ED note: Originally written on July 25, 2020 and published on my facebook page, in reaction to the arrest of a comedy group on allegations of tribalism (originally titled ‘ON ‘BIZONTO’ AND THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT.’ See it on my Facebook page https://web.facebook.com/bernard.sabiti/posts/3555483031146525 )
Uganda has 65 ethnic groups and 43 indigenous languages. Like they did everywhere they went, British colonialists, using their divide and rule tactic took advantage if this diversity, widened the wedges among the tribes, and poisoned the cultural cohesion of the country forever. Sure there used to be tribal conflicts before colonialism but most were based on conquest and political power and dominance, not cultural and identity hatred.
The Comedy Outfit Bizonto (Who I had never heard of until yesterday when they were arrested) are a clever lot, producing searing social commentary on Uganda’s body politic with their seemingly silly skits. The video that got them into trouble essentially accuses the regime of stinking tribalism. But are they right?
As in every sociopolitical issue, the truth is always more complicated than the simplicity of a few minutes of a comedy skit. There are a few terms I want to first get out of the way, by way of definition, before I come back to the question:
TRIBALISM: The behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group. Human evolution primarily occurred and emphasized small groups, as opposed to mass societies, and humans naturally tend to maintain a social network of people that look like, think like, them, or share the same cultural identity. Political Tribalism therefore is when governance is done following tribal precepts; i.e appointing someone for example by a president, solely on account of sharing the same tribal identity with him and not because of his competence.
POLITICAL PATRONAGE on the other hand, is the appointment or hiring of a person to a government post based on partisan loyalty. Elected officials use such appointments to reward the people who help them win and maintain office. It does not matter the tribe. But if tribal influence of some ‘godfather’ gives him such clout that he uses his influence in a certain tribe to deliver the votes of that tribe to the ruler, then he will be rewarded on that account as well.
POLITICAL CLIENTELISM is similar to patronage but more brazen. It is the exchange of goods and services for political support, often involving an implicit or explicit quid-pro-quo. Clientelism involves an asymmetric relationship between groups of political patrons, brokers, and clients (Voters). The criterion for distribution of these political goods that the patron uses is simply: “did you/will you support me?”
NEPOTISM: the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. It is simply favoritism, e.g in appointment to a job, based on kinship.PATRIMONIALISM is a form of political organization in which authority is based on the personal power of a ruler.
NEOPATRIMONIALISM: A system of social hierarchy where ‘patrons’ use state resources to secure the loyalty of ‘clients’ in the general population. It is an informal patron–client relationship that can reach from very high up in state structures down to individuals in small villages. Neopatrimonialism supplants the bureaucratic structure of the state in that only those with connections have the real power, not those who hold higher positions. The title means nothing (When you want to see M7 for example, his official spokesman or secretary may not help you but some obscure figure living in Kapeka may wield more power to lead you to him). Neopatrimonialism undermines political institutions and the rule of law, and is a corrupt (but not necessarily illegal) practice. It can however have its benefits if used properly, and decisively, like it was by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, and to an extent by Paul Kagame in Rwanda. Neopatrimonialism can extend the reach of the state into the geographical and social peripheries of the country, provide short term stability, and facilitate communal integration.All rulers the world over practices some form of the above to varying degrees. Even the most ‘democratic’ countries in the world!
Using the United States as an example, Tribalism is rampant in their politics:
• White Voters traditionally vote republican while Black voters vote democratic. Obama won black voters by 97% percent but lost white voters to both John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
• ‘Pork barrel’ politics is a metaphor for the appropriation of government spending for localized projects secured solely or primarily to bring money to a certain member of congress’s district. A ruling party channels public money to particular constituencies based on political considerations, at the expense of broader public interests. E.g Trump paying huge subsidies to farmers in the State of Iowa, the farmers in turn vote for his reelection. Museveni building a new road to some area, to secure their vote.
• Gerrymandering, for example, a practice intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a party or group by manipulating district boundaries, originated in the United States in the 1800s. When Museveni creates new districts and constituencies to bolster his majority in parliament, he did not create the practice.
Museveni’s government is a hybrid of all the terms above.
IS THE MUSEVENI REGIME TRIBALISTIC?
You must first answer a separate question: What is the intent of a government in exploiting tribal differences? Is it to promote cultural supremacy of one tribe over another or is it to capture, and keep, power? For Mr. M7, appointing a cabinet is like the longest quadratic equation in the world for him and I imagine it takes him weeks to put one in place. Why? Because he must navigate all these tribal complexities to make sure he makes everyone happy, and therefore retains political support. It’s calculus on steroids.
Governments like Museveni’s are called ‘Hybrid Regimes’ and are very common in most developing countries. A hybrid regime is a mixed type of political regime, one that is neither fully democratic, nor fully a dictatorship. Hybrid regimes combine autocratic features with democratic ones and can simultaneously hold political repressions and regular elections. After decades of proliferation of democracy around the world as a part of the ‘Third Wave’, by the early 2000s, the democratization process stalled in many countries and a new form of governance emerged in some countries either by choice or by default. This new form, while having some democratic institutions, is essentially authoritarian in its nature. Such regimes are full of contradictions. They can do a few things right if they suit their political survival and go crazy in the next breath if they are threatened.
There are few books that eloquently describe Uganda’s regime than “Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime” by University of Wisconsin political science professor Aili Mari Tripp. In the book, she makes a case that even if a Bobi Wine or a Kizza Besigye were to take power in Uganda, they would likely be neopatrimonialist dictators like Museveni due to the sociopolitical and cultural nature of the country and its history. Museveni therefore subtly appeals to tribe not because he is a tribalist (I think he even hates tribal chauvinism) but because he wants to maintain power. Hence Edward Sekandi is perennially appointed VP not because he possesses any special skills for the job, but because he is a Muganda and Museveni needs Baganda votes. So was Bukenya before him, and Specioza Wandira Kazibwe (because she was a Woman and a Musoga).
DOES MUSEVENI FAVOR BANYANKORE/’WESTERNERS’?
Again you have to look at intent. Why are there many westerners in the high rungs of the military hierarchy? My hunch is that it’s because those individuals guarantee his power safety more than any other. If M7 thought a Muganda officer or a Samia or Langi would do a better job protecting his grip on power, he would appoint him. It’s all about POWER, not tribe!
Anyone who presupposes that Banyankore, or ‘Westerners’ (whatever that means) are ‘in things’ because a small cabal of people from the region dominate the government therefore is wrong. Many people who accuse ‘westerners’ of being in things have even never been to the true western Uganda to see how bad things are in that region. The government’s own statistics show the same thing. Uganda as a whole is a poor country, and lives of ordinary people in western Uganda are simple and mundane, not so unlike those of the people of eastern or central Uganda. Uganda’s $25bn GDP simply is too small to transform the country, and we have to contend with the idea that maybe we are poor country that cannot afford all the good things citizens need; not because of tribalism or just dictatorship but for the same other reasons that 50 other sub-saharan African countries are poor: A panoply of social, historic, economic factors that can’t be blamed on one man only.
Those that still propagate the myth that ‘Westerners’ (Who they think is anyone that takes Masaka road when going for Christmas) are the ones ‘in things’ in this regime without adding context therefore need to be mindful of the harm they are causing. A vast number of Banyankole are also pitchpoor.
The ‘ Arrogant Westerner’ construct, like its other used version, “Those Banyankore” is a dangerous, deeply flawed trope that presupposes that every one from the region is rich (including myself from Kisoro, the very last enclave of ‘the west’).
POWER NOT TRIBE
It is a flawed thinking like this stereotypical “othering” of ethnic groups that has led to civil wars and genocides in some nations. This type of thinking ignores the real truth about privilege and class, inequality and deprivation in Uganda. Under the NRM regime, these issues are a function of political clientelism, patronage, elitism and nepotism. Only a small elite among the Banyankore is rich. A small necleus of an even smaller nuclei that is in the corridors of power is the one doing well. That clique includes godfathers from Lango, Karamoja and Busoga too. You won’t believe how many “Westerners” are in a bad shape. Graduate kids on the streets, households plagued by chronic poverty, districts with no clean water, people dying of hunger (Isingiro district was in the news a few years a go as hunger stricken. Cut out of Mbarara, it’s ‘western’ credentials are impeccable). Have you seen the general development indicators for Kiruhura district? It has very poor residents too. Museveni’s own LC 1 village has poor people in it. So please, the next time you are talking about “The West”, add some nuance to your analysis. The government’s failures are not selective in their impact. They affect everyone irrespective of tribe, and I would presume that its successes should benefit everyone too, and they normally do. Instead of banding together, Nyankore, Ganda, Kiga, Acholi, Samia, Langi, to demand for better services, we are always mired in petty inter tribal arguments, at the delight of the ruling elite of course.
Like the colonialist, Africa’s ruling elite wants their poor subjects in constant petty fights among themselves. That was what Divide and Rule was about. We don’t need that any more.
Bizonto’s skit therefore lacked the context explained here, and that would’ve made it even more powerful and to the point. However, I am not suggesting that they deserved arrest even with that lack of context. Freedom of artistic expression is theirs, guaranteed in the constitution, so don’t get me wrong. All I am saying is that their skit, similar to the remarks Bobi Wine usually makes (such as on that Jinja radio show where he wondered how a man from Ibanda should be minister in charge of Karamoja) prey on the tribal mistrusts that have simmered underneath the psyche of most Ugandans since independence. The government on the other hand doesn’t help dispel them with their behavior (of political security and survival as I explain above).
We need have a national conversation on these issues, to be frank in discussing them, but from the side of understanding and reconciliation, and not of inflaming tensions. And we need to discuss all these within the context of our sociopolitical history and how we got here. –