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No nation without its ugly birth scars or growing pains

Date and time inserted: 11/1/2012 - 11:34:55


Commentary by Okello Lucima[*]


In the run-up to the February elections and after, some commentators criticised and dismissed Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) President Olara Otunnu’s calls for truth telling and accountability for horrendous events in our recent past, as ‘re-opening old wounds.’ The reason for their not supporting this call is that the majority of Ugandans or Ugandan voters are youths who did not exist in the 1960s, were either toddlers in 1970s, 1980s, or have zero need and interest in interrogating the past. They assert that what is important is the now-and-here, looking forward, but not backwards into our past.


We could not disagree more strongly with this view, whose pitfalls are in perceiving the ‘present’ and ‘future’ in opposition to the past and as mutually exclusive. Even more damning, such perspectives uncritically pander to the whims of a cultivated ‘electoral majority’, using divide-and-rule tactics. And lastly, they aspire for nothing greater than partisan electoral politics.    


In contrast, Otunnu’s interest for shedding light on 1980 Ombaci Massacres, 1981-1986 Luwero tragedy, the 1986-2005 northern Uganda Genocide, the 1979 extra-judicial executions of Molsems in Mbarara, and September 2009 massacres of unarmed civilians on the streets of Kampala, is not driven by thirst for revenge or punishment, but truth telling and accountability, which then leads to forgiveness, national reconciliation, healing and re-unification of our country in what he calls ‘a banquet of wounded healers’.


The moral logic of Otunnu’s concerns is that no Ugandan community has been spared by the ‘birth pangs’ and ‘growing pains’ of our country. April 11th 1979; January 25th 1971; September 1972; January 26th 1986; July 27 1985 are not national dates that bring our people together. This includes 1966/67 to which many of our compatriots point as the wellspring of our continual socio-political strife and unsteady nature of our nationhood.


Few who truly want a united country and a stable polity would disagree with Otunnu that we all are ‘wounded’ and therefore need healing. Accordingly, the ‘wounded’ need to reach across deep aisles of ethnic, religious, regional, ideological and political divides and become ‘healers’, hence ‘wounded healers’ in search of a new covenant with each other, under a governance framework underwritten by consensual constitutionalism that celebrates their diverse identities, nurtures their aspirations and recognises their common destiny.


The UPC President’s thinking is informed by the history that few nationhoods in the world emerged without ‘birth pangs’ or rose to where they are open, democratic, peaceful and prosperous societies without ‘growing pains’. Many countries in the world overcame bloody and divisive internal conflicts to rise above their differences, using their commonalities to build strong and inclusive societies founded on fundamental rights, personal freedoms and equality for all. Such prosperous post conflict societies, in whose footsteps many a nation has travelled, include the United States of America (USA) after the Civil War, France after the French Revolution, England after the English Civil War, Germany and Italy after their re-unification wars and 1840s European revolutionary conflagration.


In all the above cases, deliberate efforts were made to reconcile, heal and re-unify these societies rent by conflicts. To insure against history repeating itself, they devised strong constitutional and democratic institutional foundations which succeeding generations built on for continual progress. They did not shy away from teaching their citizens the ‘truth’ about the ‘birth pangs’ and ‘growing pains’ of their nations. The US and France come to mind as the best examples of countries that rose from the most bloody fratricidal conflicts in history to become steady, peaceful and prosperous civic nationalist republics and world powers.


Indisputably, teaching their successive generations their history has not held them back from human and material progress. This is contrary to the contention of Ugandan commentators and some political leaders who cry ‘wolf’ about Otunnu’s noble call to make truth telling and accountability about the ‘birth pangs’ and ‘growing pains’ of our nationhood a centrepiece of our national dialogues in envisioning a just post-Museveni society.


Those who say independent inquiries, particularly on Luwero, are political witch-hunts or attempt to re-write our history are wrong. Agreed, it will in the end provide more objective history, but the main purpose is to set the record straight on who did what, where, when and to whom. This will give our people the opportunity to acknowledge wrongs and hurts, forgive and reconcile. And certainly, justice would require that those found guilty of heinous crimes, must be punished, regardless from which political isles they come from. As Otunnu himself repeatedly says, to ‘let the chips fall where they may.’


The wisdom for open and independent investigations is critical because a partial version of ‘truth’, particularly when it is a ‘victors’ history’ or ‘victors’ justice’, is invariably told or administered subjectively. More importantly, because of Museveni’s reasons for going to war, the symbolism of Luwero in Uganda’s quest for a rights-based polity and equality of all citizens ought to have been as the Bastilles and Marseillaise is to France. Because of what claims and socio-political ‘investments’ were made by our people; and because dividends from these investments on fundamental rights, individual freedoms, democracy, free and fair elections, and equality of all citizens have amounted to nothing more than rhetoric in the past quarter-century, Luwero and other markers of our country’s ‘growing pains’ cannot be ‘old wounds’.


Why Luwero cannot be ‘old wound’ is that Yoweri Museveni waged war in Luwero claiming that elections were rigged. In addition, he also alleged that ‘our people’ were being extra-judicially executed by elements of the state. In that sense, Luwero should have been a ‘just war’ to end all wars, repression, rights violations and electoral fraud. However, when unarmed civilians can still be massacred on the streets of Kampala with impunity, elections stolen and opposition politicians beaten up by the police, Luwero cannot be ‘old wound’. The only way Luwero could be ‘old wound’ is if like the US after the Civil War and France after the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, it had given Ugandans a steady, peaceful and enduring state with strong constitutional democratic institutions under which all citizens are equal without regard to their ethnic, religious, regional and political identities.  


Unsurprisingly, ideologues and supporters of the current regime are vehemently opposed to the notions of independent inquiries, truth telling and accountability about Luwero and other painful, divisive national events in our past. They argue that it is unnecessary to re-visit the past, and we should let bygones be bygones. Unfortunately, it is they who routinely reach back into our past to invoke Luwero or 1966, using the myths and propaganda around these events, to recruit and mobilise for selfish partisan political ends. Ugandans should have no need for disturbing the ghosts of Luwero if Museveni’s 1986 ‘Ours Is Not Mere Change of Guards’ address from the portico of Uganda Parliament had the ring of convictions, conciliation, truth and staying power as did Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address at the end of the American Civil War.


Instead of the rebirth of freedom, equality of all citizens and a united country, Uganda has never seen a more repressive, corrupt, ethnicised state and divided country. It is for these and other reasons that an independent investigation is necessary, to sift the facts from fiction and explode the myths and reveal the objective truth and realities around such national tragedies. This is the only way to unburden our people of the political millstone of Luwero and other historical episodes that are conveniently dragged out election cycle after election cycle, to short circuit necessary public debates and squelch voices calling for accountability.


Undoubtedly, it is only truth telling, accountability and reconciliation which will free Ugandans to move forward into the future, having collectively come to terms with their past and resolved on a future and a nationhood whose architecture and trajectory, they are the authors.


[*] Okello Lucima is UPC Special Presidential Envoy for Uganda Diaspora.

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