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Uganda’s missing minorities

9 May 2024

Tomorrow, when enumerators for the Ugandan census knock on David Ndooli’s door, for the first time ever, he’ll be able to state his real ethnicity, Maragoli. That’s because this year, six communities have been added to the question on tribe or ethnicity: Mosopisyek (also known as Benet), Bakingwe, Bagabo, Maragoli, Baziba and Saboat.

Why is this historic? In Uganda, ID cards are only available for members of communities listed in the constitution. But that list is not conclusive, excluding the aforementioned communities, and several more.

When ID cards were introduced a decade ago, most Maragoli were advised to register as Banyoro, the dominant ethnicity in the area. Members of communities absent from the constitution, such as Maragoli, are thus either rendered invisible, forced to assimilate into other ethnic groups, or else live without documentation, at risk of statelessness in a country they’ve called home for generations.

ID is needed for almost every day-to-day interaction with the state, such as accessing healthcare, education, financial services or legal documentation such as passports. Living without it can cause serious issues. For instance, one Maragoli community member belonging to a school management committee was not allowed to be a signatory to the school bank account because he could not provide an identity card: he told MRG that he was thus denied a leadership position. This is how structural disadvantage is perpetuated.

The representation of these communities on the 2024 Ugandan census could provide a vital precedent for constitutional recognition. A Private member’s bill currently before the Ugandan parliament would, if passed, add nine more communities to Uganda’s constitution. Such a change in the law would be truly historic.

‘The community is jubilating and extremely happy.’

David Ndooli

The lack of formal recognition of indigenous peoples has played a pivotal role in the historical injustices that they have endured. Forced assimilation into other communities is detrimental, resulting in language loss, cultural erosion and the denial of a whole host of human rights. Legal recognition is a vital step in allowing them to preserve their distinct culture and identity and strive for true inclusion in Ugandan society.

Ndooli, coordinator at the Maragoli Community Organisation, told me that his community ‘are very happy about being included in the Census’ since ‘it’s a step towards recognition because it has never happened in the life of the Census in Uganda to have Maragoli identified as a tribe. The community is jubilating and extremely happy.’

Recognition as an indigenous tribe of Uganda would pave the way for these communities to redress the losses caused by years of discrimination and marginalization. For Ndooli, representation on the census is ‘very important, since the government will be able to realize how we are distributed in Uganda, get to know our numbers nationally and also be able to plan for us.’

The part of the Ugandan constitution that lists tribes is its Third Schedule. It provides for the right of Ugandan citizenship by birth to members of ‘indigenous communities’ that were already within the state’s boundaries by 1926. Initially, this list comprised 56 communities, but with amendments in 2005, this number increased to 65.

But even 65 is not comprehensive. The schedule is not representative of all ethnic minority and indigenous communities in Uganda, does not reflect the fluidity of ethnicity in the African context, and in some cases, does not consider the impact of colonial boundaries on ethnic compositions in bordering states.

Even members of communities that are listed as one of those 65, such as Kuku and Banyarwanda, can face risks of statelessness if their parents or grandparents did not settle in Uganda by 1926, or if they do not have documentation that proves that they did.

A number of these ‘missing minorities’ remained excluded from the Third Schedule for decades without a problem. Issues cropped up when the government introduced national identity cards in 2014, reportedly (and ironically) in order to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of a ‘Legal Identity for All’ by 2030.

For years, even decades, members of the missing minorities have been petitioning their government for legal recognition. While their appeals have not gone entirely unanswered, so far nothing has translated into constitutional representation. MRG has worked alongside some of them to advocate for their recognition; we’re happy to see these communities represented on the Ugandan census at last. It’s a testament to the power of advocacy. But there’s more to be done.

Uganda must expedite the amendment of the constitution to include the communities missing from the Third Schedule. For a start, it should consider passing the current Private member’s bill as a priority standalone amendment to the constitution.

The government should seize the opportunity of the census to capture detailed data on significant areas of exclusion affecting all the ethnic minorities on the census list, such as access to services or political representation and participation. It should use this data to identify the most vulnerable communities for affirmative action.

MRG and its allies will be capitalizing on the census changes to redouble our efforts and push for an inclusive Uganda. But for now, while the members of the missing communities will be counted up in this year’s census, they are still living in a state that tells them they don’t count.

Featured image: A group of men from the Maragoli community playing their traditional music instruments in Kigumba, Kiryandongo district ahead of consultations on constitutional recognition with members of the Ugandan parliament. May 2021. Credit: Billy Rwothungeyo/MRG.


Agnes Kabajuni

Africa Managing Director

Minority Rights Group