On Tuesday, a group of youth from Tooro Kingdom completed a nearly 300-kilometre journey from their kingdom’s capital Fort Portal to the national capital Kampala. They journeyed on foot making a surprisingly early arrival on Tuesday saving a day from their anticipated arrival date of Wednesday.
The walking was to make a statement as to the seriousness of their mission—to demand that government gives equal treatment to all kingdoms when returning assets.
The Tooro youth walk came within days after Bunyoro Kingdom, the oldest and once biggest kingdom in the country, released its own list of properties that government is still holding.
To add a stinger, Bunyoro Kingdom sought to re-ignite a debate when colonialists altered boundaries to punish a stubborn Bunyoro that resisted their entry to gift Buganda which had collaborated—the sticky question of the lost counties.
Tinkering with Pandora’s Box?
President Museveni, seeking to recreate alliances by re-igniting old friendships and trying to smoothen rough edges, seems to have opened yet a new Pandora’s Box in April when he posed for photo ops in a hushedly organised event at State House, Entebbe to return some 400 land titles to Buganda Kingdom.
Rather than burst in celebration after years of struggle to secure the properties, Buganda sought to keep the titles return low key, sending not the Kabaka or even his Katikiro to receive them but a prince and a deputy prime minister while government had the President personally doing the honours.
Within days, Bunyoro was demanding, then Tooro joined. The government later remembered that among the titles handed over were properties in Bunyala (which has its own king in Capt Baker Kimeze) and Buruli which separately demanded that titles in those areas be returned to their chiefs rather than have them stay at Mengo.
In the former Tooro kingdom, some of the properties being claimed are now in the newly recognised kingdom of Rwenzururu whose king has warned Tooro cannot claim those properties.
Minister for Information in Tooro kingdom Geofrey Mutabazi is reluctant to either endorse or distance the kingdom from its youth activists; instead, he told this newspaper that evenhandedness was expected from government when dealing with cultural institutions especially on the return of kingdom assets.
“Since we have been supporters of the government, treated government as a friend, it would only be right that we resolve these matters the way all friends do,” he said by telephone from Geneva, Switzerland, where he was attending a conference.
On the 300 kilometre match, Mutabazi said government didn’t have to wait for the “youth to walk to press the point home.”
“Government is aware of our property, it knows our goodwill over the years it should [therefore] lead the way and say we know you have been good people, here, have your properties.”
Bunyoro, once a mighty empire in the region buoyed by the discovery of commercial quantities of petroleum some nine years ago, is making bolder demands.
Henry Ford Mirima, a historian and former kingdom official who still stands as an authoritative voice for the Banyoro, says the debate should stretch back to colonial injustices that saw the redrawing of boundaries and the gifting of Buganda with vast sections of Bunyoro.
For Mirima, a return of properties to either Buganda or Bunyoro cannot be complete without a discussion about the “lost counties” five of which he says are still being kept in Buganda.
Buganda kingdom spokesman Dennis Walusimbi says such a demand is “unfortunate.”
Buganda demanding for more
According to Walusimbi, the titles returned to Buganda recently represent only a small fraction of what government still owes it.
“What was returned is just a small percentage not everything we are demanding. There is still a lot more that we expect to be returned to us.”
Walusimbi says to fully settle Buganda’s claims, a financial settlement might come into the equation citing shares in corporations that government already privatised and properties abroad.
“There are some properties which are in Uganda and others that are abroad,” Walusimbi told this newspaper, “the kingdom had shares in corporations that have since been sold to private people like UEB, Uganda Breweries etc, we need to discuss all that. The Kabaka had four Rolls Royce cars that were taken, there was Mutesa House in London which was sold.”
Walusimbi says the claims of Bunyoro and Tooro should be addressed because they have a genuine claim but dismissed Bunyoro’s demands of the lost counties as well as Bunyala and Buruli’s demands for properties in those areas.
Sabanyala Baker Kimeze says his chiefdom was shocked to see in the media that titles had been returned to Mengo.
“Basically, administrative units which formerly belonged to Buganda but are in Bunyala and in Buruli should have been returned not to Mengo but to us. We were shocked to see this in the news because those titles now belong to us.”
Kimeze is receptive to Bunyoro’s demand that the two territories should be negotiated as a part of Bunyoro and not Buganda, “for us we don’t have any problem with that because that is where we belong (Bunyoro), we are using one voice with Bunyoro,” he says.
But Walusimbi says an attempt by Bunyoro to correct boundaries today would be an effort in futility.
“I think it was very unfortunate of Mr Mirima, when you talk of Buganda boundaries, it is not going to stop at Buganda, you are trying to take the debate back to the days of conquest, Bunyoro Kitara used to be a very large kingdom, is it also going to reclaim Tooro, Ankole, the parts of Congo, Tanzania and stretching possibly up to Ethiopia that comprised the ancient empire?” he says.
But Walusimbi is reluctant to discuss concerns by Bunyoro that the five counties under contention including parts of present-day Kayunga, Buruli and Mubende, were “gifted” to Buganda as punishment for Bunyoro’s resistance to colonialism.
The government minister for Information and National Guidance, Ms Rose Namayanja, says government is committed to returning properties that belong to the kingdoms after proper verification.
She says some of the more controversial aspects like where borders have changed and a kingdom has a claim in a territory no longer under its control, needs the intervention of the Attorney General to provide a legal opinion on their status.
“The general position is that government is committed to return properties of kingdoms,” she says, “there is no one size fit all, every kingdom has different properties in different places of different size, what kingdoms like Tooro need to do is work with government to list the properties they are claiming, they will be verified and after that the next processes will follow,” Ms Namayanja says.
Namayanja says Buganda’s properties were returned after a long process and that the other kingdoms are yet to reach the same level of engagement.
“For Buganda, there is a long history dating back to the passage of the 1993 property restoration Act, there have been negotiations,” she says, adding that while some property has been passed on, verification of others is still ongoing. The same process, according to the minister, is under way for Bunyoro.
A race to the bottom?
According to Makerere University lecturer Dr Busingye-Kabumba, the demands are “symptomatic of a failure in nation building rooted in our colonial past of trying to create a state out of nation states.”
Dr Busingye-Kabumba says post-leaders inherited a state but have consistently failed to build a nation out of it and short term political calculations have ensured they consistently seek to play one community against the other with a focus limited only to the next election.
“What you are seeing today is simply different nationalities fighting for as much of the national cake as they can possibly get,” he says, “the metaphor of the cake is very interesting because a cake is something to be eaten and it can be eaten and get finished, so every community must fight to get as big a share as it can get because if it doesn’t the others will eat it and finish it.”
Busingye-Kabumba adds the timing of the return to Buganda and the agitation by other kingdom areas is symptomatic of governments “unprincipled response to these national struggles.”
He roots his argument in the timing and manner of return of kingdoms in 1993 by a resolution of the army’s High Command when work on a new constitution that would come into effect hardly two years later in 1995 was on.
“It was made to come off as a personal gift from the President to kingdoms yet the discussion to have these kingdoms returned could have either waited for the constitution or been part of a broader national dialogue.”