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Uganda minority groups renew petition for recognition

Uganda minority groups renew petition for recognition
Children of the ancient and isolated Ik hill tribe pose during a World Food Programme relief distribution in Kamion, northern Uganda on August 30, 2005 | Credit | AFP

Uganda’s minority ethnic groups have petitioned parliament to amend the constitution to grant them citizenship rights.

In a joint petition to the Speaker of Parliament last week, the groups said that this exclusion has denied them the right to claim citizenship by birth, limiting their access to essential services, social protection, and opportunities for development.

The Uganda constitution lists indigenous communities who are entitled to claim primary citizenship by birth due to having been residents in the Uganda Protectorate before February 1, 1926, when the final borders of the country were established by the British colonial administration.

But as the new constitution was drafted in 1995, several minority indigenous groups such as Bahaya, Bagabu, Bakingwe, Baziba, Mosopishiek, Maragoli and Sabaot were left out.

Article 1 (1) of the 1954 UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as ‘a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.

Borrowed identities

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Uganda is home to several stateless groups of people who are descendants of migrants and refugees.

These groups have been forced to involuntarily change their identities and tribes to match with those that the constitution recognises just to access government services, a move that they say infringes on their rights and threatens their cultures.

“We live on borrowed identities,” said Emmanuel Kyalimba from the Bagabu community, who live around Lake Katwe in western Uganda.
David Chemutai from the Mosopisjek community in the Elgon region, eastern Uganda, was accused of being a foreigner but declined to change his identity and subsequently, in 2021 he was pushed out of the Local Government payroll for Bukwo District, which he had held a job for two years.

Some members from these communities confess that work permits are required of them before getting jobs in the private sector. They also face difficulties in accessing their social security savings and acquiring travel documents, identity cards, hardship in purchasing land and benefiting from government programmes.

In 2019, the government pledged to recognise some of these groups by 2024.

On July 5, 2022, Jacob Karubanga, a member of parliament, moved a private members Bill, seeking to amend the third schedule of the Constitution to add minority ethnic groups, but his amendment was stood over by parliament to provide room for a holistic amendment of the Constitution.

“We have shown the ministry that actually these people exist, and the minister has appreciated that fact from his verbal commitments. These people can’t access several services and we cannot continue to have them like that. As a country, we need to fast-track our commitment to reduce the level of statelessness by 2024,” Karubanga said.

In 2019, the government pledged to recognise some of these groups by 2024.

But Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs Norbert Mao, now says the government was committed to fast track this amendment after consultations that will go up to the grassroots of the affected communities, adding that they are not only missing out on government services but are also a threat to national security.

“We will support the legal reforms that are being proposed,” Mao told a high-level conference on minority indigenous communities last week.