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Buganda and Uganda at a Crossroads

Abu Mayanja Annual Lecture - August 7, 2009

Kampala International Conference Centre

Mahmood Mamdani
I am greatly honored to have been asked to give this lecture. I met the late Abu Mayanja in 1961. I was a
student at Old Kampala Senior Secondary School, and Hon. Mayanja was the new Minister of Education
in the Buganda Government. I was also the Secretary of the Do-it-Yourself Physics Club at the School. In
1961, we held a Science exhibition at the school, and invited Hon. Mayanja to officiate at the opening.
He was gracious enough to accept our invitation. I remember it as the first time I got to shake the hand
of a well-known political leader.

I subsequently met Hon. Mayanja at several workshops in the 1990s. We did not agree on everything.
Nor did we disagree on everything. I became aware of him as a man possessed of acute intelligence, one
who never shied away from controversial issues.

The one controversial issue to which Hon. Mayanja dedicated his political life was that of the political
relation between Buganda and Uganda. It can be said that Hon. Mayanja straddled that relationship. He
was determined to negotiate it as a pioneer, no matter the risks involved. This is why when I was invited
to give this lecture several months ago, I had no doubt that it had to be on the question to which Hon.
Mayanja had dedicated his political life.

I believe that we are today at a national impasse. Everyone knows that the Movement that came to
power with the promise of 'fundamental change' in 1986 turned around and promised 'no change' in the
multi-party elections that followed the adoption of the new Constitution in 1995. On its own admission,
the Movement had a modest vision of change, limited to the realization of security: 'at least we can now
sleep'. Having achieved this goal, at least in most of the country, its vision was exhausted. Its energies
now appear to be invested in preventing change, an objective that no one in history has ever succeeded
to achieve.

The Opposition is narrowly focused on the question of exercising power. Impatient to rule, it regularly
protests the ruling party's failure to observe the two term limit on the exercise of Presidential power as
no less that a subversion of the spirit of the constitution. But the Opposition does not observe the two-
term rule in its own ranks. It has failed to practice what it preaches.

This is the least of our problems. For the political impasse we face is more than just electoral. It concerns
more than just the question of transfer of power. The government that came to power in 1986
pioneered a radically new notion of rights. In the Resistance Councils and Committees of the Luwero
Triangle, rights were based on residence, not on descent. Today, this same government has turned
around. Starting with a political fragmentation of the country into multiple districts, its political
leadership has recently proposed to ring-fence elective political office from immigrants, albeit in one
region. If implemented, this policy will divide Ugandans all over the country into two groups, one
defined as indigenous and the other as non-indigenous, and escalate tensions between them.

The proposal indicates a dramatic narrowing of political vision. The familiar anti-colonial language of
indigenous and non-indigenous, native and settler, only conceals this change from us. To understand the
full magnitude of the proposed change, we need grasp how this proposal defines the settler, and thus,
the native.

During the nationalist struggle, the settler was identified with the colonial power. In the Amin period,
the settler was identified with Asians, whether Ugandans or not. Now, the settler is every Ugandan who
does not come from a particular district. Given that the market economy tends to move people - and
not just products - from one place to another, a growing number of Ugandans, indeed a majority, if not
now then soon, will find themselves branded settlers where they live.

The real shift is in the definition of citizenship. Nationalists defined citizenship as Ugandan, regardless of
origin; Amin defined it as black Ugandan. But, today, it is proposed that the core rights of citizenship -
the right to political representation - be defined on a tribal basis. The NRM is the first government in the
history of independent Uganda to propose a dilution of national citizenship in favor of a tribal
citizenship. My argument is that if we adopt this proposal, we shall be returning to an arrangement
resembling colonial rule.

I do not want to reduce the question before us to that of individual leadership. For the political impasse
transcends personalities. Every government in Uganda's post-colonial history has had to face the
colonial legacy. In moments of crisis, every government has been tempted to adopted measures from
the colonial handbook, but none has dared to suggest as wholesale a return to colonial methods of rule
as does the NRM leadership today. This is why I intend to focus, not on the personality of those who
have governed us, but on the techniques they have employed to govern.

Colonial Rule
If you want to understand income disparities in a country, and ask an economist for help, he or she will
suggest you look at national income statistics, starting with the Gross Domestic Product. GDP statistics
will tell you about how wealth is produced and distributed, but it will not tell you about how the
producers of wealth are governed. The set of statistics that can best explain to you how a population is
governed - and in the process divided - is called the census.

Every census is a fundamentally political document. The central political question in any census is how
to categorize the population. Take any colonial census in 20th century Africa and you will find that it
divided the population into two broad groups: one was called races, the other tribes. My argument is
that this single distinction illuminated the technology of colonial governance. Five observations will help
explain this fact.

First, when the census collector came, you were either counted as belonging to a tribe or to a race, but
not to both. Why were some tagged as members of a race and others as members of a tribe? When you
read through census results, the answer seems simple: non-natives were tagged as races, whereas
natives were said to belong to tribes. Races comprised those not indigenous to Africa (Europeans,
Asians), or those who were said to be not indigenous (Arabs, Coloreds, Tutsi). All those defined as
indigenous in origin were said to belong to tribes - which we now call ethnic groups. The state thus
distinguished non-indigenous races from indigenous tribes.

Second, what was the point of this distinction? Immediately, it was legal. Depending on whether you
were defined as a race or a tribe decided the law that would govern you. All races were governed under
a single law, civil law. This, however, was not true of tribes and customary law. There was never a single
customary law for all tribes as natives, a single racialized group. Each tribe was ruled under a separate
set of laws, called customary laws. If you asked the governor why, he would have said this is because
native tradition is tribal; this is why it is only fair that each tribe be governed by a law reflecting its own

Yet most would agree that the cultural difference between races - such as Whites, Asians and Arabs -
was greater than that between different tribes. To begin with, different races spoke different languages,
mutually unintelligible. Often, they practiced different religions. They also came from different parts of
the world, each with its own historical archive. Different tribes, in contrast, were neighbors and usually
spoke languages that were mutually intelligible.

My point is simple: even if races were as different culturally as whites, Asians, and Arabs, they were
ruled under a single law, imported European law, called civil law, modified to suit a colonial context.
Even if their languages were similar and mutually intelligible, tribes were governed under separate laws,
called 'customary' laws, which were in turn administered by ethnically distinct native authorities. With
races, the cultural difference was not translated into separate legal systems. Instead, it was contained,
even negotiated, within a single legal system, and was enforced by a single administrative authority. But
with tribes, the case was the opposite: cultural difference was reinforced, exaggerated, and built up into
different legal systems and, indeed, separate administrative and political authorities. Why? The answer
is political. In a nutshell, different races were meant to have a common future; different tribes were not.

Third, both legal systems were inherently discriminatory. The discriminatory character of colonial civil
law is well known to us, for it was based on race. Racial discrimination distinguished between master
races (Europeans) and subject races (Asians, Arabs, Colored and so on). Subject races were excluded
from the exercise of those rights considered the prerogative of only members of the master race.

Less known is how the colonial power perverted the tribal system into a set of discriminations. First, he
tribal system was purged of its democratic elements: the most important change was in the
reorganization of power, now dubbed the customary authority. Colonialism recognized only one
authority as traditional: that of the hierarchy of male chiefs. We need to remember that most African
colonies did not have the political history of an absolutist state. In a centralized state, there is a single
law-giving authority, the centralized state. Where power is decentralize, there are multiple rule-making
authorities, a different one for each social field. In pre-colonial Africa, the definers of tradition were
many: not just chiefs, but also clan heads, women's groups, age groups, religious groups, and so on.

Even in Buganda, where political power was more centralized than in other kingdoms, there were
several lines of authority: the power of administrative chiefs, the batongole, was balanced by that of the
bataka, clan heads. When the colonial power declared the batongole as the only traditional authority in
Buganda, the bataka were disenfranchised. Their response was to organize the bakopi - disenfranchised
peasants - into modern Buganda's first anti-colonial movement, the Bataka Movement.

After reorganizing power, the colonial system changed the nature of law - something they called
customary law - which stunted the ability of traditional institutions to adjust to changing circumstances.
The name customary not withstanding, this law was a colonial invention. This is why I call it colonial
customary law, and contrast it with pre-colonial tradition.

We can understand the nature of the invention by contrasting English common law with colonial
customary law. English common law was presumed to change with circumstances. It claimed to
recognize different interests and interpretations. But customary law in the colonies assumed the
opposite. It assumed that law must not change with changing circumstances. Rather, any change was
considered prima facia evidence of corruption. Any law which cannot change with circumstances turns
into a fetter on social change.

Fourth, just as the positive features of pre-colonial custom were diminished or simply eliminated, its
negative features were exaggerated, incorporated in law and thus reinforced. We can best understand
this by focusing on how colonialism redefined tribal identity. Before colonialism, the tribal identity was
open and inclusive. You could become a Muganda or a Munyoro over time. But, under colonialism, the
law defined tribal identity as biological rather than cultural. This meant that the law considered tribal
identity as permanent, passed over from father to son to grandson. As a result, identities that were
previously fuzzy and permeable were made permanent. Open and inclusive cultural systems gave rise to
closed and discriminatory political systems.

The point of redefining tribe as a closed system was to discrimination against outsiders. Tribal
discrimination centered around two key issues: land and political representation. The colonial power
distinguished between 'indigenous' and 'non-indigenous' tribes in each administrative unit, which
labeled the 'homeland' of the indigenous tribe. Both the right to access land and the right to hold local
office were officially designated as 'customary' rights reserved for 'natives' of the 'indigenous' tribe.
Since economic development led to greater migration, of both the rich and he poor, it simply aggravated
the problem. The important thing is to recognize that since the problem was political, not economic, the
solution to it could only be political, not economic.

In short, colonialism created two political spheres. It labeled one modern and the other customary or
traditional. But, in reality, both spheres were equally modern. Both had been created by colonial power.
If the modern sphere was entirely fabricated, the sphere called traditional was a perversion of the pre-
colonial system. Both were based on a distinct system of discrimination which each reproduced. In the
modern sphere, discrimination was based on racial identity. In the so-called traditional or customary
sphere, discrimination was based on tribal identity, now redefined as if it were a biological, race-type,
manifestation - rather than a cultural and historical product.

All hue of nationalists, whether radical, moderate or conservative, fought the colonial claim that natives
are by nature tribal. The nationalists claimed: we too are a race, Africans. The first colonial response to
nationalist mobilization was to recognize urbanized natives as a race and to create a fully
comprehensive racial system of representation - for Europeans, Asians, Africans - alongside the tribal
system of representation and rule in the countryside.

At independence, every African government removed racial discrimination in civil law. But nationalists
divided on the question of customary law. Unlike a minority who argued that colonialism had perverted
custom, the majority held that customary law must be defended because it indeed represented tribal

Let me give you an example from Nigeria. Nigeria introduced a new constitution following the civil war.
The 1979 Constitution introduced a series of affirmative rights based on the principle of 'inigeneity'. A
key clause in the Constitution says that key federal institutions-universities, civil service, and, indeed,
the army-must reflect the "federal character" of Nigeria. This means that entrance to federal
universities, to the civil service, and to the army is quota driven. Quotas are set for each state in the
Nigerian federation, and only those indigenous to the state may qualify for a quota. This means that all
Nigerians resident outside their ancestral home are considered non-indigenous in the state in which
they reside. As a result, the effective elements of the Nigerian federation are neither territorial units
called states, nor ethnic groups, but those ethnic groups that have their own states.

The ethnic character of the Nigerian federation reinforces two tendencies. First, every ethnic group in
Nigeria, no matter how small, is compelled sooner or later to seek its own state in the Nigerian
federation; the larger ethnic groups, in contrast seek more than one state. Second, with each new state,
the number of Nigerians defined as non-indigenous in all its states continues to grow. The cumulative
outcome is to intensify the contradiction between economic and political processes. The economy
compels both the rich and the poor to move, the rich in search of investments and poor in search of land
or jobs. But the political system disenfranchies those who move by penalizing them as 'not indigenous'
even though they are still in their own country. Nigeria is caught in the horns of a dilemma that may be
summed up as follows: the more the economy dynamizes, the more the polity disenfranchises.

The Nigerian dilemma has been reproduced in most African countries. Consider the recent violence in
Kenya. Even though it is widely identified with the election and the associated power struggles among
contestants, this would not be as big a problem if did not link up with tensions on the ground. The real
issue that explains the intensity of the violence is the ethnic conflict around land, particularly in the Rift
Valley. The historic roots of this land conflict lie in how the Mau Mau conflict was settled, by giving
settler lands to pro-British collaborators and moving ex-Mau Mau combatants into the Rift Valley. The
violence in the Rift Valley sets poor Kikuyu migrants against the poor in the tribes of the Rift Valley. Each
side claims right of access to land, one stressing it as a tribal right, the other as a citizen's right.

The same conflict between two different versions of land rights - a tribal right or a citizen's right - is to
be found at the heart of the conflict in Darfur. The backdrop to the Darfur conflict is an ecological crisis,
leading to an expansion of the southern boundary of the Sahara by 100 kilometers in 40 years,
stretching from the 1940s to the 1980s. The resulting drought and desertification pushed the camel
tribes of northern Darfur southwards. As they headed for the lush mountain ranges in Central Darfur,
there followed a clash with peasant communities. One claimed the right of a citizen to move freely in
their country, the other claimed to limit it by the right of tribal property.

The best known counter example comes from Tanzania. Mainland Tanzania is the only country in this
region that has never victimized any group among its citizens on either racial or ethnic grounds.
Everywhere else in the region, the record is one of genocide or ethnic cleansing. To understand the
reason for this remarkable political achievement, we need to appreciate the political achievements of
Tanzania's first and longest serving President, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

Nyerere is usually known for his economic and social policies, usually referred to as Ujamaa. I suggest
we look at him as a statesman first and foremost. For mainland Tanzania is the only former colony that
has managed to uproot the colonial legacy of tribal rule, and do so peacefully. Its great achievement was
to do away with the regime of legal pluralism where pluralism was not based on territorial
decentralization, but on having different laws for different groups even if the groups are living on the
same territory. It managed to create a single Tanzanian common law deriving from multiple traditions:
pre-colonial history, the entire complex of colonial laws (both civil and customary) and the corpus of
anti-colonial practices. By creating a common substantive law enforced by a single hierarchy of courts,
and replacing tribal homelands with a single territorial administration, Nyerere and TANU were able to
create the legal basis of a single citizenship.

We are now in a position to understand the significance of the NRM's contribution during the guerrilla
struggle in the Luwero Triangle. The 1980-1986 guerilla war in Uganda took place in the Luwero Triangle
in Buganda. The Luwero Triangle is a place where over 50% of the population is made up of immigrants.
According to colonial customary law, only those with a local ancestry would have a claim to customary
rights. This legacy presented the National Resistance Movement, with a problem. For if they observed
custom as defined under colonialism, they would divide Luwero villages between natives and migrants,
and would risk to lose one or the other.

When the guerrillas liberated a village from governmental authority and reorganized a new power
around new institutions - a resistance council and a resistance committee - they had to face several
questions over and again: who can vote, and who can run for office? To neutralize the native/migrant
divide, which would otherwise have paralyzed them politically, they arrived at a new solution. Instead of
confirming the colonial legacy, that one's rights depended on origin, they displaced it with a new
dictum: one's rights depended on where one lived. All adults who lived in the village had the right to
vote in the village and to run for office in the village committee - regardless of their origin.

The NRM began by championing a national citizenship. After two decades in power, the Movement has
changed course, turning to a program of ethnicizing rights and power. The context has been the onset of
electoral competition following the 1995 Constitution. The NRM's governing strategy has been to
fragment the population to the maximum, administratively and politically, so as to present itself as the
unifying force. The first step in this project was marked by a program of district creation. New districts
have been created at a galloping rate. The number of districts has gone from 33 [1990] to 44 [1997] to
78 [2006] to 80 [June 2009] with a further increase to 94 awaiting parliamentary approval.

Recently, the party leadership has proposed a second step in this program. If introduced as policy, it
would divide the population in each district into natives and migrants and reserve right of access to both
land and elected political office to the native section of the population. Urban areas are said to be an
exception to this. There is an uncanny resemblance with the colonial period: the country will be divided
politically between urban and rural areas, with rights national in urban areas but tribal in rural areas. In
the last part of this talk, I would like to consider the significance of this policy proposal for the Buganda

The Buganda Question
The Baganda are the largest ethnic group in Uganda, yet when it comes to politics they behave like an
imperiled minority. The reasons for this psychology are historical, not biological. They have to do with
relations between Buganda and the Central Government during the post-independence period.
Whenever post-independence governments have faltered in building majority support around
implementing a positive program for social change, the tendency has been to demonize a minority as a
national threat against which to scare the majority into silent submission.

From this point of view, we can divide the post-independence period into two. The first period begins
with the demonization of the Baganda in the post-1964 period; the second period begins with the
demonization of the North after 1986. I shall focus on the consequences for the Baganda.

It would seem that Buganda has come out of this experience both steeled and scarred. On the positive
side, it is determined to safeguard its unity and integrity against all odds. As a result, Buganda is today
the only part of the country with the capacity to resist central government-led fragmentation into so
many mini kingdoms or mini-districts.

On the negative side, Buganda seems imbued with a political psychology that is not only oppositional
but also isolationist. The result is to succumb to a form of politics that is mainly reactive. This is no doubt
at a price, which is a diminished capacity for leadership.

This is why the real challenge for contemporary Buganda is in the domain of political leadership. Having
experienced demonization, can it provide an anti-dote to demonization? Having resisted fragmentation
from the centre, can it develop a democratic alternative to fragmenting strategies from the centre?
Having gone through the experience of the Luwero Triangle in the 1980s, during which the NRM
successfully built unity in a multi-ethnic population, can Buganda remain loyal to the experience of
Luwero at a time when the leadership of NRM has forgotton, if not betrayed, those same lessons?

Let me state the challenge differently: Can Buganda move beyond the politics of victimhood, beyond
always thinking of itself as a potential victim, to exercising leadership, thereby representing all victims,
by turning its own particular experience into a source of general lessons, and incorporating its own
particular grievance into a more general demand?

In other words, is politics possible without demonization? Is it possible to unite people without
artificially creating an enemy, a political demon?

I have no direct answers to these questions, at least not today. But I do have some observations and
suggestions about how to go about answering these questions.

The first is to suggest that we begin by drawing lessons from past experience. Four such experiences
merit reflection: the 1966 crisis, the 1979 'twagala Lule' demonstrations, the 1980-85 guerrilla struggle
in the Luwero Triangle, and the debate around the Land question in 2008. Consider the following:

If there was a lesson in the 1966 crisis, it was a harsh reminder that Buganda is irrevocably a part of
Uganda. In other words, Buganda has no choice but to give up the ways of bachelorhood and find a
solution within the political marriage called Uganda, even if that marriage was born of abduction in

The message of the 'twagala Lule' demonstrations of 1979 was more mixed. On the positive side, they
demonstrated - Gandhi-style - that it is possible to mobilize peacefully in the face of armed force, and
that such a mobilization could generate great political and moral force. On the negative side, they
demonstrated the inability to of the demonstrators to move from resistance to leadership. For, to do so,
they needed to build the ethnic resistance into a multi-ethnic movement.

The guerrilla struggle in the Luwero Traingle showed the way out of this dilemma. The lesson was all the
more dramatic since the Luwero Triangle was a small part of the country, with a minority population. In
spite of being waged in a small area, the struggle in the Luwero Triangle attracted support from the bulk
of the country. Why? Because the NRM showed the political capacity to weld together a multi-ethnic
movement in the Luwero Triangle, thereby assuring that a movement limited to one part of the country
would not necessarily translate into narrow ethnic domination in the country as a whole. The basis of
this assurance was the RC system that replaced the colonial notion of native rights with a revolutionary
notion of resident's rights.

The last great learning experience was last year's debate on the Land Question. The strength of the
central government flowed from the fact that the issue it raised was real; it was not just manufactured.
This issue concerned the rights of tenants, both documented and undocumented, and the main focus
was on the question of security of tenure.

But this debate also revealed the weakness of the central government position. It was surely curious
that the same government that claimed to represent the weak and the oppressed was unwilling to
practice a democratic politics, to consult and persuade others by entering into a process of give-and-
take. Instead, it was determined to force its views on those who were not convinced. This single fact
explains why critics were able to checkmate the Government by persuading the population in Buganda
that the Central Government must have a hidden agenda - why else would it be unwilling to consult and
negotiate? If its proposals were in the interests of the majority, why would it need to force those same
changes down the throats of that very majority?

Buganda is the most multi-ethnic of any part of Uganda. If you go back far enough, most Baganda are
Bafuruki. Many of the new Baganda, like myself, do not have a historical connection with Buganda. The
challenge for historicals is to broaden membership to include non-historicals on the basis of equal rights.
If it falls prey to the temptation to proclaim native rights at the expense of Bafaruki, the movement
called Buganda will only have repudiated its own history, its incredible capacity for absorption and
openness. For this reason, it will also have a dim future.

It is worth looking at this issue in more general terms. How do we reconcile a particular cultural identity
- whether ethnic or religious - with a national political citizenship? I have suggested that the answer lies
in combining a historical sensitivity with a forward-looking political consciousness. To be sensitive to
history is to acknowledge that you can never start afresh, as if the slate were wiped clean. The
assumption that you could start as if there is no history is an arrogance that sometimes afflicts
revolutionaries. To be historically sensitive in today's Uganda is to recognize Buganda as a historical
entity. This is the cardinal principle of federo, its just core. For that just demand to resonate with all
Ugandans, its leaders need to be forward-looking politically, to be inclusive, to resist the temptation to
insist on privileges for historicals - by ring-fencing them - but to make room for newcomers.

It means to recognize the distinction between culture and politics. To share a common culture is to
share a common past. You may not share a common future for some may migrate, and be part of a
Diaspora. But to share a common residence, to live in the same locality, even if you do not have a
common past and thus a common culture, is evidence that you are committed to building a common
future. All those who wish to build a common future under a common political roof - no matter how
different their pasts be - belong to the same political community. It is because people who live in a
common locality are committed to building a common future that they deserve the same political rights.

Let me close. Today the situation is ripe for a national alliance between all those who are determined to
resist the politics of fragmentation, regardless of political party, or region. This alliance needs to be
based on two recognitions: first, the demand for federo is today the forefront of that resistance; second,
this demand needs to be articulated in an inclusive manner, as indeed it was in the Luwero Triangle.

I thank you.