Intricacies of Peaceful Co-existence in the Rwenzori Region; Building blocks of Peace, Justice and respect for Rights

INTRICACIES OF PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE IN THE RWENZORI REGION; BUILDING BLOCKS OF PEACE, JUSTICE AND RESPECT FOR RIGHTS

By Tuhaise Francis

Executive Director/Rwenzori Forum for Peace and Justice

 

Synopsis; In this presentation, I contend that the Rwenzori region remains one of the most conflict and violence-prone regions in Uganda, often associated with intermittent outbreaks of conflicts and violence, both in the past and recent times. Characteristically, these schemes of conflicts and violence have largely not been accidental. Rather, they have been carefully and neatly orchestrated by geo-ethno-political actors at different levels as means for advancing their geo-ethno-political agenda. Further, at the centre of these conflicts and violence, is the unprecedented instrumentalisation of the region’s political, social, cultural and economic diversity to trigger, intensify and occasion intra and inter-group animosities.

The resultant effect of these schemes on Peace, Justice and Human Rights, whose spheres are coextensive, has largely been dire. Within varying degrees, each of these schemes of violence resulted into loss of lives, destruction of property and the creation and/or exacerbation of conflicts and animosities among ethnic and political groups. Further, effects, outcomes and drivers of these historical and recent conflicts, violence and together with new and emerging tensions and injustices continue to exacerbate the region’s fragility, and also threaten the attainment of short and long-term peace that the region so deserves.  In this presentation, I briefly explain the meaning of notions of peace, justice and human rights; elaborate on the historical and recent schemes of conflict and violence and; expound on contemporary bottlenecks to peace, justice and respect for rights in the region. I conclude by making specific recommendations on how the region can fast embark on a course that will propel peace, justice and the culture of unequivocal respect for rights.

UNDERSTANDING PEACE; JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS

Galtung (1964: 1966: 1969: 1981; 1985:1990: 1996) widely regarded as the Father of Peace Studies as well as several other scholars in the peace building profession broadly categorize the notion of peace into negative and positive peace. Negative peace entails the absence of violence, war, or repression. Positive peace on the other hand entails the absence of structural violence and structural injustices which as a result, ferment shared values, improved relations, equity, equality and justice for all.

The concept of justice has roots in moral and political explanations and justifications. Entomologically, the word Justice comes from the Latin jus, meaning right or law.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the “just” person as one who typically “does what is morally right” and is disposed to “giving everyone his or her due,” offering the word “fair” as a synonym. This dictionary definition coincides with classical definition and understanding of the notion of justice by several philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and others, who view justice along the continuum of individual claims, communal claims, responsibility, giving everyone his due, doing right and being fair to others and in all dealings.

Conventionally, Human rights are widely understood as being those rights which are inherent to the human being and which must be realized without distinction as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. These rights are guaranteed by the human rights law and NOT established by this law. Our very own, 1995 Uganda Constitution under Article 20 (1), describes human rights as being inherent and not granted by the State. Appreciating the importance of rights, Article 20 (2) of the same Constitution obligates all organs and agencies of Government to respect, uphold and promote rights and freedoms of individuals as enshrined in the Constitution. Other scholars like Shue (1980) have scholarly pointed out the fact that it is the State that is primarily responsible for respecting, protecting and fulfilling rights.

In understanding Peace, Justice and Human Rights, two important realities need to be appreciated. First, spheres of peace, justice and human rights are coextensive. As such, to speak about justice is to speak about rights. To speak about rights and justice is to speak about peace and vice versa.  Second, Peace, Justice and Human Rights are not exclusively western concepts or notions as some people who critique these notions and concepts tend to at times insinuate. Peace, Justice and Human Rights are evidently African concepts, values and notions embedded in the African way of life, aspirations, systems, institutions and structures. The concept of Ubuntu for example cherished by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and their ancestors in South Africa and elsewhere, connote human interconnectedness. Long before the advent of western democracy or religion, our grandparents and parents orally and through imitation taught us what is now advanced and codified as “peace, justice and human rights. We were taught to welcome strangers, to love others, to protect the poor, to be just, to be fair and to protect the weak. So, the pursuit of today’s peace, justice and human rights in the Rwenzori region and country, MUST be seen from the African lenses, convictions and orientations and not just as western and/or religious impositions. For example, simply put, respecting someone of a different ethnic group is an African value. Likewise, rejecting violence is within the ambit of African way of life.

A LEGACY OF INTRACTABLE CONFLICTS AND VIOLENCE IN THE RWENZORI REGION

The region has historically experienced intractable incidents of conflicts and violence including the Abayola rebellion (1919-1921), colonial social, political and economic schemes,  the Rwenzururu rebellion (1962-1982), insurgencies by the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU)  in the 1980s, National Resistance Army (NRA) war in the 1980s and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) from the 1990s; the July 2014 attacks in Ntoroko, Kasese and Bundibugyo districts and; the 2016 conflicts and violence and the resultant destruction of the Palace of the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu (OBR) cultural leader in Kasese district, his arrest  and on-going trial and that of his royal guards in court. These past and recent schemes of conflict and violence have generated interconnected bottlenecks to peace, justice and respect for rights in the region as elaborated hereunder;

BOTTLENECKS TO PEACE, JUSTICE AND RESPECT FOR RIGHTS IN THE REGION

  1. Insurmountable number of victims of past and recent schemes of violence

 

Who and where are primary and secondary victims of; ADF rebellion? Rwenzururu rebellion? Colonial displacements? 2015 simultaneous attacks in Ntoroko, Bundibugyo and Kasese districts? 2016 violence in Kabarole, Kasese, Bundibugyo and Kabarole districts? The 2016 military action at the palace of the Omusinga, the OBR cultural leader?

Within varying degrees, each of past and recent schemes of violence in the region resulted into loss of lives, destruction of property, human rights abuse and the creation and/or exacerbation of conflicts and animosities among ethnic and political groups. Just in 2016 alone, the attack on the palace of the Omusinga in Kasese district left over 100 people dead and scores more injured. This number excludes hundreds of other victims of 2014 violence in Ntoroko, Kasese and Bundibugyo districts; secondary and primary victims of the ADF rebellion that thrived on abducting energetic people into its ranks across the region; victims of several other past conflicts like the NRA struggles; victims of the Rwenzururu rebellion and; victims of colonial social, political and economic policies and programs that rendered people landless like locals who were evicted to create Queen Elizabeth National Park in Kasese district in the 1950s and Matongo forest reserve in Bundibugyo district. To-date, victims’ justice remains by and large, a fallacy reflected in the failure by government and other actors to comprehensively profile victims of violence and initiate sustainable restorative and other initiatives as one way of restoring hope, fostering resilience among these victims and amplifying meaningful reconciliation in the region.

Past and recent conflicts flared up inter and intra-group animosities, mistrust and tensions between and among ethnic groups in the region. Colonial interactions for example anchored on divide and rule policies and political instrumentalisation of ethnic differences, resulted into inter-ethnic mistrust and tensions. Post-colonial political dispensations continued with this divide and rule system and failed to sustainably harness inter-ethnic and intergroup unity and reconciliation. To-date, inter-ethnic tensions and mistrust remain deep-seated, in part, due to the socialization processes administered by socialization agents in schools, at family level and in other places by elders and others. In the process of socialization, negative perceptions about others continue to be replicated across ethnic groups.

  1. Failed and/or delayed reconciliation processes in the region

 

Who is given more attention in reconciliation efforts? How are local, regional and national reconciliation efforts responsive to the needs and interests of ordinary victims of conflicts and violence?

Competing and conflicting ethnic and political groups in the region have for some reasons failed and/or moved very slowly towards reconciling with one another. For example, several groups that were at the centre of 2016 violence have to-date never reconciled and/or meaningfully had meaningful platforms to reflect on the 2016 conflict with a view of handling the past and minimizing possibilities of the past undermining present and future peacebuilding efforts. Most reconciliation efforts have instead remained “hybrid” in nature. This hybridity is reflected in government’s efforts to exclusively reconcile high level actors as reflected in the Mubende district meeting between the Omusinga and the Omudhingiya (OBB cultural leader) after the 2014 conflicts, and the appointment of Hon. George Mike Mukula after the 2016 conflicts to facilitate reconciliation between the Omusinga and the Omudhingiya. Most reconciliation efforts have tended to disenfranchise victims of conflict and violence and other local actors and leaders, rendering these efforts more artificial, short-term and inclined to high level interests at the expense of popular and sustainable public interests.

 

  1. Resurface of ethinicised politics ahead of 2021 elections

 

What is the role of ethnicity in modern day politics and leadership in the Rwenzori region? How can cultural institutions stick or be helped to stick to Article 246 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution and provisions of the 2011 Institution of Traditional or Cultural Leaders Act that de-politicize these institutions?

Across the Rwenzori region, as the case is many parts of our country, ethnicity continues to substantially influence, both political narratives and the course of politics at various levels. In some cases, ethnicity in this region has tended to influence vote-seeking and the actual voting patterns. Some candidates, at the expense of regional and national unity, have tended to make people believe in and falsely seek protection from their ethnic kinsmen and groupings.

Taking 2016 elections as the case study, election-related violence in 2016 was greatly anchored on tendencies to ethnicise elections and politics reflected in cultural institutions silently and/or publically fronting candidates for different elective offices. In some cases, candidates paraded themselves as “official” representatives of OBR and OBB cultural institutions in elective politics in Kasese and Bundibugyo districts. The use of ethnicity for electoral leverage triggered a wave of inter-ethnic animosities and violence both during and after elections. Radical groups aligned to ethnicities and political camps emerged such as Team No Joke (TNJ) and Team No Sleep (TNS) in Bundibugyo district. Further, youth groups such as Empaghi and Esyomanghu under the OBB and OBR cultural institutions respectively assumed militant approaches, contributing to tensions and violence in the region. Currently, some potential candidates in the 2021 elections especially in Kasese, Bundibugyo and Ntoroko districts have started early to mobilize their ethnic constituencies and ally early with their cultural institutions for electoral leverage. Further, unreconciled ethno-political camps and groups that emerged during the 2016 elections such as TNJ and TNS have started to regroup ahead of 2021 elections. Similarly, some candidates around whom 2016 violence rotated have expressed interest to contest in the 2021 elections before reconciling with their real and/or perceived political enemies.

  1. The un-attended question of minority ethnic rights

Numerically and/or economically strong ethnic groups have an all-round obligation to respect other groups, for the good of both groups. From the previous experience in the Rwenzori region and elsewhere, when a dominant group adamantly undermines rights of other groups, conflicts and violence are bound to erupt. 

Rwenzori region is one of the most ethnically-plural regions in Uganda. While this pluralism on its own cannot normatively cause conflict and violence, in the Rwenzori region, ethnicity has often times been instrumentalised to serve political and economic interests. Historically, dominant ethnic groups in the region have tended to subjugate minority groups flaring up unprecedented tensions and conflicts. For example, the Batoro-dominated Tooro Kingdom historically subjugated other ethnic groups which triggered the outbreak of the Rwenzururu rebellion. The question of dominant ethnic groups marginalizing other groups has kept resurfacing today. In Kasese district for example, minority ethnic groups especially the Banyabindi and Basongora continue to claim marginalization at the hands of the dominant Bakonzo-dominated OBR. This year, the Banyabindi petitioned the Equal Opportunities Commission alleging that the Bakonzo-dominated Kasese district is marginalizing and denying them equitable access to employment and other opportunities. The Equal Opportunities Commission has so far conducted public hearings in Kasese district and is yet to give its verdict. Still in Kasese district, the Basongora and Banyabindi ethnic groups continue to clamor for government recognition of their own cultural institutions which they regard to be an avenue for uplifting their cultural identity.

  1. Cultural institutions’ arbitrary assumption of exclusive geo-cultural spaces

 

Post-1966 cultural institutions in Uganda are by law, virtual and not territorial (refer to Article 246 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution and the 2011 Institution of Traditional or Cultural Leaders Act.

 

Linked to minority rights is the question of disrespect for social and cultural rights of other groups visible in almost every district of the Rwenzori region. This disrespect is anchored on the arbitrary assumption of geo-cultural spaces by existing recognized cultural institutions in the region namely, Tooro Kingdom, OBR and OBB.  In reality, cultural institutions in Uganda are by law, virtual and not territorial.  However, today’s cultural institutions continue to wrongly assume positions of pre-1966 cultural institutions that had executive, legislative and administrative powers. While Article 246 of the 1995 Constitution and the 2011 Institution of Traditional or Cultural Leaders Act effectively take away these executive, legislative and administrative powers from cultural institutions, these institutions continue to assume exclusive geo-cultural spaces. In these assumed spaces, cultural institutions tend to own some districts. For example, OBR and OBB continue to extra-legally assume ownership over the geographical territories of Kasese and Bundibugyo districts respectively. Tooro Kingdom on the other hand assumes territorial ownership over some districts in the region.  Arbitrary geographical claims by cultural institutions continues to stifle rights of other ethnic groups to associate and organize and a result, trigger inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts. For example, in 2012, conflicts erupted between OBR and OBB adherents over Omusinga’s planned visit to Bundibugyo district. OBB expected a notification from OBR leadership before the Omusinga’s visit. Still in 2012, Basongora’s royal palace was ransacked by Bakonzo youth on grounds that the Basongora could not have a cultural institution within Kasese district, which is perceived to be OBR’s territory. Lately, Tooro Kingdom issued a press statement protesting against OBR’s court document that had allegedly included “some parts of Tooro Kingdom as OBR territory.”

 

  1. Ethnicisation of the demand for and/or creation of new political and administrative units

The demand for and/or the creation of new political and administrative units in the Rwenzori region and in other parts of Uganda have tended to generate and/or exacerbate inter-ethnic tensions. These new units tend to be seen broadly as political rewards for certain ethnic groups and in some cases as units meant to maximize the electoral leverage of some individual politicians.  

There are still sharp ethnic and political-based contestations over the proposed division of Kasese district. The District Council resolution done a few months ago to split the district has been contested by the District chairperson and other councilors, reflecting resident tensions and disagreements over this matter. Still in Kasese district, even those who support the division of the district sharply disagree on the proposed boundaries and these disagreements are taking an ethnic dimension. Minority ethnic groups of Basongora and Banyabindi want boundaries that will make them have “their own district” while some Bakonzo prefer boundaries that will make them retain control over the current Kasese district and new districts that may be created. In Bundibugyo district, the creation of Butunda-Mitama Town Council has continuously flared up unprecedented ethnic tensions and insecurity. Further, Bundibugyo and Nyahuka Town Councils are involved in conflicts over which town should be elevated to Municipal status. The elevation of Fort Portal Town to a Tourism City Status triggered a wave of political tensions and triggered the formation of hostile political camps opposed to the proposed boundaries of the city, at least in the initial discussions about this elevation.

  1. Economic conflicts in the region

Economics plays a key role in occasioning conflicts in the region. Struggles over access to and control over resources determine the course of conflicts. As John Madeley (1982) states, Human rights begin with breakfast. Literally, if livelihood is compromised and/or threatened, then one cannot even talk about rights, justice or even peace. 

Compounded in most conflicts in the region is the question of economics. Demonstrably, 60% of the land in Kasese district is public land and yet the district remains the most densely populated in the region. The district has Queen Elizabeth National Park, Mt. Rwenzori National Park, Lakes Edward and George and several land pieces owned by the central government institutions like the army and prisons. Landlessness among the Banyabindi and other ethnic groups and reports of unequal land distribution by the government to different groups of people continue to mastermind ethnic and political conflicts and tensions. Similar resource-based conflicts are pronounced among communities surrounding protected lands in Kasese, Bundibugyo, Ntoroko and Kabarole districts.

  1. Disfranchisement and radicalization of the youth in the region

 

The youth are ambivalent actors in the furtherance of peace, justice and human rights. They can be mobilized for peace or violence. In the Rwenzori region, elders and other highly placed persons have continued to radicalize the youth and conscript them into acts of violence. By partipating in these conflicts, the youth are deceptively made to believe that the participation is for their own good and yet, it is meant to serve interests of those in powerful positions of society.

The youth constitute over 70% of the population in the region. However, their involvement in peace building remains minimal and yet they have the innate capacity to contribute to the peace agenda of the region. Most youth are seen more as victims of conflict and violence and not as key actors who can contribute to the peace in the region. Further, the region has witnessed more incidents where elders and other highly placed persons in the region have mobilized and conscripted young people into occasions of conflict and violence. In 2014 and 2016 for example, over 500 youth were mobilized, radicalized and recruited into acts of violence. Over 500 young people participated either directly or indirectly in attacking military installations in Bundibugyo and Kasese districts. In 2012, the youth got mobilized and invaded the palace of the Basongora cultural institution and stole a royal drum and other items. In 2016, over 100 royal guards, majority of whom being within in the youth age group got caught up in the election related violence in Kasese, Ntoroko, Bundibugyo and Kabarole districts.  Elders, leaders, politicians and political parties continue to take advantage of the social and economic vulnerability of the youth to conscript them into acts of violence. This vulnerability reduces the youth opportunity cost to violence and makes them susceptible to further exploitation and recruitment into acts of violence.

HOW CAN THE REGION FAST EMBARK ON A COURSE THAT WILL PROPEL PEACE, JUSTICE AND THE CULTURE OF UNEQUIVOCAL RESPECT FOR RIGHTS?

  1. The central government should institute a truth and reconciliation commission mandated to among others, map out historical and contemporary social, political and economic human rights violations and injustices like loss of land, displacement of persons and associated costs as a result of colonial and post-colonial conflicts in the Rwenzori region. This commission will as a result, create and/or strengthen processes and mechanisms for truth telling as avenues for healing, reconciliation and forgetting the past.
  2. The central government should deliberately invest in promoting victims’ justice. In this promotion, the government needs to profile victims of past and recent conflicts and violence; document victims’ needs and interests; facilitate victims’ meetings; extend psychosocial support to victims; initiate rehabilitation programs and; implement individual and communal restorative programs in areas affected by conflicts and violence.
  3. The central government should initiate Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs for ex-combatants from past and recent conflicts. These DDR initiatives will minimize possibilities of these former fighters embracing acts of violence again.
  4. The central government should deliberately, and as a matter of priority, address the youth question in the Rwenzori region. While the youth are not a problem as such, they remain potential recruits into acts of violence. The aforementioned evidence of past and recent tendencies by elders and other highly placed persons and groups to lure and/or conscript young people into acts of violence in the Rwenzori region denote the ambivalence and vulnerability of these young people in occasioning conflicts and violence. The central government needs to multiply its support under youth-specific programs like the youth livelihood program, initiate skills development programs for the youth and demobilize and rehabilitate the youth who participated in past and recent conflicts.
  5. While not condoning impunity and while pursing formal justice, the central government should give adequate attention to non-formal means of reconciliation and justice including dialogue with different individuals and groups said to have masterminded acts of violence and conflicts in the region. In a related manner, the central government should invest in strong accountability mechanisms where both government actors like security personnel and non-government actors who could have mastermind acts of violence or could have participated in violating rights of others are equally brought to justice.
  6. The central government should unequivocally do more to uphold social and cultural rights of all ethnic groups in the Rwenzori region and desist from selective recognition of these groups. Within the ambit of the 1995 Uganda constitution and other laws, the central government should support each ethnic group to freely and equally associate and exercise its culture.
  7. Central and local governments should invest its resources in improving service delivery to all citizens within the existing political and administrative units. In this regard, the central government needs to rethink its current appetite for the balkanization of the region by creating more units that do not necessarily contribute to better service delivery. Elected leaders at local government levels need to equitably serve all citizens and desist from sectarianism.
  8. Cultural institutions should stick to their cultural mandate as per Article 246 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution and the 2011 Institution of Traditional or Cultural Leaders Act which provide a legal framework for the formation, running and functioning of cultural institutions in Uganda. Cultural institutions must appreciate the reality that Uganda is a Republic and that every citizen of Uganda has a right to live and settle in any part of Uganda. Cultural leaders must stay away from politics, appreciate the fact that they are virtual and not territorial any more. Further, recognized and non-recognized cultural institutions in the Rwenzori region need to strengthen mechanisms for constant interactions to dialogue on real and/or perceived differences and conflicts.
  9. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) should to the extent possible, and within their current platforms, support campaigns to promote the respect for human rights, access to justice and peaceful co-existence. CSOs and FBOs should extend reconciliation drives to lowest levels of society; involve as many people as possible at all levels and; tap into the experience of several stakeholders like elders and leaders resident in communities where reconciliation needs to take place for purposes of sustaining reconciliation drives. In this regard, promoters of reconciliation in the region should desist from reconciling only high level actors while leaving out members of the public at village and other lower levels of society.

 

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