As we kick-start 2024, I feel compelled to write an open letter to President Museveni on his miscontextualisation of the Balaalo question in Acholi.
In his article, ‘Mistakes makers and opportunists let us alone (mutuleke)’, dated November 10, 2023, President Museveni advocates a coup or disruptive change against cultural logic governing our land use in Acholi. He also warns the Acholi elite against promoting exclusive land approaches. Cleverly, President Museveni was saying that the Balaloo must be accommodated on Acholi customary land. He then directed those Balaalo to fence off land they have invaded, occupied or bought off in Acholi.
But President Museveni should know that not any living Acholi possesses such power. This is because in Acholi spirituality, jurisprudence and political economy, the living only possesses usufructuary rights at equity. That is to say there is right to use and benefit from land in Acholi but the land ownership belongs to their dead, the living, and the unborn. This is cultural and non-negotiable. I articulated this well in my parliamentary campaign for the Gulu East seat in 2021. I illustrated this with a historical anecdote and an Otole war dance song from Paloga Sub-county in Lamwo District in Northern Uganda, which warns that land in Acholi is never sold because it embodies their inheritance upon which rests the totality of their existence – culture, spirituality, basis of law, and leadership.
The current spate of “Individuation” of land in Acholi violates all cultural logic regarding ownership, management and use of vital cultural assets like land. Moreover, it is an artificial creation of liberalism, which colonialism supplanted by displacing pre-capitalist production modes. When President Museveni insists on this, it brings to question his own declared pan-African credentials.
Liberalism glorifies individual agency and in the context of land is individual property holding and rights. But our area is still largely agrarian, and relations, including land relations, are based on collective agency. This is why there is collective rage brewing in Acholi and elsewhere in northern Uganda over the Balaloo incursion, land grab, dispossession, and occupation.
Even if President Museveni wants to promote liberal land use, he should not forget that liberalism is a function of modernity, which he failed to nurture in Northern Uganda in nearly four decades of his rule. To make matters worse, Mr Museveni allowed senseless and brutal wars that wrecked the Acholi sub-region, a war he could have sorted out sooner through a more concessional approach to politics. The younger Museveni instead chose confrontation, namely avenging the on the Acholi the so-called misdeeds of the UNLA, a national army. This was because he intently defined the UNLA to mean the Acholi, and not a national army.
In the current debate on land use in Acholi, what President Museveni needs to do is to allow the Acholi culture negotiate with modernity on their own terms and should do it organically. Even liberalism in Europe did not emerge by this forceful approach; but by internal tensions in the society that eventually crystallized it. Experiences of negotiating modernity are well placed in Acholi culture and history. An example is the story of the tensions between Acholi culture and urbanisation in Gulu and how it was negotiated.
A study of nomenclature in Gulu City says it all. When restaurants were introduced in Gulu, they conflicted with the Acholi eating culture and the eateries were disapprovingly named Kul wii (eat while your head is lowered in shame and not be identified). Other eateries were also named Adoko gwok (I have now become a dog) because it is only dogs that eat anywhere. But with time, this was reconciled and more accommodating names like Kony paco (aiding home) emerged. When societies are left to organically determine their development trajectory, they are good at harmonising tensions.
To conclude, in the wake of Balaloo Balaalo invasion, land grab and occupation of Acholi, I would challenge President Museveni not to blackmail the Acholi elite to force the Balaalo integration.
Christopher Okidi is a lawyer and political economist.