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Will Museveni yield to Buganda’s demands?

By Melina Platas

In my constituency,” says Gilbert Bukenya, “no one listens to Mengo.” It is late Thursday morning and the Vice President has just strolled in to his third floor Parliament office. Wearing a pale yellow shirt and slacks, he looks relaxed as he eases in to his chair, his characteristic grin spreading across his face. “There is no standoff,” he says, dismissing the headlines and press conferences popping up around town on the current feud between the Buganda kingdom and the central government over the Kampala Capital City Bill 2009 and federo more generally.

Turning in his chair, he looks up at President Museveni’s face, framed as always and hung high on the wall behind his desk. Museveni is the one, Bukenya says, who has been forever negotiating with Mengo, willing to give almost any concession to the cultural leadership of the most populous ethnic group in Uganda. And the reason why is clear “Museveni is afraid of losing his grip on the economic and political heart of the country.

The recent drafting of the Kampala City Bill, the product of a project that has been in the works for years, has reinvigorated the debate over what Buganda owns and is owed. It is just the latest in a string of confrontations between Mengo and the central government. The resolution of the current feud over land, power and money in Buganda will depend primarily on Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party’s calculated gains and losses from pursuing a political agenda at odds with the desires of the Mengo establishment.

Top advisors to the Kabaka have argued that the Bill is unconstitutional as it would take away territory from the region of Buganda, which is comprised of 14 districts as specified in the First Schedule of the Constitution. But Minister for Local Government, Adolf Mwesige says, “I don’t agree¦Article 5(3) gives Parliament the power to delineate the boundaries of Kampala capital city.”

Although at least one cabinet member told The Independent that “we shall have to change the Constitution [in order to pass the Bill], Mwesige disagreed, saying that the Bill was cabinet’s position on the matter.

Despite the hard line position on the Bill taken by the Mengo establishment, a close confidant of the Kabaka said that the king was “in for it [expansion of Kampala city] as recently as a few weeks ago. The reasoning was that Kabaka owns large plots of land that would fall within the proposed boundaries of Kampala, and therefore that his property would go up in value. When asked, Makubuya did not dismiss this claim outright, but said “being labelled Kampala City doesn’t necessarily put more money in your pocket.”

In any case, it is easy to see how additional revenue, whether in the form of regional tax collection or land rents and sales (from which the Buganda Land Board skims of 6% off sale values), would be welcome to an establishment whose elite (though many of whom are not paid salaries for their services to the kingdom) run up bills with their expenses, including a high maintenance palace, first class flights to Europe and stays in posh hotels around the world. According to a highly placed government source close to the Mengo establishment, Mengo as an institution is expensive to maintain and has not been smart in using its property to make money. Federalism, as Mengo desires it, is another way to access money and revenue through tax collections from the populace.

With national elections less than two years away, Museveni does not want to anger or alienate the Baganda vote. The president’s strongholds have always been western and central Uganda, support in these regions needs to be consolidated, especially since Museveni’s support nationwide has been falling by around 10% in each of the last three presidential elections.

Buganda has been the source of a large percentage of Museveni’s votes, even if the Mengo establishment itself has supported the opposition. In 2001, Museveni won about 70% of the vote in Buganda, although this included the support of a large number of non-Baganda. By 2006, his support had decreased somewhat, largely as a result of the strong support the opposition received in urban areas. Nevertheless, of the 168 sub-counties in which Baganda are the majority ethnic group (which does not include all the sub-counties in the region of Buganda, explained by the fact that there have been many migrants to the area), Museveni won just over a million votes. Besigye won 700,000. Thus, in 2006, the Baganda provided Museveni with nearly a quarter of the total votes he received countrywide.

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Over the years, however, the NRM has come to realize that leaning heavily on Buganda support is by no means a foolproof strategy. In fact, as the seemingly endless line of confrontations and demands suggests, NRM could be realising that putting so many eggs in the Buganda basket is a foolhardy strategy.

As a result, explains a Muganda government source close to the president, the NRM has been devising a safer strategy for 2011, and one that will not hold them hostage to the demands of Mengo and the Baganda generally. Namely, the NRM will attempt to consolidate their strongholds in the west, including the regions of Bunyoro, Toro, Ankole, Kigezi and Rwenzori, and win over voters in what have been historically opposition strongholds in Teso and northern Uganda in Acholi and Lango. In 2006, Museveni won 75% of the vote in the west, with around 1.5 million votes. Besigye won only 19%, with around 400,000 votes. 690,000 registered voters in western Uganda did not vote in 2006.

Meanwhile, in Teso, Besigye beat Museveni 70% to 20%, with a total of 225,000 votes to Museveni’s 65,000. In Acholi, Museveni performed poorly, winning only 15% with 43,000 votes. Besigye won 75% with 214,000 votes. Finally, in Lango, Museveni garnered even less support, winning only 12% with 45,000 votes, far behind Besigye at 71% with 257,000 votes. The total of registered voters who did not vote in 2006 in these three regions was 444,000. There are therefore essentially 1.1 million votes up for grabs in these regions alone, since so many registered voters never even showed up on voting day in the last elections.

The new strategy will hinge largely on whether the NRM is able to win over opposition votes in northern Uganda. The NRM plans to campaign on two major issues in northern Uganda “ the implementation Peace, Recovery and Development Program (PRDP) and the peace dividend more generally, a result of finally expelling the Lords Resistance Army from the north.

Under this scenario, the less the NRM relies on the Buganda electorate to stay in power, the more flexibility they will have in negotiating with Mengo.

But President Museveni continues to court Buganda, even if a 2011 back-up plan is in the works. Many have argued that Museveni has bent over backwards, perhaps excessively so, with generosity to the Buganda kingdom, which has made more and louder demands for ebyaffe (‘œour property’) than any group or kingdom in Uganda. In 1993, for example, Museveni restored kingdoms, which had been abolished by Milton Obote following the crisis of 1966, against counsel of some of his closest advisors and confidants.

A former minister in the NRM says that the President may not assess the current standoff with Mengo objectively because, he says, “Museveni has got a problem, Museveni fears a vote.”Thus, he may continue to appease Buganda even when his political survival does not necessarily depend on it. A separate reason for Museveni’s leniency with Buganda is his perceived debt to the Baganda from the Bush War, in which the NRA were largely dependent on the local populations in Buganda (although many were actually non-Baganda), and more specifically those in Luwero, in the time leading up to their capture of Kampala.

The issue of federo, in short the demand for a federal state for Buganda, has been the most prominent demand and the NRM has made numerous offers to Mengo. First, Buganda was given the chance to create its own ‘charter’, or constitution, to be negotiated with the central government and included as a Schedule in the Constitution. The offer was rejected. Then in 2005, leading up to the referendum and constitutional amendments that were made, a series of meetings were held between government and Mengo representatives, the end result being Article 178, which allowed for the formulation of regional governments and creation of Mengo Municipality. Again Buganda refused, and has never set up their regional government. Even the national Land Bill was staunchly opposed by Buganda and therefore stopped dead in its tracks. The Mengo establishment now hopes that if they push hard enough, they will eventually get their way.

Last week, for example, Buganda Attorney General Apollo Makubuya stood before Buganda’s parliament, the Lukiiko, and lambasted the Kampala City Bill for undermining Mengo’s demands for federo and ebyaffe more generally. In his official statement on the matter, he wrote: “The KCCA Bill is the latest plot by this Government to thwart Buganda’s aspirations to attain a federal system of government; to return its stolen land and other properties and, ultimately, to usurp its rights and control of a vast chunk of its prime territory without consensus or compensation. For these¦reasons, the Kingdom of Buganda is strongly opposed to the Bill.”

Several government officials, including the Vice President, have said that the proposals to extend Kampala into Wakiso and Mukono in return for ceding part of the city to Mengo Municipality were agreed upon in 2005 (though were never included in the Constitution). Makubuya disagrees, “We never in our wildest dreams thought that the capital city would be stretched to the areas that are being suggested now,” he says.

But even if Mengo is dissatisfied with the concessions made, the Baganda in general have not fared badly under the current regime. “NRM has been very fair to the people of Buganda,” Bukenya says.

In terms of human development, the Baganda as a group performs excellently, perhaps even the best in the country. Of the 20 most prominent ethnic groups, according to a forthcoming study on the relationship between ethnicity and economic well-being by the local think tank Fanaka Kwa Wote, the Baganda have the highest net primary enrolment rate, the highest literacy rate, the lowest total fertility rate, and the highest percentage of households with all basic facilities and necessities, with employment income, with business enterprises, and with permanent and owner-occupied dwellings.

The current power struggle, however, may not revolve so much around the well-being of the people of Buganda as desires of the elite in the Mengo establishment. Nevertheless, many Baganda, especially in Kampala, will throw their weight behind their king if forced to choose sides.

It is precisely this backlash that the NRM government fears today, and why it treads so lightly on issues relating to Buganda.

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