Nigerian author Chinua Achebe tells us of a proverb questioning the judgement of a man who, while fighting a fire consuming his house, drops his bucket to chase the rats fleeing from the same flames.
There are perhaps those who could defend such behaviour. May be the rats has been disturbing the poor man’s sleep for many years, and he decided that this was the only real opportunity to get rid of them for once and for all. After all, a house burned to the ground can be rebuilt, but a night of lost sleep can never really be replaced.
The multi-headed leadership of Bunyoro reflects this dilemma of prioritising: what should be of importance right now? Reclaiming land lost in the past to the emergent Buganda Kingdom, or focussing on the oil resource of the future, that the central government is drilling on the land they do have left?
“Stephen was the first martyr in the Bible. Much as I am also Stephen, I don’t wish to become such a martyr. I think I am more useful to my people alive than dead”.
These words came from Hon. Stephen Mukitale Birahwa MP on September 18th , at a parliamentary press conference where he spoke of the existence of a land-buying “mafia” that was unfairly gobbling up all the possible oilfield sites in his oil-rich Buliisa constituency. He was explaining that the members of this alleged mafia were too dangerous to mentioned by name.
This is not the first time that he had felt himself in danger while defending his constituents land interests. Readers may remember him as the MP who was assaulted by herdsmen, whom the police then refused to arrest, during the Bunyoro “balaalo” saga.
Perhaps all this would not be so alarming, save for the fact that Hon. Birahwa is a leading voice in the ruling NRM party, and chairs the Parliamentary Committee on The National Economy. If he does not feel safe, who can?
In his book, “Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil” the British journalist Stephen Shaxson recounts how the “oil curse” has swept across Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and Nigeria, leaving nothing but misery, inequality and intractable conflicts behind.
One common factor is how those controlling the oil industry often resort to promoting ethnic conflicts as a way of distracting their citizens from demanding more open, and democratic arrangements in the drilling and distribution of oil revenues.
Up until now, most of the oilfields on the Bunyoro area have been located inside national parks and other such gazetted areas, making them conceptually “off-limits” to the natives of Bunyoro, as such areas “belong” to central government.
Buganda’s nationalists have argued that resources located in a given region belong, first and foremost, to the indigenes found there, to be shared -on their terms- with the rest of the country. They have encouraged Bunyoro to demand transparency on the issues how much oil there is regardless of location. After all, even the national parks were carved out of Bunyoro’s land, initially as punishment for their rebelliousness.
Instead Bunyoro’s various voices (the Kingdom government, the Mubende-Bunyoro Committee, the Bunyoro-blessed Baruuli and Banyala), have sought to chase the rats in the form of land lost to Buganda over the last two and a half centuries The question as to why they do not press such claims on land similarly lost to Busoga, Lango, Toro and Ankole is never directly answered. Meanwhile, the oil wells get deeper and their lands are threatened, as Hon. Birahwa’s claims show.
The argument for native ownership rights has been dismissed as “backward”, “sectarian” thinking typical of Third World “tribalists”. It can certainly appear so, when it seems to come from one quarter only. However, as Hon. Beti Kamya’s Uganda Federalist Alliance NGO has argued, there is no part of this country without considerable mineral and other wealth. The only challenges are open declaration, responsible exploitation and revenue distribution.
However, an example from that other well-known backward Third World country called the United States of America, may help.
In the largest land claims settlement in US history, then President Richard Nixon signed into law the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act on December 18, 1971. Despite having already physically purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire over century earlier, making it one of its federal states, the US government was still compelled to resolve long-standing land claims from the indigenous native Alaskan (“Eskimo”) tribes.
The effect of the Act was to create 12 native regional and 200 village corporations in the names of the tribes, and then transfer some 601,000 square kilometers (about 149, 000, 000 acres) from the the control of the US federal government to them. In addition, the natives were paid some $962,000,000, roughly half of which came from the US treasury, with the rest from the anticipated revenues fro oil that had been discovered in the area. It was the need for a stable environment in which to exploit this oil that had driven the need for such a settlement in the first place.
Any Alaskan with at least one fourth native blood ancestry is entitled to a share of the proceeds of their respective corporations, which bear names like “The Aluet Corporation”, “Bering Straits Native Corporation”, and “Ukpeagvik Inuipiat Corporation”.
So, as well as engaging in war games with the US army in Kitgum, perhaps the NRM government would like to also learn how the United States managed to build itself into a strong country worth partnering with in the first place.
A strong nation can only be built on a strong constitutional foundation, where all historical problems -however costly, late in the day, small and “obsolete” they may appear to be to those in power- are resolved for once and for all.
One of the origins of the Buganda-Obote 1966 crisis was the disagreements over the referendum regarding the contested “counties” between Buganda and Bunyoro. After supporting Obote’s insistence on enforcing results of the vote, Bunyoro found itself being abolished alongside Buganda in Obote’s post-1966 constitution.
When the suppressed Buganda nationalism propelled the NRM’s rise to power, the demands for restoration of Buganda’s “things” led to a law that restored Bunyoro’s and other kingdoms as well.
It is clear that the fates of Buganda and Bunyoro are twinned, just as Buganda’s first substantive Kabaka is supposedly the younger twin brother of the then King of Bunyoro.
In failing to make common cause with Buganda, and allowing itself to instead be used as hammer against it, Bunyoro once again opts for trying killing rats over saving her burning house.
In the end, it risks achieving neither.