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How Not to Fight Tribalism

The debate on tribalism in Uganda has headlined recent national conversations. Police summons and arrests of creative artists critiquing the reality of tribalism, have rather popularised the issue. In a more proactive intervention, Jinja East legislator, Paul Mwiru has tabled before parliament a constitution amendment bill seeking to address the regional imbalances in Public Office recruitments – from appointments to promotions. Mwiru’s anti-sectarianism amendment bill calls for affirmative action, insisting on equitable distribution of employment opportunities in public offices amongst the regions of Uganda. The proposal has received mass support, and many legislators cannot wait to pass the bill.

However, despite the bill’s goodwill, its supporters’ understanding of the issue is limited and unquestioning of a particular colonial history. The national conversation and the proposed constitutional amendment tell us something, but not everything about tribalism. When the anti-sectarianism act critiques regionalism, for example, it translates region to imply tribe. When popular activism against tribalism speaks against favouring “Westerners”, it translates “Westerners” to infer “Banyankole”. How does the popular discourse identify westerners? First, through their names! Names are tied to an ethnicity, and then to a territory. The polarizing implication of such profiling is not lost on a political scientist or a scholar of the nation-state.   

To fight tribalism through regionalising the spellings and pronunciations of names, and subjecting them to affirmative action feeds the vice, and risks institutionalizing it to graver effect. On the other hand, it implies that Mbarara can never produce an Okello. More so, there is a vulgar reduction of the discourse on tribalism to suppose a conflict between the Baganda and Banyankole. Yet, in the fight against tribalism, all weapons should be directed against the re-creation and upholding of political minorities and majorities within a society. This is the unfinished lesson we derive from Steve Biko. Affirmative action, however, sustains the minority-majority divide as eternal, and so risks pitying ethnic groups against each other because the minority is framed as forever requiring protection from the tyranny of the majority.

Tribe-based affirmative action serves the logic of colonial rule, which paddocked people in tribal homelands, and to date informs the often-witnessed political violence. To even take it for granted, who should count as a Westerner, Northerner, or Easterner? Shouldn’t it be the resident of such a territory, regardless of their name or ethnicity? To capture the paradox of affirmative action is to also reflect on whether if the appointing authority selects a fourth-generation Muganda or Mugisu resident of Mbarara, for any of the highest public offices, we shall have fought sectarianism in its present conception. In such a case, while we might have fought tribalism, we might not have fought regionalism.

In the fight against regionalism, let us resist the temptation to tie identity to individuals’ particular names and territories. Names transcend tribal boundaries, just as ethnicities transcend territorial markings. Let us desist paying tribute to the colonial state through re-affirming the political identities it fashioned. Let us resist framing our fight as a scramble for privileges. Let us stop inviting and allowing the state to see us as political minorities and majorities.

Img Src; Uganda Parliament Twitter


What do you think?

Written by Jacob K Mwine-Kyarimpa

The author is an MPhil/PhD student at MISR

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