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{UAH} Happy birthday Kabaka Mutebi


Life has always been brutal and short for the Kabakas (kings) of Buganda Kingdom.

Kabaka Kimbugwe was killed around 1644 "by witchcraft" sponsored by his stepson. Kabaka Tebutwereke was drowned in Lake Victoria on the orders of his angry sister while the luckless Kabaka Katerega died around 1674 after being stung in the genitals by a millipede.

Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi I's 60th birthday celebration this week was therefore significant: he has now lived longer than his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and, in fact, longer than all the kings of the recorded modern era.

Kabaka Mutebi is unlikely to worry about being poisoned or drowned by a rival sibling — that kind of fratricide is unlikely to be allowed by modern criminal laws. Modern medicine and better living conditions have improved the life expectancy for royalty and subjects alike, and the Kabaka would have to be extremely unlucky for a millipede to find its way past modern clothing to the inner sanctuary of the crown jewels.

Yet Kabaka Mutebi faces challenges as the leader of an ancient kingdom seeking its place in a modern nation-state. When he was born on April 13, 1955, the era of the traditional kingdoms that had held sway over large areas of present-day Uganda was coming to an end.

To the west of the country, near the present-day border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the great Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, which had rivalled Buganda for dominance over centuries, was in ruins.

Its last great king, Omukama Kabalega, had defied the British colonial army and, with his fearsome Abarusura warriors, engaged them in eight years of guerrilla warfare until superior weapons, the support of republican Baganda officials, and the treachery of local tribes just north of the River Nile led to his capture and defeat.

The scorched-earth policy that the British used to smoke out Omukama Kabalega had led to what some have argued amounted to genocide in Bunyoro. What survived the British was claimed by famine and pestilence.

Mutebi's great-great-grandfather, Kabaka Muteesa I, had invited the Christian missionaries to Buganda and although his grandfather, Kabaka Mwanga, tried to resist the usurpation of his power when it became clear that the missionaries and their armed colleagues wanted more than just souls to save, it was too late.

In any case, there were enough allies among the Baganda elite supportive of the "modernising" ways of the Christian missionaries and the colonial administration that Buganda was granted and retained a special status, quite different from that of the other chiefdoms and kingdoms, including Bunyoro, Ankole and Tooro that also came under the British protectorate.

Kabaka Mutebi was born in the heady days of pre-Independence agitation, for self-rule, and for greater economic opportunities for natives. The suppression of native economic opportunities had started almost as soon as the British imposed their control. 
For instance, in the late 1890s, his great-grandfather, Kabaka Mwanga was prevented by the British colonialists from buying and installing a sawmill to engage in the timber trade that was flourishing amidst, a construction boom. 

 Some of the colonial-era obstacles, such as restrictions on Africans owning ginneries, had been removed by Independence, but more fundamental questions remained, such as the place of Buganda in the modern-day nation state to which it had lent its name to.

The Buganda Question, as it came to be referred to, was one of many unresolved questions but perhaps the most important one, leading or contributing to the break-up of the first post-Independence government, the abolition of traditional kingdoms in 1966, the rise of Idi Amin in 1971 and the militant violence offered then and since, to try to answer what were fundamentally political problems.

By the time Prince Ronald Mutebi became king in 1993, he was no stranger to these problems. His father, Kabaka Muteesa II, had died, sad and penniless, in exile in the United Kingdom where the prince was also to spend two decades.

Although he got his crown back, Kabaka Mutebi was, in many ways, a king without a kingdom. Many of the kingdom properties had been taken over by the military and its land by squatters and he was a cultural leader without the political power his predecessors once had, including power over life and death.

By the time he married Lady Sylvia Nagginda in August 1999, the honeymoon with the government was already over or at least coming to an end.

There were at least three fundamental points of disagreement, according to several sources familiar with the matter: Return of and compensation for property and land taken over by the central government after 1966; a new land law that made it difficult if not impossible for Buganda's landed gentry, many of them absentee landlords, to evict settlers and squatters on their land; and most, controversial of all, Buganda's demand for a "federo" (federal) system of government similar to that which existed at Independence, giving it more autonomy over its affairs.

Although the kingdom did not openly endorse a candidate in the 2011 presidential elections, the close ties between some of its senior officials and opposition candidate Dr Kizza Besigye were symptomatic of the disaffection within Buganda.

These demands have dominated relations between the Kingdom and the central government under Kabaka Mutebi's reign. Many but not all properties have been returned, the land law has neither been the panacea the central government claimed it would be nor the existential threat many Ganda landlords feared, and a lukewarm Regional Tier, offered in lieu of federal government, was dead on arrival.

Many aspects of the Buganda Question remain unanswered. What has changed, however, is the manner of asking.

Sleepless in September

A turning point can be seen in the months between December 2008 and September 2009. That December, as an annual Buganda Conference got underway in Kampala, word trickled in that two outspoken kingdom officials, Medard Segona and Betty Nambooze, who had carved themselvesa niche by using their talk shows on the kingdom's CBS Radio, had been arrested.

They would subsequently be charged with terrorism and treason-related offences but it was clear, as the subsequent dropping of charges showed, that this was an attempt to silence the rumbustious pair, as well as Charles Peter Mayiga, another kingdom official with an equally critical show on the radio, who was later also detained.

If that was a warning shot across the brows, the real shots came a few months later, in September 2009, when riots broke out after the police prevented Kabaka Mutebi from touring a restive part of his kingdom. At least 27 people, most if not all unarmed civilians, were shot dead as the country threatened to erupt in tribal violence and CBS radio was switched off for more than a year.

In the days following the riots, an angry President Yoweri Museveni revealed that Kabaka Mutebi had refused to grant him audience or to take his calls, in a sign of how badly broken relations were.

A few months later, in March 2010, the Kasubi Tombs, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Kampala where some past kings, including Kabaka Mutebi's father, are interred, went up in flames.

The fire, whose cause has never been confirmed, made short work of the enormous and elaborate grass-thatched structure and, in the teary eyes of many Baganda, including the Kabaka himself, adding insult to the injuries the kingdom had suffered over the years.

Collectively, these were the lowest points in relations between the central government and Buganda since the 1966 crisis and, while few people will openly admit it, it left a lasting impression on the Ganda psyche and certainly changed the way the kingdom goes about agitating for its interests.

"Those killings did," says Mr Mayiga who, two years ago, was appointed the Katikiro, in response to whether the Kayunga Riots, as the September 2009 disturbances came to be called, affected the kingdom and its people.

"Once people feel they are being pressured as a group, as a community, they come together. Some people thought it would destroy the kingdom and make us weak, but the reverse has happened."

Mayiga, with a short gaotee and with black-rimmed spectacles, speaks from experience. After his release in 2009 (no charges were preferred against him), he recalls strangers turning up at his home to shake his hand and encourage him to remain firm.

"Many were people I had never seen before, total strangers, queuing to shake my hand and just say thank you, be strong," he says. Some brought goats, others chickens but all brought a sense of solidarity.

Mayiga was a young, fresh law graduate from Makerere University in 1991 when he was tapped to become secretary of a committee set up to make arrangements for the return of the kingdom and the coronation of the king.

He'd spent a few months in the state prosecutor's office and had left to do wholesale trading in downtown Kampala when the older officials, looking for a young, inexpensive Muganda lawyer with pedigree (he comes from a family with a history of activism) called him up.

Sources familiar with the matter say that Mayiga is therefore uniquely placed, having seen and participated in the ebbing and flowing of the tide of relations between Buganda Kingdom and the Central government.

Katikiro Mayiga is now using that experience to fundamentally change the kingdom's approach to its agitation. Over the past 24 months he has spent endless days on the road fundraising to repair the Kasubi Tombs, other palaces and commercial properties to generate a steady income for the kingdom.

The economic initiative is not new. In 1995 the then Katikiro Joseph Mulwanyamuli Ssemogerere launched a five-year "cultural and development revolution" in which the kingdom set up the Buganda Cultural and Development Foundation as its social arm, and the Buganda Investments and Commercial Undertakings Ltd to make the money.

Yet the clamour for federo dominated the discourse and while these initiatives rolled on slowly in the background, they were not seen as the kingdom's meat and potatoes.

Changing lanes

The fundamental difference is that his predecessors saw federo as a means to socio-economic emancipation in Buganda; Katikiro Mayiga sees social-economic emancipation as a means to attaining federo.

"Federal is important because Buganda sacrificed its sovereignty for Uganda, and that is what it is all about," Mr Mayiga told The East-African this week, "but people must have an income and must have food. When I harp on the federo song I don't think people will get food."

So the Katikiro spends days on end visiting different parts of the kingdom and elsewhere, collecting "Ettoffali" (bricks) to pay for badly needed repairs and investments. By the last count, about Ush7 billion (about $2.3 million) had been collected, with most of it, according to Mayiga, coming from small donations from small people.

The kingdom has run fundraising campaigns previously, including selling certificates but without as much impact as the current drive. The key, says Mayiga, is to be transparent and account for every cent received, and to make it easier for those willing to contribute to do so.

Ahead of the coronation in 1993, Mayiga was tasked with setting up bank accounts in which well-wishers could deposit money, but for many the cost of travelling to the bank was higher than what they could give. The advent of mobile money, and public declarations of all collections have addressed both problems, and is beginning to bear fruit.

One of the gifts presented to the Kabaka at his birthday was a newly refurbished plaza, next to the Kingdom's official court, which had lain abandoned and unfinished for decades.

On the other side of town, a shopping mall owned by the kingdom opened many months ago. A new company has been set up to manage the Kasubi Tombs when renovation is completed as well as other tourist facilities in the kingdom; another one is a branding company to produce kingdom memorabilia and negotiate with corporate entities seeking to tap into the kingdom's loyal subjects.

A marathon held to commemorate the king's birthday was sponsored by a bank and a telco. Other companies were queuing up to sponsor the dinner.

Not everyone is sold on the fundraising initiative. A populist Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nuhu Muzaata, himself a Muganda, caused an uproar when he berated the poor subjects of the kingdom for contributing to the cause, but many see the value in putting business ahead of politics.

One of them is Prof Samwiri Lunyiigo, a historian, author of books on the kingdom's history, and an advisor to President Museveni on Buganda affairs.

"We are the most centrally located but we are the most peripheral politically," he says. "If we can regain some economic might, if we can feed our people, teach and educate them, then that is a good thing for now."

Mayiga is convinced that delivering services, particularly in a country where public health and education are in dire straits, is the best way for the kingdom and the Kabaka to remain relevant to his subjects.

As he traverses the kingdom, he hears, first-hand, the needs of the people. Many complain about the state of the schools, others about lacking seedlings but the most common refrain is the need for better hospitals and one of the projects the kingdom is thinking about fundraising for next.

"A king today who doesn't address the socio-economic conditions of their people is irrelevant. Culture must be about the welfare of the people," he said. "It is after addressing the welfare of the people, building schools, building hospitals, and so on, that the Kabaka will become more powerful – it is not federalism that is going to make him powerful."

A non-confrontational approach is also drawing more concessions out of a regime weakened by internal power struggles and keen to maintain broad alliances, particularly with the populous Baganda. In a recent memorandum of understanding, the central government committed to paying back rent for properties occupied over the years, and to expedite the return of other properties.

President Museveni also threw in a Toyota Landcruiser as a birthday gift to the Kabaka and it is presumed that telephone calls placed to congratulate the king would have been taken or at the very least returned.

In remarks to mark Uganda's 50th Independence anniversary, Prof Mahmood Mamdani, whose book, Politics and Class Formation in Uganda, is a useful study in the evolution of the Ugandan state, noted a distinction between the pre-colonial traditional kingdoms and the modern nation-state.

Traditional societies managed themselves through some form of consensus, while the nation state relied on its ability to conquer society and impose rules upon it.

Kingdoms like Buganda, which belong to the older period but must survive in the present, need to expand their soft power and build consensus with those they lead.

"The Aga Khan has millions of followers, but he has no army. The Pope has hundreds of millions of followers, but he too has no army," Prof Mamdani argued.

"The most durable human societies are built on the basis of consent, not conquest.  It is not the capacity for violence and coercion that distinguishes us from animals. What is most human about us is the gift of speech, and the ability to persuade fellow humans."

Kabaka Mutebi's predecessors once commanded impressive military capabilities, including the ability to conduct simultaneous wars on land and water.

Today the king's traditional guards are largely ceremonial and he relies on armed guards provided by the state. In the absence of military power, it perhaps makes sense that the Kabaka needs to rely on the soft power of his position and the love of his subjects — love that is sustained better by services, not slogans.

This is a lesson that, as he grows older and more experienced in the exercise of power, Kabaka Mutebi appears to have understood well and in Katikiro Mayiga he seems to have found a loyal follower keen to build Buganda Inc., one brick at a time.

"In tribute to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Uganda, two bastions of strength in a world filled with strife, discrimination and terrorism."

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