Posted by: sean | September 12, 2009

Unrest in Uganda and the Obama effect

I haven’t been following Ugandan politics, despite having recently finished Andrew Rice’s interesting but terribly titled book, which weaves its way through Idi Amin’s rule and the aftershocks in Museveni’s Uganda (skipping most of Obote’s second rule).

For those who haven’t seen, though, there has been unrest in the capital. A dispute between one of the traditional kings of Uganda — that of the Buganda, the country’s largest ethnic group — and the national government, headed by Museveni, who is a Banyankole, a term that means the people of Ankole and covers both the Bahima and Bairu.*

According to the BBC,”violence erupted when the government banned the king of Buganda from travelling to Kayunga, an area which says it has seceded from his kingdom.” Local press reports say that the violence has taken on a somewhat ethnic overtone, with rioters from Buganda setting up roadblocks and attacking Banyankole:

According to eyewitness accounts, people were dragged out of cars at road blocks in several parts of the city for looking like Banyankole, and beaten up.

“You are not a Muganda,” a female passenger was told by youth manning a road block in Namirembe on Thursday night. She was saved from the irate mob by a patrol Police.

Things seem to have calmed down now, although one can never say for sure. An Irish friend whom I met traveling from Mwanza in Tanzania to Rwanda is in Uganda now and related this funny story about the otherwise very serious events:

Heard a story about some Americans who got stopped at one of the burning barricade-style roadblocks by rioters yesterday who wanted to know whose side they were on…Apparently they just started yelling ‘OBAMA!’ and everyone cheered and let them through.

*Museveni himself is from the Bahima group and is rumored to have Tutsi roots. The Bahima/Bairu split between the Banyankole is somewhat similar (in a very oversimplified way) to the Tutsi/Hutu split between the Banyarwanda, with the Wahima and the Tutsis playing the minority cattle ranchers and noble feudal lords, exacerbated under colonialism, and the Wairu and the Hutus stuck as a majority of farming serfs. The ethnography of Uganda (like elsewhere) is extremely complex and often hard to untangle, since historical claims often have contemporary political implications.

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