Fisher, op cit. observed that the language spoken in Toro was Lunyoro while Syahuka-Muhindo, op cit. has argued that together with Bakonzo, they form the latest of the social formations in Western Uganda.

[10] The 1995 Constitution of Uganda uses this date as the commencement date for a list of 56 communities considered to have been in the state of Uganda by that date and therefore acquired the status of being indigenous and their members, citizens. Surprisingly, the people of Asian origin are conspicuously missing.

[11] For further discussion on the ethnographic nomenclature on the Uganda Congo border, see Bernhard Struck. ‘On the Ethnographic Nomenclature of the Uganda-Congo Border’ Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol.9, No.35, (Apr., 1910), pp. 275-288 available at (accessed 24/04/2012) See also Cecilia Pennacini. ‘Rwenzori: An Ethnic Puzzle’ in Pennacini, C and Wittenberg, H (eds.) Rwenzori: Histories and Cultures of an African Mountain (Kampala: Fountain, 2008). See also Axel Sommerfelt. ‘The Bakonjo on both sides of the border’ (Kampala: East African Institute of Social Research Conference Papers, 1958)

[12] For an analysis of centre-periphery dichotomies, see Nigel McKenzie. ‘Centre-Periphery: The Meaning of Two Minds’ Acta Sociologica, Vol.20, No.1 (1977), pp. 55-74 available at (accessed 12/05/2012).

[13] In Toro for instance, the Omukama claimed 14% of the total land area, more than the total considered cultivated land in the Kingdom and also claimed large tracts in newly confederated lands such as Bundibugyo and Busongora.

[14] Besides being an anti-Batoro rebellion, it was marked by widespread spirit possession through spirits called ‘Abayora’ led by a medicine man, Kihokolho (Nyamutwsa) who also claimed to smear women’s wombs with twin-inducing oil. He had three itched battles with colonial and Batoro forces at Burandi (Kilhubo), Kyalhumba and Nsenyi. He fled to Belgian Congo after defeat and was arrested and together with his compatriots, Tibamwenda a Bakonzo Isemalhambo and Kapolyo, a popular drummer were hanged and buried in a single grave at Kagando hospital. They, like their forbearers, became Bakonzo heroes and martyrs, emulated in later inter-ethnic strife.

[15] See Uganda Government. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Recent Disturbances amongst the Baamba and Bakonjo People of Toro (Entebbe: Uganda Government Printer, 1962)

[16] For further discussion on the religious conflict along political party lines, See Samwiri R. Karugire. The Roots of Instability in Uganda (Kampala: The New Vision, 1990)

[17] Ethnic groups without a cultural king  wouldn’t produce a president under the arrangement

[18] These were contained as a government position on the findings of the Commission of Inquiry, in Sessional Paper No.1 of 1963.

[19] I point out that groups mobilise in opposition to the state. It would have been fair for Chretien to examine the mobilising contents of Kanguka, the mobilising mouthpiece for RPF.

[20] For a list of the verbal abuses used such as apes, baboons, gorillas, insects, dogs, flies and pigs etc, see Uganda Government. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Recent Disturbances amongst the Baamba and Bakonjo People of Toro, p.10 but it must be argued that this characterisation was two way, with Bakonzo also referring to Batoro as ‘the uncircumcised who smell, aliens’ etc

[21] For further analysis of the effect of gun proliferation, see Mustafa Mirzeler and Crawford Young. ‘Pastoral Politics in Northeast Uganda: AK-47 as a Change Agent’ The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol.38, No.3 (Sep., 2000), pp.407-429 available at (accessed 14/05/2012)

[22] The Monitor newspaper of 14 November carried the story of the attack, while the State owned New Vision Newspaper of the same date alleged an attack from Zaire (present DRC) on Uganda, imputing an interstate conflict or at least the resurgence of old Rwenzururu through an imagination of what the new rebel force was.

[23] See Africa Rights. Understanding the Conflicts in Western Uganda (Kampala: Africa Rights, 2001) The peak of these atrocities was when twenty students of the minor Catholic Seminary at Kiburara were abducted and the burning to cinders of over eighty students of the Uganda Technical College, Kichwamba, outside Fort Portal in addition to the internal displacement of about 80% of the population of Western Uganda.

[24] Such as the cold-blood murder of Boneface Baluku Mbalibulha during election heat in 1998 and Benezeri Masereka of  Nsurra, Bunyangabu in 1999, both cases being Bakonzo.

[25] The letters were dated 1994 after the death of Amon Bazira, when Iremangoma accepted to temporarily take up the rebel NALU outfit’s command and did not indicate any correlation with the present ADF rebellion. To link the two because the later had recruited the former’s combatants was a weakness by the State in the political arena. As soon as the State face the Bakonzo’s unanimous support for the accused Iremangoma, the state retracted and brought the person it had hoped to vanquish in honours.

[26] It took the president to order for the resettlement of the pastoralists in face of eminent embarrassment and destruction to wildlife. See Barbara Among. ‘Museveni orders Basongora resettled’ The New Vision, 20/07/2008 available at  (accessed 20/03/20012) 

[27] Under the restitution arrangement, in Kasese, the pastoralists would get three hectares for one going to the cultivators, which infuriated the Bakonzo

[28] For instance the Rwenzururu anthem stresses the centrality of language. For deeper discussion on this subject, see Peter Cooke and Martin Doornbos. ‘Rwenzururu Protest Songs’ Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. Vol. 52, No. 1, (1982), pp. 37-60. Available at http://www/ (accessed 24/04/2012).



  1. Gjoy says:

    well researched thoughts. very enlightening I must say. This discussion about ethnicity is really comples. Its a bitter sweet pill. Ehthicity as youve beautifully put it quoting mazrui gives us a sense homenessness while holding us together, yet that “togetherness” is what causes people to develop a sense of “us” and “them” which consequently becomes the distractive influencer.

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