Born around 1870 in southern Kooki, Semei Lwakilenzi Kakungulu moved to Buganda at an early age where he converted to Christianity. While in Buganda, he first rose to prominence through his hunting abilities, providing ivory to Kabaka Mwanga which he exchanged for foreign goods from Arab traders.
Kakungulu cut his niche as a war hero during the battle between Christians and Muslims in 1889 to reinstate Mwanga to the throne, having been deposed by the Muslims a year earlier.
After this battle, he was involved in another battle at Kijungutte, after which Mwanga rewarded him with the title of Mulondo. Kakungulu became the chief of Bulondoganyi, which was bordering Bugerere and River Nile.
In February 1892, Kakungulu, in the company of Captain Williams, commanded a force of 600 Protestant Baganda to reopen the route to the lake and captured Bugala Island from the Catholics who had occupied it.
According to the Africa Blue Book Volume II of 1893, Capt Frederick Lugard, the former representative of the Imperial British East African Company, pays tribute to Kakungulu, saying: “He is one of a number, absolutely reliable loyal man.”
Also in his book Rise of our East African Empire volume II, Lugard says: “There were but three men in Uganda who I thoroughly trusted, but in them I had implicit faith. They were Zakalia Kisingiri, Alikisi Sebowa and Kakungulu, the last was not a Muganda by birth.”
The British trusted him so much that when they wanted to subdue the Buvuma islanders in 1893 for disrupting the lake trade route to Busoga, they turned to Kakungulu.
According to the book Soldering and Surveying in British East Africa by Capt J. R. L. MacDonald, “An expedition was organised towards the end of January in which Capt William was assisted by the whole of Mwanga war fleet with 2,000 Baganda army and 3,000 spears all under the command of Kakungulu”.
Besides being a soldier, Kakungulu demonstrated what a good Christian he was in April 1893 when he and another 39 Baganda chiefs signed a pact with the Imperial British East African Company to release all the people they had as slaves.
After a short break from military expeditions, Kakungulu was back in action in May 1893 when, dissatisfied Muslims, organised a rebellion against the establishment for overlooking them while distributing administrative posts.
The British head of the military in Uganda at the time, Capt MacDonald, gave them an ultimatum of 1pm on June 18, 1893, to have put down their arms. But a few hours before it could expire, Kakungulu led his army of Protestants to the Muslim base at Nateete and dislodged them. The rebellious Muslims retreated to Singo.
With the arrival of Col Colvile in November 1893, the British administrators with their Buganda collaborators planned for a decisive attack on Omukama Kabalega of Bunyoro.
The Buganda army, commanded by Kakungulu who had been appointed ‘generalissimo’ by Mwanga, assembled on River Kafu where they built a causeway across the river to enable the Sudanese soldiers under the command of Col Colvile to cross at Busamba and get to Kabalega’s capital in Hoima.
When the Bunyoro army was attacked by the Sudanese soldiers and started retreating, they were pursued by Kakungulu’s men to Budongo Forest until the operation was called off in February 1894.
After that anti-Kabalega expedition, Kakungulu was praised by Col Colville in his dispatch contained in the Blue Book of Africa number IV of 1894, saying: “To Kakungulu, the general of the Waganda army, my thanks are specially due alike for his already acquiescence to all my orders, his well-directed influence with his chiefs and men…”
Upon completion of the first expedition against Kabalega, on April 9, 1894, at Mwanga’s court, the territory south of River Kafu was divided up. The land from River Katumbi southwards which formed the counties of Buyaga and Bugangaizi went to the Catholics, while the one in the north, Singo and Buruli, went to the Anglicans and Kakungulu was given the chieftainship of present-day Bugerere.
By this time, Kakungulu was one of the most important men in Buganda. Unfortunately, he could not rise above being a chief, the top most position he could have attained was that of Katikkiro (prime minister).
But by then, the Katikkiro position was jointly held by Apollo Kaggwa and Stanislaus Mugwanya, according to the Gerald Portal settlement of April 7, 1893.
However, after the 1895 expedition against Kabalega, a dispute over the sharing of the cattle rustled from Bunyoro between Kakungulu and Kaggwa erupted with Kaggwa being the victor.
Having lost the loot sharing battle and feeling humiliated and disappointment, Kakungulu resigned from his position as the chief of Bugerere and retreated to live a private life at his fort in Galiraya.
His private life was cut short when the British sought his prowess to hunt down two fugitive kings, Kabalega and Mwanga, who had fled to Lango in July 1897.
The Wakedi Field Force under Lt Col Evatt assembled at Mruli (Buruli) and moved to chiawanti where they linked up with Kakungulu with a fleet of 440 Baganda auxiliaries before crossing River Kwania on April 9, 1899.
They captured both Kabalega and Mwanga at Kangai. Writing in the Uganda Journal volume six of 1939, H.B. Thomas says: “It’s believed that its Kakungulu who extracted Kabalega from a swamp where he was hiding.”
With the Kabalega-Mwanga fight over, commissioner general Col Ternan put Kakungulu in charge of the territory north of Lake Kyoga to subdue the rebellious tribes in the area and the Baganda rebels who had fled there.
When the 1900 agreement was being drafted, Kakungulu wanted to have special recognition above other chiefs. He was not going to work under Kaggwa, having fallen out with him much earlier. He relinquished his area of Bugerere and was replaced by Matayo Nsubuga.
However, Sir Harry Johnston, the new commissioner behind the Buganda agreement, had been impressed by what he heard about Kakungulu and instead gave him orders to extend his influence through Teso sub-region and beyond.
In the company of a small Baganda loyalist’s army, Kakungulu moved and first made his base at Naboa, before moving to Budaka and finally settling at Mpumudde in Mbale. It was there that Johnston met him in 1901 and expressed his wish to have Kakungulu crowned a king.
“I will ask that you be made Kabaka of all this country,” Johnston said.
Kakungulu had high hopes of becoming king of Bukedi region and in anticipation of that, he gave away his home in Mpumudde to Rev and Ms W.A Crabtee to turn it into a Church Missionary Society station in the region.
Kakungulu then went back to Budaka where he hoisted the Union Jack, the national flag of the United Kingdom. He divided the territory of Bukedi into counties and appointed some of his Baganda loyalists as saza chiefs. He introduced the Ganda kind of leadership in the region.
When Sir Harry Johnston was replaced, there was an increase in complaints of people migrating from Buganda to the eastern part, then under Kakungulu. He, however, refused to do anything about the migrations.
“He was giving those following him much better estate than they were getting in Buganda and he was the king of that country,” according to H.B. Thomas.
Soon reports of poor treatment of natives by Kakungulu and his loyalists started reaching the government station in Buganda. That was in the second half of 1901.
A junior officer, W. R. Walker, was sent to Bukedi to investigate the reports. He found almost all the natives’ cattle, sheep and goats had been appropriated by Kakungulu’s chiefs and followers and the natives were also being evicted from their land.
Following this, the British took the administration from Kakungulu and sent in a new British representative with 20 policemen.
This created tension between the new administrator and Kakungulu’s men. It took the intervention of Fr C. J. Kirk, and in February 1902 Kakungulu left Budaka and moved to Mbale.
When new the commissioner, Col Hayes Sadler, moved the regional administration from Budaka to Mbale, he appointed Kakungulu a saza chief in 1904, giving him 20sq miles of land.
The area’s new sub provincial commissioner A. G. Boyle sought ways of keeping Kakungulu relevant, and decided to send him to the troubled Busoga region to try and bring the different chiefs together by appointing him president of the Busoga Lukiiko.
When he moved to Busoga, Kakungulu built his home on a hill which he also called Mpumudde and in 1907 shifted his home to Kirinya where he was forced out due to the outbreak of sleeping sickness in 1909 and returned to Mbale.
Turning against the British
Bitter and disappointed by the way he was treated by the British at old age, Kakungulu returned to religion. He started the Bamalaki religion, with his followers calling themselves the Christian Jews.
One of the doctrines of the new religion was being anti-medicine, a thing that cost him a herd of more than 1,000 cows because he refused to have his cows immunised against Nagana.
Though he had fallen out with the British in 1921, Kakungulu was awarded with the king’s medal for native chiefs in recognition for his past service to the British administration.
The British also continued giving him his annual pay of £300. He stayed in Mbale until his death on November 24, 1924.
Mercenary or philantropist?
It is impossible to write the history of the imposition of colonialism in east and north-eastern part of Uganda (the area that was referred to as Bukedi) without mentioning Semei Kakungulu. He was the mercenary whom the British used to impose colonialism in that area.
While that may not be contestable, there is disagreement as to the role Kakungulu played in that area.
Some Baganda chauvinists think Kakungulu was a great philanthropist who took religion and education to that area. They sometimes go as far as saying he took civilisation to the area.
There are also those who think Kakungulu was a ruthless mercenary of the British.