By Joseph Were & Odoobo C. Bichachi
What was Buganda and NRM’s strategy, and where could it lead the country?
President Yoweri Museveni might have waited four years but on September 30, one of his biggest wishes was granted ‘ a meeting with Kabaka of Buganda Ronald Muwenda Mutebi.
The meeting at State House Entebbe that lasted barely one hour did not give away much in terms of what strategy Buganda and Museveni/NRM have chosen to take in order to meet their political needs.
It was, however, pregnant with symbolism. A photo opportunity of Museveni shaking hands with the kabaka (king) is what the president desperately needed to shore up his fledgling support in Buganda. But coming after bloody pro-kabaka riots that left 27 people killed by the state security machinery, several more injured, more than 600 arrested, and billions of shillings worth of property destroyed, it is unlikely the photo achieved the desired effect.
‘Museveni is a consummate politician.’ That is the verdict of one observer on October 1, a day after the much anticipated meeting.
After watching how Museveni pandered to the kabaka; waiting for his motorcade at the steps of State House, beaming from ear-to-ear, as he welcomed him, and taking him on a guided tour of the presidential palace, only one conclusion could be reached: ‘The president we saw receiving the kabaka at State House is not the same president we saw on TV after the September 11 riots’.
Many observers were struck by how much effort Museveni put into appearing friendly.
Of course, the symbolic importance of the tour of the palatial State House could have been for Museveni ‘ who has oft described himself as ‘Ssabagabe’ (king of kings) ‘ not just being courteous; he was also sending a pointed message that he is above the kabaka in grandeur and apparatus.
Starting with their choice of delegations, through to body language, and written communiqus, it is easy to see that the meeting between Museveni and kabaka was a powder-keg of politics, cultural diplomacy, and strategy.
But if Museveni’s weapon was surprise, Mutebi’s shield was his legacy. Museveni had to win at the event, Mutebi had only to survive the event. That both of them left the stage smiling is a sign that each of them had achieved their objective. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the smiles meant that the points of dissent had been quashed.
Apart from the secrecy surrounding what was contained in the documents that both leaders acknowledge they exchanged, the meeting raised more questions than it has answered. Central to this debate is what the meeting really achieved.
‘We cannot reveal what kabaka discussed with the president privately. However the issues of Buganda are known and the Lukiiko will soon meet to discuss the kingdom’s response to the issues the president raised,’ one of the kabaka’s officials told The Independent on condition of anonymity.
‘The issues of Buganda are known; its demand for federal status, the demand that all public lands in Buganda are managed by the kingdom, we will never give those up,’ said Peter Mayiga, ‘we might not get them tomorrow but we will not give up.’
Due to requests not to ‘jeopardise the process’ by different parties close to the talks on both kabaka and Museveni’s side, The Independent cannot dabble into detail.
In a statement after the meeting, Museveni said he had received Kabaka Mutebi’s demand through an intermediary, who is understood to be his brother, Gen. Salim Saleh. He said the issues will ‘form a basis of continued dialogue until we reach a definite dialogue.’ Question: What does ‘continued dialogue until we reach a definite dialogue’ mean? It smacks of pulling something at a very long rope.
On the other hand, Kabaka Mutebi made a similarly vague statement: ‘There emerged the idea that we exchange our respective documents that will be studied thoroughly and take advice after consultations. This will form the basis of the first step to organised dialogue and the first step in organising our people.’
A lot has also been read into the leaders’ choice of delegations.
According to a source close to the talks, ‘these were not serious business delegations’.
On Museveni’s team were Khidhu Makubuya, minister of Justice and Attorney General; Rose Namayanja, who is the leader of the NRM Buganda Caucus; Cosma Busima, who is the deputy Chief Whip, NRM; Joseph Kasozi Muyomba, Youth MP, Central Region; Gen. Salim Saleh, the presidential advisor on Defence and brother to President Museveni, and Robert Ssebunya, the presidential advisor on Buganda Affairs.
Most of these are without strong opinion. Museveni would never have most of them for serious discussions. Namayanja and Saleh are in fact affable to the monarch. Only Ssebunya who is a former health minister of the kabaka but is now on the government side appeared out of place. Many observers recalled that just days earlier, he had been shown on national TV being shooed from the katikkiro’s office.
On kabaka’s team were Katikkiro (prime minister) John B. Walusimbi, Prince David Wasajja his brother, Peter Mpanga his principle private secretary, Bishop Emeritus Wilson Mutebi (Mityana),Omutaka Nakirembeka Allen Waligo (chairman, clan heads), Ssemakalu-Kasujja, William Matovu, and Aloysius Lubowa, a former speaker of Buganda Lukiiko.
The kabaka’s team was strong in age and diplomatic finesse, but it raised questions of why kabaka did not travel with his fire-brand aides like minister for cabinet affairs, Peter Mayiga, attorney general Apollo Makubuya, information minister Medard Ssegona, and minister for research, David Mpanga?
In fact a similar question could be asked of the Museveni delegation: Why was leader of government business, Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi, who has vast experience of government-Buganda talks, not on the team? What about Vice President Gilbert Bukenya who is prominent Muganda?
Significantly, just a week earlier, Nsibambi and Bukenya had met Buganda MPs in an attempt to forge a way forward on the conflict. The MPs had rebuffed them and the meeting scattered without any tangible results.
That left only one way forward: a meeting between Museveni and the kabaka. Unfortunately, the secret nature of their private discussions has since attracted criticism by prominent Ugandans, including, Makerere University law don Prof. John Jean Barya, and church leaders like Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga of Kampala Catholic archdiocese.
According to them, the issues that led to the September riots are of a national nature and not about Museveni and Mutebi. They are demanding a process of national dialogue to resolve them.
But a supporter of the secret talks who spoke to The Independent said it was pointless for Buganda to talk to anyone but Museveni.
‘Museveni has destroyed all institutions in this country and you must go through him to get anything done,’ he said.
This top-down approach envisages a process where what is agreed between Buganda and Museveni will percolate downwards, through Parliament into law.
Using a similar trajectory, in 1994 Museveni and then Buganda katikkiro Joseph Mulwanyamuli Ssemwogerere agreed to the now contentious ‘regional tier’ that would lump together all districts of Buganda for development of agriculture, roads and education. In 2006, Shs 26 billion was budgeted to kick-start it. But the regional tier has failed to be implemented.
Since the enthronement of the current kabaka in 1993, Buganda has been pushing for the reinstatement of its federal status that was abolished in 1966, the return of its properties ‘ notably the 9,000 square miles of former crown land and sub-county headquarters that were previously part of the Buganda kingdom administration. These are the basis upon which Buganda monarchists mobilised support for the NRA/M guerilla war against the Obote II government in Luwero between 1981-85. They are also the basis of their current disagreement with Museveni.
How did we get here?
Officially, the recent Buganda vs central government (read Museveni) crisis was precipitated by the security situation in Kayunga where the minority Banyala sub-tribe was threatening to violently disrupt the kabaka’s visit to the area to mark Buganda youth day. As a result, government ‘could not guarantee’ the Kabaka’s security hence he had to be prevented from visiting’ by cajoles, and if need be, by force.
In reality however, it has become public knowledge that the crisis was caused by a long running misunderstanding between President Museveni and the Kabaka and the Kayuga incident just triggered off the latent conflict. Specifically, the Kabaka had not been picking the President’s phone calls ‘ for two years!
From the President’s words, all his attempts to reach the Kabaka by phone were through his personal secretary Amelia Kyambadde. He did not mention any other attempts, not even, say, asking police chief Kale Kayihura to show up at the king’s palace and deliver a personal message to the Kabaka.
This means that either alternative channels like working through religious leaders and prominent but retired NRM Buganda political leaders like former ministers Kintu Musoke, Mayanja Nkangi and Besweri Mulondo etc had failed or were closed, or the President had reduced the matter to three people ‘ himself, the kabaka and Kyambadde!
Whatever the case, many observers wonder whether an unanswered phone call was worth the blood that was spilled in Kampala and other parts of Buganda in the September riots.
Paradoxically, the President only a few months ago gave the kingdom Shs 2 billion to uplift the living standards of its people. Was this an attempt to have his phone calls answered, or was this the source of anger ‘ that even after receiving such a fat cheque the kabaka could still not receive his calls?
Apart from the unanswered phone calls, the president accused the kabaka (or Mengo for that matter) of stepping into the realm of politics. But what is the substance of this accusation? Was the kabaka’s trip to Kayunga overstepping his cultural role and veering into political, legislative, administrative or judicial authority? Does the cutting of a tape or dropping a vaccine into a child’s mouth — as we saw the kabaka do in Wakiso a week after the riots — amount to politics? Was the youth day celebration in Kayunga political? Where and when has the Kabaka engaged in politics?
These are questions the president should perhaps answer to convince the country about his proposal to curtail traditional chiefs. In 1986, Museveni was given a carte blanche to demonise political parties and lay all the country’s problems at their doorstep, thereby laying grounds for their banning. By the time the country woke up, we were a one-party state disguised as a ‘Movement system.’ So are these accusations of failure on the part of cultural institutions merely the dress-rehearsal for their eventual banning?
But equally important, the country needs to know why the kabaka refused to take the president’s calls because this might be at the root of the matter.
Until the president’s revelation, much of the public did not know that there was some tension between the two. Yet unlike the president, Kabaka Mutebi may not open up, considering that ‘he was not even aware’ that Museveni had been trying to reach him for two years!
The speculation, however, is that the king has lost trust in the president’s word. This possibly arises from the broken promises of the Luwero bush war.
Peter Mayiga, the Kabaka’s minister for cabinet affairs, says Buganda has moved beyond any bush war promises.
‘That is the past,’ he told The Independent in an interview, ‘Our demands are based on documented position. Both the Odoki and Ssempebwa [commissions] found unanimous demand for federal in Buganda and among most Ugandans.’
Others say the Bagunda monarch is angry at the tokenism the president continues to offer Buganda, and the perceived government schemes to ‘break up’ the kingdom by propping up chiefdoms ‘ like Kamuswaga of Kooki, Ssabaruli of Buruli and Ssabanyala of Kayunga ‘ along ancient fault lines that had been sorted out by integration and pre-colonial wars of conquest.
Mengo sees this as a deliberate attempt to weaken Buganda so that it cannot exert itself and bargain as a whole. It is also claimed that much of the so-called 9,000 square miles may actually be found in these areas and in Kiboga, prompting many to speculate that in the not-too-distant future, a position of ‘˜Ssabakiboga’ or something akin to that may emerge with the blessing of the state.
All this, pundits say, is to whittle down the kingdom so that in the unlikely event Museveni grants it federo for political expediency, the federal state of Buganda will be a much smaller entity, and without control of land, much of which will be under the hands of non-Baganda.
Whatever the truth or falsehood of these views, it is clear the kabaka is not a happy man. He sees himself as a man under siege, and painfully, by a former ally. Under his ‘reign’, the kingdom is losing territory that his forefathers conquered by blood. That is a painful spectre for any monarch ‘ ceremonial or otherwise.
Which way forward?
The recent confrontation proved that the chronic problem of Uganda, which is the status of Buganda, is far from resolved. If the central government cannot mend its relationship with Buganda, the future stability, prosperity and economic growth will remain uncertain, and things could fall apart.
Buganda has put forth its demand for a federal status and the matter needs to be addressed if the country is to break the cycle of selfish side agreements that are eventually disregarded, leading to a cycle of bloodshed.
Yet there are no easy solutions.
‘In the past, others [like Obote] chose to isolate Buganda and rally the rest of the country. It is an easy option but we know that it did not work,’ said former minister David Pulkol, adding, ‘now with more inter-marriages and more people with properties in Buganda, it will not work because people will make individual choices. It will not be like those days when people merely came to Buganda as ‘˜target workers’ and left.’
President Museveni on the other hand has chosen the path of piecemeal appeasement and brinkmanship but that too has showed its limitations.
The other choice, perhaps, is for the government to mend fences and convince the rest of Uganda to live in harmony with a federal or semi-federal Buganda. However this is the most difficult route because eastern, northern and western Uganda must reconcile within themselves, then reconcile with Buganda and then Buganda reconciles with the rest.
The starting point, some pundits have opined, is to go back to the building blocks of Uganda as contained in Chapter One of the 1962 Constitution titled ‘UGANDA AND ITS TERRITORIES’. It reads in part:
(1) Uganda consists of Federal States, Districts and the territory of Mbale.
(2) The Federal States are the Kingdom of Buganda, the Kingdom of Ankole, the Kingdom of Bunyoro, the Kingdom of Toro and the territory of Busoga.
(3) The Districts are the Districts of Acholi, Bugisu, Bukedi, Karamoja, Kigezi, Lango, Madi, Sebei, Teso and West Nile.
Many have argued that these 16 units that constituted Uganda at independence should sit down in a national conference, Lancaster II, and form the basis of a confederation based on mutual respect, mutual support and a shared destiny.
Yet this is easier said than done. With rising ethnocentrism and micro division of districts on the basis of tribe and dialect to achieve political ends, this option faces a big hurdle. Bukedi which was perhaps the most multi-ethnic district at independence has been split into Pallisa, Budaka, Busia, Butaleja, and Tororo which too has recently been sub-divided into Kisoko and Mukuju. Another district of Kibuku has been mooted out of Budaka!
What format the national conference should take, who participates and what mandate it will have is a matter of detail. What is critical is that as difficult as the process may be, it is clear that Uganda must talk to itself if the process of nation-building is to be moved forward. Blood and iron have failed, it’s time to try dialogue.
So what did the Museveni and Kabaka meeting achieve?
‘Mainly it had a calming effect,’ says Mayiga, ‘Before the meeting there was a lot of tension. Shopping arcades that used to stay open till late were closing early. People were scared but they are now calmer.’
Unfortunately, it could be a deceptive calm before the storm. If that happens, it is not clear what Museveni will do.
To manage Buganda, the British chose indirect rule, Obote chose isolation, and Museveni has chosen obliteration. When their strategy failed the British exiled Buganda kings and Obote abolished the kingdom and exiled the kabaka.
What will Museveni do?