The biggest challenges Kabaka, his Buganda face today

Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II (C) waves to people during his 30-year coronation at his palace in Mengo, Kampala, on July 31, 2023. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • Buganda's shortcomings over the last 30 years, therefore, cannot be blamed entirely on the lack of that one thing it most wants, federo.

This week, Buganda Kingdom commemorated the pearl, or 30th anniversary, of the reign of Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II.

Mutebi’s has now become one of the longest reigns by any of the 36 kings of Buganda.

It might also be one of the most successful reigns, although it doesn’t quite feel that way to most Baganda.

Over the last 30 years, the main disturbances and disappointments for Buganda that one can sum up have been:
1) Buganda’s failure to secure a federal status in the 1995 Uganda Constitution. 
2) The 1998 Land Act that Buganda felt undermined it vital interests in land. 
3) The incident in 1999 at the royal tombs at Kasubi where Kabaka Mutebi’s aunt, Princess Irene Ndagire, and several other Buganda royals publicly called into question Mutebi’s authority and even paternity. 
4) The arrest in 2008 of three senior Buganda Kingdom officials, Charles Peter Mayiga, then minister of information; Medard Lubega Ssegona, then minister of state for information, and Betty Nambooze Bakireke, then chairperson of the civic education central committee.
5) The 2009 riots in Buganda after the Katikkiro JB Walusumbi was denied access to a Kayunga venue for the Kabaka’s youth event. 
6) The closure by the NRM government of the Buganda-owned CBS FM for a year as a result of these riots. 
7) The fire in 2010 that gutted part of the Kasubi tombs. 
8) The general feeling that Buganda is fast losing much of its precious land to foreigners and other Ugandans, who take advantage of the economic vulnerability of Baganda.

Through all these incidents and disappointments, however, Mutebi, his cabinet ministers and legislative assembly (the Lukiiko), patiently soldiered on, partly by defiance, partly through negotiation, partly by making concessions, to keep the kingdom intact, and securing what redress and gains could be made – all the while, making sure to avoid the head-on confrontation with the central government that resulted in the May 1966 tragedy.

Here, the Mutebi reign resembles the Daudi Chwa reign during the 1920s and 1930s.
It has chosen the path of an unsatisfactory but pragmatic co-existence with the central government.

The result of this pragmatic 1920s coexistence was a flourishing of the kingdom, seen in the growing influence in the 1920s in national life of the mission-founded schools of Gayaza High School, King’s College Budo, Mengo Hospital, the founding of Makerere College in 1922 (later to become Makerere University), and various other kingdom- and church-affiliated institutions.

These schools and hospitals had been started with the cooperation of Buganda Kingdom and were later to educate a whole new, Western-educated elite not just for Buganda but for much of the rest of Uganda and, as a by-product, cementing Buganda’s central influence in Uganda.

The 1993-2023 period has seen Buganda take similar incremental steps in the direction of entrepreneurship and social services in cooperation with the central government – a radio station, television station, a land board, university, property agency, a housing project, and numerous royal foundations and joint projects from blood donation to tree planting drives.

Last week during a conversation, a friend suggested and saw in this an interesting example: The Ismailia Muslim community with the Aga Khan as its titular head.

The Ismailia do not have any geographical territory of their own. They exist as minority religious and ethnic communities within other states.

And yet the Ismailia community, under the Aga Khan, have become a major force in East African history over the last 100 years through their schools, universities, mosques, hotels, media properties like the Nation Media Group, and much more.

In Kenya, the Aga Khan’s presence and influence is in many instances even greater than that of the Kenya government, especially in media, healthcare, and education.

The kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro, Tooro, and Busoga, revived in the 1990s, have several important assets that the Ismailia community lacks: geographical territory, a parliament, and a large population.

Even in its current status, without the much-sought federo, the Buganda government in political and institutional terms stands just below the central Uganda government and just above the Aga Khan’s community.

In other words, Buganda even today is technically in a better position to be organised, prosperous, and influential than the Ismailia community.

Its shortcomings over the last 30 years, therefore, cannot be blamed entirely on the lack of that one thing it most wants, federo.

The Aga Khan and the Ismailia are proof of how a homogenous community can lack political power and geographical territory, but exert significant influence on the societies within which it exists.

As I’ve written before in Monitor and on social media, the Indian community in general, of which the Ismailia are a part, do not have MPs in Uganda’s Parliament, don’t have cabinet ministers, officers in the army and police, no single head of a government agency, at most one or two ambassadors and High Commissioners over the last 37 years, they don’t have district chairpersons, and all the political and governmental representation that Ugandans feel are important in economic and social progress.

However, about 69 percent of the taxes collected by the Uganda Revenue Authority are from Indian-owned companies.

Seen this way, Buganda as a kingdom and collective entity has underperformed somewhat relative to its demographic and geographical size and the cultural cohesion it enjoys, and the lack of a federal status is not necessarily the reason for this.

Today, for all intents and purposes, Buganda enjoys federo, if by “Federo” we mean some kind of Independence-Lite.

And yet in all this, Buganda still feels short-changed and incomplete. Why so?
The past 37 years of the NRM government – a government that seems immune to military coups and which shows little immediate signs of going away – have sown among the Baganda a fatalistic mood.

The NRM government is seen, in a certain sense, as a pseudo-Ankole kingdom.
This kingdom took control of the central government in 1986 and acts unfairly as both a player and referee in the tournament with the other kingdoms.

The increasingly public role and positioning for succession of Museveni by his son Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba lends weight to this sentiment.

That’s why in his speech on Monday in pouring rain, the Kabaka emphasised that although the Buganda throne was formally restored on July 31, 1993, it was without real powers.

In some minds, the longer the NRM stays in power, the more tracts of Buganda land are bought with ill-gotten money or simply grabbed, and since land is of the essence in Buganda, this is an existential crisis.

This explains the anxiety many Baganda feel about the very future of their kingdom.
While I sympathise with Buganda’s collective fear over land, my view is that the biggest challenge Buganda and the Mutebi reign face today and tomorrow is not necessarily the lack of federo or insufficient revenue to fund its enterprises, but the new, borderless, digital world and global culture dominated by the Euro-American West.

The two CBS FM radio channels are in daily competition with 40 other Kampala radio stations, which in turn, along with our national newspapers and television stations are all in competition with Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Twitter (or Twitter-X) for Baganda’s digital screen time.

We see some of this same influence and contradiction at the highest political level.
President Museveni and Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame are both committed pan-Africanists, but when push comes to shove they both send their sons to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England.

Buganda launches the Mutesa I Royal University, but the Kabaka’s daughter, Princess Sarah Mirembe Ssangalyambogo Nachwa, was enrolled at the University of Nottingham in England – the same university incidentally that Gen Muhoozi earlier attended.

If the Kabaka’s own daughter must be enrolled in a British university, that doesn’t help the cause of Mutesa I University in its effort to establish its prestige as a university version of King’s College Budo.

In addition, Buganda’s two radio channels undermine their own position in the way they give excessive time and coverage to the English Premier League when they should be using that same time to promote and analyse the Buganda county football league.

In listing the achievements of the Mutebi reign last week, the Katikkiro (prime minister) Charles Peter Mayiga emphasised physical properties and business enterprises founded since 1993 by Buganda Kingdom.

As I noted in last Sunday’s Monitor, the concrete, monetary, and material seem to be ingrained in us Africans as the highest and only true measure of success.

As one with particular interest in photography and video, I notice that for all the prestige the Kabaka enjoys, there are very few high-quality, professional photos and videos of him in the public domain.

My appeals to the Tooro, Buganda, Busoga, and Bunyoro establishments to put in an effort in producing digital content worthy of royalty, as it is with European royal families, have predictably landed on deaf and indifferent ears.

The empires of the future, as the British prime minister Winston Churchill noted in 1943, would be empires of the mind.

No longer so much about geographical territory, the concept of empire would be expressed in who owns the attention and loyalty of millions and billions of minds.

I hope over the next few years and decades, Buganda and the rest of Uganda start to think in terms of matters of the intellect, thought, patents for invention, academic research, creative arts and industrial design as equal measures of success.