Ethnicity isn’t meant to be a big part of politics, yet both the president and his rival accuse the other of tribalism and see themselves as its antidote.
On the evening of 16 January, a few hours after being declared the winner of Uganda’s presidential election, Yoweri Museveni addressed the nation. Many analysts had framed the poll as a generational struggle between the 76-year-old strongman and his 38-year-old rival, popstar-turned-politician Bobi Wine, who galvanised young people with his promise of a “new Uganda”. But Museveni was having none of it.
“Shallow! Shallow! Shallow!” he harrumphed from his cattle ranch in Rwakitura. He claimed that “the majority of the youth” supported his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), and that the opposition’s talk of change masked their divisive agenda.
“They were talking of a new Uganda. But actually, they wanted to bring back the old Uganda that failed. That is what they wanted to bring back: the old way of sectarianism,” he declared.
It was classic Museveni. Ever since his upbringing in Ankole* in the 1960s, he had diagnosed Uganda’s central problem as that of “sectarianism”. He believed that the fractures of region, religion and ethnicity had opened the door to imperialists and dictators. After fighting his way to power in 1986 therefore, he promised to establish a “broad-based” government in which all Ugandans could find a home.
The 2021 election exposed the fact that these regional faultlines have endured his 35-year reign. According to official results, which the opposition reject, Wine won more than half of his votes in his native Buganda region, where he took 64% of ballots cast. Elsewhere, he polled at an average of just 22%. His party, the National Unity Platform (NUP), won 56 of its 58 seats in Buganda.
This explains why some NRM leaders attributed Wine’s successes to “tribalism”. However, not only is it difficult to gauge the true spread of the opposition’s support due to allegations of intimidation and ballot-stuffing, but the same accusation could be directed at the ruling party too. In Museveni’s home region of the west, he officially won 81% of the vote.
These divisions should not be overstated. Ethnic identity plays a less incendiary role in Ugandan elections than it does in neighbouring Kenya or the US. But one consequence of the 2021 election is that the language of tribalism will become increasingly available to unscrupulous leaders, in ways that are inseparable from the contradictions of Museveni’s rule.
Museveni and the west
On 29 January 1986, Museveni was sworn in as president of Uganda. Still dressed in his combat fatigues, he gestured at the potholes in the nearby road. “Does the road harm only Catholics and spare Protestants?” he asked. “Is it a bad road only for Muslims and not for Christians, or for Acholi and not Baganda?”
He urged his audience to ignore the “opportunists” who preached the politics of religion and ethnicity. “All they do is work on cheap platforms of division because they have nothing constructive to offer the people.”
In office, Museveni was careful to distribute positions to different areas of the country. But in private, he admitted that many appointees were powerless figureheads, according to former NRM minister Miria Matembe’s memoirs. By the early 2000s, as the ruling coalition fractured, Museveni increasingly fell back on those he could trust. That often meant the security forces, with leadership dominated by people from the west.
“All these autocrats read from the same text,” says Mugisha Muntu, a westerner and former army commander who ran against Museveni in the recent election. “The base keeps on narrowing. So it moves from a region, many times to a closer group, maybe a district, or to a clan, and it always ends up around family.”
He says that the resulting imbalances favour well-connected elites, rather than people from the western region as a whole. “It’s not an issue of ethnicity or sectarianism, it’s an issue of how power is managed.”
In popular discourse, these subtleties are often lost. In the ethnic melting pot of Kampala, it is common to hear people blame westerners for monopolising jobs. Then there are the conspiracy theories, such as that Museveni is “really a Rwandan” or that opposition stalwart Kizza Besigye – also a westerner but not a Munyankore like Museveni – was secretly working for the president all along.
The ruling elite, in turn, is prickly and defensive about the issue. Last year, a group of comedians were charged with “promoting sectarianism” after releasing a skit in which they listed powerful westerners, such as the central bank governor and intelligence chiefs.
This sense of ethnic exclusion animates opposition politics in much of the country, as we discovered in interviews over the past year. In West Nile, for example, Wine’s supporters look back nostalgically to the rule of local boy Idi Amin as a rare moment of equal recognition. “Now things are different,” said one activist in Arua, claiming that “people from President Museveni’s tribe” take all the good jobs. “We are mainly doing the donkey work, we remain sweeping compounds and drivers.”
Across the Nile, an Acholi activist told a similar story. “I think Uganda just happened by accident,” he said. “We are not a nation. We are just small, small states which have been thugged by a clique of mafias that have started a cartel.”
Even in Mbarara, the largest city in the Ankole region, NUP activists describe their frustrations in ethnic terms – except here their grievances are directed only at the Bahima, the cattle-keeping stratum of Ankole society to which Museveni belongs. “If there is any nation in the world where people are tribalistic, it is here in Ankole,” said Jolly Mugisha, a longtime NRM activist who is now the NUP vice-president for the western region. Speaking just before the election, she described the Bahima as the descendants of “Hamitic” herdsmen, “who came here as imperialists”, “still keep to themselves” and “almost behave like Jews or Indians”. This rhetoric carries troubling echoes of anti-Tutsi discourse in neighbouring Rwanda and overlooks the Bahima who have challenged Museveni.
Bobi Wine and Buganda
By far the most organised counterweight to western dominance is Buganda, the central kingdom within which Kampala lies. It was the region most deeply penetrated by British colonialism, and in turn, provided many of the administrators of the new state bureaucracy. At independence in 1962 the kabaka (king), Edward Muteesa II, became Uganda’s first president before being deposed four years later. The kingdom was only restored in 1993, with the proviso that it keep out of politics.
The Baganda constitute a sixth of Uganda’s population, making them the country’s largest ethnic group. The Buganda kingdom is wealthier and more powerful than any other cultural institution in the country, owning businesses, TV and radio stations, and large tracts of land. It also has an uneasy relationship with the central government. In 2009, these tensions exploded into riots in which the state shot at least 40 people dead.
Politically, prominent Baganda have played important roles in opposition politics. Many have become estranged from the Democratic Party, their natural political home, but seemed to have found a new one in Wine’s party. For instance, Mathias Mpuuga, who cut his political teeth as youth minister in the Buganda kingdom, is NUP’s vice president for the central region. Medard Sseggonna, a former spokesman for the kingdom, was the lawyer leading Wine’s aborted court challenge to the election result. Both are also MPs in the running to become the leader of the opposition in parliament.
Such politicians are neither unthinking mouthpieces of the kingdom nor starry-eyed devotees of Wine. (“There are people who think that NUP is a Buganda affair – no!” said Sseggonna when we met him in October). But their prominence makes it easier for others to paint NUP as a narrow Buganda party. Before the elections, we asked Apollo Lee Kakonge, a civil society activist in Ankole, whether Wine’s party could do well there. He burst into laughter. “They are Baganda radicals and I think they will just melt in their own heat,” he said.
That is an odd description of Wine, who is a proud Muganda but no ethnic chauvinist. The singer once styled himself as “omubanda wa kabaka” (the king’s gangster), but his urban upbringing gives him a cosmopolitan outlook, as even his fiercest critics acknowledge.
“Museveni’s nationalism is intellectual, but his instincts are tribal,” says Andrew Mwenda, a journalist who knows the president well and is close friends with his son. “Bobi Wine’s both instincts and intellectual bent are detribalised… His tribe is urban unemployed.”
In fact, Wine often deploys the language of tribalism against Museveni’s government, which he describes as “the most tribalistic regime I’ve seen in Africa”. He portrays his own politics as the antidote.
“I’m very glad that in our generation we are already united by circumstances,” he told African Arguments in October. “My wife comes from the same village as Museveni. My closest friend comes from northern Uganda. Our leaders come from far east, from far north, from far west. So for us as a generation, we are already a rainbow generation.”
Indeed, many voters in Buganda, and especially in Kampala, are not ethnic Baganda. According to Julius Kiiza, a political economist at Makerere University, their support for Wine may instead reflect the character of urban populations. “Tribalism is invoked more by political elites than the ordinary people,” he says. “The elites are using tribalism, just like the colonisers, to serve their vested interests.”
In November 2020, Wine went to launch his manifesto in Mbarara, in the heart of Ankole. His supporters gave him a stool and a spear and christened him “Musinguzi” (victor).
That irked Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s son and would-be heir. In a later deleted tweet, he exclaimed: “Ngu ‘Musinguzi’? Mbwenu ogu akasingura ki? (The so-called victor? What has he ever won?) This is an insult not only against Banyankore but against all the tribes of western Uganda!”
Ugandan politics is not uniquely divided by ethnicity. Nor is there anything illegitimate about local demands for autonomy from a state that was created by colonial violence. But the country has perhaps been fortunate that in the last four elections the main challenger has been Besigye, a westerner, thus muting the role of ethnicity in winner-takes-all presidential contests.
The rise of Wine and NUP changes that. The new party will have to constantly reiterate that it is not a Buganda outfit, even though its parliamentary base – and hence its financial and institutional heft – is concentrated in the central region. Museveni will continue to accuse his opponents of “sectarianism” while investing power in his own extended family networks. The majority of Ugandans, who are neither Baganda nor Banyankore, are spectators to this tussle.
“People need to understand the history of this country,” says Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, a Muganda MP and spokesperson for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party. “These entities now making Uganda were independent entities just put together by the arrangements of 1961/62… So we are only together because of the law, but we are separate people with different interests.”
The political landscape is shifting, he adds. “I fear this election may take us to where Kenya is. Because in Kenya the regions vote for particular parties, and I see us going there.”
* A note on language: a Muganda, plural Baganda, is someone from Buganda. A Munyankore, plural Banyankore, is someone from Ankole.
Liam Taylor and Haggai Matsiko are both freelance journalists based in Kampala, Uganda.