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"To ask someone’s tribe is not really modern"

November 12, 2009 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

The G4S security guards contracted to protect us had an anxious few days during the riots that shook Kampala six weeks ago, leaving 27 dead and auguring none too well for the 2011 elections. There was no need for anxiety on our account since it would take a most extraordinary riot to penetrate the haven of Kololo hill, where foreign diplomats, aid workers and the local elite shelter behind bougainvillea and hibiscus. But there were grounds for anxiety about what might happen to the guards at the end of their shift when, along with Kololo’s domestic servants, shop girls from the local plaza and the beggars who ply their trade outside, they melt away home to their lower quarters in the mud and jumble of Kamwokya.

Many of these service industry workers are migrants to Kampala, whose population has doubled over the last fifteen years to its current total of around 1.8 million—already ten times that of Uganda’s next most populous city, and growing fast. All the usual things—poverty, lack of opportunity, dispossession—have brought folk from villages in the east, west and north to look for a toehold in the urban slums and, if they’re lucky, a job mopping the floor or guarding the gate of some much richer person. As is the common lot of economic migrants, many of the brightest and most determined are tragically overqualified for the available work. Teddi, the woman who mops our floor and uses the proceeds to pay school fees for a clutch of nephews and nieces orphaned by AIDS, comes from near the Rwenzori Mountains (‘of the Moon’) in the west and has a diploma in business administration. One of the men who guard a USAID residence around the corner from us is a qualified meteorologist according to the resumé he passed us in case we should happen to know of any more suitable position. But demand for weathermen, and even business administrators, remains slack so they have to stick to mopping and guarding.

During our year here a succession of men (and, to our pleasant surprise, one woman) have taken turns at standing guard by our gate, day and night, opening and closing it as we drive in and out. There was Joseph, a youngster from the east, but he was never going to last long: too restless, bored, striding round the garden kicking a football, unable to concentrate his mind on the finer points of watchfully surveying the bougainvillea for twelve hours at a stretch. After a while, though, he managed to get himself an overseas job with one of the security firms: in Iraq, which might prove more exciting, and where he expected to earn up to USD 600 a month guarding something or other—six times more than he was getting here. (G4S, with a GBP 5.9 billion turnover in 2008 and a workforce of 585,000 running prisons, immigrant detention centres and guarding properties around the world, offers the best wages in the guarding market here: slightly over USD 100 per month for a 72 hour week—roughly thirty US cents per hour—with deductions for all absences. Some of its local competitors pay as little as USD 40 per month.)

Joseph was replaced by Moses, an older and steadier chap also from the east, but he suddenly sickened and died from some form of cancer. We have since seen quite a bit of John, long and lean, and Christine, the pleasant surprise, less long and rounder, both from West Nile province, up in the north-west. Jackson, from Acholiland in the far north, has become a regular. He had some trouble earlier this year when his own one-room home was broken into, his pots, pans, radio, TV set, personal papers all stolen. Jackson’s account of this mentions chicken blood and entrails that appeared on his floor a few nights earlier, though it is not clear to me—for his English, a third or fourth language, is awkward—whether he means that he was the victim of evil spirits or merely that the mortal culprits were trying to scare him. Either way, he did seem scared. Like everywhere else, with all the efforts to protect the privilege of the well-to-do it’s invariably the have-almost-nothings who bear the real brunt of crime.

Best known to us is Fred, an amiable 22 year old from the Langi area in the mid-north, who has been a regular since we arrived. His steady job at thirty cents an hour enabled him to marry a girl ‘from the village.’ He has been paying the bride price by instalments and now owes her family only one more goat, which he plans to deliver at the end of this year. Meanwhile, he fetched his bride to his room in Kamwoyka, she rapidly conceived, was duly returned to the village for the lying-in and bore a son who has come back with her and who seems sturdy, having already survived his first bout of malaria. And now Jackson and his wife have moved into a nearby room so that the couples can watch out for each other.

Some are not so lucky. Fred has a brother—perhaps not a blood brother, as fraternity is claimed rather loosely here, but a kinsman of some sort—another newlywed security guard, whose firstborn son died a few weeks ago, aged four months. They needed to take the little body back to the village for the funeral, but could not raise the money to hire a vehicle. So in the end the bereaved parents travelled by themselves while Fred took a separate bus carrying the small corpse concealed inside a bag.

So these are the incomers, people of modest lives and fulfilments, fraught with difficulty and risk. And for me the chilling thing about the riots was how nervous Fred and Jackson and Teddi became—worried to be at home, worried to be away from home—and not just because there was some weird stuff going on that might accidentally damage them, but lest the weird stuff spill over into generalised resentment of the out-of-towners and make them its deliberate victims.

Dangerous games

The violence arose from a spat between the central government of President Yoweri Museveni and the ancient, southern kingdom of Buganda, within whose boundaries lies the metropolitan area of Kampala. Buganda was the base camp for British rule, which went on to draw neighbouring kingdoms, pastoralist areas and clan societies into the colony. Colonial development policies, implemented through ‘indirect rule’ that left existing hierarchies in place, broadly favoured the kingdoms, whose own centralised administrations made them easier to deal with than the more dispersed, single clan societies in the north. Buganda, especially, was privileged in the introduction of cotton and coffee, infrastructure and Western education. The north was left relatively undeveloped—which it remains today—but supplied men to the Kings African Rifles, creating a regional specialisation in soldiery which continued into independence and is echoed today in the private security industry. The roughly 5.5 million Baganda people (Uganda’s largest ethnic group, comprising almost 17 per cent of the national population) meanwhile remain on the whole relatively well endowed and moderately prosperous, prominent in agriculture, commerce and professional occupations, and include an upper stratum of substantial landowners.

Yet many Baganda still smart from a sense of betrayal. Uganda started its independent life in 1962 with a loosely federal system to accommodate the patchwork of peoples roped into the nation. The hereditary Kabaka (king) of Buganda served as titular head of state but with political power vested in an elected parliament and prime minister. This arrangement was negotiated with the departing British by the first Prime Minister, Milton Obote (a Langi, from Fred’s area in the mid north) in coalition with the then Kabaka. Obote relied on Baganda electoral support to win his own position. But in 1966 Obote suspended the constitution, centralised government under a new presidency which he assumed, and abolished the kingdoms. The Kabaka’s palace was surrounded by state troops and he fled into impoverished exile in London, where he died. Since then, through a succession of coups, civil wars and, latterly, elections, the presidency has always been occupied by men from other regions.

The latest of these, Yoweri Museveni, from the west of the country, has been in power since 1986. A determined modernist and avowed anti-sectarian (anti ‘tribalist’), he was at first seen by ‘the international community’ as a breath of fresh air after Obote and Amin (who came from West Nile), drawing this 1992 tribute, for example, from the eminent British historian of Africa, Basil Davidson:

[Museveni’s National Resistance Movement] produced the makings of peace and reconciliation where no hope of either had existed before. Fear retreated. The possibility of civil government instead of executive abuse began to emerge. Genuine moves towards democratization of executive power thrust up their challenges to despair. It was even as though Uganda’s long years of clientelist tyranny had cleared the way for grass-roots political life to push a harvest of renewal up through soil that had seemed irretrievably ruined. (The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State James Currey, London, 1992, p. 311)

Museveni has lost a lot of his shine in the subsequent 23 years. Prolonged civil war in the north has exacerbated the north-south development divide, the east has also been relatively neglected, and although the south and west have enjoyed stability and steady economic growth there has, according to most accounts, also been steady growth of cronyism and corruption. Many of the president’s erstwhile National Resistance comrades have leaked away to opposition parties. Still, opposition parties are allowed, alongside a free and vociferous, although sometimes harassed, press; Museveni’s rule has remained broadly non-sectarian and owes its longevity to political skill and to the ballot box. And, returning to our present story, one of his earlier ‘peace and reconciliation’ efforts, in 1993, was formally to restore the kingdoms, allowing a new Kabaka, Ronald Edward Frederick Muwenda Kimera Mutebi II, to ascend to the throne of Buganda—as a ‘cultural’ rather than a political leader.

Which brings us to the proximate cause of the September riots. In order to win a fourth term, which he appears to want, Museveni needs Baganda votes. Their elite has been using this leverage to air grievances over land and, more ambitiously, to demand more autonomy, a ‘federo’ deal that would give them more political, rather than merely ceremonial, power over the richest part of the nation. These are not easy demands to meet and would be hard to reconcile with bridging the north-south development divide. Museveni, ever a fighter, has not only resisted but pushed back by acknowledging a local chief who is nibbling away at part of the Buganda kingdom by claiming (‘cultural’) leadership over an autochtonomous group within it, the Banyala, in the district of Kayunga. Museveni’s message to the Kabaka seems to be ‘You stir my ocean and I’ll shake up your pond.’

The Kabaka planned a trip to Kayunga to rally support for the unity of his kingdom but the central government asked him to desist, saying they could not guarantee his personal security. On September 10, the Kabaka’s advance party set off from Kampala regardless, to prepare the way for the royal visit, but found the road blocked by national police and army units who turned them back. Angry protests erupted among Baganda traders in the central business district (whipped up, the central government alleges, by a Baganda radio station that was soon forced off the air.) According to Fred, passing on the private security info-gossip, the serious violence started when a Baganda mob seized the weapon of an armed guard at a bank and shot a policeman dead, whereupon riot police started shooting into the crowd, unleashing further unrest, burning and looting in several outlying neighbourhoods. Hundreds injured, including many entirely innocent bystanders,
hundreds arrested.

The bloodshed did not spill over into inter-ethnic violence but, until the Kabaka backed down and called off his trip, it came close enough to leave ordinary out-of-towners feeling vulnerable. In some neighbourhoods, Teddi tells us, groups of “unruly” young Baganda men, armed with clubs, were stopping people on the streets “interviewing” them about where they came from if it wasn’t immediately obvious from their appearance, and having rough fun with some by making them sing the Buganda anthem. “To ask someone’s tribe,” Teddi says in retrospect, now that things have calmed down, “Is not really . . . [she pauses to consider the right word] . . . modern.”

Oily speculators

To this unhappy sketch must be added a short update on events in the western kingdom of Bunyoro. Also ancient, this kingdom put up stiff resistance to colonial rule. It took the British fully six years to ‘subdue’ it, exile the king to the Seychelles and, by way of further punishment, give away part of its land to neighbouring Buganda. The fragmented kingdom was then depopulated by a devastating outbreak of sleeping sickness. Today, large tracts of Bunyoro land are still owned by absentee landlords and, over the decades, many smallholders have migrated from elsewhere to settle in the area. Over the last few years prospectors have found oil deposits there, prompting a new wave of speculators to buy up land. The central government has now declared a moratorium on land sales to non residents and said that it will start to buy out absentee landlords.

In July, a letter from Museveni to senior colleagues, leaked to a local newspaper, suggested ‘ring fencing’ elected offices in Bunyoro for local, Banyoro people, on the grounds that “genuine national integration must include scrupulous respect of everybody’s rights to the land of their heritage.” It is hard to know what ‘M7’ (as he is widely known) is up to here. Many Ugandan commentators have surmised that he is trying to woo Banyoro votes to make up for likely Baganda defections. But this does not make much sense: the Banyoro are a small constituency, less than a million people all told. Yet as a measure to ensure that they share in the benefits of oil this is hardly practicable: many of the incomers have been there for generations, adopted the local language and intermarried with the Banyoro, so it would be extremely hard to decide who to disenfranchise. And, besides, disenfranchising any Ugandan as a presumed ‘outsider’ is a dangerous lurch towards toward basing political rights not on national citizenship but on ethnicity.

The real danger here is that Museveni’s commitment to non-sectarian rule may be unravelling as he manoeuvres to keep enough interest groups onside to retain power. It is easy to see episodes like the September riots as revealing loose seams in the patchwork, but important to recognise that it is not some deep seated ‘tribalism’ that pulls at the stitching so much as the manoeuvring of political elites.

Ah, well. It is Sunday dusk, time for the changing of the guards, and Jackson has just arrived to take over from Fred for the night shift. Jackson has brought with him a Yashica camera—not digital, but the old fashioned sort, with a roll of film inside—and is posing for a photograph, standing to attention on the top of my daughter’s trampoline, wearing a red baseball cap and a mobile phone strapped to his belt, conspicuously wired to a headset with earpieces and microphone. I don’t understand how people come by these accessories on thirty cents an hour. Fred bends low to compose the shot. It’s a nice moment, two brothers from different places and bloodlines but with a shared fate, voting with the shutter for modernity.

Nick Young
Kampala, November 8, 2009