The kings have it. Long live the kings

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

What you need to know:

  • Younger and ageing middle-class Ugandans, are investing in the land “back home” in record numbers, planting trees, building basic irrigation, setting up new homes ... 

Looking at the pre-wedding photographs of Busoga’s Kyabazinga Gabula Nadiope IV and Inhebantu Jovia Mutesi, the excitement, and the flood of saucy stories about the king’s past, a senior banker noted that Ugandans seem to again be obsessed with kings and chiefs.

Then, at the start of November I did a social media post about inflation in Uganda, which reached a two-year low of 2.4 percent in October, noting it was the lowest in East Africa, and the fourth lowest in Africa. There were many comments and private messages from a couple of senior officials in governments in the region. I sent them full reports and told them to look at food inflation. Virtually zero inflation there. They asked one of the oldest questions about why food was “so cheap” in Uganda. I said because it was plentiful.

We didn’t go into why the food is plentiful, because I guess they presumed that another old explanation, that Uganda’s lands are very fertile, was the reason. That is half the story. Ethiopia has arid land, yes, but it is also one of the most fertile places on Earth. Because it is far bigger than Uganda, it has more fertile acreage. However, its people frequently starve. Ugandans, outside the politically manufactured crises in Karamoja, rarely do.

The Central African Republic is part of a vast fertile plateau and very rich in water resources. However, it imports nearly 80 percent of its food, even during the past when it was more stable. The main reason food is plentiful in Uganda then, even with the image we have in the eyes of some outsiders as slow, easy-going, and dangerously close to lazy, is because our people work the hell out of the land.
We bring this up because there is a link between the growing affection for monarchies and chiefdoms and low food inflation.

Since the chaos some years ago in Busoga over Kyabazinga Gabula Nadiope IV’s ascension to the throne, kingdoms in Uganda have been relatively stable and quiet. Buganda’s King Ronald Mutebi only makes the occasional appearance for a birthday or something, and to the adulation of tens of thousands to flag off one of the world’s biggest marathons – the Kabaka Birthday Run, that was created in his honour. In Tooro King Oyo has long been out of the news, his imposing palace with its massive gates, sitting in a dense green garden on Karuzika, the highest hill in Fort Portal.

Once a running story and butt of jokes, Bunyoro’s King Solomon Iguru I found majesty and stability. A Bunyoro royalist tells me we have Queen Margaret Adyeri Karunga partly to thank for that.

Unknown to many Ugandans, there are several big chiefs in the north, wearing robes like the kings in the south and west. But, as a knowledgeable son of the soil said, Luos don’t have kings. They have historically been an “ungovernable” people, a king wouldn’t sit well with them. In Tororo, there is the Tieng Adhola Moses Owor. Already a man given to regale and Victorian manners, he’s been mellowed further by time and lives largely out of the glare of the cameras in dignity. His other title is Kwara Adhola (Grandfather of the Jophadhola), again that Nilotic-Luo aversion to confer a monarchical title.

Beyond the stability, there are many other reasons why these figures have risen in some affection in the eyes of many of their people. One is the crisis of the Uganda state project, which has driven them to find solace in their roots. The other is one of the things that nearly 40 years of President Yoweri Museveni has done to the presidency. It has been so long, to many it feels like a monarchy, not a republican office governed by a democratic logic. Museveni has become the first among the kings. If he is king, then the position of the other kings changes. They become deputy kings, which moves them from the periphery to the centre.

It is a strange outcome, at least at the emotional level. Even stranger is how this new love affair with roots, has led to more efficient production of food. A love of old institutions of kings and chiefs, even though they might be minor today compared to their glorious pre-colonial era, is expressed in cultural and economic terms as an embrace of the land.

Younger and ageing middle-class Ugandans, are investing in the land “back home” in record numbers, planting trees, building basic irrigation, setting up new homes and sticking internet services in them. They have brought new money into agriculture and stabilised food production.
So we have our great contradiction. This small agricultural “miracle”, needed the failure of the Museveni state – which in turn, is being praised for it as evidence of smart economic policy.

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