Book Review: Violence in the Rwenzori region and the puzzle of ethnicity

06 Sep, 2021,

Source: Nile Post

Adventino Banjwa

Why would people rise up in their multitudes to kill their neighbours, or, at least, cheer when the state is slaughtering them? Why is having a separate district so important to members of an ethnic group that they kill and die for it? How does one explain the popularity of this violence?

These are the questions central to Dr. Yahya Sseremba’s new book titled: The State and the Puzzle of Ethnicity: Rethinking Mass Violence in Uganda’s Rwenzori Area – published this year (2021) by MISR Press.

In about 160 pages, each chapter of this book begins with a fresh critical look at the major debates that have driven scholarship on Africa and Uganda in particular on numerous themes – for example the nature of precolonial power in Africa, the nature of transformation ushered in by colonial rule, the place of native intellectuals and postcolonial leaders in explaining contemporary problems such as tribalism, to mention a few.

Armed with evidence from his own research, Sseremba intervenes in each of these debates, reaching at conclusions that build on some existing positions, while also challenging others.

This book is a timely intervention. It comes out at a time when ethnic conflicts and violence have become a mainstay in postcolonial societies.

In Uganda for example, the book comes out at a time when we are facing an unending compartmentalisation of the political body into numerous tiny units called districts, often with boundaries tribally imagined.

In the case of the Rwenzori area, which provides most material for this book, Sseremba puts together historical evidence that points to 1919 as the birth of the ongoing conflicts and bloodshed devastating this region.

According to Sseremba, 1919 is significant because in this year, three Bakonzo and Bamba leaders were summarily tried and beheaded by the colonial regime, allegedly for disobeying Toro Native Authority (p.146).

The book argues that with the colonial creation of Toro Native Authority and the corresponding Toro Customary Law, ethnic communities that before knew no overriding chief woke up under one authority, despotically upgraded to fit into the divide and rule politics of colonial rule.

According to Sseremba, the creation of Toro Native Authority, and the colonial despotism unleashed through it, sparked off a series of demands by other minoritised and marginalised ethnic groups in Toro, first for recognition as equally native to Toro, and later for exclusive tribal enclaves.

But the book’s point is not simply that colonialism distorted historical realities and then legally enforced such distortions. On top of this important point, the book argues that in creating Native Authorities like Toro, colonialism made ethnicity the basis for political inclusion and access to resources, particularly land.

This is the original sin of colonialism in Africa, and the book argues that it is in this context that demands for separate tribal enclaves being made by disgruntled ethnic groups, and the violence that ensues in the process, must be understood.

The postcolonial obsession with ethnic homelands, an innovation of colonial rule in Africa, is termed in the book as ‘the homeland logic’.

According to Sseremba, the major problem with this logic is that nowhere in Africa is ethnic homogeneity/purity a reality. It’s a myth.

During colonialism, this myth served a political purpose of enabling minority colonialists to rule over majority ‘natives’.

The human reality in Africa as elsewhere is multi-ethnic, and Sseremba is emphatic in his layout of the puzzle of ethnicity facing postcolonial political communities like Uganda today: ethnic emancipation, the ring-fencing of areas such as districts for particular ethnic groups, is destined to create more equally-disgruntled ethnic minorities in that new district, who in turn also resort to demanding for separate ethnic districts and homelands.

The cycle of demands for these ethnic homelands, and the violence that ensues, cannot end because the underlying assumption, of ethnic homogeneity, is a myth.

In each newly demarcated tribal district, violence breaks out exactly when those defined as non-natives stand up to claim nativity, either within the tribal district, or by curving off spaces in which they claim nativity.

Sseremba makes it clear that it is self-defeating to think that this homeland logic will resolve the conflicts and the violence it created in the first place.

In the book, Sseremba critiques two approaches by both colonial and postcolonial regimes, devised to end the violence that has engulfed the Rwenzori area for over a century. In the first approach, colonial and postcolonial regimes have invoked the military option and pursued perceived perpetrators through criminalisation.

In the second approach, the tendency has been to recognise political demands for separate homelands, and award them accordingly. In the latter case, Sseremba notes, Idi Amin was the first among postcolonial leaders to award Bamba and Bakonzo separate tribal districts of Bundibugyo and Kasese respectively in 1974.

The problem with both these approaches, Sseremba argues, is that they miserably fail to understand violence in the Rwenzori region in its broader historical and institutional context.

In short, they fail to understand that the problem is with the tribalised structure of the state itself, which makes tribe/ethnicity the basis for belonging to a district and access to resources such as land.

Because what propels popular demands for tribal districts is the tribalised structure of Uganda’s postcolonial state, Sseremba concludes his book, “the creation of more tribal homelands is the surest way to escalate the conflict – and it has to stop” (p.155).

The apparent popularity of ethnic homelands is what emboldens Sseremba’s total dismissal of explanations that privilege so-called neopatrimonial traits of African rulers, who are said to champion tribal compartmentalisation of the political landscape in search for clients through whom they project their neopatrimonial authority.

Much as this says something about what is going on, Sseremba insists that such explanations tell us absolutely nothing about why tribal homelands are popular – that is, demanded from the bottom, by the people themselves.

Building on progressive voices in society, both in the past and in contemporary times, the book presents an alternative modality of organising political life today. It argues that the colonial homeland logic, based as it is on the myth of ethnic homogeneity/purity, must be displaced.

In its place, Sseremba recommends that we “adopt residence as opposed to ancestry as the basis of belonging to a district.” (p.155). This book has developed out of Dr. Sseremba’s doctoral dissertation, which he defended in 2018.

In the weeks and months ahead, as he presents his argument to the public in different forums, a couple of points will have to be elaborated. I will highlight one such points here, which emerges from Sseremba’s innovative argument that while studying phenomena such as mass violence, political studies and political economy analysis need not be seen as apart, but as complementary.

In the case of the violence in the Rwenzori area, Sseremba argues that much as the primary cause of this century-old conflict is the politicisation of ethnicity since colonial rule (i.e., rendering ethnicity the basis for political inclusion and access to resources such as land), there are other factors at play in the region.

Of salience is the ongoing enclosure of huge chunks of land for nature conservation and “development projects”. While national parks claim a whole 63 percent of the land in the Rwenzori area, a powerful class of people is also enclosing off huge chunks of land for “development projects” (pp.98ff).

In Sseremba’s view, these two factors have exacerbated the demand for tribal homelands in the region. What needs to be further explained in this understanding is the exact nature of such enclosures.

Do they reveal an intersection of class and ethnicity in the Rwenzori, and how would such a reality inform the analysis presented in this book?

For its detailed historicisation of this century-long conflict, for its passionate critique of problematic theoretical certitudes that have for too long informed our understanding of realities in Africa, for its radical decolonial proposition for reorganising postcolonial political life, and for its deliberate intelligibility and accessibility, Dr. Yahya Sseremba’s book is an illuminating and refreshing read for anyone interested in Africa’s postcolonial condition.

Similarly, our leaders, those presiding over a state whose underlying structural logic is defined by the politicisation of tribe/ethnicity, will find in this book the courage and discursive resources and to forge a more humane way out of our postcolonial impasse.

The author is a PhD Fellow, Makerere Institute of Social Research, Makerere University. Twitter: @adventino88