Revisiting the Vice of Tribalism in Institutions of Higher Learning


On 23rd March 2010, two distinct but related events happened in my student leadership life. I handed over (I know this is not familiar in some corridors in the country) two offices–one of Clerk to Guild Parliament and the other–as Speaker of Teso Students’ Development Association (TESDA). These two positions nourished me with some deep appreciation of the (negative) role tribalism plays in University politics (at least in the one I attended!)


UCU students cheer a candidate in one of the past Guild elections (PHOTO: The Campus Times)

From the campaign onset, the different candidates scout for “influential” people in tribal groups (Nkobazambogo, Basoga Nsete,  Acholi Students Development Association, etc.) to organize association meetings and invite them to speak. In other words, regular developmental meetings become quasi political rallies—complete with a Q&A session, drinks offered (just like in the village) etc. Even “affirmative-action packages” are offered here and there.

In one of those meetings I attended, I vividly recall a friend from Lango (he is now a youth winger in the Opposition Uganda People’s Congress) advising us to vote his candidate (a fellow Northerner) because apparently, “the rain that falls in Teso is the same that falls in Northern Uganda.” He further reminded us that, “we have been marginalized at national level and so we should not accept the same here.” He counselled us to unite and resist the “common enemy” who comes from the same area as the “dictator” in State House. A deafening applause always followed whenever such statements were uttered—of course to my chagrin!

For those who are not familiar, the top contenders in this particular campaign included a student from Nebbi District in Northern Uganda and another from Kabaale in Western Uganda. This geographical coincidence was a common trend in most elections. Somehow, there would be someone from one of those regions.

I also remember, in another campaign, one candidate who “dropped” his Teso surname because some Iteso (yours truly inclusive) betrayed him by supporting “these Westerners.” Incidentally, the same guy currently works in one of the government Ministries in Kampala.

I always raged with disgust just wondering what these presumed intellectuals (and so-called future leaders!) would be later when they get power or occupy influential positions in their work life. I mean “couldn’t they see that the students’ problems needed a sober, charismatic and articulate person but not tribal chief?” I would always ask myself.

Fast forward: The elections are done and the President-elect has to assemble a Team to constitute his (in my time, we never had a Female President) Cabinet. There are always key positions to look out for; General Secretary (now you it’s not an NRM thing only), Minister of Finance, Attorney General, Heads of Tribunal and Electoral Commission (not for rigging, but cutting procurement deals in the next election). In most cases, the occupants of those positions speak the same or similar language. As a matter of fact, even my own appointment, regardless of my technical competencies, had a tribal undertone to it because the then Speaker, was my good friend and we came from the same region.

In about three out of the five elections I participated in as a student, I earned the wrath of my tribe-mates (or those from fellow “marginalized” tribes) when I openly supported candidates from Western Uganda—very competent guys, I must add. Some extremists in TESDA suggested I be “suspended” from the group. The weirdest one was one who linked my light skin complexion (that is before the Karamoja unforgiving sun roasted it away) to a possibility of not being an Itesot (the guy knew my mum and dad were from Kumi and Bukedea respectively) and further asked me to change my name from Ochom to Ochomugisha. Now, the list of people who are very proud of their origin is surely incomplete if my name is missing. In fact, I have stated before, like I will state now that I am an Itesot before I become a Ugandan. This is a fact and I am so proud of it. But to use this as a yardstick for determining political or other choices is absurd, divisive, regressive and backward especially in this era of integration.

So, as we try to confront the issue of tribalism in our politics and work places, maybe we should tackle it right from where we take our children to study, where they are expected to be groomed into professionals and future leaders. Can we create initiatives that unite students regardless of their tribes or courses? Think tanks, for example are not farfetched for a University.

Outside school, there should be deliberate measures to promote fairness by availing equal opportunities to all Ugandans to access whatever resources there are in the country—business, scholarships, jobs, etc. so that nobody feels cheated (of course some will always feel) and all have a reason to be proud to be identified as a citizen of Uganda but not a member of a certain tribe only.

Short of this, this country is sitting on a time bomb!!!

Don’t say I did not warn you…


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