Nearly 17 years ago, President Museveni proclaimed an enduring “integrationist” relationship between his government and Buganda kingdom for national as well as regional unity and progress.
It was August 2, 1993 and he was speaking at the opening of the Buganda Lukiiko in Bulange, a Kampala suburb. A couple of days earlier, Prince Ronald Mutebi who had endorsed the 1981-6 NRA guerilla war that brought Mr Museveni to power, had been crowned Kabaka. “I have nothing but encouragement in your cultural revival because your cause serves my cause as mine serves yours,” Mr Museveni noted.
On the occasion, the then 49-year-old President traced his origins roughly to the central region. “My clan, the Basiita (Ente in Buganda), were the keepers of the Royal Drums for Omugabe (Kabaka) Wamala around the year 1300 A.D,” he said.
Everything appeared to be neat. The royal drums pounded to deafening applause for Mr Museveni who had brought to life a cherished kingdom that late President Milton Obote abolished 27 years earlier. “We need people with a vested interest that can look after the traditional sites – such as the palaces [and] burial sites,” he said as one justification of resurrecting the cultural institutions.
Mengo refurbished the Kasubi royal tombs and UNESCO came in handy on December 13, 2001 to elevate it to a World Heritage site, describing it “a masterpiece of human creativity”.
So, when fire on Tuesday razed the site, destroying the centre-piece Muzibu Azaala Mpanga structure housing the mausoleum of four former kings, Buganda’s raw ire had been provoked. The king’s subjects came in droves; wailing and craving to avenge the loss.
President Museveni on Wednesday became their target. To block his entry to the sacred site, some agitated youth hurled stones at the presidential guards who retaliated with live bullets and by day’s end, three of the seven people shot were dead.
Was Mr Museveni a suspect in the eyes of the kingdom loyalists? Buganda Information/Cabinet Minister Charles Peter Mayiga says No. In explanations offered last evening, Mr Mayiga posited that the Head of State was more a victim of pent-up anger.
“The Baganda have a lot of grievances against the President; he has prevented the Kabaka from visiting Buruuli and Bugerere, CBS radio (which is partly owned by the kingdom) remains closed for the sixth month while the government owes Buganda nearly Shs20b in rent arrears,” he said.
The Broadcasting Council took CBS radio off air on September 10, last year accusing its presenters of breaching minimum broadcasting standards and inciting that month’s riots in Buganda in which 27 people are officially said to have died.
Mengo officials are also bothered by the unresolved issue of the 9,000sq. miles mailo land; the central government’s failure to return the kingdom’s assets (Ebyaffe) confiscated in 1966 and the recent arrest and detention - for a week - of three colleagues, among them Mr Mayiga.
Last September’s riot was public confirmation that relations between the President and Kabaka, whom government forcibly prevented from visiting his subjects in Kayunga District, had broken down.
Mr Museveni was to reveal shortly afterwards that the Kabaka had not actually picked his phone calls in two years. However, the monarch says he was unaware.
The line of the bad blood, bearing semblance to the moody 1966 period, has been long in coming and appears webbed in distrust and bruised egos arising from the struggles between Mengo and the central government.
For instance, the government late last year pushed through an amendment to the 1998 Land Act that it says is to protect tenants against eviction by landlords.
Mengo opposed this change because in Buganda, the Kabaka is the chief landowner and officials interpreted the new legislation as a ploy by those in authority to undercut those inherited powers and “grab” land from Baganda.
Another government proposal to expand the boundaries of the city farther into Buganda brought matters to a head. On the other hand, President Museveni accuses the Kabaka of allowing opposition politicians to use CBS and the royal institution to malign NRM and fan tribal hatred. The battle lines are many that any effort to mend fences on one is ruptured by eruption of another problem.
Pundits say the acrimony between Mengo, that broadly guides Uganda’s largest tribe, and the central government could injure NRM politically during the 2011 ballot if the subjects hand a bloc protest vote to the opposition. Ms Mary Okurut, the publicity secretary for the ruling party, remains unfazed. “Blocking the President at Kasubi tombs was sheer indiscipline,” she said, adding: “It is only a few people at Mengo who are opposed to us.” Bulange officials are held hostage by the need to reciprocate the President’s gesture to restore their kingdom, albeit with trimmed powers.
Earlier, Mr Mayiga said it’s not that their differences are irreconcilable. A bargain, he said, is possible if Mr Museveni orders the reopening of CBS and the government paid up Mengo’s debt hopes to use for rebuilding Kasubi tombs at an estimated Shs5b.
History shows any regime at odds with Buganda, where the central government is seated, cannot be at peace. Obote’s estrangement from Buganda eventually rallied Baganda peasants to later join President Museveni’s armed rebellion to topple him. Mr Museveni’s 1993 promise is being put to the test now more than ever before.