How 50 years have not changed the nature of the confrontation between the central government, traditional authorities
Exactly 50 years since Prime Minister Milton Obote attacked the palace of Sir Edward Mutesa, the King of Buganda, President Yoweri Museveni has attacked the palace of the king of Rwenzururu, Wesley Mumbere. In typical political style, opposition leader Kizza Besigye tweeted his horror at both the attack on the palace and the people killed. I am sure Besigye and many of his supporters think if they were in power they would have handled the situation differently.
In many ways, this is a good thing for Uganda because even if our politicians learn nothing from such experience, it will remain as a major source of debate on the contradictions that tend to characterise the exercise of power. For many years, Museveni denounced Obote for attacking Lubiri, Mutesa’s palace, and Baganda agreed with him. Museveni simplified a complex problem by reducing it to the “madness and maliciousness” of Obote.
On May 21, 1966 the Buganda Lukiiko (parliament) passed a motion seceding from Uganda and ordering the government of Uganda to vacate Buganda soil. Obote did not react. Earlier Mutesa as president of Uganda had ordered a large quantity of weapons through a company called Gailey and Roberts. Mengo has also summoned Baganda ex-service men to Lubiri promising to arm them for the defense of the kingdom. All this information reached the police. Again the Obote administration did not take action.
In the following days, however, gangs attacked and overran police stations across six counties in Buganda. This escalation of violence, coupled with the aforementioned order for arms and ammunitions, provocations and intelligence led to an emergency cabinet meeting. The cabinet instructed Obote to take tough action to resolve the problem – to use the cabinet’s own words, to “go the whole hog”.
Obote called in Inspector General of the Police, Erinayo Oryema, and asked him to send a police unit to Lubiri to verify the allegations of arms. When they went there, they were fired at and several were killed. Obote called in deputy army commander, Col. Idi Amin, and asked him to send a unit of the Uganda Army to back up the police. They were shot at and could not get into the palace because apparently Mengo had effective machine gun power.
The fighting went on all day until Amin decided to reinforce his unit and bombed the palace to force his way in. Thus marked the Battle of Mengo, which sent the Kabaka to exile thus making Obote the most hated man in Buganda. I have read the events of February to May 1966 from the accounts of Mutesa, Obote and many other players of the time and I got to the conclusion that Mengo left the prime minister with no option but to attack the palace.
Thus, as Museveni consistently condemned Obote and even argued that the prime minister should have played music for the Kabaka to get out of the palace, I was the lone voice, then a young journalist at Monitor, who always argued that history has been unfair to Obote on this account. No leader of Uganda would have acted otherwise except force a confrontation with Mengo. Indeed, Obote exhibited a high degree of tolerance and patience with Mengo. Museveni would not have taken such arrogance from Mengo.
But this being politics, I think many Baganda genuinely believe that if Museveni had been president he would have acted in a different way towards their Kabaka. Yet as the events of this week have shown, no central government in any country, not even a stupid one, can accept a sub-national group to acquire arms and seek to either secede or exercise violence without crashing it.
The Bakonjo may have grievances with Uganda or the government of Museveni but they must seek a peaceful way of resolving them or they will face exactly what they faced this week and even worse. And it does not matter whether the president is Obote, Museveni, Besigye or even son of the soil, Crispus Kiyonga. No president of Uganda will tolerate such sub national intransigence.
Secondly, during the amendment of the constitution to restore traditional leaders, these issues were raised. Wasn’t this recreating the problems Obote tried to resolve? Museveni and his supporters argued that Obote had been a dishonest man who caused quarrel between the central government and the kingdoms. However, they recognised the danger of reigniting sub cultural nationalism. So they entrenched in the 1995 constitution that traditional leaders would be purely cultural, thereby prohibiting them from politics.
I was a student at Makerere University then and a lot of this was debated there. I remember Prof. Mahamood Mamdani giving a lecture where he said NRM would in the near future have to explain the political meaning of culture. Mamdani said there is no Chinese call between politics and culture as NRM assumed. So he actually predicted that NRM’s chickens would one day come home to roost. But with the CA elections on the corner, NRM was concerned with how to win seats in Buganda than what would be the long-term implications of their actions on Uganda’s stability.
Fast forward, in 2009, riots broke out across Buganda in a battle between Mengo and the NRM over the Kabaka’s planned visit to Kayunga. In the face of potential arrest, Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi backed down. Mengo has avoided a full-blown confrontation with Museveni because Mutebi, some would say, is a coward. However, I think Mutebi is a very politically intelligent and wise king who, unlike his father, understands the role and limits of a traditional monarchy in post independence Uganda.
Mumbere is yet to learn that lesson, and one hopes he does so in time before he puts his subjects in worse trouble. Many of his subjects, admirers and Uganda’s opposition will look at this as a quarrel between him and Museveni – the very mistake Museveni made regarding Obote’s fallout with Mutesa. It is not. This is a debate over who is supreme – the state of Uganda or some sub national entity?
The strategic aim of the state of Uganda is (and will always be) to subordinate the will of any sub-national group to the will of the state of Uganda. When state power is challenged, especially by a group that pretends to compete with the central government for their monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, states tend to act in a muscular way. Regardless of who is president of Uganda, this strategic aim will be the guiding principle of state policy.