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Kasubi burning: The untold story

By Bob Roberts Katende

  •  UNESCO experts plan to rebuild tombs            

  • Govt agrees to pay Buganda debt

Traditionally, the Baganda have a saying: ‘Akugoba yakuwa ekkubo’. It is similar to the phrase often attributed to the Mandarin of China that any crisis represents both danger and opportunity.

The burning of the Kasubi Tombs is a crisis for the Buganda kingdom. Will the king and his subjects focus only on the danger or will they seize an opportunity the crisis might present.

Already the crisis has led to dramatic developments.

A delegation from the UNESCO and another from the African World Heritage Fund from France and South Africa respectively arrive in the country next week to assess the extent of the damage, write a report and meet with officials of the Buganda kingdom to draw a reconstruction programme of the tombs.

The government of Uganda has agreed to pay Buganda kingdom to enable it to quickly reconstruct the tombs. The Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Keith Muhakanizi told The Independent that he had ‘received instructions to pay the arrears from government to Buganda kingdom.’

‘We are waiting for the verification by the institutions that incurred the rent arrears. As soon as we get the instructions we will be very happy to pay the arrears,’ he said.

Muhakanizi refused to say how much government owes Buganda but the kingdom Minister of Information, Charles Peter Mayiga has said the arrears are about Shs 20 billion.

The government occupies several properties that belong to the Buganda kingdom including Kigo Prison and the Supreme Court building in Mengo.

Highly placed sources in the Ministry of Finance told The Independent on condition of anonymity that the government has approved a Shs.5 billion cheque for Buganda Kingdom to assist in the renovation of the tombs. This would not be part of the arrears the government owes the kingdom. Given that various organisations are contributing money for the renovation of the tombs, the question is; how much money would Buganda require to restore Kasubi’s heritage? How was this figure arrived at? What renovations on the tombs would Buganda undertake that cost a whooping Shs.5 billion? Is this a strategy to soften Buganda on its tough stand on the closure of its radio station, CBS?

Immediately following the unfortunate fire at the Kasubi tombs, Kampala city was abound with questionable versions of the cause of the fire and some circles went on to speculate on the motive. An irate President Museveni went on national television and issued a stern warning to those maligning his government and accusing it of being behind the fire at Kasubi. He directed the security agencies to arrest and prosecute any such persons and ordered the nation to shut up on the speculation until a thorough investigation would unearth the truth.

President Museveni is not one to be easily incensed and his reaction spoke volumes of the significance he attaches to the feelings of Buganda on any issue.

The offer of Shs 5 billion to Buganda Kingdom towards the renovation of the tombs, while a welcome  gesture from the Central Government and very much an African thing, to sympathise with even your most estranged friend in sad times, is telling. When the Bulange was burnt down in the years prior to the restoration of the kingdoms, the Central Government did not rush to repair it in spite of the fact that the fire decimated some of the army’s most vital documents and information. The army, an institution so close to President Museveni’s heart and thoughts. One could say the kingdom was not restored yet, but yes the property still belonged to the kingdom. Is the Shs 5 billion approved for the Kasubi tombs therefore the cost of the repairs of the cultural site or the cost of the repairs of the badly damaged relationship between the Central Government and the Buganda Kingdom? How did the government quickly arrive at that figure?

In a more orderly society, the right thing to do would be to constitute a committee from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Works, Ministry of  Gender and may the Attorney General on behalf o the Central Government and  then a representative from the Buganda Kingdom who would ascertain the extent of the damage and the quantify it in monetary terms.

Buganda has over 31 tombs scattered all over the kingdom where previous kings (kabakas) have been buried. There is the Wamala tomb where Suuna II is buried only a few kilometres from Kasubi, and Masanufu where Kiwewa is buried. Wamala is almost a replica of Kasubi, it was built earlier because the first Kabaka buried at Kasubi was the son of Suuna II (1837’56). Their internal arrangements are similar, although the traditional objects in Wamala are wooden while those in Kasubi are metal.

Conservationists say Wamala should be recognised as an integral part of the Kasubi World Heritage site. Unfortunately, all are in various states of disrepair.

The challenge

Fortunately for Buganda, a 2000 UNESCO report noted that the ‘physical life of the Kasubi Tombs is only one aspect of the traditional life there.’ That is what was burnt.

The same UNESCO report noted that ‘the rich intangible heritage of the site is crucially important to the continuation of its heritage values.

The challenge, therefore, is whether the World Heritage site will be better off or worse. The core of the task is whether the rebuilt tombs will maintain the authenticity of the ancient structure.

This is important because, according to UNESCO, ‘the architecture of the tombs is charged with meanings related to the Ganda traditions. The rich decorative features, invested with spiritual values, reflect the interaction between nature and culture, between the spirits and the live population. One example is the 52 rings of spear grass supporting the great roof. Their number is related to the Ganda clans, which are 52 in number.’

Kabaka Mutebi speaks out

In a foreword to the Kasubi Royal Tombs 2009-2015 management plan, he wrote: ‘the survival of the Kasubi Tombs entirely depends on the effectiveness of its management.the management needs constant adaptation to the rapidly changing urban environment.’ The new management plan built on an earlier 2000-2008 action plan which had up to 75 activities. Of these only 23 had been achieved by 2008. A major failure included accountability for money accrued from the Kasubi tombs due to the pursuit of personal interest.

The 2009 plan notes: ‘Only projects prepared by individual stakeholders did succeed. The establishment of a transparent accounting system and the development of regular maintenance scheme did also fail.’ There is a proposal to set up a Kasubi Tombs Heritage Committee with a special bank account.

At the heart of the management of the Kasubi accounts is the Nnalinya or spiritual guardian of the tombs. The present one is Princess Beatrice Namika.

‘There were loopholes in the management,’ said a highly placed source at the office of Museums and Monuments that worked on the new plan, ‘We realised that the management was left to Nnalinya alone. There was a problem. This being a national site, we came up with the revision of the management plan as a state party . Before the management plan was implemented, the tombs went into flames.’

Earlier, a 2000 report by UNESCO had warned that the Kasubi tombs faced a main threat from fire due to the large amount of thatch.

‘There are some fire extinguishers available, and the widows and guards ensure that there is constant vigilance. A fire prevention strategy is called for in the management plan,’ it said. Nothing was done.

Then in 2006, the World Heritage Fund offered money to re-thatch the great hut, Muzibu azaala mpanga’. Nnalinya Namika refused.

Her argument was that the money was not enough and the work would result in an unrepresentative patchwork on the roof. The smaller shrine, the drum house called Ndoga Obukaba, was selected for renovation instead.

Repairing the roof of the hut, which is about the size of an average classroom, cost US$ 12,900 (approx.26 million). It lasted about eight months and involved 14 experts led by Dr Ephraim. R. Kamuhangire, as the commissioner of Museums and Monuments.

Even the plans to turn the tombs into a World Heritage Site were initially resisted. The managers of the tombs initially thought it meant that UNESCO would take over management of the site. Other sources close to the discussions said the moment the site was nominated as a World Heritage site; it was assumed that UNESCO would take it over. But this was not possible because people are living there unlike other places which are just monuments.

‘It was an intricate fight and UNESCO would only market it, support research but not wholly do the repairs.  The management plan was supposed to be implemented there and then and we were going to sit with Mengo. There was a gap that the Mengo government isn’t in control of the site. When we were working on the management plan, we said short of the Nnalinya being in control we’ll not save the masiro (graves). The Nnalinya doesn’t even listen to the Kabaka. She is a king in her own world. The Nnalinya doesn’t respect anybody from Mengo so it became a problem.’

Money trouble

Buganda’s Information Minister Charles Peter Mayiga says ‘very little revenue’ is realised from the tombs. Kabuza Mukasa, the Buganda Minister in charge of Royal Travels said that a bigger percentage of the money that was collected from the tombs was spent on maintenance. The reality, however, is that both officials possibly do not know how much money the Kasubi tombs make.

Kasubi gets most of its money from entrance fees. These pay salaries for the 26 workers. The widow keepers get money from the gift baskets at the huts.

The grass is expensive to maintain. A 2009 budget for regular maintenance put it at Shs 35 million for major repairs and Shs2.5 million every three months. In 2007, up to 1,875 Ugandan adults and 36,870 pupils and 2,121 non-residents visited Kasubi. They each paid Shs 2,000 per Uganda adult and 1,000 per pupil, Shs 5,000 for East African and Shs 10,000 per non-resident adult and Shs 5,000 per non- resident kid. Together the contributed about Shs 61 million that year or Shs 5 million per month. The number of visitors has gone up but the revenues are unlikely to be much higher. That is the problem.

The Buganda kingdom is facing a financial squeeze. Previously, it has got most of its money from selling and leasing its real estate and building, from the operation of its radio, CBS FM, and the sale of kingdom certificates to supporters who pay homage to the king. A new land law has ensured that the kingdom’s hands are tied in its land dealing, the radio station has been shut down since the September 2009 riots and the sale of certificates has become a trickle.

Mayiga puts a brave face on it: ‘Government owes us more than 18 billion shillings,’ he says, ‘I think it will be more appropriate if government paid us especially at this time when we want to rebuild the tombs.’

When the kingdom parliament, the Lukiiko, sat on March 22 asking the government to pay its rent arrears and open CBS were top of the agenda.

Political fallout

Despite the high expectations, however, government is unlikely to loosen the squeeze soon. A story is told of how Museveni is miffed because the Kabaka refused to take the Shs 5 million monthly stipend the government pays to traditional rulers.  President Museveni shut CBS radio, accusing it of inciting the September 2009 riots. He will now feel vindicated because despite the gravity and anger over the burning of the tombs, there was barely a whiff of rioting.

However, this fallout might backfire on Museveni. Already the tension between them sparked the rumours that government had a hand in the Kasubi tragedy. Museveni was infuriated and warned on national television: ‘How can the NRM government, that has not run mad and is in its right senses, burn the Kasubi tombs? What is the logic?’ he wondered. ‘I am waiting for someone to say so publicly. My fingers are itching to get such a person and I deal with him. I have instructed the security forces to scan all the tapes, radios and media because this is incredible,’ he charged.

Despite such tensions in the past, Museveni has been getting sizable support from Buganda. ‘People supported the NRM because it looked like the partner they needed against Obote.  I am not surprised that people voted Museveni in 1996, 2001, 2006 but we should also look at the pattern why is it that the voters reduce?’ Mayiga asked.  Political pundits say Museveni might be in trouble come 2011 national elections.

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