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Uganda: a country being torn apart by ethnic violence

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In western Uganda last Sunday, police and military raided the Rwenzururu kingdom's palace in the town of Kasese. The crackdown on suspected militia members among King Mumbere's royal guards left palace buildings ablaze and at least 46 royal guards dead. Police arrested another 139 royal guards and airlifted the Omusinga (king) to the Nalufenya counterterrorism detention centre to face murder charges.

The fighting came after clashes the day before in Kasese and attacks on police after royal guards reportedly threw an IED at security patrols. On Sunday morning, president Yoweri Museveni called on King Mumbere to surrender his royal guards to prevent further violence. The king, who has consistently rejected allegations of a move for a separate state or the existence of the militia, failed to oblige and security forces raided the palace. By Tuesday morning, the weekend's death toll in the district had risen to 126.

Other skirmishes last week left eight suspected militia members dead when security forces cleared what was believed to be a training camp of the Bakonzo militia, reportedly a group vying for an independent Yira State for the Bakonzo people and their fellow tribesmen in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Banande.

Both Kasese and Bundibugyo districts, in the Rwenzururu heartland, were the scenes of large-scale clashes between security forces and civilians in July 2014, when 100 died, and March this year, leaving 50 dead.

But with no credible investigations of previous clashes, the identity and motives of those instigating violence in earlier years remain murky. The region's recurring conflicts likely reflect longstanding tensions, exaggerated by the Government's patronage policies and militarised responses to violence.

Western Uganda has a long history of armed resistance involving minority ethnic groups struggling for recognition. In colonial times, the Bakonzo ethnic group felt marginalised and oppressed by the Tooro kingdom. In 1962, the Bakonzo, together with the Bamba — another marginalised ethnic group — launched the Rwenzururu rebellion, seeking to establish an independent kingdom. This conflict helped to give rise to the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda rebel group, which later joined up with the Allied Democratic Forces.

In 2009, the Ugandan Government recognised the Rwenzururu kingdom as a cultural institution and crowned Charles Mumbere as the king.

It is important to understand that kingdom recognition and the creation of districts are the result of the Government's patronage politics, in which the state and its resources are used to consolidate the regime's power, particularly for electoral reasons. Control over Uganda's districts and kingdoms means control over public funds and land — as well as political representation and mobilisation.

So the recognition of the kingdom was an apparent attempt by the Ugandan Government to swing the votes in a region that had overwhelmingly voted opposition. It did not work — the region still voted for the opposition in 2011 and the creation of the new kingdom created new tensions.

Meanwhile, recognising the Rwenzururu kingdom created new problems.

On the one hand, minority tribes in the region — the Bamba and the Basongora — now claimed separate kingdoms of their own: the Rwenzururu kingdom was regarded as a representation of the majority Bakonzo, rather than all ethnic groups of the region. Other tribes therefore sought to establish their own kingdoms.

On the other hand, the Bakonzo saw other kingdoms as a deliberate strategy to limit the influence of the Rwenzururu kingdom. All governments were therefore perceived as an intentional divide-and-rule plan to weaken their power. This led to tensions.

In June 2014, president Museveni yielded to the demands of the region's second-largest group and granted recognition to the Bamba kingdom in Bundibugyo district. Weeks later, Bakonzo youth attacked various localities, triggering reprisal killings and counter-operations by security forces. The Government arrested hundreds of suspected attackers, mainly Bakonzo youth and a handful of Rwenzururu kingdom officials, and charged them before military tribunals. They eventually let them go.

No investigation into what happened took place and there was no reconciliation between the various actors involved in the conflict. Instead, the Government increased its military presence, and delegated the peace process to the kingdoms themselves. In doing so, the Government has overemphasised the ethnic character of the conflict and has left unaddressed wider frustrations with the national Government — a main cause for the 2014 attacks.

After the February 2016 General Election, deadly violence returned in the wake of disputed local council elections in two areas. The Government blamed an alleged militia loyal to the Rwenzururu king. And local politicians instead blamed the Government and police for raising tensions when they deployed security forces in the region.

Underlying these tensions are feelings of marginalisation: various ethnic groups feel their communities are left out of employment opportunities or access to land. Land conflicts — including agriculturalists versus cattle breeders, land grabbing and tribal migration issues — are rife in Kasese, the country's fifth-most populous district. Fuelling these land conflicts are feelings of neglect: the Bakonzo believe the Government favours other ethnic groups, such as the Bamba. “Ethnic” land tensions are a translation of frustrations with the Ugandan Government and its perceived favouritism.

High numbers of unemployed youth make violence more likely. At the same time, traditional mechanisms of conflict resolution through elders have lost influence.

So the existence of the Rwenzururu kingdom and the perceived marginalisation by all ethnic groups involved has created an explosive situation. All sides of the conflict remain locked into their traditional roles and actions — the kingdoms seek to portray their symbolic power, while the Government continues to rely on military power and patronage.

In doing so, the Government is trying primarily to consolidate the regime's electoral power, but is further invigorating the Bakonzo's frustrations with its perceived divide-and-rule policy.

Both mechanisms continue to add fuel to the fire, rather than dousing the tensions. Last month, for instance, the Rwenzururu kingdom celebrated its 50th anniversary, but denied security forces access to the ceremonial grounds. In turn, security forces stepped up their patrols in Kasese.

This impasse shows little sign of abating — Museveni recently created four new districts in Kasese district, a move rejected by opposition MPs as well as the Rwenzururu kingdom.

Addressing the root causes, through investigations and dialogue between all parties, is essential to resolving the situation. A strictly military solution and short-term electoral calculations are likely to further fuel tensions rather than restore stability.

Anna Reuss is a Kampala-based political analyst. She is pursuing her PhD at the universities of Ghent and Antwerp. Kristof Titeca is a lecturer at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp

Members of the Uganda People's Defence Force gather in Kasese on Monday. Rights groups urged Ugandan security forces to show restraint as they violently crack down on the members of a tribal militia (Photograph by Arne Gillis/AP)
Men on a motorcycle pass the damaged administration headquarters in Kasese on Monday (Photograph by Arne Gillis/AP)

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Published November 30, 2016 at 8:00 am (Updated November 30, 2016 at 7:42 am)

Uganda: a country being torn apart by ethnic violence

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