The future of Uganda’s kingdoms

Rwenzururu Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere
Ugandan police stormed Buhikira Royal Palace, home of Rwenzururu King Charles Wesley Mumbere, and arrested him after fierce clashes between security forces and his royal guards in the western town of Kasese. COURTESY PHOTO.

Kampala, Uganda | By Timothy Kalyegira| An attempt in 1993 to enthrone John Barigye as the Omugabe of Ankole was blocked by the government.

In September 2009, a major crisis and three days of rioting followed the refusal of permission by the government for the Kabaka of Buganda Ronald Muwenda Mutebi to visit Kayunga to attend a Buganda youth festival.

In November 2016, another crisis erupted in Kasese following an exchange of fire between the police and royal guards of the Obusinga, Charles Mumbere, later followed by his arrest and detention.

In February, there was a minor but still telling embarrassment when the Kyabazinga of Busoga was included on a list of newly-appointed ambassadors and then his name did not appear on the final list.

All these developments were not supposed to have happened. In 1992, the NRM government reinstated the traditional kingdoms that had been abolished in 1967 by the UPC government of President Milton Obote.

The restoration of the kingdoms in 1992 proved very popular, particularly in Buganda, and won the NRM government a fresh new round of goodwill and legitimacy in the southern half of Uganda.

Over the last eight years, however, the once-cordial relations between the NRM government and the kingdoms have cooled significantly, reaching their lowest point with the Buganda riots and the arrest of Mumbere.

The immediate effect of the clashes in Kasese and arrest of Mumbere will, of course, be the loss off support for the Museveni regime in a part of the country that had already heavily moved into the opposition.

Busoga has been feeling for the last 20 years like a region neglected by the central government, its pride as once the industrial and agricultural heart of Uganda gone.

There was a feeling among many that the contestation for power by rival royal groups was being instigated by the government.

Therefore, the announcement of the Kyabazinga as a nominated ambassador was interpreted as an effort to humiliate him and the Basoga.

It also sends a signal to other kingdoms like Bunyoro on what lies in store for them.

Most of the petroleum fields on which Uganda is relying for its future economic growth are located around the Lake Albert region of Bunyoro.

Once oil exploration and production starts in full, it is inevitable that certain groups or individuals will begin to agitate for a greater share of the oil revenues to remain in Bunyoro.

The police or army will be deployed to stop the demonstrations, some of which will turn violent and make national news.

These clashes will embitter the Banyoro even further.

Where does that leave Uganda?

Is it a republic with kingdoms under it or is it a kingdom led by a presidential dynasty, with kingdoms increasingly resisting this and trying to act more like republics than monarchies?

Is Uganda a republic that behaves like a kingdom or a kingdom that behaves like a republic?

These are the questions that will dominate Ugandan political life in the coming years as resentment in the upcountry areas toward the government increases amid rising youth unemployment and poverty.

At present, the most pressing question in Uganda is economic. The years of significant economic recovery that accounted for the impressive growth being registered from 1991 to 2001 have come to an end.

Most of the 1991-2001 period was, technically, recovery from 20 years of stagnation and decline.

Basic consumer goods like sugar, soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, cooking oil, salt and beer are now widely available all over the country.

The economy continued to grow between 2001 and 2011 but since 2011, it is becoming more difficult to gain new ground.

Where in the 1970s and 1980s the population faced a scarcity of basic goods, since 2011 the key economic challenge has not been the scarcity of goods but the low purchasing power.

That was the discontent that triggered off the opposition-led “Walk to work” civil campaign in April 2011.

Disillusionment with the central government which is the only entity with the powers to tax the population, which taxes the public feels end up being embezzled, is growing.

In anger or desperation, an increasing number of Ugandans are turning to their ethnic and cultural roots.

The solution to these mounting tensions is in part the kingdoms. They are rooted in long-standing tradition, culture and history.

It would make both political and economic sense to share some of the oil and other mineral wealth in the local regions where they are being discovered.

The other option was demonstrated by Buganda when it launched the “Etofaali” fundraising drive to repair the royal tombs at Kasubi that were gutted by fire several years ago.

The “Etofaali” drive soon evolved into a broader campaign to raise funds to be put to the economic development of Uganda.

The fundraising was largely successful and although the NRM government obviously understood the motive behind it, chose to turn a blind eye since it was not, technically, illegal.

Buganda has also entered into investment agreements with Chinese firms in certain areas of agriculture.

In the early 2000s, a notable partnership flourished between the Tooro kingdom and the government of Libya and only fizzled out after the death of the Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

This could be a model for other kingdoms.

Jinja is at present the leading tourism destination in Uganda.

Even if the Obwakyabazinga bwa Busoga cannot tax its subjects, by taking concerted measures at a local, municipal level to encourage further investment in tourism, there will be a noticeable improvement in the pace of business, quality of infrastructure and the lives of the ordinary people of Jinja.

While the “Etofaali” fundraising drive achieved more than its original goal of restoring the Kasubi tombs, the money raised was not enough to sustain the Buganda kingdom as a financial entity.

The drying up of Libyan patronage following death of Gaddafi also demonstrated the limitation of relying too much on the generosity of an individual.

To achieve sustained development, more long-term measures would have to be put in place.

The Uganda government itself cannot meet its financial obligations from the revenue it collects in taxes and its tax collections must be subsidised by grants from foreign governments and outright aid too.

Therefore, even if the present kingdoms in Uganda had the full powers to tax, at best they would only hope for a marginally better standard of living for their people.

But they would not achieve vibrant economic activity from these taxes alone. Some form of joint venture with Asian and European companies to set up low-level manufacturing has to be explored.

Most Ugandans are generally Republican in outlook. That is why, apart from Buganda, the abolishment of the kingdoms in 1967 did not result in deep resentment or require a state of emergency to be declared.

The tendency to turn to traditional kingdoms in the last five or so years has been more as a gesture of political protest at the government than out of a deep desire to see a return to a feudal, traditional order.

The arrival of mobile phones and the Internet’s social media have given the majority of the productive population greater personal control over their lives and widened their sense of empowerment.

The Ugandan population now looks less to figures of authority than it did in the 1940s and 1950s.

If or when the questions of youth unemployment and economic growth are addressed, the majority of the population will tend to return to its Republican state of mind.