Impact of colonialism on Bunyoro - Part II

What you need to know:

For resisting colonial rule, Omukama Kabalega’s Bunyoro kingdom would experience slow, interrupted development due to economic discrimination, but his leaders would also play a notable part in that process.


Colonial wars were not always so destructive. That Bunyoro’s suffering was exceptional, resulted above all from Omukama Kabalega’s armies’ ability to maintain a guerrilla resistance for an unusually long time.

It was also due to British officers viewing Bunyoro’s resistance as a personal challenge, responding to each innovation in Kabalega’s strategy with great severity. One officer described how he ‘once more started off for another round with Kabarega’, who was at the same time ‘a brutal savage’ who had to be exterminated, and ‘every inch a king’ and so a challenging opponent who had to be comprehensively defeated.

Thus, effective ambushes by the Banyoro resulted in a ‘scorched earth’ policy, impressive fortifications designed to resist maxim machine gunfire were bombarded with cannon, and a refusal to swear loyalty to the British was met with torture, execution and the burning of villages.

Bunyoro’s prolonged resistance confirmed its status as an enemy of the British imperial project. Harry Johnston, the architect of the Ugandan colonial state, reminded Bunyoro’s administrators that they were governing ‘a conquered country’.

The negotiation that typically accompanied the transition to civilian administration in colonial Uganda was absent in Bunyoro. In contrast to other parts of Uganda, Bunyoro was not protected from Buganda’s demands for payment of tribute and taxation was imposed without local consultation.

Also, agitation against Britain’s dependence on Baganda chiefs in local administration resulted in mass deportation of the protestors rather than the removal of the Baganda chiefs, while the cultivation of cash crops was insisted upon even when the cost of bringing the crops to market was greater than the sale price.

The early decades of the 20th century then were characterised by sustained, active discrimination which entrenched in the minds of the Banyoro that the British had an irrational antipathy towards them. The British approach to Bunyoro changed in the mid-1920s. The crowning of a new omukama, Tito Winyi, in 1924 was regarded as an opportunity to encourage the Banyoro to forget the past and take advantage of the opportunities offered by colonialism.

Better transport now made cash cropping profitable, and the colonial state had become committed to providing basic healthcare and education for rural populations.

A new generation of British officials viewed Kabalega’s resistance as ancient history, the colonial policy of indirect rule placed new value on monarchs with traditional authority, and Winyi quickly presented himself as a model king, efficient and obedient. Yet Bunyoro, as a whole, continued to stagnate. Partly this was because the kingdom suffered a new kind of structural discrimination.

Colonial development increasingly adopted the rhetoric of equality and populism, and as Uganda experimented with democracy after 1945, pressure for development expenditure to produce quick returns increased.

Densely populated districts were considered more deserving of limited development funds, and more likely to use the investment productively, than areas of dispersed settlement like Bunyoro. Bunyoro’s perceived low development potential meant that the district subsidised projects in districts that seemed more likely to move beyond peasant agriculture.

In the 1950s, Bunyoro received less than 1 per cent of Uganda’s development expenditure. Yet the kingdom accounted for 2.2 per cent of Uganda’s population, and around 6 per cent of Gross Domestic Product.

A sign of Bunyoro’s political weakness was its inability to pressure the government to distribute revenues from tobacco, its main cash crop, more equitably. The proportion of tobacco proceeds retained by the state was 15 times greater than the share paid to the farmer.

Bunyoro was the only district in Uganda whose population declined over the colonial period, partly because its poverty and perceived political unpopularity encouraged steady out-migration. But low fertility and high mortality were also significant.

The early colonial period was demographically disastrous in much of Africa, but Bunyoro suffered more than most. The environmental consequences of the war of conquest brought 12 years of famine in the first quarter century of British overrule and a series of epidemics, from sleeping sickness to meningitis.

However, what made Bunyoro unusual was that deaths exceeded births through to the 1950s. At the heart of this problem was the collapse of Bunyoro’s livestock economy. Once famed as a cattle kingdom, Bunyoro had fewer livestock than any other Ugandan district during the colonial period. This is because during the period of conquest, traditional techniques of environmental management could not be sustained and looting by imperial troops was officially encouraged.

Descriptions of Bunyoro’s landscape after 1900 differed significantly from the accounts of Kabalega’s day. Bunyoro had become a bush-land, overrun with game animals, tsetse flies and ticks. The lack of livestock made malnutrition endemic in Bunyoro and also, surprisingly, led indirectly to high rates of marital breakdown and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

The extreme shortage of livestock both inflated and monetised bride wealth, so that many young people were unable to formally marry at all, and clan mediation of marital problems declined because bride wealth livestock was no longer distributed through family and patronage networks. Low population density, and a sustained sense of social crisis, resulted.

It is easy to blame all of Bunyoro’s problems on the colonial state, and indeed the combination of neglect and discrimination was unusually destructive. However, the role of Bunyoro’s indigenous elite should also be considered, for instance, Tito Winyi and his leading chiefs fixated on constitutional issues, and especially the lost counties, at the expense of more mundane matters of welfare and development.

The elite taxed themselves more lightly in Bunyoro than anywhere else in Uganda, and responded unenthusiastically to suggestions that higher tax revenues would enable higher quality healthcare provision. Tito Winyi dismissed a series of able chiefs who failed to express absolute loyalty to him.

What the future holds
The decentralisation of power to district governments after 1945, offered Banyoro the opportunity to resolve their problems by themselves. In some areas like Ankole, rapid development resulted in the late 1940s and 1950s. In Bunyoro it did not.

In a final irony, Bunyoro’s long, and sophisticated, campaign to secure the return of the lost counties was partially successful in 1964. Her population and status were enhanced, but the transfer of territory severed the relationship between Uganda’s then prime minister, Milton Obote, and her president, the Kabaka of Buganda.

Two years later, the Kabaka was driven away from his palace, and in 1967, all of Uganda’s kingdoms were abolished. Bunyoro’s role as a bridge between the northern and southern branches of the UPC party was fatally compromised, and a brief moment of optimism came to a close. Time will tell whether the discovery of oil will restore past glories, or prove to be another episode in this kingdom’s frequently tragic history.