Uganda: Should Citizens Be Able to Change Their Tribes?

Published: 23/Jan/2012
Source: The Monitor (Kampala)

By Donald Rukare

The above question about changing one’s tribe might seem frivolous but I have been prompted to ponder this seemingly empty question in the recent past for a number of reasons.

The Constitution of Uganda provides for 65 recognised indigenous communities out of its population of 34 million. I happen to have been born a Munyankole, one of the 65 indigenous communities. However, over the years, I have seen a growing passive aggression and resentment of my tribe.

This aggression or resentment seems to stem from a deeply held perception that Banyankole have been ‘in things’ (bali mu kintu) for the last 25 years. Being a Munyankole in Uganda today is synonymous with power, wealth and sometimes arrogance. While it is true that some Banyankole are in power, and are wealthy, this does not apply across the board. The same could be true for several individuals from other tribes.

Recently, I was returning from lunch with a friend who hails from Buganda. We drove through Kagera Road in Nakasero. This road has, over the years, had security barriers though it is open to the public. As I drove, my friend expressed concern that we might get stopped by security personnel for using this ‘closed’ road. I pointed out that the road was open for use by anyone. My friend in a matter-of-fact tone said, “nedda Don, you are passing through here because you are a Munyankole and security will not disturb you!”

That statement made me to stop and think. Some people actually think being a Munyankole would get you past blocked roads! What else would one access? It seems as though being a Munyankole is a ‘get out of jail’ card in Uganda for many situations, including driving through non-accessible roads!

During the recent riots in the country, one felt very insecure moving on the roads, especially if you hailed from Western Uganda or were perceived to hail from there, more so since there are sections of Ugandans who mistakenly consider all westerners to be Banyankole. It was apparent that there was a palpable level of passive hostility between groups. During one of the unrest episodes, while driving through Wandegeya, I heard several worrying comments and threats.

Despite Uganda being a Republic for the last 49 years, managing ethnic and cultural diversity remains a serious challenge, just like in several other African countries. Ethnicity has been a problem in Uganda even before independence. Like her neighbours, Uganda is divided along ethnic fault lines that have fuelled a number of internal conflicts. Our country has been plagued by intra-state violence since its independence in 1962.

While it is encouraging to note that the country is peaceful at present, the challenge remains in maintaining sustainable peace and ensuring prosperity for all.

The Uganda Country report prepared by The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) acknowledges that Uganda, like most post-colonial States in Africa, faces an enormous challenge in managing diversity and points out that since independence, Ugandan politics has been marked by continued tribal and regional divisions, most poignantly between the north and south.

In a recent report, the Uganda Human Rights Commission revealed that Uganda’s history is littered with incidents of human rights violations related to ethnic and cultural tensions. There is no doubt that the government has laboured to roll out programmes that aim at eradicating poverty and spurring economic development for all Ugandans. This is the right path to embark on. The poverty rate now stands at about 31 per cent.

While this is true, there is still a perception issue. The perception that we, Banyankole, are ‘in things’ is breeding hostility. This perception must be addressed as a matter of urgency. There are several pressure points that one can allude to in the case of Uganda. The Uganda Human Rights Commission has, in its annual report (2009), highlighted several of these pressure points which include the Balaalo issue, the Banyoro/Bafuruki question, the Buganda Kingdom/Central government situation and the Karamojong ethnic conflict. Furthermore, securing a job in some local governments when you are not a native of the area is next to impossible, let alone acquiring property or settling in the said area.

This is why I’m asking if Ugandans should be able to change their tribe. What would this entail? Naturalisation, perhaps. By naturalisation, we could see tribes opening up their tribal identity to any Ugandan who wishes to take it on. Just like some countries allow dual citizenship, tribes should do the same. The criteria could be through marriage, investing in the geographical space/region of the tribe in question, long stay in the region together with social integration, etc.

I think in some way, this might contribute to moving away from looking at ourselves from a tribal perspective to more of a nation. It could also lead to a substantive societal discourse we must begin in order to overcome the tensions caused by tribalism.

Mr Rukare is an advocate.

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Themes: Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious
Regions: Uganda
Year: 2012