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Colonialism and Uganda’s national language impasse




In theory Kiswahili is the national language of Uganda.[2] In practice, however, the country of over 50 tribes and languages has no national language. The people of Uganda, to borrow a phrase from the Qur’an, have “broken their affair into pieces,” with each tribe “rejoicing in what it has” of language (Q23:53). This essay sets out to trace in colonial policy the reasons why Uganda has “remain[ed] a chaotic island of English and ‘tribal’ languages surrounded by neighbours who opted for Swahili.”[3]

Two languages – Kiswahili and Luganda – have since colonial era competed for the status of national language in what one author calls the “Swahili-Luganda controversy” (Paulikova-Vilhanova 1996, p. 166). This unresolved standoff is a product of the colonial national language policy that was first ambiguous and then clearly against a common language other than English.

I will argue that this colonial attitude against a unifying language did not develop in a vacuum; it was part of a grand colonial policy of breaking up Africans into tribes, or what Mahmood Mamdani calls the “containeriz[ation]” of “the African…as a tribesperson” (Mamdani 1996, p 21). The purpose of the containerization was to make the colonized easily subjugated, administered and exploited. Before I expound on this argument, which is the crux of my essay, I will first show how the colonial language policy was ambiguous and indeed against a unifying language. 

“Swaying between this and that”

Initially, the colonial government postured as if it was determined to establish Kiswahili as the “lingua franca.” In his memorandum of 1927, Governor Sir WF Gowers said that “Kiswahili should be adopted as the lingua franca throughout a considerable part of this Protectorate” because it “is the only vernacular language in East Africa which can provide in the long-run anything but an educational cul-de-sac, in Uganda as in Kenya and Tanganyika” (Mazrui and Mazrui, 1995, p56). On facing opposition from the Church, which associated Kiswahili with “Mohammedanism” (Marui and Mazrui, p. 53), and from Buganda Kingdom, which was bent on preserving and possibly even spreading its own Luganda language (Gulliver 1969, p. 118), the British colonialists slowed down their professed plan of establishing Kiswahili as the common language.

Indeed, the British allowed Buganda to use its own language but proceeded to spread Kiswahili to the “Northern and Eastern Provinces, and also in the non-Baganda Bantu area” (Paulicova-Vilhanova, p. 167).  The promotion of Kiswahili in the north went hand in hand with the institution of the same language in the northern-dominated armed forces. By doing this, the colonialists divided the protectorate into Luganda-speaking and Kiswahili-speaking territories. This was the first step toward the impasse.

But the worst was yet to come. In 1953, the colonial regime dropped Kiswahili after “realizing the potent in Kiswahili and other local languages as a tool for unifying Africans politically” (Mbaabu 1991, quoted in Mukuthuria 2006, p. 157). Far from promoting one unifying language, the colonial regime followed in the footsteps of its religious wing, the Church Missionary Society, which had earlier ended “Luganda monopoly” by recognizing “other vernaculars, namely Runyoro/Rutoro within the church” (Pawlicova-Vilhanova, p. 165). By recognizing different languages in different areas, and by promoting one language at a time and denouncing it at another, the colonial government behaved like the hypocrites in the early Muslim community whom the Qur’an describes as “swaying between this and that, belonging neither to these nor to those” (Q4:143).

But neither the hypocrites nor the colonialists were aimless in their indistinctness. If the mission of the hypocrites was to undermine Islam from within, the colonialists sought to divide and weaken Africans without appearing to be doing so. It is not unreasonable to argue that Buganda’s insistence on her own language was acceptable because it reinforced the “containeriz[ation]” of “the African…as a tribesperson.” This becomes clearer later on in 1953 when the British eventually abandoned completely their pretense to promoting Kiswahili as the lingua franca and instead promoted, in addition to English, local languages in their respective areas.

“Containerization of the African as a tribesperson”

Mamdani’s containerization of the African as a tribesperson is a graphic depiction of the colonial policy of indirect rule. Known as the Native Authority in British colonies like Uganda, indirect rule involved the use of tribal chiefs and a corrupted version of customary law to administer members of each tribe as separate entities and to raise walls between them. Mamdani explains:

Tribe was the group identity that the colonial state recognized in law and administered in practice: It is the tribe that had representation in the colonial state, and it is as a tribe that the population could legitimately organize to make demands upon a colonial state. The tribe informed both colonial policy and how the colonized responded to it (Mamdani 2010, p. 178).

 If there were “as many sets of customary laws as there were said to be tribes” (Mamdani 1996, p 22), it would only be logical that each tribe speaks its own language. In such a context, imposing a unifying language would be a step in the opposite direction – detribalizing the natives.

To make matters worse, indirect rule did not just divide the colony into “tribal homelands,” it also divided “the population of each homeland into native and non-native tribes” (Mamdani 2012, p. 106). A person was treated as an alien if he or she set foot in the territory of a neighboring tribe. Under such circumstances of institutionalized tribalism, how could one tribe adopt the language of the other in the name of a unifying language?

Besides, if the purpose of indirect rule was to address the “native question,” imposing a lingua franca on the natives could only defeat that purpose. Indirect rule emerged as a solution to the opposition of the colonized against assimilation. The policy, in the words of its architect Captain Lord Lugard, sought to “conciliate” the Africans so that “our prestige with the native tribes would be certainly greatly increased, and subsequent troubles with them would be less likely” (Quoted in Mamdani 1996, p. 77). One may therefore argue that the recognition of Luganda in Buganda and the support of other native languages in their respective tribal areas were intended to prevent trouble with the natives. Imposing a language other than the native one on a tribe would only create antagonism and undermine the purpose of indirect rule.   

Besides ensuring that every tribe was “rejoicing in what it has” of language, indirect rule made Luganda particularly unpopular in some non-Buganda areas. In communities that did not have centralized systems of administration like the Acholi, Luo, Atesot and others, and in territories that resisted colonialism like Bunyoro, the British imposed on them the “Buganda model of administration” along with Baganda chiefs (Mutibwa 2008, p 10). Because the chiefs were despotic, for indirect rule was nothing but “decentralized despotism” (Mamdani 1996, p. 37), the people in those communities came to hate the chiefs and the language they spoke.

This resentment would later explain why most Ugandans, particularly in Bunyoro and northern Uganda, voted for Kiswahili as opposed to Luganda in the 1973 referendum (Pawlikova-Vilhanova, p. 169). One may argue that if Luganda had won, the national language controversy would have possibly been settled. The controversy would end because Luganda, unlike Kiswahili which remains confined to small and scattered minority communities, does not need a lot of enforcement since it is already widely spoken across the country.

Secondly, the adoption of Luganda would have removed one of the biggest hurdles to a common language – Buganda’s opposition. Buganda is the most extreme in rejecting any other language that is not its own. Other tribes had tried to accept a language not their own – Kiswahili in northern Uganda and Luganda in Busoga – and all or at least most would have possibly welcomed Luganda if indirect rule had not made it unpopular. 

Divisive as it was, indirect rule could not encourage the idea of a common language across Uganda’s numerous tribes. The policy only bred introverted, narrow-minded tribal cocoons that hardly imagine a world beyond their immediate surroundings. It is this legacy that post-independence governments inherited and largely failed to address.

Unlike Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania which made “the most successful attempt to dismantle the structures of indirect rule” (Mamdani 2012, p. 107) and strengthened Kiswahili as the national language, many African countries like Uganda succeeded only in “deracializing” civil society but not in “detribalizing” it. In fact, “the more civil society was deracialised, the more it took on a tribalized form” (Mamdani 1996, p. 21). It was not therefore surprising that Uganda’s post-independence regimes would spend their reigns bogged down in tribal conflicts. One such conflict was, and remains, whether to adopt a native language (Luganda) or a non-native language (Kiswahili) as the national language.


[1] Yahya Sseremba is a PhD Fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala.

[2]President Idi Amin’s 1973 decree made Kiswahili the national language of Uganda, according to Pawlikova-Vilhanova (1995, p 169).

[3]Weekly Topic, 1, October 1986, quoted in Pawlikova-Vilhanova 1996, p162


Gulliver, P.H 1969, Tradition and Transition in East Africa: Studies of the Tribal Element in the Modern Era. University of California Press, California.

Mamdani, M 2010, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror. Three Rivers Press, New York.

Mamdani, M 2012, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity. Harvard University Press. London.

Mamdani, M. (1996) Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Fountain Publishers, Kampala.

Mazrui, A.A and Mazrui, M.A 1995, Swahili State and Society: The Political Economy of an African Language. East African Publishers, Nairobi.

Mukuthura, M 2006, Kiswahili and Its Expanding Roles of Development in East African Cooperation: A Case of Uganda. Nordic Journal of African Studies vol.15, no.2, pp. 154–165 [Online] Available at: (Accessed on 21, March 2014).

Mutibwa , P 2008, The Buganda Factor in Uganda Politics. Fountain Publishers. Kampala.

Pawlikova-Vilhanova, Viera 1996, Swahili and the Dilemma of Ugandan Language Policy, Asian and African Studies, vol 5, no.2, pp. 158-170 [online] (Accessed 21, March 2014).


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