Hivos International

How I see the Uganda riots

‘My argument is very simple, by virtue of demographic dictates; any development discourse that leaves out the voices of young people is likely to backfire’. Ambrose Kibuuka, linked to the Pluralism Knowledge Programme through the Yogyakarta Summer School, argues for more serious engagement with Ugandan youth.

On that nasty Thursday afternoon, Kampala the capital city was rocked by gunfire. By 17:00 hours Doreen and I (our wedding is on 28th Nov 2009) were still stark in town trying to figure out how to cross the city to reach our home – which is just a stone throw away from Kabaka’s (king) palace and the official headquarters of Buganda kingdom, which was the party “at war” with the central government of Uganda. As you can imagine, all roads accessing this area were sealed off and were not accessible by car. It was a frontline zone. So we had to ramble on foot through the city suburbs until we made it home to meet our son Manuel Antonio at 20:30hrs. Only his innocent smile was the naïve anchor of a thought that things would soon get better. That night, for the first time since January 26 1986, my ears became familiar again with trans-night gunfire right in the neighborhood. We stayed indoors the whole of Friday following the developments live on television – thanks to the courageous frontline reporters. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The wreckage, the intolerance, the insanity, the insensitivity, the animalism, the savagery, the desperation, the anger, the brutality, the pain, the fear, the unreason, the apathy and the frustration.

At this point so many questions were fleeting through my mind. It is these questions that reminded me of my unfinished business with the summer school experience. The idea of Promoting Pluralism Knowledge Programme was a spot-on dream. For the carnage we witnessed and the “calm but tense situation” we currently live under today, are simply a natural consequence of the perpetual negation of dialogue and continuous engagement among the diverse groupings (religious, ethnic, political etc.) in Uganda. The broad project of scramble for Africa through colonization had the effect of pasting (from paste) ethnic groupings that were at starkly different levels of development and self organization and knew nothing about each other, into an amorphous geographical entity labeled “Uganda” (Of course a naming that was inspired by that of Buganda kingdom). Since the departure of the British in 1962 (independence) there have not been much deliberate efforts by governments or civil society players to promote continuous dialogue and other forms of engagement among the various diversities. A superficial kind of tolerance is what has kept the country stitched together with very delicate strands, highly characterized by prejudice, suspicion, soul-deep insecurity, and fear. Its is abundantly clear to me that just as knowledge begets confidence and an inner sense of security, ignorance creates fear and a defensive feeling of powerlessness. The violence – like that I witnessed in Kampala over those fateful three days – is nothing but the ultimate expression of a deep sense of powerlessness. Violence in any form is a reactive admission that one’s human capability’s toolbox has run out of tools – so they resort to excessive animalism. And the question here is: how endowed is that person’s toolbox? Let me explain this point.

When following the riot events on TV I saw the spokesman for the national army (Uganda People’s Defense Forces) being hit and wounded by a small group of rioters who he had stopped to ask to remove the burning tires from the middle of the road. Although this General was well armed, he did not shoot at those who were throwing stones at him. He simply drove off and went to a nearby medical centre for treatment. Perhaps a soldier with a lower level of capabilities (less exposed, less reasoning, obsessed with crushing those who challenge him etc.) would have responded otherwise. As fate would have it, last week I just met this General’s wife who invited me to do a workshop for students and teachers in a remote school where she is the Headteacher. Through conversation it became apparent to me why the character of the man. The books he reads (such as emotional intelligence, his exposure, and life philosophy) say a lot about his composition. I have no doubt that if all the other armed personnel who were deployed to manage the riots were equally devoid of high capabilities deficiency, we would avoid the high level of deaths and damage. Likewise, the excesses we witnessed on the part of the rioters would not have arisen in the first place.

Bringing Yogya to Uganda

The Yogya experience especially in terms content, is perhaps what Uganda needs at this material time. Let me dream a bit here. If I had the means I would initiate a programme that uses modern ICTs to enable every Ugandan learn about and experience the various cultures in Uganda and the history of the making of Uganda. There is too much prejudice based on tribal and religious identities which is built on misinformation. What does not help things is the fact that we are largely an oral society. Although in many regards our history is well documented, most Ugandans do not read. The rumor mill dominates the scene, and most times politicians churn the divisive rumors so they can divide and rule.

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