Kizito Byenkya argues that as more districts are formed in Uganda, ethnic tensions are likely to heighten. This post originally appeared on CompareAfrique.
In Uganda, new districts are being formed as a result of the democratization process, which are unknowingly giving rise to “Veiled Bantustans”. Bantustans were traditional territories set aside as a “black homeland” by the colonial administration in South Africa and Namibia in the first half of the 20th century. These ethnic territories separated groups like the Zulu, Venda, and Ndebele into administrative units where they had autonomy to a degree. They were essentially reserves where the black population was separated from the white population through apartheid policy, with each Bantustan being an enclave and mini nation-state for a particular ethnic group.
Fast-forward 60 years, and Bantustans are long gone, either dismantled or integrated as provinces in the new South Africa. However, as part of the colonial legacy of ethnic demarcation, what we now sometimes see in other countries are Veiled Bantustans– what I define as territories that result from national gerrymandering to form new districts composed of a majority ethnic group. With the case of Uganda, more than two dozen districts have been created with the idea of improving service delivery and increasing representation, but the distribution of districts has followed an ethnic pattern – a dangerous precedent in a country already bubbling with ethnic tension.
Like many countries in Africa after democratization in the 1990s, Uganda pursued a policy of political decentralization by expanding its local administration system through the creation of more districts in an effort to enhance political representation. From 2001-2006, Uganda went from 53 districts to 69, as political decentralization was increased to reflect different regions and communities in the country. The number of districts has now exploded to over 100.
The criterion in determining a new district is often based on equal population, geographic boundaries, or community interests, which are shared interests, values, and culture. However, these community interests are often ethnic based, as shared interests, values, and culture can typify the makeup of an ethnic group. In fact, several of the newly created districts are dominated by a single ethnic group. Iteso constitute 74.7% of the population in Kaberamaido district, Lugbara constitute 89% of the population in Yumbe district, Batoro are the dominant ethnic group in Kamwenge district, and so on. Districts have also been partitioned to accommodate different ethnicities, with Buliisa district being carved out of Masindi district to accommodate the Bagungu people. This is what I see as a “Veiled Bantustan;” as the district is essentially an administrative and political unit for one ethnic group. This can have dangerous implications in a country where ethnic politics have been widespread, divisive, and violent.
In addition, a further implication has been that ethnic groups that were traditionally marginalized post-independence, have now gained further “consciousness” through the large increase of districts. The new political power enjoyed by new districts has influenced other marginalized ethnic groups, often in violent ways, to demand for further political representation. For example, tension in Kibaale district led to calls for the Bakiga people to have their own district, separate from the Banyoro. Once more, clashes between the Banyala and the Baganda people became more violent after the Banyala received their own district (Kayunga) and determined that they were no longer “subjects” to the Baganda. The Banyala pointed out a history of enslavement and occupation by the Baganda as reason for their angst.
So how does Uganda accommodate its diverse ethnic constituencies, without succumbing to the ills of ethnic politics? One way to help dilute ethnicity out of politics would be if Uganda changed their political framework to adopt a bicameral legislature. Currently, Uganda’s legislative body is unicameral and quite large (remember the enormous number of districts?), constituting of over 350 representatives.
Unicameral legislatures are more suited for homogenous countries, unlike a bicameral system that can work better to represent diverse interests. Let’s say Uganda adopted a bicameral system with an Upper House consisting of four regions (Central, Eastern, Northern, and Western). Each district under a certain region would have more of an incentive to coalesce and work with their district neighbor to achieve their goals – furthering cooperation that can counter ethnic fractionalization. In addition, representatives from those regions would need to represent collective interests, rather than individual interests from the “Veiled Bantustans”.
Although “Veiled Bantustans” are not like the Bantustans of old, the question of how wise it is to have ethnicity – which can heavily shape attitudes and opportunities – represented in Uganda’s political framework is an important one. Other than helping render the idea that the political authorities who will serve your individual interest are those who are more ethnically like you, separating districts by ethnicity can further reinforce Uganda’s internal divisions. With regards to the purges of the Acholi and the Langi in the 1970s by Idi Amin, Uganda is a country that cannot afford an escalating level of competition and tension among its ethnic groups.
Consequently, the drive to create more districts should be looked at more carefully, as instead of consistently creating new districts that illustrate ethnic differences; Uganda would do well to consider developing a political framework that highlights cooperation and cohesiveness.
Kizito Byenkya is currently a Program Associate at the Open Society Foundations and writes on democracy & governance, electoral development, U.S-Africa policy, and the politics of ethnicity, shaped from his experiences living throughout Africa and Asia. He is the co-founder of compareafrique.com