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Thirty years ago, during the coronation of Kabaka Mutebi, Baganda elders christened President Museveni Katongole. In 1999, Mr Museveni—a chief guest at Kabaka Mutebi’s wedding—donated 100 cows to the newlyweds. But by 2009, both President Museveni and Kabaka Mutebi were not taking or returning each other’s calls. Derrick Kiyonga explores what has by all accounts been a love-hate relationship.
For Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II and President Museveni, theirs can best be described as a love–hate relationship spanning nearly 42 years. Central to this volatile relationship is the lack of meeting of minds around the fluid concept of power. While the Kabaka’s subjects want him to preside over a quasi-state, Mr Museveni views the latter simply as a cultural leader.
“Buganda’s claims to political participation clash with the competing notion of sovereignty of the post-colonial state,” Mr Pierre Englebert, an American political scientist, who specialises in the politics of Francophone Africa and Central Africa, wrote in a paper titled Born-Again Buganda or the Limits of Traditional Resurgence in Africa.
When Mr Museveni started a guerrilla war in the jungles of Luweero in 1981, Mutebi was living in London following the exile of Edward Muteesa—his father—by Milton Obote. That same year, Mr Museveni and a 25-year-old Mutebi first crossed paths after a meeting around restoration of Buganda Kingdom that had, along with other kingdoms, been abolished by the 1967 Constitution. The meeting was staged at Prof Yusuf Lule’s home.
In 1985, Mutebi, who was in the company of John Nagenda (RIP) and Amanya Mushega, was sneaked into the Luweero jungles to meet the National Resistance Army (NRA) top brass. Mr Museveni would later claim that he had a meeting of minds with Mutebi about restoration of “traditional institutions” not least because they can be “a tool of consolidating Uganda’s national unity.”
In 1993, seven years after Mr Museveni had taken over the reins of the presidency in Uganda, traditional kingdoms were restored. Buganda clan elders were so ecstatic that they christened Mr Museveni, Katongole, a Kiganda name.
Thirty years later, the warmth that led up to Museveni morphing to Katongole appears to have dissipated. The restoration of Buganda’s federal status and land is squarely at the heart of a standoff between Mengo and Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.
The first standoff between Mr Museveni and Kabaka Mutebi came in 1998 when the government introduced the 1998 Land Act. The government claimed that the legislation was aimed at strengthening customary ownership rights and the rights of tenants by occupancy. It would do this by providing Ugandans the opportunity to obtain certificates of customary tenure and occupancy and by setting out the basis for upgrading these to freehold title.
It also contained provisions designed to strengthen the land rights of women and of others with derivative land claims (children and orphans). The legislation established new systems—land tribunals and decentralised land administration—and provides for central and local governments to hold environmentally sensitive areas in trust for the people of Uganda.
It provided for the establishment of a Land Fund, which is intended to provide support to tenants by occupancy who seek to obtain certificates of occupancy as well as compensation for landowners, whose rights are curtailed by the issue of such certificates. As the bill was being discussed in Parliament, lawmakers from Buganda protested what they deemed a ploy by other ethnic groups to take land in Buganda.
The government’s accusation against Mengo has been that it has always opposed any land reforms that sought to give Bibanja holders the security of tenure. Government officials cite how Mengo opposed the 1998 Land Act and the 2010 subsequent amendments that intended to give Bibanja holders (so-called bona fide occupants) security of tenure.
When Uganda was granted Independence in 1962, Buganda was given federal status, which Obote upended in 1967. Under the spirit of getting a federal system of government, in the early 2000s, a Mengo team led by then katikkiro (prime minister) Joseph Mulwanyamuli Ssemwogerere, negotiated with the central government led by then premier Apolo Nsibambi.
The two parties agreed on forming what came to be known as the “regional tier.” When Ssemwogerere presented this deal to Buganda’s Lukiiko [parliament], he was initially lionised by its members as a great negotiator. Yet he and his entire cabinet would get the sack within months after the regional tier was said to have a lot of hot air and no liftoff.
To date, the regional tier, which gave districts the greenlight to form regions, has been shelved by the central government. This is regardless of it being accepted by other kingdoms such as Bunyoro, Tooro, and Busoga.
A section of observers say while the regional tier is contentious, it pales in comparison to the dust kicked up by what Mengo alleges is a bid by NRM to create chiefdoms in Buganda. This fight was set in motion in 2004 when the Baruuli, whose abode is in Buruuli County, Nakasongola District, announced that they cannot subject themselves to Buganda domination.
Subsequently, Mwogeza Butamanya was installed as the Buruuli cultural chief. While Mengo roundly objected to this, Mr Museveni proceeded to give the Buruuli cultural chief an official car. Things heated up in 2007 when the police was deployed at Nakasongola District headquarters. This was after Baruuli blocked Kabaka Mutebi from presiding over the launch of the Masaza football tournament.
Things came to a head in 2009 when a dispute over the status of Bugerere County in Kayunga District ensued. The government claimed that for Kabaka Mutebi to go there to preside over a Buganda Youth Day event, he had to ask permission from the Ssabanyala, Capt Baker Kimeze, a cultural chief , who had been installed with the blessings of the central government. Mengo naturally rebuked the idea.
Another condition set by the Museveni government for it to green-light the event was for Mengo to invite Kimeze. Mengo was having none of it. Ali Kirunda Kivejinja (RIP), then Internal Affairs minister, was told that whoever wants to be at the event should do so and whoever wants to stay away is also free. Mengo dispatched Mr John Baptist Walusimbi, then katikkiro, to see how preparations for the event were panning out. Mr Walusimbi was stopped by police at River Ssezibwa bridge.
What followed was complete pandemonium. For three straight days, riot police and the military battled rampaging demonstrators in Kampala and several parts of Buganda who were protesting the government’s decision to block Kabaka Mutebi from touring Bugerere. Although Mutebi cancelled the trip in a bid “ to save lives”, the government officially tallied 27 deaths after the guns went silent in Kampala suburbs like Ndeeba and Makindye as well as Masaka.
Buganda riots aftermath
Besides a security crackdown, the government responded to the riots by switching off a number of radio stations. These included Suubi, Sapientia, Akaboozi Ku Bbiri, and the Buganda-owned Central Broadcasting Services (CBS). In the aftermath of the riots, Kabaka Mutebi met with Mr Museveni at the State House in Entebbe. The meeting happened after the President complained that he had called the Kabaka to resolve the matter but his calls went unanswered.
In spite of the talks, CBS remained off air until a year later when Museveni ordered its restoration on grounds that NRM supporters had repeatedly called him to reconsider the position.
Although CBS has been on air since October 2010, the fate of its licence, which was revoked in the aftermath of the riot, remains a mystery.
The relationship between Mengo and the central government further deteriorated when the historical Kasubi Tombs, that houses the remains of four of Buganda’s kings, were gutted by a mysterious fire. This triggered protests from Buganda royalists. The Special Forces Command (SFC), which guards the first family and had been deployed because Museveni was going to tour the site, reacted by killing three people and injuring others.
Shaking up things
In 2013, Kabaka Mutebi replaced the aging Mr Walusimbi with a rather youthful Mr Peter Mayiga. Although many were primed for a further escalation of tensions, Kabaka Mutebi in 2013 signed a contentious Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Museveni. The agreement, in which the central government agreed to return 213 land titles of Buganda’s ancestral properties, was seen as a major stepping stone in normalising relations between Buganda and Uganda.
After the signing of the agreement, Mr Mayiga claimed the kingdom had reclaimed all its properties. Although he listed properties in Bugerere and Buruuli, Section B of the agreement indicated that the kingdom surrendered its control over the properties in Bugerere to the Ssabanyala and in Buruuli, to the Ssabaruli, areas historically known to be under Buganda.
In 2021, for the first time Mr Museveni and his party lost Buganda to Robert Kyagulanyi’s National Unity Platform (NUP) party. This prompted Mr Museveni to claim that he lost the region that harboured his guerrillas in the 1980s because of sectarianism. In response Mr Mayiga insisted that NRM should address Buganda’s issues or “ebyaffe.”
When the government proposed land amendments in 2007, which were later passed in 2010, Mengo responded by instituting a Buganda Civic Education Central Committee (CECC) . The CECC would go on to aggressively campaign against the reforms, saying they were an attempt to grab Kabaka’s land.
The government responded in 2008 by arresting Mr Charles Peter Mayiga, then Buganda Kingdom spokesperson; Mr Medard Lubega Sseggona, then the kingdom’s deputy spokesperson; and Ms Betty Nambooze Bakireke, who headed the CECC.
Mr Mayiga was released without charge while Mr Sseggona and Ms Nambooze were charged with sedition after being detained by security agencies for several days. The charges were later dropped.
The Kabaka in 2021 insisted that his government would continue to firmly demand for two things: self-determination under the federal system of governance and its property known in Luganda as ebyaffe.