The political fallout of the Kasubi Tombs Fire

The political fallout of the Kasubi Tombs Fire
Fire at Kasubi tombs

Kampala, Uganda | By Timothy Kalyegira | During the evening of March 16, 2010, news reports came out of a fire that was raging at the Kasubi Tombs, the historic burial grounds of several past kings of Buganda and a major tourist attraction in Kampala.

At first most people thought this might be a minor fire that could be extinguished in a few minutes. However within two hours live television pictures confirmed that is was a very serious fire, on the scale of the fire that gutted Park Yard Market in Kampala early in 2009.

The Kasubi fire was a major shock to Baganda, especially when first reports and rumours suggested what is now common knowledge, that this was the work of an arsonist.

The wave of fires in and outside Kampala that started with Budo Junior School in April 2008 was shocking to most people, but there was something about Kasubi that went beyond the ordinary.

Believing that this fire had been started intentionally and believing that the NRM government had a hand in it, many Baganda started speaking – or quietly whispering – about a plot to erase the 800-year-old Buganda kingdom from the face of the earth.

The first round of phone SMS text messages and phone calls minutes after the break out of the fire confirmed that most people, without any evidence yet, already believed that this fire had been started by the government of President Yoweri Museveni.

President Museveni, at a press conference at State House in Entebbe , warned the public not to point fingers at his government over the fire.

The problem is, by the time he called the press conference, millions of fingers had already been pointed in his direction, so even if the public keeps quiet now for fear of being arrested, Museveni knows what they are thinking.

If most Ugandans and Baganda are convinced that the fire was started by agents of his government, acting on behalf of his government, then it is this feeling rather than the facts of who actually did it, which matters in political terms.

And in political terms, the fire at Kasubi marks the climax of the break in trust and goodwill between the NRM government and Buganda.

The refusal of permission for the Kabaka of Buganda to travel to Bugerere last September, the riots that were sparked off by that refusal and the closure of CBS FM, confirmed the start of the end of this relationship built in the Luwero Triangle in the early 1980s.

The suspicion that it was the government that set fire to the tombs is an indicator, not the cause, of the sour relations between Museveni and Buganda. These feelings of suspicion will still be there as Ugandans go to the polls early next year.

They will be a key determinant in how most Baganda cast their votes in the 2011 general election.

So when the president threatened to get his hands around the neck of whoever dared state publicly that it was his government that burnt the tombs, he did not explain what steps he would take to remove that feeling from the minds of millions of Baganda and other Ugandans.

To say that Museveni has lost whatever support he once had in Buganda is something that can now be said safely. Now it will be left to see how he will campaign between now and 2011.

What will he tell Baganda during his election campaign tours, if they now believe in their millions that there is no difference between Museveni and the late President Milton Obote?

How will he argue that he fought to bring freedom to Buganda when their beloved radio station CBS FM remains off the air?

How will he make the argument that Baganda are now more prosperous under him than under previous governments, when most are unemployed or barely employed and are being forced to sell off their land just to pay school fees?

The message that Museveni will craft for Buganda will be one to watch. How it will be delivered will be very interesting indeed to listen to, in the wake of the Kasubi Tombs fire