2005: Year of the rat

Monday October 17 2005

After the incredible tale of the Ugandan ethnic group that took to eating rats to push their demand for district status, other ethnic groups are devising their own tactics to push political demands. Julius Barigaba reports

UGANDA’S FIRST multi - party elections in 20 years could well go down in history as "rat-eating polls."

After the incredible tale of the Ugandan ethnic group that took to eating rats to push their demand for district status, other ethnic groups are devising their own tactics to push political demands.

Eating rats was a way of underscoring the seriousness of the situation among the Itesots of eastern Uganda, according to their Member of Parliament, Geoffrey Ekanya.

"In fact, be very afraid when a rat related demand is made of you; you either yield or face the full force of the people's anger," he told The EastAfrican.

At the time of the rat-eating episode, parliament was preparing to vote on the Constitution Amendment Bill to lift presidential term limits. Since 2003 when the issue of removing term limits was first floated, there were no prizes for guessing who the prime beneficiary would be.

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"Because of his push for a third term, the president was ready to yield to the demands of almost everyone to win votes," says Miria Matembe, the outspoken Mbarara Woman MP.

Mrs Matembe is a former minister in President Museveni’s government.

Early this year, the Itesots of Tororo lined up before visiting President Yoweri Museveni, armed with a dish of raw rat meat. They ate up the meat as he watched; apparently, the president was so shaken he had no choice but to give them a district.

Then the people of Nakasongola came up with their own macabre twist. They exhumed skeletons of people killed in the Luwero Triangle during the 1981-86 guerilla war that brought Museveni to power. They too were given a district.

Next, the Bagisu sub-counties of Manjiya and Bududa were district status after their inhabitants threatened to carry out a circumcision ceremony in broad daylight at the entrance of parliament.

But the public "cut" could still happen. Residents of the two sub counties are currently locked in a standoff over where the district headquarters should be established. Recently, one group that had gone to petition the Minister of Local Government, Prof Tarsis Kabwegyere, was chased away.

THE FOLKS FROM BUDUDA want the district established in their area, failing which parliament will witness its first circumcision ritual. The Bududa men have threatened to walk all the way from the slopes of Mount Elgon to perform the ritual, which is called imbalu. It is not clear whether they intend to circumcise legislators or boys from their own community.

And speaking of eating, we have consumed enough vermin, you would think. But now the residents of Mukono Town Council are threatening that if they do not get municipal status, they will start eating raw rabbit meat.

P RESIDENT MUSEVENI HAS already ruled for 18 years, including 10 years as an unelected military leader. But then, when you can’t beat Museveni, you join him. MPs realised that the big man’s push for a third term was a chance for them to score political points with their constituents.

Not sure which political programmes and arguments would sell, they settled on "Operation New Districts" as the most feasible way of winning support.

Now even villages are dreaming of district status. There is even a joke that residents of the upmarket Kampala suburb of Kololo want their own district. They are different, after all, the joke goes, because they drive fancy cars and do their shopping at Shoprite and Game, while their children don’t even go to Uganda's miserable schools – they study at academies in Europe and the United States.

The concern about the creation of more districts has always been their drain on public expenditure. But MPs are not bothered about this, it seems.

Mrs Matembe says the third-term drive has bred a new form of corruption that is holding the president hostage.

"He knows it is wrong to form districts without using the local government criteria, but he wants to keep the corrupt people around him happy," she said.

Twenty-two new districts will come into being with additional Members of Parliament, meaning more office space will be needed, not to mention the increase in salaries.