Getting power by not seeking it: Lessons from Kabaka Mutebi

Wednesday September 16 2020

Buganda Kabaka (king) Ronald Mutebi was in Nairobi third week of August, and met Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, and Opposition leader and African Union envoy Raila Odinga.
He travelled by road and, as is his wont, unannounced, sparking off the inevitable social media rumour that he was ill. And that, right there, is the big story about Kabaka Mutebi. Every other year since his coronation in 1993, he has shrouded himself more and more behind a thick royal curtain. 
At his coronation, even as a cultural leader, the analysis was that Mutebi would at least mildly be an activist king, much like a modern-day European monarch. Instead, he has been more like a Japanese emperor. 
A few years ago, it was normal to read stories in the media of controversies in Buganda or pitting the kingdom and the central Uganda government, on which Mutebi was expected to pronounce himself. Today, a year goes by and there isn’t a single one. The Kabaka will appear at a few royal events, and flag off the Kabaka Birthday Run, and little more. The irony is that precisely because of that, and the contrast he cuts with, especially, ranting and threatening national leaders, Mutebi’s clout and mystic have grown. No man, or leader (cultural or otherwise) in Uganda has mastered the art of accumulating prestige (and even power) by being staid and near-invisible like Mutebi.
Fortune also favoured him. Mutebi happens to be king at the right time and in the right continent, during what is a growing wave of Afrofuturism. There might be a few fellows reading this whose current understanding of Afrofuturism is the more deeply philosophical version offered by Senegalese scholar, musician and writer’s wonderful book Afrotopia. 
But there is a more chewable entry-level version for those who are too busy surviving Covid-19 to sweat these issues. In a July article this year in WIRED, C. Brandon Ogbunu, now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University titled ‘How Afrofuturism Can Help the World Mend’, wrote: “When most people think of Afrofuturism today, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Wakanda comes to mind, an African country that hides advanced technology from the world. Within Wakanda, Afrofuturism manifests most explicitly in the award-winning fashion and set design, a hypnotic blend of African traditional art and dress, cyberpunk, and space opera.
“While highly visible examples like Black Panther certainly qualify, Afrofuturism has more traditionally lived in subgenres of literature, philosophy, music, fashion, and other aesthetics (emphasis added).  “Dubbing something Afrofuturistic, says renowned sociologist Alondra Nelson, is ‘very much in the eye of the beholder and this is a good thing. Afrofuturism should be a big tent of expanding borders of the possibilities for Black life’.”  Young people might have recognised Afrofuturism in Beyoncé’s recent big hit musical film and visual album Black Is King. African kings in colourful robes like Mutebi, have got a new premium.
The other part of this equation, is more complicated – and even contradictory. It was evident in the release from Kenya’s State House on Mutebi meeting with Kenyatta. “The Head of State and the visiting cultural leader discussed…the central role of culture in regional integration and peaceful communal co-existence,” it said. Raila, on the other hand, said of the meeting that they “exchanged views on historical, cultural, educational and trade ties that bind East Africans.”
The Buganda Kingdom restoration, like all the rest, was really a contest about how a people’s history, culture, and aspiration could exist independently in its own right, and as part of the national Uganda project. Since then, arguments and federalism, especially from Buganda, have been portrayed by republican purists as laced with “secessionist,” and other ethnic nationalists see it as a “quest for a special Buganda status”. Yet, the real impact of the Buganda Kingdom as fashioned by Mutebi has partly had the opposite outcome. 
I have friends who, in 1992, were telling me Buganda was ready to divorce Uganda. Not a single one of them are as vocal today, although two of them think Uganda will collapse, if only because most neo-colonial African states will.
Why are more Buganda nationalists comfortable in their Ugandan skins today? Mainly for two reasons: The first is reciprocal. The acceptance that Buganda kingdom should exist in Uganda, has brought with it a higher degree of accommodation of the bigger Uganda from Buganda nationalists.
Secondly, the regal figure Mutebi cuts has offered many in Buganda, especially its opinion-shaping middle class, an alternative to invest their political-cultural emotions, and a palliative for the frustration that the divisive and sometimes-violent factors that President Yoweri Museveni and his state are. 
As Raila put it, the “ties that bind”. I would be very surprised if in 1993, Mutebi thought he was signing up for that.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3