New ethnic-centric political order for East Africa

Ethnic streams that extend beyond national borders in East Africa could shape regional politics in anticipation of the political federation sooner than later, going by emerging theories over Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s meeting with Teso people during his Easter holiday in Uganda’s countryside.

I chanced to talk to the popular politician for a couple of minutes when he told me that he was spending the Easter holiday here to visit old friends and drum up support for regional integration among the ordinary East Africans, although sources within his visit told me separately that he is cultivating political capital at a regional scale. I immediately thought that this lends credence to the school of thought that has hastily pitted Mr. Odinga against Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni for a possible contest for leadership of the anticipated East African political federation. In 2007, President Museveni took a road trip through Kenya to Tanzania, and the way mingled with ordinary citizens talking regional integration and historical links among tribes and dialects in the region.

Mr. Odinga’s address to a rally of hundreds of people in Soroti district, in eastern Uganda was a reminder of how things used to be in past, and why it is important to integrate. “When I first came to Soroti with my father when he was fundraising for a memorial hall to be built in Kisumu, all we needed to show at the border in Busia was a driving permit. Business people, students and laborers used to cross freely. Why should I go and buy malaria drugs elsewhere when Uganda is now manufacturing them? We should invest here, and trade among each other before we think of the outside world,” he said.

When asked about issues of national supremacy as a threat to regional integration, Odinga said, “It is our ordinary people who are the key to this integration, that is why we must engage them across the region and show that we are one.”

His entourage was however a statement of reaching out to the communities that exit in both Kenya and Uganda; Assistant Minister for Labour Odeke Ojaamongson, Minister for Fisheries Development Dr. Paul Otuoma, Minister for Medical services Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o, and a legislator Justus Kizito, whose name is common among Ugandans, all have ancestry ties with Ugandan tribes including Teso people and Samias.

The Teso people
The Teso people who historically reside in Teso district in the western part of Kenya, and eight districts in eastern Uganda including; Amuria, Soroti, Kumi, Katakwi, Pallisa, Bukedea, Kaberamaido and Tororo are silently building a movement to reckon with in not only social, cultural, economic, but also political aspects under a joint apex body dubbed; Teso Development Forum (TDF). The ethnic group also has a cultural leader bearing the title Emorimori who receives allegiance from Teso people in both countries. “We want Teso to be a factor,” Cpt. Mike Mukula, who hosted the Prime Minister in Soroti told me.

I also found out that the scramble for new districts that has showcased rare political maneuvering in Uganda for the Teso region is being led by a joint task force that includes Ugandans and Kenyan Itesots. After getting two new districts in Uganda’s Teso sub-region, the taskforce is now in Nairobi lobbying politicians there for new constituencies in western Kenya where Teso people reside so that they can increase their numbers in Parliament.

More in Uganda, Teso people have uniform positions on some national questions such as land ownership. For instance Itesots are vehemently against a proposal that empowers government to acquire land compulsorily, because unlike areas like Buganda in the central part of the country where the land tenure system is largely individual ownership, in the Teso, Acholi, and Lango region (east and northeast), it is owned communally, and only leased not sold.

They are now forging a formidable force comparable to Buganda to begin demanding for compensation for the losses they incurred during the war. Apparently, heads of cattle including long-horned cattle predominant in western Uganda were looted during the war, an injustice that is blamed for impoverishing the region many years later. Cpt. Mukula said, “There was a government emergency restocking program for two years, but this is nothing compared to what people lost, and this has caused them to hate the NRM government.” However the Teso people have been silent on the question of national governance where Buganda has been advocating for federalism, while the executive has decided of a regional tier system.

Leaders from the Teso Development Forum said that they have development plans on paper, but are now on a strategic course of galvanizing unity among Itesots within the region and in the diaspora to implement their plans.

Until these revelations, it is Buganda that has been known to be a major factor in national issues outside the Executive, and recently Bunyoro to a certain extent because of oil discoveries on its territory. However Capt. Mukula a man whose political stature has been an enigma since he was dropped from Cabinet over corruption allegations in the Ministry of Health told me that a new political order at both national and regional level was inevitable, especially now that people want to belong.

Political pundits who I talked to said that whereas multiple determinants in governance could remedy marginalization, they would deepen the cancer of tribalism beyond national frontiers to a regional scale, and possibly be the next cause of the ultimate collapse of an East African union for the second time. It is not a secret that leaders in northern Uganda have expressed the possibility of uniting with fellow Luos in southern Sudan to for a ‘Nile State’ one that would find ties in Kenya and Tanzania, because there are Luo there too.

Lydia Wanyoto a member of the East African Legislative Assembly told me that the assembly is in the process of designing structures of the political federation, and we want the final recommendations to be out to a referendum so that people own it. Whichever path it takes, ethnic lineages in the region could form the real political order in East Africa.

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