The following subsection is excerpted from Professor Mahmood Mamdani's Keynote Address to the East African Legislative Assembly Symposium, "A Decade of Service towards Political Federation," Arusha, 30th June 2011.
All origin stories are migration stories. Pre-modern peoples did not believe that any people were indigenous to a particular place. This is not just true of Africans. The biggest origin story, one shared by Abrahamic religions, is the story of Genesis in the Old Testament. It says the earth was empty before its settlement by peoples we know – all were migrants who came to the land after the Biblical flood. All humanity was native to heaven. Only after the fall did humans come to possess guardianship of the earth.
The vision of a world populated by ‘indigenous’ peoples with ‘non-indigenous’ minorities is a distinctly modern and secular notion. In this part of the world, it is a distinctly colonial notion. The idea that each tribe has a tribal homeland, that each tribe rightfully belongs to its homeland, is native to its homeland, is a settler notion. It is the basis of the claim that tribes must stay put in their homelands and that the world outside the homelands belongs to settlers.
The real point is not that colonialism invented this fiction but that we have bought it. We consider it as part of African custom, rather than colonial custom. Let me give you one example of how this notion has become central to our political lives.
Nigeria created a federation after the civil war of 1967-70. Key to the federation is a clause called ‘federal character’. It says that key federal institutions must have a ‘federal character’. What are these key institutions? They are three: the army, the civil service and federal universities. What does it mean to have federal character? It means their composition must reflect the composition of the federation. Recruitment in each institution must be on the basis of quotas for each state, where the quota reflects the relative weight of the state population in the Nigerian federation.
Now, here is the rub. To qualify for the quota of a state, you must be indigenous to the state. Who is indigenous to the state? To be indigenous you must be born in the state of a father also born in the same state.
The ethnic federation is today a major source of Nigeria’s problems. The market economy moves products and people, both rich and poor – on the one hand rich traders, industrialists, and professionals, on the other, jobless workers, landless peasants, itinerant hawkers. Those who move beyond state boundaries – and these are usually the most enterprising, whether rich or poor – are labeled non-indigenous and disenfranchised. With each passing year, more and more Nigerians are non-indigenous in the states where they live.
The ethnic federation is a major source of Nigeria’s contemporary political problems. Most internal conflicts in Nigeria are fights over who is indigenous and who is not. In the Middle Belt, fights over definition of indigenous revolve around two notions of indigenous. One group says you are indigenous if your family arrived before colonialism. The other says you are indigenous if your family was there before the Sokoto Caliphate. But both agree that if you came to the Middle Belt recently, meaning over the past hundred years, you should not have political rights – even if you are a Nigerian.
Here is the positive side of the picture. Not everyone in the independence leadership of East Africa accepted the colonial story of tribal homelands as African tradition.
The shining example is that of Mwalimu Nyerere and mainland Tanzania. Consider the following sobering proposition: East Africa is a region of genocide and ethnic cleansing. We associate Rwanda and Burundi with genocide; Zanzibar with the violence of the revolution; Uganda with that of expulsions, from that of Catholics from Mengo in 1900 to that of Muslims from West Nile after the fall of Idi Amin; Kenya with the violence in the Rift Valley.
The one exception is mainland Tanzania. It is the only part of the region where a group has not been persecuted collectively – as a racial or an ethnic group. Tanzania is the East African anti-dote to Nigeria. Mwalimu Nyerere’s contribution is identified with Ujamaa. But Mwalimu should really be remembered as a statesman who built a nation state. He took a colonial tribal federation and built a centralized state out of it.
Politically, colonial Tanganyika was no different from other colonies. It was a patchwork of tribal administrations. The colonial administration divided the population into so many tribes and races. Races were governed under civil law and each tribe under a separate customary law.
Nyerere’s great achievement was to create a single law and a single machinery of enforcement – both legal and administrative – so that every Tanzanian came to be governed by the same law, regardless of race or tribe.
Mwalimu created a rule of law. He created a national citizenship based on residence in a country where colonialism had left the legacy of defining every individual on the basis of a racial or tribal political identity based on origin.
There is another instructive example in the region, that of Uganda from the bush war of 1980-86. Early NRA learnt much from the legacy of Nyerere. When the NRA liberated a village in the Luwero Triangle, it created village councils and committees. The question arose: who can vote in these councils and committees and who can run for office?
The colonial tradition was that only those indigenous should have local rights. But this would have disenfranchised half the population, for roughly half were immigrants, either from Rwanda or from the North.
The NRA’s response was: whoever lives in the village has a right to participate in the decision-making of the village, no matter where they come from. Rights were based on residence, not ethnicity.
Once in power, the principle was subverted. Today, the NRM has elevated the principle of tribal homelands into a key principle of governance. It is now said that every tribe, in some parts of the country, even every clan, must have its own administrative homeland. Thus the multiplication of districts in Uganda over the last decade, giving rise to the demand that the population of every district be divided between those indigenous and those not, the former with rights and the rest without rights. If this practice of statecraft continues, with or without oil, Uganda will be another Nigeria.
Today, the political landscape in Uganda resembles that in Kenya more than it does the landscape in Tanzania.