Journey of the Nubi minority towards national acceptance

They have been both hunters and the hunted in quest for citizenship

In Summary

• The Nubi, spread over five countries, have had mixed fortunes in role as enforcers

• This book highlights Uganda's, showing need for African solutions to African problems

Book cover
Book cover

Title: The Odyssey of the Nubi: From Soldiers of the British Empire to Full Citizens in Uganda

Author: Moses Ali


First Edition 2022

ISBN 978-9913-663-22-2


Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu


At its 2023 graduation ceremony, the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) conferred an honorary Doctorate of Laws upon Moses Ali, a military general-turned-politician. The degree was largely in recognition of a book which he had written, The Odyssey of the Nubi: From Soldiers of the British Empire to Full Citizens in Uganda, whose first edition was published in 2022.

Its title points to its concerns. By definition, it is an academic treatise. Each chapter features a short introduction, then an exposition of its stated subject matter. The exposition contains a synthesis of prior scholarship as well as the author’s own contribution to the advancement of knowledge. It is then followed by a conclusion and ends with a copious list of references.

Beyond an initial explanation of origin, migration and settlement, not only was the author witness to much of what he describes but he also emerges as an authentic apologist, because he presents the historical experience of his own people. This is very much in keeping with the proverbial saying, “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.”

In Moses Ali’s telling of his people’s story, the Nubi emerge not so much as glorious heroes but as serial victims. Only in the relatively recent past does a light emerge at the end of the tunnel for them.

The story should certainly be an enlightenment to future generations of Nubi. However, the people of Africa, as a continent, and East Africans in particular, will be alerted to its cross-cutting ramifications and the lingering necessity to arrive, gradually and systematically, at African solutions to African problems.

After all, there are minority Nubi populations in the DRC, South Sudan, Tanzania and Kenya. Kibera, where the Nubi are found in Kenya, is a significant location in the Oscar-winning, Hollywood film The Constant Gardener.

There will be different perspectives for different readers, but it is possible to paint the big picture.

Over centuries, several ethnic groupings came together, through intermarriage, to form a “mixture” community much influenced by Arabian culture and religion. They identified themselves as Muslims and spoke Ki-Nubi, a hybrid language of their own.

The men became soldiers for hire and, with their women and children in tow, they became enforcers. Firstly, of the imperialist agenda in colonial times, to help secure the “straight line crazy” boundaries created by the Scramble for Africa. Thereafter, they sustained their military enforcer role in the army of Uganda, at Independence, in 1962.

In both guises they were considered foreigners without citizenship, to be manipulated at will by those in power, who at once relied upon and mistrusted them. When Milton Obote, Uganda’s first President, was overthrown in a military coup in 1971, the Nubi initially found favour with the new strongman, Idi Amin, who also came from their stronghold, the West Nile Region of Uganda.

Initially, some Nubi, like the author, took issue with Amin’s manifest excesses and decided to distance themselves from and oppose him directly. However, the perception remained that the Nubi were pro-Amin. And they paid for it through brutal persecution after Amin was toppled, when Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere deployed his army to invade Uganda and eventually ensure the reinstatement of his die-hard friend, Milton Obote, as President. 

Non-Nubi and non-Ugandans alike will be shocked by the recurrence of some unsettling themes. To wit, although we Africans boast of our communal culture and Ubuntu (“I am because we are”), it becomes apparent that tribalism continues to fuel our political power plays. Whereas those of our colonial masters and their kith and kin who wished to stay on applied for and were granted immediate citizenship at Independence, the Nubi were only recognised as a Ugandan tribe by constitutional dispensation in 1995.

Although Africans prize and go to great lengths, risking life and limb, to migrate to the West, the racist expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin was praised, by and large, as an “economic liberation”. Although Africans are right to condemn the horrors that were visited upon them under “the yoke of colonialism”, it becomes clear that our colonial masters did not have a monopoly of barbarism. Black-on-black violence has proved to be equally horrific, if not more so. Both the suave and sophisticated Obote and the inane and inarticulate Amin meted it out with comparable savagery.

Although we speak of “Africa’s time” and the “United States of Africa,” the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda, as chronicled, suggests that our own leaders also have the imperialist gene in them.

It cannot be said that Moses Ali’s interpretation of events is 100 per cent correct. He is entitled to his own human biases.

However, what is not in doubt is that he has contributed to a hopefully expanding school, in which Africans are supplying their own analyses of their history. And it is notable in The Odyssey of the Nubi that there are people whose humanity and attachment to the right conduct shines through in the darkest of times. There are heroes among the hunters and the hunted.

More Book Reviews

By John Sibi-Okumu

‘Presidents’ Pressman’ or ‘Dictator’s Pet’?

In his review, Sibi-Okumu explores moral dilemma in Lee Njiru’s role

By John Sibi-Okumu

Opening up a young South Africa

It struggles to be a ‘rainbow nation’ in reality, not just in name

By John Sibi-Okumu
WATCH: The latest videos from the Star