There are more flexible means we can use in allocating power and resources

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Using the inflexible category of tribe to allocate positions of power to elites is dangerous and can easily lead to those elites disadvantaged by numerical inferiority withdrawing from the democratic process and resorting to non-democratic means to contest for power.

Okwaro Oscar Plato

As expected, the outcome of the 2013 General Election was determined to a large extent by the tribal factor. Candidates who did not pitch their campaigns on tribal support miserably lost out to those who had the backing of their tribes. Although people may say that everywhere people vote for one of their own and cite examples of President Obama being overwhelmingly voted for by his fellow blacks in the US, this should not lull us into the comfort that voting along tribal lines is right.

As is obvious to all, tribe, race and gender are inflexible categories. No one changes the tribe, race and to a large extent the gender in which he or she finds himself or herself. Using them to determine who gets what in the fight for power will therefore perpetually disadvantage those elites who come from numerically inferior groups.

These elites become sceptical of elections and the democratic process as the means through which they can access power. They begin to look for means beyond democratic elections. They thus withdraw from elections and the democratic path as the means through which to contest for power.

Withdrawal can be indicated by refusal to register as voters or not turning out to vote in elections and leaving the system to those who it favours, in this case, those with numerical superiority. Withdrawal from the democratic process, however, does not indicate withdrawal from the elite fight for power. The fight continues, but through non-democratic means, using non-democratic outfits.

As examples from across East Africa show, the most favoured non-democratic means to power is violent struggle. In neighbouring Uganda, for instance, Yoweri Museveni, the current president, withdrew from the democratic process in that country once he realised he stood no chance of using it to gain power.

As his autobiography, The Mustard Seed, indicates, Museveni took to the bush once it became clear to him that the democratic process was not only clogged with ethnic and sectarian manipulation of voters, but was also under the tight control of then President Obote. As a result, he withdrew from it and, for close to six years, fought his way into power without using it. His example inspired others, most prominently current Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Kagame and other members of the Tutsi minority stood no chance in the race for Rwanda’s presidency during the height of the racist rubanda nyamwinshi ideology pursued by the Hutu supremacist Presidents Gregoire Kayibanda and Juvenal Habyaramina.

The ideology dictated that since Tutsis were only 9 per cent of the population, they could not be expected to get into power and thus were barred from it. In any democratic contest, they could not marshal the numbers to overcome the Hutu dominance of the power structures. They were therefore left with no option except to use non-democratic routes with outfits like the Rwandan Patriotic Front to claim a stake in power.

Perhaps more poignant was the case of ex-president Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi from Burundi. Buyoya tried to build bridges across the ethnic divide in the run-up to the presidential election of 1993, appealing to majority Hutus and minority Tutsis to build a multi-ethnic nation at peace with itself. In the final outcome, he stood no chance against the Hutu candidate, Melchior Ndadaye.

His loss alarmed the Tutsi elite controlling the army who concluded that so long as the outcome of the democratic process was captured by the inflexible categories of Hutu and Tutsi, it could not help them in their quest to gain and retain power. They therefore circumvented it and re-installed Buyoya as a coup leader. It has since been a constant source of instability in that country.

We should change this as a matter of urgency as the country gears for 2017 General Election.

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