Akena Killing Exposes Uganda's Explosive Ethnic Schisms

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Kanyamunyu--his alleged killing of Akena exposed country's ethnic divisions

[Column: African Awakening]

The cold blooded shooting to death of Kenneth Akena Watmon, two weeks ago, and the response it elicited from the Ugandan public, speaks volumes about the powder keg that the Ugandan State is seated on.

It is a strong indicator of disunity, anger, and frustration, among the people of Uganda, and, a pervasive malaise in the governance of our country. It is reminiscent of the 2009 Kayunga uprising that threatened to turn all major Ugandan ethnic groups against Banyangkole, the ethnicity of Gen. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the current ruler of Uganda.

Kayunga protests happened when the Kabaka (king) of Buganda was stopped from visiting a part of his kingdom, Kayunga, in Mukono District. This was because the Government of Uganda claimed that Kayunga was under another chiefdom and not the Kabaka of Buganda's.

How tragic and worrisome did things become? During the protests, the Banyangkole were a target of attack by other ethnic groups of Uganda. A story is told about roadblocks being mounted and manned by citizens along Kampala-Masaka highway. In these roadblocks, motorists and pedestrians alike would be interrogated in a manner that allowed a distinction to be made between the Banyangkole/Western Ugandans and the rest of Ugandans.

Citizens manning the roadblocks would ask motorists and pedestrians to pronounce certain words in the Luganda language, such as "omufaliso" (mattress), well knowing that the Banyankole couldn’t pronounce these words well. The intention of this exercise was to isolate the Banyangkole from all the other ethnic groups and mete vengeance on them for allegedly mistreating the rest of Ugandans. This collective guilt was wrongfully assigned because of the abuses under the regime of Gen. Museveni.

Nowadays, conditions are even much more worrisome. Ugandans from all walks of life-Acholi, Baganda, Itesot, Lugbara, Bagisu, Christians, Muslims, civil servants, teachers, lawyers, the armed forces, traders, farmers, speak covertly and overtly about the domination of the Banyangkole, in all sectors of life in Uganda.

They speak about their dominance in private sector and government employment, in business and investment, in civil service, in education opportunities, and in the armed forces. Indeed, in the armed forces, real power lies with the soldiers and policemen who hail from Ankole despite the fact that they maybe junior in rank.

A friend of mine was over the last weekend accused by the police for driving faster than it is allowed in a trading center. This happened close to midnight and so they were held at a nearby police post overnight.

While there, they struck friendship and commenced conversations. The policemen, who apparently were not Banyankole, sympathized with the population over near criminal police behavior against civilians. They told my friend that they knew what they were doing was not right but that they do not have "tall uncles" or "godfathers" to turn to in case they didn’t execute such wrongful orders, the consequence of which, would be summary dismissal from the forces.

This brings me to the shooting of Kenneth Akena Watmon by Mathew Kanyamunyu, the businessman. Whether it was intended, or a case of a stray bullet hitting the wrong target, the courts of law will determine.

In ordinary times, Akena’s murder wouldn’t have fetched the sort of outrage and anger and media coverage that it did. However, ethnic fault lines have become critically drawn in Uganda. So the shooting of Akena, who happened to be from Acholi man, Akena, by Kanyamunu, a Munyangkole took on greater dimensions.

The killing elicited a barrage of negative commentary against the Banyangkole ethnic group because of Gen. Museveni’s ethnicization of the State. Citizens could be heard variously in their private conversations making generalized unpalatable comments about Banyankole or Banyarwanda. They are not repeating; they are on various social media.

Certainly, that is not a new or good commentary in Ugandan politics. In 1971, when Gen. Idi Amin Dada ousted the UPC government of Apollo Milton Obote the people of Acholi and Lango, who predominated the armed forces during Obote's presidency were collectively demonized. They were then murdered by people of West Nile --from where Gen. Idi Amin hailed-- as the latter dominated positions of power.

In 1979, when Gen. Amin’s government was overthrown, there was a reoccurrence of a similar trend. The return to power of Dr. Obote in 1980 brought a new twist to this development in our politics. This was not helped by President Obote’s failure to restrain the army from meting havoc on the civilian population.

The people of Acholi and Lango were collectively condemned by the other ethnic groups for dominating the other peoples of Uganda. They were called all sorts of derogatory names such as "abadokoli," and "anyanya."

So, is it always true that when a particular member of an ethnic group is in the leadership of the country, all people from his region will benefit?

Without really belaboring to go back in history, let's look at the leadership of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) over the last 30 years it has been in power.

It's true that Gen. Museveni’s ethnic Banyankole -men and women-- are more visible in certain branches of government; for instance, the armed forces. But I know of many people from Ankole who are suffering from the malaise in our governance just like all the other Ugandans.

A friend of mine from Ankole completed her undergraduate degree from Uganda Martyrs University (UMU) and went on to do a graduate degree. When she completed her graduate degree, she hit the road running in search of employment.

She, like all the other young Ugandan graduates, looked for employment for over five years and could not find one.

When I enquired why she was taking long to find employment yet she is from Ankole, she told me that even they from Ankole have to be coming from families that are well known to the rulers to be considered for education and employment opportunities -- in other words elite connections were required.

This means that even though there may be ethnic favoritism, not everybody from Ankole is a beneficiary; in the same way, not all West Nile, Acholi and Lango peoples were beneficiaries during the reigns of Gen. Idi Amin, Dr. Milton Obote and Gen. Tito Okello’s governments, respectively.

This is a mirage that must be rejected by the people of Uganda otherwise we are doomed.

The killing of Akena has opened many other painful conversations; about undemocratic, retrogressive and sectarian government that inflicts suffering on all Ugandans irrespective of their creed, ethnicity, religion and socioeconomic class.

We mourn the untimely death of Akena; a young man who had so much life ahead.

At the same time, we must as a country use Akena’s passing to redress the governance malaise that his killing helped bring to the fore.

Otherwise, we are as a country standing on powder keg that could one day explode into unimaginable killings.

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