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Towards Transforming Ethnic Conflicts in Uganda’s Rwenzori Region

There are various interpretations of ethnic conflicts that inspire debate. In this essay I do not intend to engage in debate on the concept “ethnic conflict” instead, I will use the notion ethnic conflict in its very general connotation, referring to ethnically manifested conflicts. I am persuaded that there is nothing ethnic in conflict. Some scholars have made use of certain concepts in the quest to explain ethnic conflicts, but not without controversies. For example, Kaplan (1998) argues that the “ancient hatred” that exists between and among ethnic groups is often revived and fueled by incompatible claims to rational self-determination and political sovereignty leading to violent conflicts. This view is shared by Callahan (1998) and it has recently spread among policymakers with the prospects for preventing and settling ethnic conflicts (Wimmer, 2004, p. 3). 

However, right from the onset of this essay I challenge the notion of “ancient hatred” as a source of current ethnic conflicts in Africa due to its deleterious nature. It is my reasoned position that one does not hate another just because of one’s ethnic identity. There is nothing ‘ethnic’ about conflict, and there is nothing ‘ancient’ about conflict. Conflict is just conflict and is manifest in a multiplicity of ways. Behind every conflict, whether expressed in terms of ethnic identity, religion, gender, profession, political persuasion etc, there exists other elements in its under-surface such as; exploitation, competition over resources, social-political and cultural exclusion, and so on.  Hence the term ‘ancient hatred’ is loaded with some ideological luggage which is prejudicial and does not help in addressing the historical and actual grievances a group may have. It is important to move away from a filament of thought that portrays African ethnic conflicts as having something ‘irrational’ for instance as demonstrated in the expression of Kamplan’s (1998) “ancient hatred” that prevents the realization of modern rational nation-state. The ethnic conflicts in Uganda’s Rwenzori region are not based on, neither are they expressions of “ancient hatred.” There are various other reasons for the existence of such conflicts and this essay comprises of a practical analysis of factors underlying ethnic conflicts in the Rwenzori as a pragmatic approach to conflict transformation which according to Lederach (2003) is “an orientation, an approach and a framework. Transformation is a lens and a strategy for approaching conflict.

In this essay I build on Lederach’s conception of conflict transformation, an approach through which new things can be build out of destructive relational and practical challenges. The central goal of conflict transformation according to Lederach (2003) is “to build constructive change out of the energy created by conflict.” In conflict transformation the energy that causes destruction is rechanneled towards analysis of underlying relationships and social structures and towards construction of strategies that can affect relationships positively. Conflict analysis aimed at conflict transformation should revolve around thinking and bringing about strategies for constructive change. The aim is to move conflict away from destructive processes and direct it toward constructive ones. Identification of factors that have caused violence and death and destruction in the Rwenzori over the years will help policy makers and peacebuilders in redirect destructive elements of relations into positive tenets of social transformation. This include; celebration of ethnic diversity as opposed to fighting over difference in ethnic identity; increasing of production as opposed to competition and fighting over scarcity and so on. The primary task of conflict transformation is not to find quick solutions to immediate problems, but rather to generate creative platforms that can simultaneously address surface issues and change underlying social structures and relationship patterns (Lederach, 2003). While the government has since managed the conflict though military intervention, I think, this is the right time to go deeper into conflict analysis in order to embed conflict transformation ideology and strategies not only to avert recurrence of conflict in the Rwenzori but also to effect a shift to positive conflict outcomes.

Background and context
On the 5th of July, 2014 the Rwenzori region of western Uganda, specifically the districts of Bundibugyo and Kasese, witnessed a wave of violence with armed assailants attacking villages, police stations and army barracks. By the end of the day the death toll was over 70 people, including civilians and security forces (CLED 2014). This was the most recent in a series of episodes of armed violence in the Rwenzori region. While this particular incident is remarkable, this article does not entirely dwell on it since, since as I argue hereafter, the violence was a culmination of deep-seated historical issues that have largely remained undressed.

This essay is based on my continuous engagement with the communities in the conflict zone of Rwenzori following the violent clashes in July 2014.  Under the synergy for peace project being implemented by Human Rights Network-Uganda (HURINET-U), I have had a rare opportunity to continuously and profoundly engage the parties to conflict in the Rwenzori region. In the course of project implementation, August, 2014 – July, 2015, I have taken keen interest in studying and analyzing the dynamics of the ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori that date back many decades in order to have an acumen of the real issues underlying the said conflicts and the factors that continue to exacerbate them. I am therefore writing from the real life narratives, personal experiences from numerous encounters with members of the communities snared in the conflict and various actors engaged in efforts for conflict termination and peacebuilding in the Rwenzori region. These include; NGOs, religious leaders, cultural institution leaders and government officials at district and sub-county levels. The members of the communities that I have mostly interacted with are the Basongora, Bamba, Bakonzo, and Batuku communities of Rwenzori.

Through a theoretical stance of conflict transformation as developed by John Paul Lederach, I place my argument within the strategies of conflict transformation to elucidate on key conflict underlying factors in the Rwenzori. In my view this is important, since it is implausible to think of transforming a conflict whose causes are either unknown or misrepresented. Rather than “ancient hatred”, between various ethnic groups in the Rwenzori, I think there are various relational, structural and interest-based issues touching on identity and resources coupled with politics that continue to sustain the conflicts. Misinformation or lack of information on such issues, has led to a series of failed interventions both by the state and non-state actors.

Understanding conflict
There are numerous expressions in regard to definitions of conflict. The crosscutting conception is that conflict is normal and that it generally refers to incompatibility of interests that occur when disagreement and differences point at different goals or different ways of pursing a similar goals. Ethnic conflicts are not different, they sprout from interests expressed in identity. Identity is responsible for bonding groups together. Naturally the group sets certain mechanisms for its own survival and defense against the ‘other’ with whom it has incompatible identity and/or interests (Ssentongo, 2014). Conflicts have a function and such a function has to be managed well to avoid violence. In order to understand a conflict there is need to go beyond the mere misunderstanding and visible differences. This is the key towards understanding identity.

Conflict is a universal feature of human society. It takes its origins in economic differentiation, social change, cultural formation, psychological development and political organization – all of which are inherently conflictual – and becomes overt through the formation of conflict parties, which come to have, or are perceived to have, mutually incompatible goals. The identity of the conflict parties, the levels at which the conflict is contested, and the issues fought over (scarce resources, unequal relations, competing values) may vary over time and may themselves be disputed. Conflicts are dynamic as they escalate and de- escalate, and are constituted by a complex interplay of attitudes and behaviours that can assume a reality of their own. Third parties are likely to be involved as the conflict develops, and may themselves thereby become parties in an extended conflict. An important point to note from the outset is how early theorists in the field such as Morton Deutsch (1949, 1973) distinguished between destructive and constructive conflict, suggesting that the former was to be avoided but the latter was a necessary and valuable aspect of human creativity (Ramsbotham, et al, 2011. pp. 7-8)

Conflict transformation is not about groups agreeing; it is about them understanding one another. The issue should be on how to help one another in order to attain each one’s goals. This calls for a robust conflict analysis that is informed by the social psychology that requires a good comprehension of the social processes and psychologies of groups involved in the conflicts in Ruwenzori through continuous constructive engagement. Conflict transformation relies heavily on analysis. If one gets the analysis wrong then the means of resolving will equally be wrong and the other way round is true. There is no known better ways of dealing with violent conflicts other than dealing with them in a constructive way; this is what conflict transformation is all about (Lederack, 2003).

Ethno-politics and conflict
Politics is one of the major elements that greatly shape ethnic conflicts. Some practitioners have identified politicization of ethnicity and ethnicization of politics as a major dimension to conflicts prevalent in ethnically polarized societies (Simiyu, 2011). Ojielo (2013) blames crude politicization of the tribe on ethnic related conflicts in Kenya’s Rift Valley and northern Uganda. In the Rwenzori region where ethnic conflicts have been prevalent, the political dimension has equally taken center stage. For instance in the recent study conducted by Kabarole Research Centre (KRC, 2012) political machination has been singled out as an important driver of conflicts in the Rwenzori.

The politicization of ethnicity is according to Wimmer (2002, p. 3) a result of the overlapping and fusion of three notions of peoplehood; the people as a sovereign entity; the people as citizens of a state and finally, the people as an ethnic community. As a sovereign entity the people exercise power through some sort of democratic procedure; as citizens the people hold equal rights before the law and lastly as an ethnic community, the people are undifferentiated by distinctions of honour and prestige, hence are held together by common socio-political destiny through shared values often referred to as culture. Smith (2003) argues that the politics and morals of political membership is determined by peoplehood.  The said peoplehood is over-achingly constructed around the commonality in identity.

According to the typical conflict analysis done by Kriesberg et al (1989), it is agreeable that identity is a major cause for intractability of ethnic conflicts. While appreciating the existence of identity and its contribution to ethnic conflicts, Boulding doing a forward to the work by Kriesberg et al (1989) demonstrates the opportunities and possibilities of managing and transforming such conflicts. According to Boulding, (Kriesberg et al. 1989: viii) “there are no unresolvable conflicts, only conflicts in which the parties stubbornly resist solutions. Intractability itself is not intrinsic to a conflict situation.”
Furthermore Kriesberg et al (1989) argue that the tractability of conflict changes over time. Following his argument it is important therefore to identify and cultivate the conditions of change from intractability to tractability. Social contexts change over time, and the nature of conflicts changes as the contexts change. Even the nonnegotiable core construct of social identity that every individual and group brings to a conflict, that which makes the world predictable and manageable for each party, is subject to changes as social contexts change (Kriesberg et al. 1989: ix-x).

Persistence of ethnic conflicts around the world and particularly within countries in sub-Sahara Africa portends a crisis that calls for a rethinking of strategies and nuanced approaches to ethnic conflict transformation as well as the civil society and, other actors on this process. Ashutosh (2011) has attempted to explore the possible links between civil society and ethnic conflicts from which analysis two interconnected arguments have been drawn. Along this analysis is developed an argument that interethnic networks that are created through positive involvement of the civil society in ethnic conflicts are agents of peace since they help to build bridges and to manage tensions. This is what has been done severally in the past strategies by the civil society in Rwenzori. However recent development, for instance, the eruption of violence in July 2014 indicates that efforts by the civil society have hitherto not born fruit. Again looking at the broader argument developed by Ashutosh (2011) there appears a pointer to such tractability and persistence of ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori. In regard to these conflict Ssentongo (HURINET-U 2014a) quoting Dugan (1996) points out the issues that complicate the ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori. According to this latter analysis Ssentongo (HURINET-U 2014a) indicates that the system, the subsystem, the relationships and the issues are mixed up in a manner that leaves the civil engagement almost impotent at the face of conflict underlying factors.

Going back to Ashutosh (2011) hypothesis there is a claim that communities organized only along intra-ethnic lines and where interconnections with other communities are either very weak or do not exist, ethnic conflict is most likely. During a training conducted in Fort Portal (HURINET-U 2014a), a senior official from the Ruenzururu made a claim that his kingdom has been kind enough and has over the years accommodated other communities and cultural institutions in the region, an assertion that was immediately protested by leaders from other communities present during the forum. This shows the freshness of the issues that Ashutosh (2001) was pointing out in ethnic conflict analysis. In that analysis one of the major arguments is that intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic engagements can proceed either through associational forms or every day forms depending on whether the interaction is formal or informal (Ashutosh 2001).

At the formal level the Ruenzururu kingdom which has been since recognized by the state holds a view that it accommodates the rest of the communities, a stand that is vigorously contested by other groups who view the Ruenzururu as playing the big brother role thus undertones of dissatisfaction, typical of the theories of greed and grievance. The weakness of such an engagement according to Ashutosh (2001) remains an open space for violence no wonder in July 2014 there was witnessed an outbreak of another wave in the series of violence in Rwenzori with the non-Bakonzo decrying the Bakonzo dominance in the region. The political dimension to this paradigm cannot be lost in sight. Indeed the associational forms turn out to be studier than day to day interaction when confronted with attempts by politicians to polarize and fragment the different groups of people along ethnic lines for purposes of gaining political capital.

Background to ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori
The Rwenzori region covers the districts of Bundibugyo, Ntoroko Kabarole, Kyegegwa, Kamwenge, Kyenjojo, and Kasese. The region is endowed with natural resources such as minerals, geographical features of mountains, rivers, lakes, wild life and vegetation that are of great significance to the tourism industry in the country. Culturally, the region is constituted of a multiplicity of ethno-cultural communities that include the Bamba, Babwisi, Batwa, Batuku, Basongora, Bakonzo, Batooro and Banyabindi among others. Of the many cultural communities; the government of Uganda has officially recognized three cultural institutions namely; Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu (Kingdom of Rwenzururu), Obudingya bwa Bamba (Kingdom of the Bamba) and Obukama Bwa Tooro (Kingdom of the Tooro); and allowed them to set up administrative structures culturally. This has prompted other cultural communities in the region, specifically the Basongora and the Banyabindi to demand for recognition as independent cultural institutions as provided for both in the Constitution of Uganda (1995) and the Institution of the Cultural Leaders Act (2011). Their demands have not yet been honored by the central government yet it continues to draw a lot of criticism and tension in the region (HURINET-U 2014 b).

The region has experienced conflicts over access to and control of resources including water, land, and the national park, and splitting of the current Kasese and Bundibugyo districts to more districts. This is in addition to other domestic, political, economic and cultural issues in Rwenzori. Whereas the indicators of such conflicts have been characterized by violent incidents of confrontations in the past, the recent developments, for example, the denial of Omusinga’s visit to Kasenyi landing site which is regarded as a cultural site as well as Bundibugyo on 30th June 2013 are indicative of an escalating level of ethnic conflicts. This is a situation that calls for initiatives to mitigate and transform the different forms of conflict in the region. The problem with such conflicts is that if they become persistent, they not only deter social cohesion, democratization, tourism and economic development (The constitution of Uganda 1995), but also endanger human and national security as well as making the region a potential launch for national conflict by elements that harbor ineffectual and disruptive interests in the region.

The Rwenzori conflicts are among the most violent armed conflicts that Uganda has ever experienced. Many people have lost lives, many others have been left with both physical and mental injuries, property of unknown value has been destroyed and indeed the social fabric is greatly affected. For instance in the recent violent incidences in July, 2014 about 70 people were killed in Bundibugyo, Ntoroko and Kasese districts. The aftermath of the violence is definitely painful traces of injury, loss and destruction.

The history of Rwenzori portends armed conflicts and violence. From 1964 to 1980 there was insurgency resulting from the Rwenzururu movement, 1981 to 1986 there was the National Resistance Army (NRA) war and from 1986 to 2001, the Nation Liberation of Uganda (NALU) and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). This background of militarism, armed conflicts, insurgencies and waves of violence is indicative of deep rooted issues that go beyond natural ethnic differences.

The parties to ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori
The primary actors in the conflicts in Rwenzorin are the ethnic groups found in the region. This is clearly a multi-ethnic conflict involving a number of ethnic groups. While there are many other minority ethnic groups in the region, it appears that so far the ongoing and long standing issues that have been the triggers and drivers of the conflicts in the region are issues between the Bakonzo, Bamba, Basongora and Bawisi ethnic groups. The Bakonzo are accused of trying to play a big brother role in the region, a fact that is heavily, and at times violently, contested by the other groups. For instance during a training in Fort Portal one representative of the Bakonzo said that “we have accommodated the other groups very well.” This statement was vigorous opposed by members of the other groups present thus revealing the manner in which ethnic relationships in this region remain wanting. HURINET-U which was the organizers of the meeting through Judi Erongot [legal associate Uganda Coalition on the International Criminal Court (UCICC) and focal person National Transitional Justice Coalition, Uganda (NTJC-U)] put a disclaimer by asserting that “it is derogative to use the term accommodation since it belittles the other group and it amounts to abuse; it is not allowed in law and therefore HURINET-U calls on the members to avoid using such terms since they are not only legally unacceptable but also breed division among groups” (HURINET-U, 2014a).

On the other hand in Bundibugyo the Bamba and Bawisi claim to be the indigenous communities in the area and they therefore cannot be dominated by the Bakonzo who are believed to be squatters in the region. While the Bamba and the Bawasi hold a view that they are the indigenous communities in the region, the Bakonzo are one of the majority ethnic groups in the region with one of the biggest cultural institutions duly recognized by the state. This has only helped in heightening the rift between different ethnic groups in a situation typical of the greed and grievance theories of conflict (Wimmer 2004).

This article highlights the background to the three major ethnic groups in the Rwenzori region that have majorly been engaged in long standing ethnic conflicts with deeper underlying issues of identity and resources. This brief overview of the said communities lays the background upon which conflict analysis can be drawn and its dynamics evaluated.

The Bakonzo
The Bakonzo are a bantu-speaking people who reside on the slopes of the mount Rwenzori (mountains of the moon), a place where they have lived for many generations. According to an official description of the Bakonzo, they have a culture that is well adapted to the steep slopes and climatic conditions of the Rwenzori which they have shared with the Bamba community for many years. Mostly inhabiting the neighboring Bundibugyo district, the Bamba community is very close in lineage and culture to the Bakonzo people of Rwenzori. Both these communities prior to historical colonialism maintained certain forms of government based on councils of elders.

However upon the emergence of colonialism, this situation changed drastically since the Bamba and the Bakonzo were placed under the neighboring Batooro who had a centralized kingdom (Larner 2014). The Bakonzo started a resistance movement called the Rwenzururu movement. In a bid to win their struggle for independence, the Bamba and Bakonzo created a strong alliance that eventually strengthened the Bakonzo. This has transited into the current cultural institution of Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu, headed by a cultural leader (king) called Omusinga (HURINET-U, 2014a).

The Basongora
The Basongora are a bantu-speaking people living at the foothills of Mt. Rwenzori, next to Queen Elizabeth national park in Kasese district. They are largely a cattle keeping community with a few members of their ethnic group engaged in crop farming and fishing for their economic livelihoods. They trace their origin from Ethiopia through South Sudan to Bunyoro, then finally Busongora in Rwenzori where they are found today.

Within East Africa, Basongora are believed to belong to the ancient Chwezi dynasty that had its headquarters at Bigobya Mugyenyi in the current Sembabule district. They are kins to the Bahima of present Nkore community of southwestern Uganda which constitutes the colonial districts of Mbarara and Bushenyi, which have since been split into more administrative local government districts as well part of the Hema of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and the Batuku of Ntoroko district.

The Banyabindi
The Banyabindi are an ethnic minority group (EMG) living alongside the Basongora and Bakonzo in most of the sub counties in Kasese district, western Uganda. They are the indigenous bantu-Runyakitara speaking community who allege to be the first indigenous ethnic community to inhabit the foothills of mount ‘Rwezoora’ commonly known as Rwenzori in Kasese district, the former Busongora county of Bunyoro Kitara-kingdom after the disintegration of the great empire.
The Banyabindi originally belonged to Bunyoro Kitara kingdom and were ruled by the king of Bunyoro (CDRN 2008). They are estimated at a population of 12,722 (The National Housing and Population Census 2002). Although their original name is not widely known, the Banyabindi claim to have acquired their current name as a nickname from the Bakonzo. It is believed that the Bakonzo (mountain people) came down and found people whose name they did not know, and because the ‘unknown people’ took their milk from a beautiful pot called ‘Rubindi’, the Bakonzo decided to call them the ‘Banyabindi’. This is the name by which they are known even up to date.

Issues underlying ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori
The causes of the recent clashes in the Rwenzori region are both due to historic and immediate triggers. While through conflict analysis it is possible to establish the conflict underlying factors, this article can in no way purport to give the scale of human rights violations in Rwenzori region. It is therefore the considered opinion of the author that the full scope of human rights violations and abuses is a matter that calls for further investigation and documentation to enable the actors to appreciate the gravity of the issues and make informed interventions.

This article is therefore only an evidence-based analysis of the conflict dynamics, some of the issues underlying the conflict and an attempt on the prospects for conflict transformation based on existing theories and prevailing circumstances. The author holds a view that the conflicts in the region are very complex and intertwined such that it often gets confusing in the process of analysis.

In order to avoid any such confusion this article classifies the issues underlying ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori into two broad categories. Furthermore the article briefly highlights the issues following each ethnic group. While the depth of the issues and analysis cannot exhaustively be laid down in this article, the fundamental factors are hereafter clearly highlighted.

Underlying historical issues
On the historical stance this article points out the following key issues. The first major issue is land. Land is most certainly an emotive issue (Simiyu 2011) in many parts of the world and it has over the years emerged as one of the major causes of the most violent conflicts that the world has known (Boone 2013).

The manner in which members of different communities in Rwenzori talk about the land question reveals deep and long standing issues that continue to cause and propel the conflicts in the area (HURNINET-U 2014b). For instance the following quote from a group work report during one of the forums in Fort Portal may help to point out what groups think about land as a cause of conflict in the region. “Land is one of the major issues in Rwenzori and it has greatly affected communities here. There is a problem of stigmatization and discrimination against certain groups based on the areas they occupy or perceived outsiders based on where they are believed to come from” (HURINET-U 2014a). Another participant in the forum opined that “the issue of land and where one comes from can be seen in the disrespect for others and discouragement of intermarriage between and within different ethnic groups which is becoming rampant” (HURINET-U 2014 a).

Land and land resources in the region have been key in as far as conflicts are concerned. For instance in Kasese district, the Bakonzo believe that the Basongora are occupying the parts of the district with all the valuable resources in the region such as the lakes, the national park, salt pans, cement factory while the Bakonzo are left to occupy the mountainous parts of the district with fewer resources.

Other natural resources such as oil discovery has been associated with increase in land disputes (KRRC & RFPJ 2012). The question of unresolved land redistribution among the Bakonzo, Basongora, Banyabindi and other ethnic minorities following the historical and unresolved cases of land grabbing continue to resurface in contemporary conflicts, especially in Kasese district. The Basongora, for example, claim that the colonial government grabbed their land and turned it into a National Park. Besides, the Banyabindi also claim that their land was grabbed by the Bakonzo during the Rwenzururu rebellion and it has never been returned to them such as Kisinga, Kitojo, Kichamba, Muhokya, Kilembe, Mahango, Kyarumba, and Munkunyu.

The above factors have occasioned incidents of violent conflicts, and have continued to perpetuate tension and hegemony among the different ethnic groups in the region. For instance in Muhokya sub-county in Kasese, the Banyabindi are complaining of selective government distribution of land resources. The government was said to have distributed land to the Basongora and Bakonzo, leaving out the landless Banyabindi who have been living in what would be described as camps for the past 50 years (KRRC & RFPJ 2012).

It is upon the land question that the notion of identity emerges and hence ethnicity. Group identity is so much emphasized in the Ruwenzori area; the question is why? Why is the group identity so salient? Sometimes according to Ssentongo, it is about the history; what has happened in the past is used to explain the conditions of a group in the present (HURINET-U 2014a). Every time incompatibility of interest occurs, the group will use the calamity of the collective trauma that happened in the past to explain their situation. This process is trans-generationally inherited and people of all ages will almost always go back to such explanations thus forming a cycle that is almost hard to locate its start leading to conflict protraction.

The people of Rwenzori therefore may be lost in issues of ethnicity and identity thinking that these are the causes of conflict while in reality conflict issues transcend the tribe and the ethnic group and touch on land and resources found on the same land that are actually survival needs. This has led to structural violence visible in the region.

In its most straightforward understanding, structural violence is the kind of violence that is embedded in the structures and systems whereby the system gives unequal chances and opportunities. The violence is the difference between what is and what should be, for instance denial of what belongs to an individual or a group is violence in itself. The different ethnic groups in Rwenzori decry dominance of some groups over others based on land resource distribution and land use.

The Bamba believe that the Bakonzo have bought a lot of land from them. In Bundibugyo, the Bakonzo stay mostly in the hills and mountains whereas the Bamba/Babwisi inhabit the low lands but because of the commercial usefulness of land in the lowlands, the Bakonzo have joined the others down to engage in economic activities. This has not gone down well with the Bamba/Bawisi who perceive this to be an intrusion on their means of survival. However, according to some observations, they believe that the Bamba/Bawisi are willing sellers and the Bakonzo are the willing buyers (HURINET-U 2014a).

On the other hand, the Rwenzururu movement war veterans have not been reintegrated into the community. These veterans are associated with a number of demands including land on the lower plains of the district that is predominantly occupied by the Basongora and Banyabindi. They continue to feel left out by the government. They also feel dissatisfied with government for making empty promises to their plight. This is one of the historical issues that has led to the build-up of the conflicts in the region. For long, the region has provided sanctuary for rebel groups like the Rwenzururu movement, the Nation Liberation of Uganda (NALU) rebels and lately the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). These have only historically helped to militarize the region and make conflicts prevalent thus protracting the conflict situation in Rwenzururu.

Conflict escalating factors
Apart from historical issues whose solid basis is the land ownership and use, some of the following highlighted issues can be categorized as intervening factors that have exacerbated the conflict leading to violent eruptions especially the most recent one in July 2014.

The first attendant issue is handling of the land question. For instance the manner in which government has handled land redistribution remains unsatisfactory. The land redistribution framework in which land was redistributed at a ratio of 1:3 acres to Bakonzo (farmers) and Basongora cattle keepers respectively. This framework has been vigorously contested by the Bakonzo who feel it was favoring the Basongora.

The discovery of oil in the Albertine grabben has created anxiety among the local communities and different kingdoms and cultural institutions in Rwenzori on who will control the royalties accruing from oil resource thus complicating the land issue among different ethnic communities in the region.

Lastly, the politicization of land and identity issues has lately made the conflict situation more complicated and its termination elusive. Politicians at both central and local government levels have taken advantage of the volatile situation in the region to gain political capital among the local communities by creating political camps that are based on the different ethnic groups touching on land and identity. The politicians easily appeal to identity and security to gain the political capital for their survival.

The Bakonzo of Bundibugyo feel left out of all the political appointments in Bundibugyo. They claim that none of the major political and administrative positions in the region, from the Resident District Commissioners (RDCs) to the LCVs (Local Council 5 Chairpersons), are given to a Mukonzo in Bundibugyo instead they all go to the Bamba/Babwisi ethnic group. As a result, it is claimed that this has led to political domination of Bamba/Babwisi over the Bakonzo. The Bakonzo claim that since Bundibugyo was granted a district status in 1974, no Mukonzo has ever been chairperson LCV (Local Council 5). This according to them means that all political decisions are made by the Bamba/Babwisi. Currently, the chairman LCV belongs to the Bamba/Babwisi ethnic group and out of a district executive committee of five members, only one is a mukonzo; the vice chairman. This to the Bakonzo is discrimination against them in Bundibugyo (HURINET-U 2014a).  

According to Ssentongo “ethnicity concerns the groups, it is about the boundary. Boundaries include symbols, believes, territory, culture, religion, common ancestral heritage etc (HURINET-U 2014a). Boundaries bring about the sense of belonging and security. Security is a condition where the satisfaction of basic human needs is stable and predictable. Basic human needs according to Burton (1990) is identity. The politicians have mastered so well the art of invoking the people’s identity a fact that easily triggers violence. This underpin the recent violence and the visible tension in the region especially this time of political importance as Uganda heads to elections.

Feeling of disregard among the Bakonzo by Bamba/Babwisi of Bundibugyo has been one of the contributing factors to the recent clashes. The Bamba argue that the territory belongs to them and that the Bakonzo belong to Kasese district. The situation is further complicated by the fact that in 1974, President Idi Amin Dada granted district status to the Bakonzo of Kasese (Rwenzori) and the Bamba/Babwisi of Bundibugyo (Semuliki) along tribal lines. Because of this, the Bakonzo community in Bundibugyo feel marginalised when it comes to securing of jobs and political representation in Bundibugyo.

The Bakonzo have on several occasions asked the president to grant them their own district curved out of Bundibugyo in the part of the district that they occupy in Bughendera county, an issue contested by the Bamba/Bawisi to solve the long standoff among communities that have been living in harmony.

Cultural institutions
The demand for cultural institutions by other ethnic groups in the region is a contentious issue. For instance, the Basongora in Kasese district are regarded by the Bakonzo as occupying the geo-cultural space of the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu, an issue that has recently come to the limelight.

In addition, despite the existence of the Tooro kingdom in the Rwenzori sub-region, the government of Uganda has created two more kingdoms in the same geo-cultural area of the Tooro; Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu and Obudhingya bwa Bamba.

The Rwenzururu kingdom covered the districts of Bundibugyo, Ntoroko and Kasese. Therefore, the further curving out of Obundhigya bwa Bamba cultural institution was not well received by the majority of the people who subscribe to the Rwenzururu cultural institution hence culminating into the recent clashes (HURINET-U 2014a).

Other commercial interests
It is believed that most of the business enterprises in Bundibugyo town belong to the Bakonzo. Secondly, Bundibugyo district earns 33 billion shillings annually from the sale of cocoa which is farmed in the low lands where Bakonzo are the prominent farmers. The engagement of Bakonzo into a number of economic activities does not seem auger well with the Bamba who believe that these are not the indigenous owners of the land on which they are making fortune (HURINET-U 2014a).

Impact of ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori
There is no serious independent comprehensive documentation of the human rights violations and abuses committed during and in the immediate aftermath of the clashes. While interacting with the community members and organizations working in the region, it is clear that there are widespread human rights abuses and violations. Although there is a lull for lack of physical clashes violence at the moment, the communities remain engulfed in a state of fear for further possible attacks and reprisals from the rival ethnic groups.

Generally ethnic clashes in Rwenzori have led to far reaching consequences including death, displacement of people from their homes, torture and injuries as well as loss of property whose value has not been comprehensively assessed. Other negative impacts include torture of suspects by security operatives and summary executions, lack of enough medical supplies especially to those who sustained injuries during the violence, alleged training of one ethnic groups by the police as crime preventers and deepening tribal divisions that pose a threat not only to local peace process but also to national cohesion and integration (HURINET-U 2014a).

Towards ethnic conflict transformation in Rwenzori
In cases of severe ethnic conflicts and ethnically divided societies, establishment of the conditions necessary for effective intergroup peacebuilding is an arduous task. Experts of conflict transformation identify development of preconditions which convince competing groups to enter into constructive dialogue quite fundamental (Lederach 1995). This would entail convincing the rival groups that there are opponents to whom it is worth talking to and that actually the issues of contention are superfluous to their groups as such.

Going forward, it is imperative that rival ethnic groups, who in this case are parties to conflict, to understand and appreciate that it is probable to create operational vicissitudes favorable to stable peace and that an agreement that can lead to attainment of each group’s basic concerns is indeed plausible. Attainment of such a conviction is good basis for sustainable dialogue on peaceful ethnic conflict transformation. To this effect and in a hearty navigation of theories of conflict transformation some scholars opine that a clearer articulation of the aforementioned strategies greatly improve the conceptual and practical search for settlements to severe ethnic conflicts (Ross 2000) such as the ones experienced in Uganda’s Rwenzori region for decades.
The recent clashes and conflicts in the Rwenzori region emanates from the long historical injustices that cut across all the ethnic groups in the region as highlighted here. Given the complexity of issues, conflict transformation in Rwenzori require a broader framework that brings together government, the civil society, the local communities, religious actors, cultural institutions and other stakeholders in the region to promote harmony, unity, and reconciliation among the locals for long lasting peace in the region.

This article brings to the surface some key issues that contribute to the ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori as well as the most recent violence in the region. These issues range from; economic, social-cultural to political factors. As it has been here indicated the discovery oil deposits in the region could be a factor for conflict exacerbation if not well handled. The recent violence is an opportunity for conflict transformation since its analysis points out the unresolved grievances associated with land and resources, structural violence and governance, and a history of militarization (KRRC & RFPJ 2012) that calls for intervention.

The issues underlying ethnic conflicts in Rwenzori are largely constant, for instance, there is a long standing issue with the Basongora’s ancestral grazing land that is sustaining the conflict. The resources are very critical but the problem is with harnessing the available resources for the good of the people of Rwenzori. It is important therefore to look at the ability of the people to sustainably utilize available resources. Since the people are the key to either creation of conflicts or prevention of the same, different groups should not talk in a very defensive way for instance while there is need to have equal opportunities in employment it is also important to look at the capabilities and  expertise that people have. While it is wrong to give people employment based on ethnicity, it is equally wrong to give employment to people who are not qualified in the name of ethnicity.

There is need therefore for the different groups in Rwenzori to unshackle themselves through education and other life skills that will see them move out of cycles of land conflicts, and help them attain employment based on merit and expertise. Coexistence is the most important way, for instance, as a people of Rwenzori region there is need to work together in looking for ways to mobilize resources and create wealth for development.

Experts in conflict studies have in the past pointed out that there is a strong correlation between poverty and conflicts. The economic landscape of the Rwenzori region is comparatively low than other parts of the country. There is need for actors in the process of conflict transformation to look beyond mere strategies for positive alteration of conflict such as sustained dialogue and negotiation and embrace a robust development agenda to unlock the economic fortunes of the region and turn around the frequent land and resource-based conflicts. For instance if the various ethnic groups in Rwenzori worked together for development projects with mutual benefits their grievances would significantly wane in the process (HURINET-U 2014b).

The absence of a collective voice and critical mass is visible in the Rwenzori ethnic conflicts; a factor that leads to a lot of problems especially on conflict transformation. It is arguably true that the more the people and the communities in Rwenzori continue to engage in the conflicts, the national development programs will continue to bypass them thus perpetuating marginalization and structural violence.

It is very important to continue the dialogue on what are the really issues in Rwenzori. For instance when talking about land, the questions should be on: what land? Whose land? Where is the land? What is the size of the land? How should the land be utilized? Who should utilize the land? These set of questions set part of the fundamental questions that should form the basis of discussion and drive the conversation on both structured and unstructured dialogue that should be deliberately initiated and sustained in the process of conflict transformation. This article postulates that a proper understanding of the underlying issues would form a basis for conflict transformation in Rwenzori.

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