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 of us from the area who think Kakungulu was a ruthless mercenary of the British. In this article, I would like to present that view. The source of the material I use for this article is an article, Kakungulu in Bukedi by Sir John Milner Gray. The article was published in the Uganda Journal, Vol 27, No 1, 1963, pp31-63 .
Sir John Milner Gray joined the colonial service in Uganda in 1920. He tells us that during the time he was in Uganda, he was assigned to inquire into Kakugulu’s grievances in 1924.
Sir John had numerous interviews with Kakungulu during which he (Kakungulu) indulged in numerous reminiscences which, although not relevant to Sir John’s assignment, were nonetheless of general interest and so he recorded them and later used the records to write his article.
Semei Lwakirenzi, who was later awarded the honorary title Kakungulu, was the son of a Muganda called Semuwamba who was originally from Kazinga village near Seguku in Busiro County.
At an early age, Semuwamba left Busiro for the Kingdom of Kooki. There, he joined the service of the Omukama of Kooki, rising to the high post of Katikkiro. He had seven children, one of whom was Semei Lwakirenzi. Later Semuwamba fell into disfavour and was executed, together with his wife.
Kakungulu fled to Buddu in Buganda where he developed friendship with, and became a blood brother of Yusufu Bijakuno, the son of the Pokino (county chief of Buddu). It was around this time that Kakungulu embarked on the career of elephant hunting. Then early in Kabaka Mwanga’s reign, he became the Mutongole chief of Kirumba in Buddu.
In 1893, when Colonel Henry Colville made a punitive attack on Bunyoro, Kakungulu commanded 15,000 Baganda soldiers who went with Colville. This mission greatly enhanced Kakungulu’s reputation.
Colonel Colville was to write about Kakungulu. “...for his ready acquiescence to all my orders, his well-directed influence with all his chiefs and men, his simultaneous concentration at Karuma of his 15,000 troops, and for his brilliant surprise and defeat of Kabalega’s army in Budongo forest.”
In April and May of 1895, Kakungulu was again sent on a mission to capture Kabalega who had taken refuge in Lango. The mission failed because the troops were afraid of going deep into unknown territory. However, much as they had not gone that far, they looted over 500 head of cattle. The journey into and out of Lango took a mere three days.
This booty was to set Kakungulu on a new course. It had been agreed that half of any cattle captured would be given to the fighters and the rest to the Buganda administration. Apolo Kaggwa asked that he be given whatever was due to the Buganda administration, Kakungulu refused and appealed to the British commander. The British commander ordered Kakungulu to comply with the Katikkiro’s orders.
Kakungulu refused and resigned the chieftainship he was holding. It is said that Kakungulu said he was going to found for himself another kingdom. His resignation did not bring his military career to an end but just opened new opportunities. Following the defeat of Kabalega, the colonial authorities gave all Bunyoro territory south of River Kafu to Buganda. Kakungulu was given the task of containing any resistance.
In mid-1896, Kakungulu went to war against the Langi who had been fighting the Itesot. It was a disaster for Kakungulu. Despite expending all his ammunition, he had to beat an ignominious retreat, having lost 50 men and 27 guns.
The capture of kings
At this time, Sir John tells us, Kakungulu was not subsidised by the Uganda government; he and his men paid themselves handsomely in form of cattle and other booty that they captured.
Then in March 1899, Kakungulu joined Major Evatt in the operations that captured Kabalega and Mwanga in Lango. Kakungulu himself was personally responsible for their capture as they were trying to escape from the village of Oyam in Dokolo Country. Kabalega had been so wounded that his arm had to be amputated.
Kabalega’s three sons were with him. One of the sons called Jaasi died of bullet wounds a few weeks later. Another one, Andereya Duhaga, who was to become Omukama, reported that when Kakungulu arrived on the scene, Kabalega asked him to kill him. Kakungulu refused and handed the two kings to Major Evatt. Major Evatt then assigned Kakungulu to escort the duo to Kampala.
In his report about the capture of the two kings, Major Evatt observed that he believed Kakungulu desired to add the territory where the operation took place to the territory under his control. Sir John tells us that from information given to him by Kakungulu himself, Major Evatt’s surmise was accurate.
Kakungulu also told Sir John that in June 1899, after he had delivered his prisoners to Kampala, he returned to establish himself in Lango. Lango was not easy for Kakungulu; most of his fortified outposts were dangerous.
Kakungulu did admit to Sir John that in 1899, he suffered a number of defeats in Lango. In one of these battles, Asanasiyo Gwentamu, whom Kakungulu had appointed Katikkiro was killed in Dokolo. The pressure from the Langi eventually made him abandon several of his outposts that he had established in the area.
In January 1900, the Rev. T.R. Buckley arrived at Kakungulu’s post in Kiweri. The Rev. Buckley reports that at that time, Kakungulu had about 250 armed followers. Kakungulu offered the Rev. Buckley escorts to where he was going, a 10-hour walk. On the way, one of the escorts attempted to steal a hoe, provoking a stand-off in which the Langi drew their spears and the escorts their guns.
Fortunately the Rev. Buckley managed to diffuse the situation. The Rev. Buckley was to observe that much as the Baganda had guns, the Langi were not afraid of them. Sometime in the later part of 1900, a scare developed around Mt. Elgon. A number of Sudanese mutineers, together with some Baganda and Basoga rebels were reported to be operating east of Mpologoma River. Tribes in the region were also raiding Busoga and were hostile to colonisation.
These incidents triggered fears that things might escalate and disrupt communication with the coast. To deal with this situation, Kakungulu was instructed to proceed to the foothills of Mt. Elgon.
Kakungulu with considerable armed following, moved along the northern shores of Lake Kioga and arrived at Naboa, some 10 miles west of Mbale. This was to be his introduction to the area.