Bakonzo vs. Basongora: The Tragedy of Commons

A map showing areas of Kasese, Bundibugyo and Ntoroko that was attacked recently. Photo by The New Vision, Uganda

A map showing areas of Kasese, Bundibugyo and Ntoroko that was attacked recently. Photo by The New Vision, Uganda

To understand the Basongora – Bakonzo conflict — ignoring the obvious, simplistic narrative being peddled by different interest groups — it’s imperative we looked at Garret Hardin’s economic theory, “the tragedy of commons”.

In his 1968 article which appeared in the journal ‘Science,’ Hardins defines “tragedy of the commons” as instances where an individual acts independently and rationally according to one’s self-interest by depleting some common resource; “commons” represents a shared resource. The resource may be land, water or the atmosphere.
Picture this, you have a finite resource, land, on which are settled communities whose population growth (for now) is exponential. Therefore, with every passing generation, the population of inhabitants increases (through more births; less deaths due to better health services, and migrations into the area) while the size of land remains the same.

In the ideal case, you would expect the inhabitants of this area (in our case, Basongora and Bakonzo) to, explicitly or implicitly, work towards measures that foster the equitable sharing of this common resource and hence lead to social stability. That Basongora, being herders, would regulate the number of animals they possess so as to live in harmony with the Bakonzo cultivators. The Bakonzo would also do the same: maximize the land available for cultivation, because the overall result of their equitable use of land would be advantageous to both communities.

In the real world things don’t happen like that.

Like Hardins argues, the utility of adding one more animal by a Musongora herdsman has two components;

1) Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of an additional animal, the positive utility of increment of one animal is nearly +1. Put another way, it is advantageous for one to increase their stock by one animal. Or, in the case of the cultivator, to increase the acreage under crop since this would increase their output.

2) The negative component (disadvantage) is a function of additional overgrazing by one more animal; the increased likelihood of animals straying into neighbouring gardens and, on the side of the cultivators, increased land disputes with herders over excess acreage under cultivation. Since the effects of overgrazing, land disputes and potential conflict are shared by all herdsmen and cultivators (i.e Basongora and Bakonzo respectively),the negative utility of any particular decision taken independently and rationally by an individual, cultivator or herdsman, is only a fraction.

The same conclusion is reached by all other rational beings who share the “commons”. And the vicious cycle continues.
What you have in the end manifesting as tribal conflict that, some say, is premised on cultural differences – i.e, Obusinga, Obukama, Obundingiya(?), etc, etc., in fact stems from utilization of resources — in this case, land — and not tribal differences. Although this argument should not be used to assuage the responsibility of cultural leaders in this conflict. There’s less reason that causes a Musongora herdsman to hack a Mukonzo cultivator that is cultural than economic.

Therefore the government’s response in Kasese (or even the greater Rwenzori) cannot be military, at least in the long term. It should be economic. How do we make sure we make land a lesser means of production; how do we reduce these communities’ dependence on land for economic survival, is a question that government should ponder on.

I have argued, not once or twice and in many forums, that the solution to stemming these tribal differences, some borne out of colonial injustices, is creating an environment that allows for the emergence of a critical mass of young, educated and employed Ugandans – the new middle class. The primary means of production should move from land to services because land is a finite resource and our population is not about to reduce any time soon (at 3% we have one of the fastest population growth rates in the world; ours is the world’s second youngest population, behind Niger).

Compulsory national youth service can contribute to this exposure and developement of a common secular ideology. Intermarriages, too, may help.
The tragedy of commons is not unique to greater Rwenzori region but Uganda as a whole and Africa at large. Our governments cannot continue treating young people as serfs; vote-churning machines and cannon fodder for street-wise opposition politicians and expect better.

We should wake up and Smell the coffee; we’re at a knife’s edge already.

Author: Mr Kwezi Tabaro The writer is a student at Makerere University, Uganda.


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