Ethnicity, State Power and the Democratisation Process in Uganda

Ethnicity, State Power and the Democratisation Process in Uganda

Ethnicity, State Power and the Democratisation Process in Uganda

Ethnicity, State Power and the Democratisation Process in Uganda


This paper critically reviews the impact of ethnicity on the democratization process in Uganda from colonialism to the present. The paper is divided into four parts. Part one is a theoretical overview of the issues of ethnicity and democratization. Part two examines the nature of ethnicity construction and expression in the colonial period. Part three looks at the post-colonial political practices and their enhancement of ethnicity in Uganda. Part four discusses the possibility of deconstruction of ethnicity through democratization and the 'no-party movement' system. In conclusion, the contention is that there is a need to understand the substantive underlying political, economic and social configurations that enhance ethnicity rather than denouncing them.


Museveni's claim that the opposition in Africa tends to be ethnic, and therefore by implication illegitimate, explains little, for where the opposition is ethnic it is more likely that the government is no less ethnic. It also ignores the fact that a legal ban on organising an opposition does not remove it, it simply tends to drive the opposition underground. (Mamdani, 1998:31)

Museveni held talks with the clergy before the March 12 Presidential elections and agreed to be succeeded by a Muganda Catholic.

(The Monitor, 20 June 2001)

One of the post-independence political concerns in Uganda today is that ethnicity has been detrimental to national unity, democracy and development. There is no doubt that the conflicts in Uganda from 1964 to 1966 when the Prime Minister, Milton Obote, overthrew the President, Edward Mutesa, have taken on an ethnic expression. the 1971 coup by Idi Amin, the civil war of 1981–86 and the insurgency in the North since 1987 have all had ethnicity as one of the driving factors. the central problem was and has been the politicisation of ethnicity, that is, its use for purposes of group mobilisation in social conflict that also involves the state. However, ethnicity cannot be taken as a given. the problem was (is) not of ethnicity in itself. Ethnicity was (is) more intimately linked to political and economic conditions, that is, the unequal distribution of and competition for power and wealth.

The nature and role of the state, regime survival and political leadership account for the impact of ethnic consciousness on democratisation or authoritarianism. the issue is to explore the origins of ethnic consciousness, explain its causes and the mechanisms through which it can be managed. We contend that uncontrolled ethnic consciousness is not inevitable and the answer to the problems of democracy and ethnicity is not to redraw the map of Uganda or delay the democratisation process by instituting so-called no-party democracy. Ethnicity in Uganda, as elsewhere on the African continent, has been historically constructed and subsequently reproduced. While democratisation may be problematic in the face of ethnic consciousness, the paradox is that the best way to reduce ethnic consciousness is more and not less democratisation.

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