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Tribal politics explodes

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Kasese, Bundibugyo tense  ahead of by-election

On the morning of June 30, the king of the Rwenzururu, Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere Iremangoma, received an unusual phone call from President Yoweri Museveni. The Omusinga was that morning preparing for the 50th anniversary celebrations of his people’s declaration of seceding from the colonial rule of then-Toro kingdom in 1962.


As part of the celebrations, he was to hoist the Rwenzururu freedom flag at the Bundibugyo Boma Grounds.  But something was wrong. The President told him he could not hoist the flag.

This seemed strange to the Mumbere, since the President had been fully supportive of all arrangements before and had even sent the Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi to represent him as chief guest at the event.

Besides, the central government recognised his Rwenzururu Kingdom on Oct. 19, 2009, meaning it could freely use its symbols and regalia, especially on occasions like this.

Unknown to the Omusinga, his visit to Bundibugyo had become a ‘security threat’ and self-styled Ivan Bwebale Rwigi IV was about to declare himself king of Busongora in Kasese, the heart of his Rwenzururu kingdom. Meanwhile, the central government is treading carefully because of the impeding bye-election for the Kasese Woman MP on Aug.8.

Either unaware or oblivious to the underlying tension and threats to his kingdom, Omusinga Mumbere had the day before, on June 29, planted trees in Bundibugyo before stoking the fires further by erecting a royal shrine on his ancestral land in Kirindi village, Harugale sub-county. Celebrations completed, Mumbere returned to his Kasese headquarters.

A month earlier, on May 30, when an emissary from Rwenzururu kingdom had announced on the same radio that Omusinga Mumbere would pay a royal visit to the district, some Bamba elders in Bundibugyo had objected. They advised that he makes it a private visit instead, since Bundibugyo was not under Rwenzururu kingdom’s jurisdiction.

But the kingdom has a significant number of loyalists in the district who wanted the grandeur of a royal visit and the Mumbere pushed ahead. Local tensions built.

The kingdom’s Acting Prime Minister, Loice Biira Bwambale, says the President was acting on “misinformation” that the ceremony was causing unease among some Bamba, who do not subscribe to Rwenzururu kingdom.

“But through the king the president got the right information and the exercise was carried out peacefully,” Bwambale said.

Midway through the live broadcast of the ceremony by UBC’s Voice of Bundibugyo, it was switched off just as the Omusinga Mumbere began his speech and before Amama Mbabazi could deliver the president’s message. The radio station manager later said it was a technical fault. Few believe him.

Five days later, on July 6, violence broke out. The same day Information and Communication Technology Minister Ruhakana Rugunda was in Bundibugyo, urging people to leave the shrine alone as it was on private property.   The Bundibugyo Woman MP, Harriet Ntabazi, was at the forefront of rallying her Bamba people to come “listen to the President’s emissary”. She had been on radio promising free food, drinks, and transport refund.

But the gathered Bamba, were angered by Rugunda’s peace message. They wanted the shrine removed and marched to Kirindi, about 14 km from Bundibugyo town, intending to burn it. When they found Rwenzururu loyalists waiting for them, a mêlée ensued, several people sustained injuries, 6 motor cycles were burnt, property was looted and destroyed, and one man died after being knocked by a fleeing car.

Yustus Musoki, 68, a staunch Mumbere supporter and one-time father-in-law of MP Ntabazi, lives near the new Mumbere shrine. He was going about his daily chores at his home when a mob of stick-wielding Bamba attacked, beat and left him for dead. He was hospitalised.

Three days later, on June 9, Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura visited the shrine and deployed new policemen, after the old team was accused of having done nothing to prevent the clashes. “The police have been deployed in the area to prevent clashes. The political leaders from the region should preach peace to avoid instability in the area,” Minister for Internal Affairs Hillary Onek said.

When The Independent visited Mumbere’s shrine in Bundibugyo, it was guarded by a dozen police officers. The situation appeared to have normalised, but ordinary people say mutual suspicion and fear are building in the community.

It is said that the Bamba, through their Bamba/Babwisi Elders Development Association (BBEDA), chaired by Frugesio Bamutilebye, interpreted Mumbere’s tree-planting and shrine-building as a symbolic conquest of their own cultures and sought to demonstrate that Bundibugyo was not under the jurisdiction of Obusinga.

“We have intermarried. But the recent clashes have left us in fear as we still suffer abuses,” says Matayo Businge, a resident of Bundibugyo town.

Bamutilebye warned that the central government is taking long to meet the aggrieved parties but the ethnic sentiments behind the tensions could easily explode into ugly confrontations.

“We are surprised by recent the events in Bundibugyo,” says Bwambale, the prime minister.  “We have put in place a committee to study this, but I think there are individuals who are playing wrong politics, using people to promote their personal and selfish interests, and taking advantage of the weaknesses in the law that establishes cultural institutions.”

Tribal politics

With a split looming, Peter Mupalya, the only living member of the trio that founded the Rwenzururu movement, describes the clashes as “completely surprising”.

The main trigger for such clashes is the trouble of tribal connotations attached to particular districts. The same problem surfaced in the Banyoro-dominated Kibaale district when a Mukiga, Fred Ruremera, was elected leader. Museveni revoked Ruremera’s election and proposed ring-fencing particular areas for political offices to be occupied by indigenes.

In Bundibugyo, the unwritten rule is that the district belongs to the Bamba. So when Mumbere visited Bundibugyo as king, politically-minded Bamba/Babwisi saw it as being conquered by the Rwenzururu king.

Christopher Kibanzanga, chief advisor in Rwenzururu kingdom, argues that the territorial perceptions are misplaced and the protests against Mumbere were the work of politicians.

“Rwenzururu Kingdom is not forcing anyone to pay allegiance to it. Those who say otherwise have selfish interests and want to divide and rule the people,” says Kibanzanga.

“There is no territorial claim in this. The king is following where his people are. That shrine is built on Mukinia’s land. Nobody should stop us from whatever we do on our father’s land,” Kibanzanga said.

“Cultural institutions have no territorial boundaries. It does not add up to say the king should leave his title behind when he travels. Does King Oyo cease to be king when he goes to Buganda? So why should the Bamba, where the king is born, say he cannot go as king? The king has flown to London with his title. He is not forcing anybody to pay allegiance whether you are a Mukonzo or Mwamba.”

MP Ntabazi, who has been accused of inciting the Bamba of Bundibugyo, says her political opponents were taking advantage of the clashes to spoil her reputation. Signatures are being collected within Bundibugyo district in attempt to recall Ntabazi from parliament.

Rwenzururu Movement

Both Mumbere’s loyalists and detractors trace the roots of their cause to Boma Grounds on the edge of Bundibuyo town, the scene of Rwenzururu Kingdom’s controversial 50th anniversary celebrations. Demonstrators against Rwenzururu kingdom also began their journey of destruction here.

Here, the stout statue of Yeremia Kawamara prominently stands atop a grave with an inscription recognising the hero’s contribution to the Rwenzururu struggle that led to the birth of Bundibugyo and Kasese districts from out of Toro in 1974.

When the statue was erected in 1998, it signified the region’s unique mix of different tribes living side by side in harmony – different cultures with a shared history.  The area has the core tribes of Bamba, Batwa, Batooro, Bakonzo, Babwisi, Batuku, Basongora, and significant populations of Baganda, Banyoro, Banyankole, Bakiga and tribes from west Nile and Northern Uganda.

That Rwenzururu has since metamorphosed into a kingdom seems to have sowed discord in the community’s union.

The Bakonzo and Bamba/Babwisi have lived and worked together for centuries and intermarried. The current LC V chairman Jolly Tibamanya and MP Ntabazi are Bamba married to Bakonzo.   Recently, however, a combination of political and economic challenges appears to be pushing them apart.

According to some Bamba elders, the current tensions were sparked by the expansionist agenda of Rwenzururu kingdom.

On October 19, 2009, the government of Uganda officially recognised Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu (Rwenzururu Kingdom) as one of the many kingdoms in the country.

The kingdom traces its origins to 1922 when one of its early leaders, Nyamutswa, Isaya Mukirania, demanded to be recognised by then-colonial government as a distinct ethnic group from then-Toro kingdom. Their agitation failed but their successors made the same demand in the 1950s, and later as the 1962 constitution was being written. At the time, the Bamba and Bakonzo who are at each other’s neck today were happy to be grouped together as the Banyarwenzururu.

When they failed to be recognised, they waged an armed freedom struggle from 1960s to 1982 against the Kingdom of Toro and government of Uganda.

In 1995, their efforts paid off when the Uganda Constitution that year recognised the two tribes as distinct ethnic groups. But recognition of their kingdom still eluded them.

In June 2005, government instituted a commission of inquiry (an inter-ministerial committee consisting of John Nasasira, Betty Akech and Daudi Migereko) into the Obusinga issue, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Henry Muganwa Kajura and the findings were that Rwenzururu was overwhelmingly supported with Mumbere as the preferred king.

The modern kingdoms, either restored or created by Museveni’s government are not territorial. However, most trace their geographical boundaries to their traditional tribal lands.

When the Rwenzururu kingdom was recognised, it was understood to stretch across the famous Rwenzori Mountain, covering Kasese, parts of Kabarole and Bundibugyo districts. But some sections of the Bamba/Babwisi people who live here disassociated themselves from it, arguing that their culture was different from that of the Bakonzo. Indeed, since 2007, some Bamba elders have been outspoken in their opposition to being incorporated in the kingdom.

Busongora emerges

As Rwenzururu struggles to resolve the Bundibugyo impasse, a new kingdom has emerged in their backyard of Kasese district. Ivan Bwebale has declared himself king of a newly created Busongora Kingdom, its royal seat at his home in Muhokya, 10 km from Kasese town and a few kilometers from the headquarters of Rwenzururu Kingdom.

Rwenzururu Kingdom says it does not recognise Busongora and the central government remains cagey, saying the Attorney General is interpreting the law to provide a specific response. Government is being careful, not to upset a pending by-election in Kasese.

But recently rowdy youths from Kasese attacked Bwebale’s home and stole the Busongora flag, drum, and allegedly Shs 70 million in cash. Bwebale alleges the youths have links with Rwenzururu Kingdom.

When The Independent visited the new king, Bwebale, he was at breakfast; drinking milk from a purple plastic mug and munching on a cob of roasted maize.

Seated on a blue cushioned chair in a nondescript room without a ceiling, in building designed in the commercial-area-style of flat-iron roof with shop front and living quarters behind, he had two rusty spears leaning against the wall in the corner to his left.

“This is my office,” he said before turning to his son, Ronald, and in a dialect similar to Lutooro, ordering him prepare his “royal seat”. He was wearing a blue-shirt, gray neck tie, and navy blue court. Ten minutes later, two men emerged from a back room carrying the said royal seat followed by Bwebale in full royal regalia, a robe with the inscription “Busongora Heritage Kingdom”.

“I’m waiting to be recognised by government, just like they have done for other kingdoms,” Bwebale said after he sat down.

“The Basongora have the constitutional right to their own kingdom. Our culture is different from the Bakonzo and we shall not accept to be marginalised any more though we are the minority.”

Fighting for resources?

Some say the conflicts are about land ownership.  The surging Bakonzo population in the mountains is putting pressure on inelastic resources.

Kasese district is 2,724 square kilometres (1,052 sq miles), of which 885 square kilometres (342 sq miles) is reserved for Queen Elizabeth National Park and 652 square kilometres (252 sq miles) for Rwenzori Mountains National Park, leaving 1,187 square kilometres (458 sq miles) for human habitation and production.

Much of the land area of Kasese district is covered by lakes Edward, George, and Katwe. The national parks and the inhabitable parts of the Mountain Rwenzori cover a large chunk as well. The cultivators and pastoralists have to fit in the remaining land. But this seems untenable.

The previously nomadic Basongora cattle keepers were initially chased from Virunga National Park in the DR Congo and had forcefully occupied Queen Elizabeth National Park in 2007. They were however, resettled in places like Rwehingo, Bigando and Ibuga in Kasese, displacing cultivators who had earlier been allocated the same land by the government. This attracted a legal suit from the 289 cultivators who had gotten land titles. Court ruled in their favour and asked government to compensate them with over Shs 2 billion.

Still, Kibanzanga argues that land is only an excuse, since vast chunks of it lie unutilised.

“They don’t have so many animals that they have put much pressure on land. The cultivators are not commercial farmers whom you would think are using lots of land. It is a question of arrogance,” he said.

According to Kibanzanga, when land occupied by Basongora pastoralists was taken by powerful individuals, they blamed it on the Bakonzo.

Loice Bwambale says the pastoralists must be forced to settle for good.

“There are no longer resources to support the nomadic way of life. The pastoralists must be resettled,” Bwambale said.

Bwambale argues that each group should be left to love their kingdom in peace;

“Our flag must be hung. Our anthem must be sung in the schools that believe in us. But we cannot force other people to pay us allegiance.”

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