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Legislating Ethnic Diversity Matters More Than You Think

Legislating Ethnic Diversity Matters More Than You Think

According to the Ugandan constitution there are two ways one can hold Ugandan citizenship at birth.

The first is to have at least one parent who is a Ugandan citizen. The second is to be born in the country and have a parent or grandparent who “is or was a member of any of the indigenous communities existing and residing within the borders of Uganda as at the first day of February, 1926, and set out in the Third Schedule to this Constitution.”

The Third Schedule then goes on to detail 65 “indigenous communities,” (originally 56 in the 1992 constitution but updated in 2005) from Acholi to Vonoma, that would entitle progeny to Ugandan citizenship by birth.

While this may seem like a pragmatic way to handle pre-independence citizenship in a country that is only 52 years old, gaining independence in 1962 along with a wave of other countries south of the Sahara, the inclusion (and presumably, exclusion) of individual tribal affiliations and ethnicities runs in direct contrast to its neighbor to the South, Rwanda.

Rwanda has, since the 1994 genocide, attempted to erase all ethnic and tribal allegiances in favor of allegiance to country. Supporters of the law claim that it alleviates rivalries between groups, many of which played such a large part in the country’s (and many others’) darkest days.


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The strategies of the neighbors on the Great Lakes have both proven problematic for widely differing reasons.

In a recent op-ed for the Ugandan news site the Daily Monitor, columnist Odoobo C. Bichachi, decried the influence of Uganda’s strategy in a column unequivocally titled “Let’s remove tribes from Uganda’s Constitution.”

According to Bichachi, recently ”…Ugandans have been inundated by news of tribal conflicts of one form or another.” He then goes on to list several conflicts that have arisen around tribal and ethnic identity and cultural sovereignty, some of which became violent.

This, according to Bichachi, is the result of the constitution that “tribalised” Ugandan society, creating ethnic cleavages where none had previously existed, some “differentiated by dialect or simply how they pronounce different letters of the alphabet but sharing everything else from customs to food!”

The categories are a new phenomena, as “indigenous communities” were not listed in either of the country’s previous constitutions in 1962 or 1967.

On the other end of the spectrum, to Uganda’s south, many critics accuse Rwandan President Paul Kagame of using this strategy more as a means to silence political dissent against his predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front than a means of unity.

In one prominent case, that opposition politician Victoire Ingabire was sentenced to eight years in prison for charges stemming mainly from opposition politics. Among the charges against Ingabire were “genocide ideology” and “divisionism,” both of which were loose euphemisms for criticizing the Kagame regime.

According to Human Rights Watch, “The 2008 genocide ideology law, under which Ingabire was charged, has been used as a tool to silence criticism of the government. The definition of ‘genocide ideology’ is very broad and imprecise, leaving the law open to abuse.

People such as Ingabire who have spoken out about crimes committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front against Hutu civilians since 1994 have been particularly vulnerable to accusations of ‘genocide ideology.’

Genocide Ideology

Ingabire challenged the constitutionality of the accusation of genocide ideology but on October 18, the Supreme Court ruled that her challenge was unfounded.”

While the question may seem academic, in a continent filled with arbitrary borders that stem from neither ethnic nor geographic considerations, how the law deals with ethnic diversity is incredibly important.

The continent is replete with examples of violence stemming from ethnic and tribal considerations.

In the past few years alone, ethnic allegiances played a major role in violence and upheaval from the Central African Republic to Mali to the world’s newest state, South Sudan. This is in addition to less widespread incidents of violence, marginalization and discrimination that are also extremely prevalent.

It is not all bad news. While the overall treatment of ethnic diversity on the continent leaves much to be desired, some countries, including South Africa, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire have made great strides in the past year.

Rwanda and Uganda demonstrate that neither legal extreme is feasible or even can be successful. While the experiences of Uganda lend themselves to the belief that perhaps reducing allegiances would reduce tensions, Rwanda shows just how quickly regulating speech and allegiance can result in totalitarian dominance.

In order for countries with tremendous ethnic diversity to avoid potential tensions a happy medium must be struck between complete fealty to ethnic labels and total avoidance of the topic. While the world is yet to find a way to ensure a lack of tensions resulting from pluralism, it is clear that neither extreme is the answer.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and freelance consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.