By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi & Dicta Asiimwe
Why president ordered MPs to pass traditional rulers Bill
When Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, to wild cheers from his subjects at a December 31, 2010 fete at the palace, used a dummy of a key to symbolically unlock the New Year, he was engaging in an annual ritual. He has done it over the years. But this is an election year, and the key is the symbol of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party.
President Yoweri Museveni, who has previously accused the monarchy of supporting the opposition against him, was unimpressed.
The king’s brandishing of the key has added to an already tense time between the king and the President over the Traditional or Cultural Leaders Bill 2010, which the Museveni government wants Parliament to expeditiously pass into law, to clip the clout of traditional rulers.
Initially, individuals involved in the drafting of the Bill and officials of the Kabaka’s government were treating it as a form of brinkmanship by Museveni.
“There is an emerging trend,” a member of the Kabaka’s government told The Independent on condition of anonymity, “that every time President Museveni wants something from the Kabaka, he creates a crisis.”
He said he feared Museveni’s brinkmanship, “could lead to serious problems”.
Sources in both camps say the heart of the current crisis is an attempt by Museveni, who starts to campaign in the region on Jan. 19, to craft a strategy for an area perceived as hostile.
In a rebuttal to the bill, a copy of which he delivered to the Speaker of Parliament on Dec. 23, Buganda Kingdom attorney general Apollo Makubuya said they would “go to the highest court possible to have the bill quashed.”
Even the government’s chief legal advisor, Attorney General Khidu Makubuya’s leaked letter to Cabinet warned that the Bill was inconsistent with some articles of the Constitution and the bill of rights and would be null and void even if passed through Parliament.
Museveni, analysts say, has escaped defeat at previous elections because the share of the vote in Buganda and the central region generally has remained relatively stable for both him and his main challenger, Besigye. Support for Museveni declined from 65 percent in 2001 to 60 per cent in the last elections. Besigye garnered six percentage points more to 39 percent over the same period. Pundits claim the 2011 election could dramatically shake up things in favour of Besigye because “Buganda is angry”.
The kingdom of Buganda is going into the election following a bad year 2010, which followed an even worse year 2009. On March 16, 2010, one of the most spiritually revered symbols of the kingdom; the tombs of its kings at Kasubi were razed in a suspected act of arson. Barely seven months earlier, on September 8, 2009, riots had broken out after the government blocked the Kabaka from visiting an enclave of his kingdom presided over by a brand-new ‘king’ created by the Museveni government. At least 27 people were gunned down in demonstrations in September 2009 incident and at least three were shot by government security agents in riots over the burning of the Kasubi tombs.
Although on September 30, 2009, Museveni and the Kabaka held nerve-calming talks at State House, Entebbe, Buganda is considered hostile territory for Museveni.
Recent reports from both camps say that the stand-off between Museveni and the Kabaka is back to the pre-September 2009 hostile levels. Museveni is again complaining that the “Kabaka is not taking his phone calls”.
The Bill was designed to lure the Kabaka to be more amiable or else. When the President met the NRM Buganda caucus Jan. 9 he maintained his earlier openness to make comprehensive amendments to the Bill.
On Jan. 10, the leader of the Buganda NRM MPs caucus Rose Namayanja told the press that most clauses that had been pointed at by the Buganda Kingdom Attorney General Apollo Makubuya as unconstitutional will be expunged from the bill.
Museveni has indicated that he wants to meet with the Kabaka before he starts his campaign. But a Buganda minister told The Independent on condition of remaining anonymous that Mutebi is reluctant to grant the photo-op because, the kingdom believes, Museveni only intends to co-opt the Kabakaship to serve his political ambitions.
The minister said Museveni is angry because the Kabaka refuses to toe the NRM line. “If the Kabaka was going around wearing a yellow T-shirt (NRM’s official colour), do you think we would now be debating a bill aimed at stopping cultural leaders from participating in politics?” he asked.
He said, contrary to what Museveni claims, the Kabaka is struggling to steer clear of politics despite attempts, many of them made by President Museveni himself, to drag him into it. The Kabaka is convinced that identifying with a political grouping would dangerously attach its fortunes to that of the kingdom.
“Failing to draw a line between this 800-year old institution and the NRM would eventually lead to loss of trust of the people in the kingdom (in case people lost trust in the NRM),” argued the minister. “Do you think (Bunyala chief Abubaker) Kimeze will still hold his position the day after President Museveni leaves power?”
The Independent has also been told that the Kabaka’s government believes Museveni is not interested in genuine talks.
Although Museveni and the Kabaka agreed to send write-ups of the issues that would form the basis of “a definite dialogue” the last time they met, a senior Mengo official said the government has not responded to the issues in the document the kingdom sent. President Museveni only tried to contact the Kabaka much later on as campaigns approached.
Museveni summoned Buganda kingdom county chiefs to a meeting in Jinja on the night of Wednesday December 15, 2010 and for over five hours, lectured them on why Buganda’s pressing issues like returning the contested sub-county and county headquarters to the kingdom would only be resolved if he personally met the Kabaka.
Although the chiefs delivered the message, the Kabaka has snubbed a meeting before elections. In fact, the Kabaka appears to be reacting to Museveni’s courting of his officials by shuffling them and appointing new ones. When the kingdom parliament, the Lukiiko, meets on Jan. 24 to scrutinize the government Bill on cultural leaders, it will comprise many new members.
Kingdom spokesperson Peter Mayiga confirmed that there have been some changes to the composition of the Lukiiko but declined to divulge details. Sources at Mengo, however, told The Independent that the changes were made to fill positions of members who have died, joined active politics or for some reason or other cannot continue with their duties. Observers say the Kabaka could have used this opportunity to bring more people who are passionate about the Buganda cause on board. There are concerns that President Museveni is seeking to win over kingdom officials and make them sympathetic to his interests.
A prominent Muganda NRM politician told The Independent that he does not believe Museveni wants to meet the Kabaka to discuss anything conclusive. Whether the meeting would reach any meaningful conclusions about the impasse would be of no consequence, according to this politician. All Museveni needs, from this source’s point of view, is to be able to tell Baganda voters that discussions are underway and everything would be resolved.
The official adds that Museveni would argue that misunderstandings between Mengo and government were being fomented by former kingdom officials like Mulwanyammuli Semwogerere, Medard Sseggona and Mathias Mpuuga for political reasons. He would argue further that since these officials have now left the kingdom’s power capital and taken to active politics, relations between the two power centers would normalise.
It is perhaps for the same reason of hounding him out of the palace inner circle that Museveni has turned his fire on kingdom’s brainy minister for Research Daudi Mpanga. During an NRM caucus meeting at State House Entebbe that resolved to pass the cultural leaders bill before the Feb. 18 general elections, Museveni lambasted Mpanga for “misleading the Kabaka”.
But Mpanga says, at 40, he is too young to have shaped the demands Buganda is fronting, which even predate Uganda as a state. “Even if I left Mengo today, someone else would pursue the same interests,” he said.
Buganda wants a federal system of government, its communal land (9000 square miles) and about Shs 20 billion in rental arrears from kingdom properties confiscated by government after the 1966 crisis. The kingdom, restored after 27 years in 1993 by the NRM government, has grown increasingly impatient with government’s failure to act on these key demands. All presidential candidates in the coming poll, bar Museveni, have promised to act on these demands.
And this puts Museveni in an awkward position in Buganda. When he starts his final round of re-election campaigns in Buganda on Jan. 19, he has to have something to persuade Baganda voters with. The run-ins he has had with their revered kingdom are still fresh in their minds and observers believe defeat for Museveni in the region, which he has swept through the last three elections and heavily backed his 1981-86 bush war effort, is not improbable.
Observers expect him to re-outline his policy towards the kingdom – doggedly holding to his positions like opposition to a federal arrangement while extending his arm of ‘generosity’ to whoever is willing to work with him.
Although the cultural leaders bill has been widely perceived as an attempt to intimidate the Kabaka, Museveni has also been actively wooing Baganda. He has already extended support to a group of royals led by former RDC Naava Nabagesera to “fight poverty” by commercially utilizing the land at different cultural sites.
Parliament Speaker Edward Ssekandi will now have to ensure the passing of the bill, which was tabled before parliament on Dec. 17. Ssekandi will go back on his earlier ruling that it would be disposed of when the current parliament resumes after elections, since its mandate would still be valid for a further two months, because President Museveni wants it passed and has ordered the NRM and Buganda NRM parliamentary caucuses to see it through before Feb. 18.
Apart from rubbing Mengo the wrong way, the bill was also unwelcome to the National Resistance Movement politicians from Buganda who are seeking re-election. A Buganda parliamentary caucus meeting that sat hurriedly on Dec. 23 made Buganda NRM MP’s fears clear. The caucus, dominated by NRM MPs, demanded that the bill be put aside since the country is now busy with elections.
Their concern was that the timing of its tabling could raise questions and deal a fatal blow to their political careers which have constantly been threatened by strained relations between their party and Mengo. But the party position has since been realigned to state that shelving the bill until after elections would send the message that it had been brought in bad faith.
But the Mengo-leaning pressure group which is campaigning for Besigye, Ssuubi 2011, is already milking the bill for political capital. It has circulated fliers with a picture of Kabaka Mutebi wiping tears (taken at Kasubi when the royal tombs were set ablaze last March) with the following headline, “Eteeka lyokujawo Obwakabaka” (The law to abolish kingship). The flier, written in Luganda, presents the most controversial sections of the original bill and urges Baganda to vote for Ssuubi 2011- backed candidates to avert disaster.
Earlier, it had been pointed out that Parliament is only mandated (under article 246 of the constitution) to prescribe a method that will resolve the issue of traditional or cultural leaders in communities where that issue hasn’t been resolved but not to legislate against existing ones. To avoid having to amend the constitution before passing the bill, the revised draft that will be presented is expected to be a face-saving shell of the original.
Observers reckon that Museveni wants the bill passed, even if it won’t have any bite, with the view to appearing not to have been forced by Mengo to drop it. But by so doing, he will argue to the voters that his major preoccupation is to protect the Kabaka from politicians and avoid a replay of 1966. This line, strongly backed up by insinuations that he will not be going away any time soon even if Baganda voted against him, is expected to dominate his Buganda campaign.