In its first official statement about the Kasese clashes in which over 100 people were killed last weekend, the Ugandan government mentioned a desire for statehood as a possible “political” reason for the restiveness of the Rwenzori region.
Internal Affairs Minister Jeje Odong said in parliament; “the talk of secession and creation of the Bakonzo state of Yiira has been in the public domain for quite some time now.” He then quickly moved to dismiss it as a non-starter. “Government has been clear that this dream is an impossibility in the present times. This factor will be investigated whether it is one of the drivers of the violent actions of Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu.”
Interviews with several people in or closely associated with the government indicate that President Museveni is persuaded that part of the belligerence is driven by a desire for statehood and self-determination for the Bakonzo.
Two of these people who spoke to The EastAfrican have carried out assignments on the direct orders of the president to try to bring harmony to Kasese.
Captain Mike Mukula, a former minister, attempted to lead the mediation efforts.
“It’s real,” he said of the Yiira state claims. “It has not just started; it started in the pre-Independence time, and this can be evidenced by the letter the father of the current king Mumbere wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations complaining about being attacked by the government of President Milton Obote and signed off as the leader of Yiira state,” he said.
Capt Mukula said he had written several reports of his mediation effort to President Museveni, the Inspector General of Police and the Chief of Defence Forces and was in no doubt about the determination of the people to be independent.
Capt Mukula’s claims are backed by Simon Mulongo a former MP who has also run several peacekeeping errands for President Museveni on the situation in Kasese.
Mr Mulongo said, “the agitation for statehood can be divided between two distinct time frames, the first is the period between 1964 and 2009 and then the period between 2009 and the present.” Mr Mulongo says that Bayiira, from which the name Yiira state is crafted, represents the Banande people of east Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bakonzo of Uganda.
“Statehood and ethno-nationalism emerged especially on the DR Congo side where the majority of the Bayiira actually live,” he said.
An estimated between five million and eight million Nande (ethnic Bakonzo) live in the DR Congo, while about one million live in Uganda.
But Robert Centenary, a Member of Parliament for Kasese Municipality, says where as it is true that people were divided by colonial border demarcation, serious talk of a secessionist movement especially among Uganda’s Bakonzo is exaggerated but warned that by harping onto it, government could reap the unintended consequence of conscientising the people to embrace it.
“Yiira state agitation is in Congo not in Uganda, the Bayiira of Congo supported President Kabila but they see no service delivery in their areas, they think they have gotten a raw deal for their support and are thinking of self-determination,” he said. “In Uganda it has been like a joke, it is Kayihura [General Kale Kayihura the Inspector General of Police] who out of excitement used it as a tool to pin down the Ugandan Bakonzo who have nothing to do with it,” he said.
Mr Centenary says the statehood agitating Banande in Congo were once led by a Mr Nyamwisi, father to former rebel leader Mbusa Nyamwisi, currently exiled in South Africa.
Makerere University development history lecturer Mwambutsya Ndebesa dismisses the idea of carving a new state out of the current established borders as a joke, “It is not a realistic aspiration,” he says, “but I don’t think the agitation is intended for the purpose of statehood. Yiira is like Mao’s talk of a Nile Republic, these fellows are desperate for government attention in national resource distribution and where they are desperate they might use violence to attract attention,” he said.
Mr Ndebesa says the agitation for statehood could be used as a “bargaining chip against perceived threats like subdivision of the current cultural institution by recognising claims of other ethnic minorities in the area, the land resettlement questions and the administrative sub division of Kasese district into new districts.”