KAMPALA – The Bagungu are an indigenous group of people who have lived in Bugungu (Buliisa district), on the northeastern shores of L. Albert, for over 1,000 years. Their livelihood is derived from fishing and farming, which have been disrupted by the discovery of oil and gas deposits there.
A product of intermarriage between the Bantu and the Paluo Nilotic group, the Bagungu speak the Lugungu dialect. They are historically part of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, led by Omukama Agutamba Dr Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I.
The 2014 National Population and Housing Census projections and 2017 Uganda National Household Survey show that the Bagungu number about 116,000 people, found mainly in Buliisa, Hoima and Masindi districts. Only 1.1 percent (1,270 learners) completed “A” level (S.6) and above, 3.9 percent (4,505 people) are “O” level (S.4) leavers. The rest did not reach S.4. Household poverty levels are still unacceptably high, while the illiteracy rate among persons aged above 17 years is 45.4 percent.
For about nine years now there are efforts by some leaders to secede from Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom and create their own cultural institution called Butebengwa bwa Bugungu (Kingdom of Bugungu). They cite marginalisation by the Kingdom as the main reason for their secession plans.
The Constitution recognises the Bagungu as a tribe within Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom. The secessionists claim they have a cultural heritage different from Bunyoro that should be preserved by the new institution. They also want it to be another pillar and platform to foster development, voice their concerns to the central government and give them jobs, among other aims.
The Constitution encourages development, preservation and enrichment of all Ugandan languages. However, it does not support cultural institutions affiliated to any tribe because that would amount to racial prejudice. The kind of institution being mooted for the Bagungu does not seem to resonate with the constitutional provisions.
Article 246(1) and (6) allow traditional or cultural leaders to exist anywhere in Uganda by the fact of birth or descent in accordance with the customs, traditions, usage and consent of the people where applicable. The bottom line is birth or descent but the cultural institution envisioned by the Constitution has never existed in Bugungu.
Legislators who hail from Buliisa, local and civic leaders, and most of the 56 clan heads are, fortunately, opposed to the secession plans. They know that their marginalisation was not by Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom but by colonialism and some post-independence governments.
In the Bunyoro-Kitara Parliament, the Bagungu have one representative from each of the seven sub counties in Buliisa district. On the 14-member Kingdom Cabinet, they hold five of the most coveted portfolios: 1st Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Culture (Nyendwoha Mutiti); Minister of External Relations (Katahoire Philip); Minister of Natural Resources (Byaruhanga Jackson); Minister of Production (Wairindi Wilson) and Minister of Gender (Kasangaki Dinah).
Therefore, lack of traditional or cultural leaders should not be an issue. The salient issues are land grabbing, restoration of livelihoods, early marriages, access to quality education, health and sanitation, environmental management, governance, and oil and gas revenue sharing, among others.
Government is addressing most of these under the Parish Development Model (PDM). President Yoweri Museveni recently emphasised that out of the seven PDM pillars, production, storage, processing and marketing as well as financial inclusion through SACCOs, require immediate focus.
The Bagungu should not be hankering for secession as the magic bullet to solving their socio-economic, environmental and geo-political problems. They should, instead, refocus their energies to supporting PDM which is a bottom-up planning and budgeting strategy. PDM addresses five critical elements of livelihood enhancement for the people of Buliisa district, and these are human, natural resources, social, finance and physical assets. All the 30 parishes in the district are to decide their development priorities.
PDM aims to lift households from subsistence into the money economy but this transformation requires organized, integrated, well-coordinated and results-based efforts. Cultural institutions should play a supportive role in this matter because they are organisations within a culture or subculture that promotes, disseminates, preserves, conserves and interprets cultural, scientific and environmental knowledge. It also promotes activities meant to inform and educate citizens on the associated aspects of culture, history, science, environment, and socio-economic development generally.
The Bagungu already have cultural institutions: Bugungu Cultural Heritage, Bugungu Revival Cultural Trust and Bagungu Community Association. If well-intentioned and focused, these can effectively address the cultural growth and socio-economic development issues that the proposed cultural institution the secessionists are advocating for is supposed to handle.
The writer is a concerned Munyoro/Ag Assistant Commissioner for Information Monitoring, Ministry of ICT & National Guidance and Secretary to the Media Council of Uganda