This month marks 71 years since a group of Baganda stood up to their Kabaka (king). The 1949 riots in Buganda Kingdom were a culmination of protests that started four years earlier.
The April riots were sparked by Kabaka Edward Muteesa’s refusal to address subjects who had escorted eight non-official Baganda representatives to present a petition to him.
The eight representatives were Samwiri Male, Mikaeri Kirima, Yake Kyaze, Paul Mukasa, Gomeri Lwere, Kulanima Musoke, Sedulaka K. Katongole and Eryeza Bwete.
The petitioners demanded democracy in the kingdom, the number of the Lukiiko (Buganda parliament) representatives be increased to 60 from 36, the resignation of Katikkiro (prime minister) Kawalya’s government, the right to gin cotton and right to sell agricultural produce without going through middlemen.
Kyazze told the Kabaka, “The people require democracy to select their own rulers because the elected chiefs will be interested in the welfare of their people. All the people would have been here, but they are prevented by the chiefs from coming here.”
Mukasa presented the demand for 60 representatives to the Lukiiko, saying: “If your subjects were granted 60 representatives, there would be no trouble and there would be understanding between the people and rulers.”
Talking about the right to gin cotton, Bwete, who claimed to be representing the growers, said they were poor because the chiefs colluded with Asian ginners to robe the farmers.
“Every Indian ginner regards his ginnery site as a royal place. We, therefore, need our own ginnery in order to help ourselves. The growers are dying from hunger,” he said, adding: “We, the growers, are angry because of Katikkiro Kawalya. These chiefs receive money from the Indians as a return for the assistance given to them.”
Musoke made the plea for Kawalya’s government to resign. “Your present rulers are after their own peace and not peace for the general public. We have neither intrigue nor jealous. Your Highness will not be able to grant peace to the public whilst retaining the present rulers,” he said.
While presenting the petition on selling agricultural produce, Lwere said: “Kawalya’s government may kill us; let us die. All the people say it’s better to die. Buganda is now like Hitler’s Germany. We have come before your highness ready for imprisonment, but we have spoken the truth.”
As each member of the eight-man team gave details of the petition, the number of their supports outside kept swelling. After listening to the petitions, Muteesa asked the team if they wanted to cause an apprising, before walking out of the room.
An official response was then sent shortly after through the Katikkiro. According to the protectorate government report titled ‘Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Disturbances in Buganda during April 1949,’ the Kabaka’s response read:
“With reference to the three matters which you have spoken of, they are laid down in the 1900 Agreement. I, myself, have a great duty to keep the 1900 Agreement and I believe that you also agree with the agreement… With regard to the ginning of cotton and selling of your produce directly, I will go into the matter after having received the advice of my advisers. Tell your people to return to their homes.”
When the Kabaka’s response was read out to the crowds outside the palace, they got rowdy and vowed not to leave until Muteesa himself addressed them.
Police was called in to disperse the crowds, but the pandemonium that ensued after saw both lives and property lost.
According to The Daily Worker, a US-based newspaper of May 17, 1949, a protestor was quoted as saying: “We all went to demand for democracy from the king and to ask him to allow us to gin our cotton. On April 26 , the troops of the protectorate government assaulted the people, some of whom were shot. The protectorate government is killing people with impunity and malice. Nobody can protest. An average of eight to 10 bodies are buried every day, other bodies are damped in the same pit.”
How they got there
The events of 1949 were a culmination of riots in Buganda which started in 1945. One of the major causes was Muteesa’s refusal to sack his finance minister, S. W. Kulubya.
Writing in The Mind of Buganda: Documents of the Modern History of an African Kingdom, Donald Anthony Low says: “Fourteen chiefs raised complaint against him (Kulubya). They said he was spending the money of the country irrespective of the wishes of the government.”
“The Kabaka went into this question with his advisors and found no fault with him (Kulubya). He wrote to the 14 signatories, saying he saw no cause for his resignation.”
With Muteesa refusing to sack Kulubya, the chiefs found new grounds, accusing Kulubya and other chiefs of “selling the country (Buganda) to the British secretly.”
Kulubya’s other crime against the kingdom was, the petitioners said, his alleged response when asked by the colonial government on the proposed salary increment for government employees and labourers, and also the increment on cotton prices.
“Baganda are like soup made of peanut, they will swell but after a while, they will go down,” Kulubya allegedly responded, according to Low.
Basing on Kulubya’s advice, the colonial government decided against implementing the increase in both salaries and cotton prices. And that was how the 1945 Buganda riots began.
The disgruntled Baganda demanded for Kawalya’s immediate resignation, but the Kabaka wanted him to stay on.
The protestors threatened to attack Mengo and burn the palace in order to kill Kulubya. To save the situation, Kulubya tendered in his resignation.
On hearing the news of the resignation, the mob that was gathering outside the palace dispersed.
But the following year, 1946, the Bataka Movement emerged, also to champion the people’s cause. The movement sent several appeals to the governor in Entebbe and some to the colonial office in London, the UK.
With no response from the two offices, the Bataka (landlords) decided to send their representative, Semakula Mulumba, to London to present their concerns to the Secretary of State for Colonies.
While in London, Mulumba failed to get chance to present the list of concerns to the Secretary of State for Colonies. He instead decided to send them to the United Nations through Andrei Gromyko, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic USSR (Russia) representative to the UN. By sending the eight-page document to the UN, the colonial government and Britain were.
Mengo reacted by sending a document signed by 14 chiefs to Entebbe denouncing the group. They said the people represented by Mulumba were not the genuine Bataka group.
The Mulumba group was later joined by members of the Uganda Farmers Union of Ignatius Musaazi. This coincided with Muteesa’s refusal to come out and address supports of the eight officials who had presented a petition to him.
The Bataka allied to Mulumba and Musaazi’s militant supporters mixed with the disgruntled supporters outside Mengo and hell broke loose.
The looting and arson that was witnessed in the days that followed forced the colonial government to bring in military enforcement from Kenya to bring the situation under control.