rotating header

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Riots, Kings, and Truth

Central Uganda has been thrown into turmoil this week, on a scale we have not seen for many years.  Scores of people have been injured and at least a dozen, probably many more than that, killed, as mobs burned tires and buses and cars, attacked police stations, looted shops, blocked roads.  We have talked to friends and read the local papers and seen the photos of armored tanks and military men patrolling to restore order, smoke wisping in the background from the charred shells of cars.  Stories abound of one ethnic group (tribe) attacking strangers whose appearance indicates they are from a rival group.  Three radio stations have been shut down for inciting violence.  In church today most of the prayer requests came from parents who were worried about their kids in schools there, or students needing to travel and start the term but afraid to pass.  We have not had any hint of this violence in Bundibugyo, though I asked a nurse and a patient on Friday if the two main tribes here would fight each other, and instead of a reassuring "no" they said "we don't know."

The trigger issue involved the Kabaka, the king of the largest and most powerful ethnic group in the country, the Baganda (from whom the name "Uganda" was derived).   Back in the late 1800's the British found a handful of kingdoms already in existence here in the pearl of Africa, and used their rivalry to the colonizers' advantage.  They favored the Baganda over the next-strongest Banyoro.  At some point certain areas of the country, and their sub-groups, were designated as part of Buganda (the Baganda kingdom).  And of course there has been jockeying for power ever since, heightened by the resurgent recognition of kingdoms as cultural institutions with certain powers and rights to revenue under Uganda's constitution.  As I understand it lately, a sub-group of the Baganda were breaking away (or perhaps never really agreed that they were included) and seeking recognition of their own kingdom or cultural institutions.  The Kabaka decided to visit this area to reassert his power.  The central government put restrictions on the Kabaka's movements for security concerns.  The Kabaka sent his advance team to prepare for the visit anyway.  Youth began to stone the police, and it all escalated from there.  It is probably true that pushing this visit was unwise, also true that some in government may want to weaken the power of the Baganda by supporting break-away groups, also true that the vast majority of violent people over the last few days have no political agenda beyond looting for profit, or expressing anger in their poverty by reacting the way people with little to loose often react.  My reading of the president is that he has been decidedly anti-tribal, making every effort to unify the sense of identity of his people.  But he's also accused of favoring his own people, the Banyankole.

The reaction of these few uncertain days has revealed that the latent tribalism is close to the surface, ready to blow.  There are some disturbing parallels to Kenya in 2008, or Rwanda in 1994, though nothing here has happened on those scales yet.  One big difference is that Uganda has an intact and functional government and military who are acting to stop rather than increase violence.  The root issue seems to be the insecurity of living too close to the edge of survival, the nagging doubt that the world just may require that one kill or be killed, grab or go without.  For once we're thankful to be in Bundibugyo, far from the action, in a place unaffected by the powerful players and among people who have little access to the resources.  The swell of panic seems to be subsiding, and order and calm are being restored.  Please do pray though for full resolution and peace.

No comments: