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Listen to the other side in Uganda's national conversation

Listen to the other side in Ugandas national conversation

One reader of my letter last week posted his reaction on a WhatsApp discussion forum that, in  my view, encapsulated a major cause of Uganda’s failed marriage.  The gentleman wrote that he had been struck by my statement explaining one reason why some people may have voted for Yoweri Tibuhaburwa Museveni. My statement in question was: “Yes, the old fear of Buganda dominance, fairly or unfairly rooted in our colonial experience, remains alive and well in many parts of Uganda.” 


The gentleman reacted with a dismissive disregard and detection of a psychiatric affliction among those who harboured fear of Buganda. He wrote: “Folks we have been independent for 59 years during which for all practical purposes there has been no Buganda dominance. Yet in many parts of Uganda the fear of Buganda dominance remains alive and well? This statement speaks to a pathology which I am challenged to comprehend let alone explain.”


The gentleman is a distinguished medical doctor living and working outside Uganda. His use of the word “pathology” is important for it suggests the presence of a medical disorder afflicting fellow countrymen whose attitudes have been shaped by our colonial history. 


To buttress his case, he declares 59 years since independence from Britain to be long enough to have cured people of the pain endured by their parents and grandparents during colonial rule.  The gentleman presumably considers the events of 100 years ago, the early colonial years, to be too ancient to inform today’s attitudes. Uganda’s story, you see, only begins in 1962.


All of which is very puzzling. The good doctor knows that the genesis of most human conflict is to be found in ancient history. The Irish versus the English. The Jew versus the Arab. Abatutsi versus Abahutu. Abairu versus Abahima. Quebecois versus English Canadians.  African American versus European-American. The list is a very long one. Ancient tensions, however caused, fuel conflicts over political and economic power. It is the pathology of history. 


Uganda, at barely over 120 years of age, is a kid, very much susceptible to adolescent fights triggered by childhood memories. The men and women who endured the forced labour and taxation of Uganda’s early colonial years passed the stories on to their children and grandchildren. Not long ago, men in their nineties were still talking about the ten-cent taxes their parents were forced to pay to the colonial agents.


Extant history books written fifty years ago remain the principle accounts of the early colonial experience in some parts of the country. The narratives and analyses of the period shaped attitudes that have outlived the principal actors in the story. 


I suspect the good doctor carries very strong memories of his own experience as a young lad growing up in post-independent Uganda’s first decade. He would be rightly incensed by any dismissal of his feelings, especially by people who have not bothered to understand where he is coming from. To expect him to let go, to get over it, to pretend that the passage of fifty-five years has erased a dark chapter of his journey is to engage in unhelpful denial.


A major reason for Uganda’s very difficult marriage is that we do not listen to each other. Only our community’s grievances and fears are valid and deserve the full attention of everyone else. The other people’s complaints and anxieties are unfounded. They are not worthy of consideration. Our narrative is the only truth. The reality of other people’s feelings is a diseased state, a pathology that is best ignored. 


Everyone else is wrong, you see, and we need not bother to listen to them. Whatever is in their hearts and minds is imaginary. It is a fable, not reality. It is their problem, not ours.  For example, when the Baganda ask for Federo (federalism), the opinion leaders from elsewhere dismiss it as a retrogressive distraction promoted by “the Mengo clique.”  When someone like me advocates federalism as the hope for a stable Uganda, many intellectuals dismiss the idea as a “Baganda thing.”  The more charitable ones seek to muzzle me by declaring it “foreign.” 


On the other hand, when the unitarians reject federalism, we see them as advocates of dictatorship. I have heard people accused of being anti-Buganda simply because they disagree with “Federo.”  


Here is the problem. We cannot wish away our history. Our personal experiences do not reflect that of others. Remaining silent about a problem is akin to ignoring symptoms of cancer. It does not make it go away. 


The misidentification of Uganda’s real problem – enemy, if you will – has haunted our forced marriage for six decades. Today’s loathed are the people from South-West Uganda, collectively referred to as “Nyankole or Abanankole.” This term includes Abanyankore, Abakiga, Abahororo, Abakonjo ba Kahondo, Abafumbira and Abanyarwanda. They are collectively guilty of the sins of Museveni and his courtiers.


Before Museveni, the enemies were “the northerners,” a term that had less to do with geography than it did with the power that a few of them, specifically Mr. Apolo Milton Obote and Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada and their armies, wielded between 1962 and 1985. Strenuous denials and condemnations of anti-northern attitudes did not change the opinion born of false generalization. 


Before that, the loathed were the Baganda, partly because of the advantages their kingdom had enjoyed, specifically the acquisition of territory from Bunyoro, during the events that led to the forced marriage called Uganda. Less recognized was the impact that Baganda colonial agency had on the attitudes of the subjects. 


For the record, I disagree with the notion that any ethnic community is responsible for the actions of a handful of its people who have caused pain through exercise of their political power. However, I acknowledge the feelings, some intense, occasioned by people’s experiences. The good doctor may be right. The fear may be pathological, but it is still fear. 


This fear needs treatment that must start with careful history taking, examination of the patient, appropriate investigation of evidence, diagnosis of the problem and dispassionate prescription that is a win-win solution for all stakeholders. Dismissing the patient’s complaints as malingering or hysteria has long been discarded by the medical fraternity.


I believe that we need a national conversation. The pretence that a dark hole has swallowed and cleansed our history is mere wishful thinking. We need to listen to each other, especially those who disagree with us. We must listen to the other side – to their story. It will be an emotionally charged conversation. But it must be held. 



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