The state security assault on palace guards in which more than 100 were killed at the end of November exemplifies present day Uganda in many ways. Press accounts said bloody clashes erupted when a patrol by police and troops was attacked by royal guards in the western Ugandan town of Kasese.
There were reports that President Yoweri Museveni had pleaded with King Charles Wesley Mumbere of the Rwenzururu kingdom to disband the royal guards prior to the assault.
The king has since been arrested and remains in custody facing serious charges. His kingdom is in disarray. The crisis fits within a history that has antagonistically set the nation in a delicate situation, exacerbated by a state that feeds on ethnic manipulation for patronage.
Historically, colonialists helped create and build chieftaincies for collaborating groups. Today, the Ugandan state is seen time and again to facilitate sub-ethnic group breakaways from other kingdoms to form their own. Much as this is often dressed up as a promotion of cultural freedom or autonomy, but on many occasions its timing reveals its poorly disguised motives. Indeed, while the idea of kingdoms as cultural trusts is not a bad one, the way they have been politicised makes them problematic.
The Museveni government has made some attempts at enhancing ethnic pluralism. But in many ways, both by omission and commission, it has set different ethnic groups at loggerheads in a colonial “divide and rule” style.
As the late Professor Dani Nabudere once observed, colonialists messed Africa up by grounding it on antagonistic ethnic relations – and its post-colonial leaders seem to continue to read from the colonial script when it serves their political ends. The ethnic card is played for shortsighted administrative convenience and to win support from some groups.
But it is also sometimes used to punish those deemed not to support the sitting government.
Roots of royal resentment
The current Rwenzururu kingdom crisis can be traced back to feelings of discrimination against the people of Kasese by the Tooro kingdom to which they then belonged. It took stiff resistance for them to eventually break away in 1962 and later form the Rwenzururu kingdom. This was a conglomeration of more than six ethnic groups, but with the Bakonzo at the helm.
Perhaps this triumph would last. But the multi-ethnic composition of the kingdom offered an opening both for future internal ethnic boundary transformation and political manipulation.
It was just a matter of time before different subgroups started demanding autonomy under their own kingdoms, a demand that fell conveniently into the government’s patronage politics. The result, so far, is three breakaway kingdoms established with the government’s recognition.
This has attracted much resentment from the Rwenzururu kingdom, which feels that the government is out to split and weaken it. This is the crux of the current bad blood, suspicion and conflict between the two. It is being escalated by the fact that the area has become predominantly pro-opposition. The interface between party politics and monarchical disgruntlement sometimes makes it difficult to understand what exactly the issue is.
Buganda tensions with government
What we see in Kasese is a process also evident in the larger and more established Buganda kingdom. There have been attempts by subgroups such as the Bakooki and Banyara to break off into separate kingdoms. Such attempts have often been made with conspicuous government backing and have coincided with misunderstandings between Buganda and government.
The climax of these tensions came in 2009 when the Kabaka (King) of Buganda was stopped by the government from visiting Kayunga, which is officially part of his territory. Backed by heavy security deployments, the government insisted that the Banyara had installed their own king and did not want the Kabaka there. What followed were horrible riots. There were around 30 reported casualties.
Such manipulation can also be seen vividly in the country’s decentralisation process. The official rhetoric behind decentralisation is to take services closer to the people. But it is very clear in many cases that districts are drawn along ethnic lines – often in response to ethnic agitation for “our own district”.
Ethnic citizenship and exclusion
The effect of such administrative logic is mainly two fold. First, it creates what Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani calls “ethnic citizenship” – an impression that the district belongs to the “sons of the soil”. This in turn breeds exclusionary tendencies in allocation of opportunities and, in so doing, triggers conflict.
Second, such a setup provides an incentive for other ethnic groups to demand their own districts along ethnic lines. An endless spiral of division is set in motion. This is how Kasese district was created in response to marginalisation. Yet even today, in response to the tensions in the area, Museveni has suggested Kasese be split into four districts.
So it comes as no surprise that nationhood in Uganda is still an elusive idea. Many people associate with their ethnic groups more affectionately than with the country. The tribalism that manifests itself in public service and allocation of resources, which also pushes every group into desiring its own district or kingdom, is partly a consequence of these strong ethnic ties.
It is also partly due to a careless failure by the state to build a strong sense of nationhood. Kasese is just one of the many ethnic landmines in Uganda that was bound to explode.
Jimmy Spire Ssentongo is an Associate Dean (Research and Publication), School of Postgraduate Studies and Research at Uganda Martyrs University, Uganda Martyrs University.