What happened? The death of 92 Ugandans in the Rwenzori region last week in the wake of senseless attacks painted a gloomy picture in the security circles and set a week of mourning and anxiety in the region. Sunday Monitor’s Eriasa Mukiibi Ssrunjogi, Misairi Thembo Kahungu & Ruth Katusabe, were in the region and bring you the accounts of the attacks.
If everyone who lays claim to being king got recognition from the government, there would be three kings in Kasese District alone. Mr Charles Wesley Mumbere, the king of the Rwenzururu Kingdom of the Bakonzo, is so far the only one officially recognised.
On the other hand, the Basongora people have identified Mr Ivan Rukirwa Bwambale as their cultural leader, while Mr Elisha Mugisha says that he is the cultural leader of the Banyabindi people. These two are pushing for recognition.
In the neighbouring district of Bundibugyo, there is another cultural institution, the Kingdom of Bwamba, which was recognised recently. The recognition of this institution was originally opposed by the Rwenzururu Kingdom but it seems that the Rwenzururu Kingdom is now learning to live with the reality.
Bwamba Kingdom is basically for the Bamba/Babwisi in Bundibugyo, although the district also has a substantial Bakonzo population. There are also a number of smaller ethnic groups in Bundibugyo.
That must sound complicated already; doesn’t it? It is only complicated because the situation in the districts of Kasese, Bundibugyo and Ntoroko is complicated. The latest police figures say 83 people died in the attacks that happened almost simultaneously in the three districts on July 5.
Scenes of death
The government’s early prognosis is that the violence was ethnically motivated. A group of youths all thought to be Bakonzo attacked Kanyamwirima Military Barracks in Bundibugyo, reportedly with the view to grabbing weapons and killing soldiers.
Speaking about the attacks, President Museveni traced the unrest in the region to the period following the installation of Mr Mumbere as king of Rwenzururu in 2009, an observation which Mr Mumbere has “strongly” disagreed with.
Mr Mumbere says the government needs to do a thorough investigation into the attacks before making conclusions. He says the “enemies” of his kingdom could have organised the attacks to discredit the Rwenzururu Kingdom and get it banned.
Anyhow, police boss Gen Kale Kayihura camped in Kasese for much of the week and the President was expected in the region at the weekend. Rwenzururu Kingdom Prime Minister Noah Nzaghale on Thursday joined the tens of Bakonzo people who were arrested in connection with the attacks.
A police statement denying that Mr Mumbere had himself been arrested did not rule out the possibility of him being summoned or even arrested. Ms Polly Namaye, the deputy spokesperson of the Uganda Police Force, said the king was “free and there has not been any attempt by the police to summon or arrest him under any circumstance.”
She added, however, that Mr Mumbere was not above the law and that if need arose “to have the king summoned the police will not desist (from executing its duties) but will do so in the interest of protecting the lives and properties of all Ugandans equally.”
In Kasese, a policeman and his three children were burned in their house, another policeman was killed on duty while six civilians died following what a number of sources say was a fight at a water point.
In Bundibugyo, it was worse. Our reporter Ruth Katusabe reached the scene. The attack had happened late on Saturday and Ms Katusabe would only rush there from Fort Portal on Sunday morning.
She says she witnessed the collection of the dead bodies, in the process counting 55 of them. “Some of the bodies had been partly eaten up by dogs (and probably other beasts),” she says.
A man in Bundibugyo who asked not to be named told us that a few of the people were killed by the local people who had been angered by the attack and took it upon themselves to “clean up” the area.
“A young man who was not known to the people here was interrogated about where he was going and almost at the same time he was beaten to death by angry residents who thought he was one of the attackers and later burnt his body,” the man said.
Our reporter says there were “a few women” among the attackers who were killed, including a pregnant woman. She says the military provided the opportunity for people to claim the bodies of their relatives if they could identify them.
She says only two bodies were claimed. The other bodies, which she says were 53, were loaded on a tractor wagon by the suspected attackers who were in custody and buried in a mass grave near the barracks.
Encounter with a “king”
“These activities were carried out by the Bakonzo,” says Mr Mugisha, who calls himself the cultural leader of the Banyabindi people. “We had informed the authorities that such attacks would happen but our advice was not taken seriously. It could easily be discerned from what many Bakonzo leaders had been saying that an attack on us was imminent. We live in fear.”
On the day of the attacks, July 5, Mr Mugisha had led his fellow Banyabindi in a function at Muhokya in Kasese, where they were “commemorating the deaths of our people who were killed during the Rwenzururu uprising between 1964 and 1981.”
Mr Mugisha says the Banyabindi were targeted during that war, because, he says, “we are different from Bakonzo.”
“For us we are Bantu-speaking people and we don’t have much in common with the Bakonzo. They therefore targeted us because they associated us with the enemies (the Batooro),” he says.
The war was led by Mr Mumbere’s late father with the aim of breaking Rwenzururu off Tooro Kingdom. Mr Mumbere’s father died in 1966 when his son was too young to assume command of the group and the war.
The young Mr Mumbere was guided by regents until 1970 when he took full command. He would later move to America with the situation unresolved until in 1982 when the fighters reached a settlement with Milton Obote’s government.
The idea of the Banyabindi holding their function in Rwenzururu where they would discuss issues not very palatable to the kingdom was opposed by kingdom loyalists. Mr Mugisha says that they were threatened with violence if they proceeded with the preparations.
“The army and the police deployed heavily to protect our function; we even had people from State House,” Mr Mugisha says. It ended without incident. Mr Mugisha alleges, however, that certain Bakonzo leaders “had threatened that if our function took place they would fight.”
Mr Mugisha is willing to speculate about the cause of the violence: “When they failed to stop the function they diverted their anger to state institutions.”
Hope at a funeral
That is only Mr Mugisha’s opinion. Mr Julius Bwambale, a resident of Kasese who backs the Rwenzururu Kingdom, disagrees with Mr Mugisha’s observation.
“During the Rwenzururu war starting in the 1960s, our fathers knew that they needed guns to fight to break off from Tooro,” Mr Bwambale says, “So how can you convince me that in the year 2014, the kingdom of Rwenzururu would organise an attack on a military barracks executed by stick-wielding thugs? It doesn’t make sense.”
Mr Bwambale argues, like his king has argued, that the attack could have been planned by anti-Rwenzururu people to discredit the kingdom. We were unable to establish whether this is one line of investigation the police is following.
The police officers we talked to in connection to the case did not give away much.
Another person who feels the need for more widespread investigations is Mr Lucas Buhaka Bwambale, the in-charge projects desk, Justice and Peace Commission in Kasese.
Mr Buhaka suffered a personal loss because one of the policemen who died in Kasese, Jacob Muhindo, was his relative. He says he recommended Muhindo to join the police force, first as a crime preventer. Muhindo was guarding at the Weigh Bridge when he was attacked and killed. He is survived by five children.
Mr Buhaka is grateful to police boss Gen Kale Kayihura who he says “promoted my son posthumously” from Special Police Constable (SPC) to Police Constable. The import of the promotion is that the deceased’s children can now benefit from the police’s welfare programme, from which they would be taken care of.
This, Mr Buhaka says, “brought a sense of loss at the funeral.” Gen Kayihura declared Muhindo a “national hero”, whatever that means.
Muhindo and all the others should not have died, says Mr Buhaka. He says that as the government looks to restore calm in the area, “it should look at more strategic interventions to address the problem.”
One issue to examine, according to him, is the issue of how cultural institutions are established.
“There is a danger in the message which the government seems to send to those people who intend to be recognised as cultural leaders,” he says, “they seem to be saying that once you fight and win recognition we put you on payroll.”
Regarding this issue, Mr Mumbere says the Constitution needs to be reviewed, particularly Article 246 (1). It says: “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the institution of traditional leader or cultural leader may exist in any area of Uganda in accordance with the culture, customs and traditions or wishes and aspirations of the people to whom it applies.”
For example, what is Mr Mugisha’s claim to being king? “I am the first Entale (lion) of the Banyabindi. My people chose me and we are waiting to be formerly recognised,” he says. Isn’t it instructive that there was never a king of the Banyabindi and we could have one soon?
The land question
So, we ask Mr Mugisha, what would his becoming king help the Banyabindi? “We will stop being marginalised,” he says. He spells out the three priorities for his group: land, recognition and state scholarships – in that order.
“We have a very big problem with land; our people have been sidelined. Look at me, I am the king of the Banyabindi but I live on a small plot.”
Talking about the land issue, Mr Mumbere said: “It’s natural resources, especially in the lowlands, which is causing trouble in Kasese especially.”
Mr Mugisha has ideas on where the land can come from. “Ibuga Prison farm has a lot of vacant land,” he says, “let the government take some of my people there.”
Attempts at peace building
Rev Can Cornelius Matte, the dean of St Paul’s Church, had just come out of a meeting of parishioners and was organising for another meeting for other prelates. He says that they are sensitising the people that whoever mobilises does so on their own and not for the Bakonzo.
He says the Bakonzo have co-existed with the other tribes for long, but he says that the “problem of resources is getting worse.”
“We have had land conflicts in the area for some time but we never predicted that this thing would become this dangerous. We are living in a corridor between national parks, prison and mountains. People are now desperate and something very small causes a very serious reaction. People are now like hungry dogs,” he says. But he says that they addressing it.
“Every year we send people to theological colleges and we have some other opportunities. We ensure that we send a Munyabindi and Musongora. This year the only one we have sent to university is a Musongora,” he says.
These issues, Mr Mumbere says, were touched in the ministerial committee report that recommended the recognition of the Rwenzururu kingdom. He says there was “a wide consultation” before the kingdom was recognised. The committee was chaired by Mr Henry Kajura, the Third Deputy Prime Minister and minister of public service.
One of the recommendations of the report was to set up a commission to inquire into tribal differences in the region and look for ways of resolving them. The current unrest could be a pointer that that recommendation should be revisited.