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Behind the attacks in western Uganda

By Patrick Kagenda

What Museveni should fear

Recent events in the districts of Kasese, Bundibugyo, and Ntororo show that President Yoweri Museveni’s strategy to politically and strategically capture the volatile region could be failing, experts say. For some time, Museveni has been attempting to have the Bakonjo and their leader, Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere Iremangoma, in his corner politically.

Part of the reason is political. As Dr Arthur Syahuka Muhindo of Makerere University’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration – who has researched and presented papers about the Rwenzururu – once told The Independent, “the people of Kasese vote like rebels”.

Museveni fears election surprises. Therefore, as he recalls that in the 1980 elections, only Kasese in Western Uganda voted for an MP from his Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) even when their king had asked them to vote for Milton Obote’s UPC, his wish is to be assured of the Bakonjo vote. He got it for the first time in 2011. But Kasese had voted overwhelmingly against him in the 2001 and 2006 elections. What will happen in 2016?

But Museveni’s other interest in controlling the area is purely strategic. This is the oil-rich Albertine Region on which he has pinned the hopes of the economic survival of his regime. But it is also a conflict-prone area.

Museveni knows about its history as a conflict area from 1964 to 1982 during the Rwenzururu rebellion, then the 1981-1986 NRA war, as well as in 1996 to 2001 when it was under attack from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU). These wars killed many people with the most memorable being the ADF attack on Kichwamba Technical College that left over 80 students burnt to ashes. The wars also ensured that Kasese remains among the poorest areas in Uganda.

“No one can ignore Mumbere because he has a body of people who can raise hell for any government. Museveni knows this and at the same time badly needs these people on his side,” one highly placed source told The Independent.

Therefore, when unidentified attackers armed with spears, machetes, and guns on July 5 simultaneously struck at 13 government installation in three districts in the western districts of Bundibugyo, Kasese, and Ntoroko, it was like a thunderbolt for Museveni. Up to 90 people; mainly civilians, five police and five soldiers, were killed.

When President Museveni spoke, he blamed the attacks on failure of intelligence.

But even for none strategic minds, questions remain on who is behind a force that could clandestinely plan and execute coordinated attacks in three districts in a highly secured region?

The area that was struck is the heartland of the oil-rich Albertine Rift region that is believed to be heavily guarded by Uganda’s elite troops, the Special Forces Group commanded by Brig. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, which also guards President Yoweri Museveni.

Does Mumbere, as is being alleged, have such a force? Or is Rwenzori, once again, seeing the start of a new rebellion against President Museveni?

The attacks happened just five days after President Museveni had attended the crowning of the Bamba cultural leader, Lt. Col. Martin Ayongi Kamya, on June 30. This event appears to have raised ethnic temperatures in the region. Lt. Col. Kamya is the son of Isaiah Kawamara, one of the three founders of the Rwenzururu Movement and a rival to Mumbere. Could his crowning by Museveni be the spark the Bakonjo had been waiting for to attack the Bamba?

Informed sources told The Independent that as soon as President Museveni restored kingdoms in 1993 through the Traditional Institutions Statute, he was aware of what trouble the Bakonjo would raise for his government if he left out Mumbere. He has made every effort to draw them closer.

He allowed Mumbere to return from the US where he had stayed for more than 20 years to be installed as Iremangoma in 2008.

A prominent Mukonjo, Dr.Chrispus Kiyonga, who is anti-monarchist, has been a minister in all President Museveni’s cabinets since 1986. He is currently the minister of defence.

Other prominent Bakonjo include Maj. Gen. Wilson Mbasu Mbadi, the UPDF’s Joint Chief of Staff (JCOS).  Gen. Mbadi, who spent many years as Museveni’s ADC until November 2012 when he was promoted to Brigadier and sent to head 4th Division in Gulu, is the highest-ranking UPDF officer hailing from Kasese today.  Another person to have reached that rank is the former army commander Maj. Gen. James Kazini, a Musongora who also hailed from Kasese. He died in 2009.

Gen. Mbadi before climbing to the top ladder also served briefly in the Masaka-based Armoured Brigade, before rising to command the Alpine Brigade in the Rwenzori Mountains.

The Kasese District Chairman, Lt. Col.  Dura Muhindo Mawa, is another top Mukonjo in the NRM who also commanded the Alpine Brigade at the height of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) insurgency in 1998-2000. The Bakonjo have always commanded the Alpine Brigade because of their knowledge of the harsh mountainous terrain and knowledge of their peoples’ relations with their DR Congo counterparts.

But, while negotiating the restoration of Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu, two people who were very instrumental in the formation of the Rwenzururu Movement were left out.

Isaiah Kawamara and Peter Mupalya who had founded the Rwenzururu movement with Mumbere’s father, Isaiah Mukirane, were apparently against restoration of the kingdom.

As Bamba, it is said, they were not for establishment of a Rwenzururu Kingdom even way back during the first negotiations during the first Obote regime.

This split has played in various ways since then. The Bamba people who include the Babwisi and Babulebule –  the main tribes in Bwamba – and to a lesser extent the Bambuti (pygmies), fell apart from the more dominant and majority Bakonjo people who occupy both Kasese and Bundibugyo districts who opted for a kingdom.

The recent eruption of violence could be traced to that split. Olara Otunnu, the UPC party president, alluded to that. He told The Independent after the recent skirmishes that although the Obote II government was not about returning kingdoms, it worked for making peace with Mumbere and his people for the betterment of Uganda.

“However Museveni returned kingdoms to further his policy of ‘divide and rule’ and it is this policy that has led to the shedding of blood in Kasese and Bundibugyo districts,” he said.

But the eruption of violence could also be contrasted with similar incidents in the past.

Unpredictable Bakonjo

Some commentators are tracing the recent events to as far back as August 30, 2009, when President Museveni travelled to Kasese. It was high tide as the country headed into the February 18, 2011 presidential elections in which Museveni, was once again facing a challenge from his arch rival; Col. Kizza Besigye.

In the previous election in 2006, Besigye had defeated Museveni in Kasese by scooping 56% of the vote against Museveni’s 43%. This time Museveni needed to be sure of every vote.

Officially, Museveni was in Kasese to officiate at the 25th Anniversary celebration of South Rwenzori Diocese. But Museveni had another card to play. When he stood up to speak at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kasese, he released his campaign bait.

“I am happy to inform you that I agree to your demand for Obusinga,” he said. It was a master stroke. The congregation exploded in jubilation. Museveni became an instant hero. Would the Bakonjo of Kasese show their gratitude at the ballot?

As preparation for the coronation of Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere Iremangoma as king of Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu neared, a group of Bamba leaders on October 13, 2009 met President Museveni.

They told him they would not accept Mumbere as their king and wanted him to be referred to as ‘King of Bakonjo,’ not the Rwenzururu and his jurisdiction to be restricted to Kasese and not to extend to Bundibugyo District which, they said, is for Bamba although there are some Bakonjo inhabitants. Museveni agreed with the Bamba.

But on October 19, he attended the coronation of Mumbere as king of Rwenzururu. It was clear the President was walking on a political dynamite. How would the coronation of Mumbere against the wishes of the Bamba affect his election outcome in Kasese?  At the time, then Busongora South MP Christopher Kibanzanga (FDC), who is a chief prince of Rwenzururu kingdom, appears to have been reading accurately from a crystal ball.

He told The Independent: “The central government’s recognition of Obusinga means that both the opposition and NRM party have won as they have brought what people of Rwenzururu have always demanded. The basis for voting is going to shift to other issues that affect the people of Rwenzori such as unemployment, creating markets for their produce and reviving the railway line as well as resolving the land question in Kasese District”.

Exactly one year and five months later, elections were held and the results were startling. Museveni had defeated Besigye in Kasese but only barely. Of the 187,000 available votes, Museveni won 94,000 and Besigye 79,000. It was that close.  The pattern was repeated in the parliamentary elections. In the four constituencies in Kasese, Museveni’s NRM won two and Besigye’s FDC also won two.

Compare that with Bundibugyo where, of the 55,000 votes, Museveni scooped 46,000 and Besigye only 5,600. In Ntoroko District, it was the same. Museveni swept 13,000 of the 30,000 valid votes cast leaving Besigye with only 2,000.

Clearly, the Bamba were better voting machines for Museveni. But why were the Bakonzo still angry, even after being given their coveted king? What could be done about it? As the next election in 2016 draws near, Museveni and his handlers are struggling to find answers to that.

Skilful Mumbere

When Museveni allowed Mumbere’s coronation in 2009, it was like during the Milton Obote II regime which he fought, choosing to keep the warring Bakonjo close to him in his ranks.

But Mumbere was possibly not so impressed. He had seen it before.

During the early days of the second UPC government (1980-1985), the government of Uganda negotiated with the Rwenzururu fighters out of the war and recognised it as a kingdom.

President Museveni’s current Senior Advisor on Security, Chris Rwakasisi, who was then minister of Security in the Obote II government, and the late Brig. David Oyite Ojok, who was chief of staff of the UNLA, were involved in the talks.

The peace-broker was Amon Bazira, a Mukonjo himself and former minister in Obote’s government. He later formed the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) to fight against Museveni. His army was a harbinger of the ADF in the Rwenzori Mountains.

An agreement was signed between the government and the Rwenzururu Movement and one of the conditions which the government had to meet was to integrate the Rwenzururu fighters into the national army; the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).

After long negotiations, from 1981-1982, Charles Wesley Mumbere was installed as the King of the Bakonjo people. Therefore, the 2009 ceremony was, in the eyes of Mumbere, not a coronation.

Even before his installation in 1982 by Obote, the Rwenzururu kingdom had been existent and was headquartered in the DR Congo where Mumbere had been crowned king in 1966 after the death of his father Isaiah Mukirane. Rwenzururu had thrived in the Congo because of the big Bakonjo population in that country and secondly because of weak administrative structures in that country at that time.

At the time of signing the agreement with the government of Obote II, Mumbere was 30 years old. In ‘appreciation’ of his peace gesture, the government of Uganda sent him to the US for further education to develop his leadership potential  not as a cultural leader but  a future Ugandan leader. In the US, Mumbere enrolled in business school, but one year after his enrolment the Obote government was overthrown in 1985. All Mumbere’s emoluments from the government of Uganda were cut off.

Uncertain of what would come next, Mumbere in 1987 was granted political asylum in the US, went silent, and maintained a very quiet life, working in a nursing home until Museveni allowed him to return as king.

Mumbere defies Museveni

Three years after Mumbere’s coronation, in August 2012, tension erupted between the Bakonzo, Basongora and Bamba/Babwisi in Kasese and Bundibugyo districts over the jurisdiction of his Rwenzururu kingdom.

On July 1, a man called Ivan Bwebale Rwigi IV had declared himself king of Busongora in an area within Kasese District, which is the seat of Rwenzururu Kingdom. On July 11, unknown people attacked his home and took off with some regalia of his so-called Busongora Kingdom, including the flag and drum. The police and army were deployed as many feared for the worst.

Tension had been simmering since May when Mumbere started organising the 50th Anniversary of the Rwenzururu secession from Toro kingdom in 1962.

There had been tension on June 30, when Mumbere travelled to Bundibugyo, planted a tree, and opened a symbolic a royal shrine on his ancestral land in Kirindi Village, Harugale Sub-county.  The act was in direct defiance of Museveni’s ‘advice.’

At the time, The Independent was told that President Museveni had called Mumbere and advised against him hoisting the Rwenzururu kingdom flag in Bundibugyo.

Five days later, on July 6, violence had broken out as the Bamba, who wanted to destroy the so-called palace, faced-off with a pro-Mumbere group. Several people sustained injuries, six motor cycles were burnt, property was looted and destroyed, and one man died after being knocked by a car.

Mumbere’s supporters say he is a king of all Rwenzururu, which means people of the ‘snow-capped mountain’. These include Bakonjo, Basongora, Bamba, Babwisi, Batuku, and others who live on or along the edges of Mountain Rwenzori.

The say Mumbere cannot be blocked from Bundibugyo because his grandfather, Masanduku, lived there before migrating to Kasese. Mumbere regards Bundibugyo as his ancestral home.

Last year, Mumbere again organised the controversial visit to Bundibyo District in spite of police advising him against it. His entourage was confronted and blocked by the police before being teargassed.

A similar confrontation happened last month as Mumbere, once again, sought to assert his authority over Bundibugyo by visiting there.

Such scenes were not new to Mumbere. He and his followers are born-warriors who have fought since he was a little boy. Charles Wesley Mumbere was born in 1953, when his father was already a fighter.

But on July 10, soon after top officials were arrested in connection with the attacks, he called a press conference and dared the government to arrest him.

He denied that his kingdom was involved in the attacks. However, it was his choice of dress that drew most attention. He wore a military cap on his head. When asked about it he said it was deliberate.

“I am a soldier,” he said, “that is my profession.”

As a commander of his people, King Mumbere appears determined to follow in the foot-steps of his father, and other elders like Nyamutswa and Isaya Mukirania who started fighting for the Rwenzurruru Kingdom from the early 1922 – many years before Uganda was formed. At the time, the colonialists had grouped them under the Toro Kingdom.

In the 1950s, as Uganda independence neared, the Bakonzo and Bamba grew restless. They demanded recognition as a distinct ethnic group within Toro kingdom. When this was rejected under the 1962 constitution, they formed the Rwenzururu Freedom Movement and headed into the mountains as their base for waging a war to establish their kingdom. Is history going to repeat itself?  That is the question that is yet to be answered, but all indications are that like it did to his predecessors, this situation will continue to give President Museveni’s government a big dose of headache.

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