Sheikh Bahiiga killing: Why Protestant, Catholic chieftains should lose sleep

After a break of some months, another Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mustafa Bahiiga, was slain on Sunday at the Bwebajja Mosque on Entebbe Road. There was a time in 2012, especially, when Muslim clerics were being killed virtually every two or so months.
This didn’t make sense because Ugandan Muslim leaders, even radical ones, are generally pragmatic and not given to stoking violence. They mostly leave affairs of Allah, and they come to public life and deal with the matters of Caesar and the temptations of the stomach of the flesh. The kind of political assassinations of Muslim clerics we see elsewhere, therefore just didn’t make sense in Uganda.
In early 2013, I was wrestling with this issue, when an expert on “militant Islam”, asked to see me to discuss the region. He particularly wanted to talk about the killing of Muslims in Uganda. I was intrigued, and asked him to come to my office in Nairobi. He said the killings in Uganda were not related to radical Islam but had everything to do with property. He said in the early to mid-1900s, Muslim groups got land in several urban areas. The titles were taken away and kept safely in a Muslim property in Zanzibar Islands.
In recent years, he claimed, some Muslim leaders had pressed and got the titles back. He alleged that most of the Muslim leaders in Uganda were being killed over the titles and land. That, he told me, was the “view of some of the more traditional East African Muslim intellectuals who track these things”.
I got a strange sense of relief, because it confirmed to me what years of observation and of having some of my closest Ugandan friends being Muslims had taught me that the approach of the majority of them to religion is exactly like that of Uganda Christians – quite flexible. If that is the case, then we might be seeing the beginnings of a crisis over land that could soon engulf Catholic and Protestant churches: There is too much soil in the country held in the name of AllahGod.
In the case of the Muslims, when they faced extreme discrimination in the early colonial periods, as this column has noted before, the only place they could practice their religion was in urban areas which, being cosmopolitan, were more tolerant of religious diversity.
Muslim groups, therefore, didn’t get the thousands of acres that the Protestant and Catholic churches got in the countryside. After some time, that turned into a blessing, but now it is becoming a curse. And to understand it, one has to look at how the churches were built. The Christian elite and European colonialists built churches near where they also set up homes or had based mission stations so that they could walk there without having to pass through neighbourhoods heavily populated by “natives”. And so you had Rubaga, Nakasero, and Namirembe. Or up-country along with a school or a hospital. The mosques were allowed in areas where the African working classes lived – thus Kibuli.
Time and history truly have a cynical sense of humour. You see Kololo, Nakasero, Namirembe and so forth were fairly settled early, so as populations grew and more natives now joined politics, came to town and made money, they couldn’t expand into Nakasero. There was no room. However, because areas around mosques, like Kibuli, were for the working class and, therefore, not built up, that’s where the new and future cities could grow.
Now the places where Muslims had taken refuge a century ago, became the most prized land holdings. While I am not saying my expert was 100 per cent correct about why Muslim clerics in Uganda are being killed, he definitely helped explain why political leaders in government meddle more in Muslim than Catholic affairs.
The other thing is that the Muslim communities are more decentralised than, say, the Catholics where Rome still has a lot of sway. However, both the Protestant and Catholic churches upcountry have seen extensive encroachment on their land, and they don’t have the raw power to protect it. And, anyway, in the face on pressure of land, and shifting settlement patterns, it is futile.
The wise thing is for them to cut their losses early. Sell (or lease if selling is a step too far) what squatters and grabbers have still not overrun and use the money to invest in their schools, hospitals, and community projects. When men are hungry for your land, not even God can be your shield.

Mr Obbo is editor of Mail and Guardian Africa. Twitter:@cobbo3

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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