Friday, November 13, 2009

Uganda: Why the President is right and wrong on Bunyoro issue

By Prof. Ali Mazrui, Daily Monitor

Since my academic career was launched and nurtured in Uganda, and Uganda is the source of the Nile, I regard my professional life as a child of the Nile. I have had a special relationship with Uganda. What do I owe the country? I owe Uganda my loyalty and creative engagement. But I also owe Ugandans eternal frankness. I was after all a citizen as well as a scholar. I learnt things in Uganda which helped me understand the wider world. I also learnt things in the wider world which helped me understand problems like Bunyoro.

I was born at the Kenya Coast. When the British came we at the Coast were the most advanced part of what came to be called Kenya. We had been literate in the Arabic alphabet for centuries; the rest of Kenya had not. We had built in stone for centuries. We had experimented with monarchical institutions. We fought Portuguese imperialism and expelled Portuguese rulers from the Kenya Coast.

Why is this relevant for Uganda? Precisely because we, the Coastal people in Kenya, have memories of when we were ahead of almost everybody else. The Banyoro have similar memories.

Then came the British. They gave us some recognition but they created conditions for the eventual marginalisation of Coastal people. This became clearer after the British left. Other Kenyans moved into Mombasa and other Coastal cities. Before long the best land at the Coast, the best hotels, the best jobs were held, and the best houses on the beach were disproportionately owned by, Kenyans from upcountry.

We were even looked down upon as less hard working, less motivated, less fulfilled than new Kenyan upcountry migrants in Mombasa. The Coast, the first to be literate became the last to graduate. Kenya built six public universities but not a single one was at the Coast. I can therefore understand why the Bunyoro fear being disinherited in the land of their ancestors.

We need some kind of solution for Coastal people in Kenya, but the solution should not create other forms of injustice. And in Bunyoro a counter-productive “solution” is no solution at all.

Northern Nigerians had similar dilemmas to Bunyoro. Igbo and Yoruba from Southern Nigeria, migrated to the North, and before long seemed to outperform the Northern Hausa educationally, economically, organisationally, and in leadership. Unfortunately, Nigerians did not find a solution soon enough. There was enormous Northern resentment of Southern immigrants eventually leading to a catastrophic Northern uprising against the Southern Igbo in 1966.

My wife is Nigerian from the South and resided in the North of the country. The uprising of the Northern Muslims was in part against Southern Christians but religion was not the core issue. My wife comes from a Christian family. Her father was killed in that anti-Igbo uprising of 1966. Our own family now is an example of Muslim-Christian reconciliation, but Nigeria did not make it on time.

The country drifted into a civil war from 1967 to 1970. One of the causes of the Nigerian civil war was unequal performance between immigrant Southerners and indigenous Northerners in the early years of independence. My wife’s father was one of the casualties.

Post civil war Nigeria has been trying to find a solution to relations between what they call ‘indigenes’ and the ‘non-indigenous’ in Northern Nigeria. They have a concept called ‘the federal character of Nigeria’ which tries to have an affirmative action solution to help underperforming Nigerians in their own part of the country.

If I were advising President Museveni, I would say “You are right, Mr President, that there is a problem in Bunyoro. But, sir, we may need to re-examine the proposed solution that you have so far advanced. We must find a way of pulling up the indigenous Banyoro without pulling down the immigrant Bakiga. Mr President, let us go back to the drawing board and seek alternative answers more compatible with social justice.”

Prof. Mazrui teaches political science and African studies at State University, New York

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