Trapped and Invisible: Uganda’s Maragoli People Fight for Official Recognition

Tens of thousands in Uganda belong to tribes that aren’t recognized by the country’s constitution. That means they can’t access government services – and can’t become citizens.

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Trapped and Invisible: Uganda’s Maragoli People Fight for Official Recognition

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Aye Stephen sorts maize with his daughters, Angehere Lydia, 8, and Yikiru Dedire Victoria, 4, at their home. Aye says Lydia couldn't register for a national identity card at school as a Maragoli.

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KIRYANDONGO, UGANDA — In 2014, Sagwa Moses Masaba wanted the bank to loan him 10 million Ugandan shillings ($2,700) to expand his produce business. He grows and sells maize, collard greens, sunflower seeds and other vegetables in Kitwanga village, in northwestern Uganda.

He lacked only one thing: a national identity card.

Sagwa is a Maragoli, a minority group that Uganda’s constitution doesn’t recognize as one of the country’s 65 indigenous tribes. To get an identity card, a Ugandan resident’s tribe must be on that list.

The Maragoli’s absence both baffles and frustrates Sagwa, who says his ancestors have made Uganda home since the 18th century. Still, he needed the loan. So he changed his name to Masaba, officially attaching him to the Bamasaba tribe, one of the 65 groups.

“It was very painful to take on a name from another tribe,” says Sagwa, 49. “But I did it for survival. [The Maragoli] have been part of the Ugandan community before colonialism, before Uganda was formed as a nation. Calling us non-Ugandan is actual discrimination.”

The plight of the Maragoli and other minority groups reveals how issues of national identity shadow this East African nation, where such questions hold profound economic, social and political implications.

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Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Sagwa Moses Masaba tends his garden in Kitwanga village in northwestern Uganda. He tried to get a loan for his 10 acres but couldn’t without a national identity card.

Sociologist Ahabwe Gerald says the debate raises a basic but essential question: To whom does Uganda belong?

“They can’t take up opportunities provided to Ugandans by government and its development partners, so their finances are most likely not to be uplifted,” says Gerald, general secretary of the Uganda Sociologists and Anthropologists Association, referring to groups not mentioned in the constitution.

Likewise, such groups are politically impotent, he says, “because their voices are squashed by the communities they live in.”

Agnes Kabajuni, Africa regional manager for Minority Rights Group International, a Kampala-based nongovernmental organization, says at least 15 minority tribes in Uganda are officially stateless.

They are essentially invisible. Among other things, these groups can’t register a mobile phone SIM card in their name, process a passport, or access services in some public health centers.

Their children are ineligible for government scholarships. And they can’t access government funds for some economic initiatives.

Article 10 of the constitution accepts as a citizen anyone born in Uganda, one of whose parents or grandparents belonged to an indigenous community residing in Uganda as of Feb. 1, 1926. The constitution also grants citizenship to those born outside Uganda with at least one parent or grandparent who was a Ugandan citizen by birth.

"[The Maragoli] have been part of the Ugandan community before colonialism, before Uganda was formed as a nation. Calling us non-Ugandan is actual discrimination.”

The origins of the Maragoli are unclear. A profile of the community by Minority Rights Group International says they may have come from Ethiopia via southern Sudan to the southern part of Uganda’s West Nile and Bunyoro subregions. The same profile says the Maragoli number 25,000 to 30,000 in Uganda.

Most Maragoli live in Kibanda South county, in the lush, rural Kiryandongo district, 233 kilometers (145 miles) northwest of Kampala. They are generally small-scale farmers, known for growing maize, sorghum, cassava and other vegetables. Most also raise a few animals.

They have little political power. No member of the Maragoli has ever been a member of Parliament. The Maragoli were left out of the country’s new constitution in 1995 and again when it was amended in 2005.

This wasn’t an issue, Kabajuni says, until the government started to require national identity cards in 2014. At the time, President Yoweri Museveni said the IDs would, among other things, quash election rigging and allow for easier integration of government services.

“They had no documents to say they were Ugandans, just like many Ugandans,” she says. But without explicit inclusion in the constitution, Kabajuni says, “proving that they are Ugandans became a challenge.”

In 2017, the government’s National Identification and Registration Authority withheld 15,000 Maragoli national identity cards because the applicants were not among the officially recognized indigenous groups.

Kagunza Christopher, chairperson of the Maragoli community in Kibanda South county, says officials advised the Maragoli to register under other tribes. So they did.

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He says his own identity card shows that he is Munyoro, another indigenous tribe.

Schools typically register students for national identity cards, but last year a teacher turned down Aye Stephen’s daughter, then 7, because she is a Maragoli, he says.

“I was so angry,” says Aye, who lives in Jjeje 1 village in Kibanda South. “I approached the headmaster of the school a few days later. He apologized. He told me the teacher who refused to register my daughter because she is a Maragoli had left the school.”

The headmaster registered her – as a Munyoro.

Sagwa worries that many bright Maragoli students miss out on scholarships.

“Sometimes even adopting a new name of a registered tribe is not enough,” he says. “Community members will still know that you are a Maragoli and deny your child a chance to benefit from government’s education opportunities.”

Both Sagwa and Kagunza blame Kibanda South’s former parliamentary representative, Kaija John. They say he didn’t push hard enough to add the Maragoli to the 1995 constitution.

Kaija says fellow members of the Constituent Assembly opposed him.

Constituent Assembly members “said the Maragoli they knew were from Kenya, residing in Uganda,” he says. They said they were worried that the Kenyan government would view the Maragoli as Kenyan – not Ugandan.

Odur Jack Lutanywa, a member of Uganda’s Parliament who now represents Kibanda South, has proposed a law that would add the Maragoli to the constitution. He says he wants the Maragoli to enjoy the same rights and services as his other constituents.

The bill has not drawn much opposition. Still, Sagwa worries it may take years to pass.

He suggests the Maragoli are trapped: To harness more power, they need official recognition. But to gain that recognition, they need more power.

“This [dynamic] has to change,” he says, “and it can only happen if we are recognized as Ugandans.”

Nakisanze Segawa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in reporting on issues of health and human rights.

Translation Note

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.