MAHMOOD MAMDANI is a professor of Government at Columbia University in the United States. He previously taught at Makerere University and has written a number of books on Uganda’s politics and society. KIRUNGI FIDERI asked him how he sees the current stand-off between Buganda Kingdom and the government of President Yoweri Museveni:
Were you surprised by the hard line stance taken by the Ugandan government and Buganda Kingdom that resulted in the September riots?
One needs to be clear about the background, at least as regards two issues. The first issue is what promises, if any, were made during the years of the guerrilla struggle in the Luwero Triangle. It is in everybody’s interest that the relevant documentation be made public and inform the public discourse on this question.
Second, it seems that the decision by the NRM to recognise “cultural” as opposed to political leaders in different parts of Uganda, whether “kingdoms” or not, was made more in the nature of a compromise than as a principled conclusion to a public discussion of an important issue.
So far as we know, the key discussion was limited to the upper echelons of the NRA; even there, there does not seem to have been either unanimous or even an overwhelming majority in favour of it. Recent statements in the press suggest that an opposing view argued that a “cultural” recognition will not solve the problem but will instead strengthen demands for a “political” recognition. This view seems to have been vindicated by subsequent developments. This is why no one should have been surprised by the stand-off between the Uganda Government and the Buganda Kingdom that culminated in the riots.
Do you see events of 2009, including stopping the Kabaka from visiting parts of his kingdom, the passing of the Land Bill despite Buganda’s opposition, and the closure of CBS, the kingdom’s radio station, as an emergence of a new conflict between Buganda and the central government, or the continuation of an old conflict since the colonial times?
There are elements of both the old and the new in the present situation. The old element is the demand for federo. The new element is defined by the overall situation, which is today very different from what it was in 1966.
First, whereas Buganda was politically isolated during the 1966 crisis, it is the reverse today, with the central government facing political isolation. Rather than detracting from the unity of Uganda, Buganda is today seen to be providing an effective challenge to an unhealthy concentration of power in presidential hands. Most Ugandans understand this as a democratic challenge, and not an ethnic one. This is why, unlike in 1966, today the Kabaka would be enthusiastically welcomed in all parts of Uganda were he to visit any of these.
Second, Buganda’s own understanding of federo is evolving, as seems clear from the discussion around it. It is no-longer seen as a privileged demand arising from Buganda’s specific history and relationship to the colonial government but as a constitutional demand of relevance to the entire country. Nor is federo identified exclusively with the monarchy but with whatever form of government should be supported by the population in the local constituent unit.
The final and most interesting part of the discussion is the understanding that Buganda is not fighting for a “cultural” arrangement but a “political” arrangement, one where the monarchy in one part of the country does not have to be at the expense of democracy in the whole of it.
Some of the statements I have read from representatives of the Buganda government cite examples of Malaysia, or even England, suggesting that we may be better off dropping the language of “cultural” heads and adopting the explicitly political language of “constitutional” heads whose justification is “historical” and whose powers are constitutionally defined and limited as part of an overall democratic setup.
What do you consider to be at the heart of the conflict then?
Once we unpack the longer term issues at the heart of the conflict, we should be able to come closer to understanding possible ways to solve it. The big issue is that of unitary versus federal government.
Nationalist governments on the morrow of independence were almost unanimously in favour of republicanism and unitary government. They saw republicanism as an alternative to monarchy and championed unitary government as an alternative to ethnically-driven demands for a federal structure. Today, there is a growing sense that this was only half the story.
If unitary government captured the particular sensitivity of a people that unity was essential to defend a newly [won] independence in an era of imperial domination, over a half century of independence has made us conscious of the other half of the story: the unanticipated outcome was that unitary government has turned into an armed fist inside the country, undermining hard won democratic freedoms.
Just think of how, one after another, different political oppositions coming from different parts of the country, shared one characteristic in common: they all spoke the language of democracy when in opposition and then sacrificed democratic freedoms at the alter of national unity after coming to power, always claiming they and no one else had the right to define what that national unity stood for. Not surprisingly, national unity in time became a code word for an executive dictatorship.
A half century of independence has clarified the nature of the problem, that neither parliament nor the courts have been effective in curbing the concentration of power around the executive branch of government. If we recognise that the force of the federo argument today derives from a widespread consciousness of the need for constitutionally effective ways of checking the concentration of power in the executive – without weakening the government of the day internationally – and not from the particular conflict between Buganda and the centre, we shall be in a better position to solve it.
Have President Museveni and Kabaka Mutebi got anything to do with the conflict, or we would have witnessed similar events with a different president and a different king?
While I have underlined the fact that the conflict arises from a general tension in our post-independence political arrangements, it would be stupid to deny that the personalities of President Museveni and Kabaka Mutebi have something to do with it. There is little doubt that both are strong personalities and it will do the country little good to continue to let this issue be defined by an ongoing encounter between two strong personalities. The role of institutions and of the political process is precisely to get us out of such a predicament.
Is Buganda’s demand for federo within a Ugandan state politically viable?
The answer to this will depend entirely on how we address the relationship between federo and democracy.
At the heart of this is the question of citizenship. Uganda as a country is not an ethnic patchwork where different parts of the country are populated by different ethnic groups. This may have been a historical fact. But the contemporary fact is that, after decades of migration, including migrant labour, the population in most parts of the country is multi-ethnic.
For example, whereas there is no agreement on the exact figure, all experts are agreed that a substantial part of the population in Buganda is made up of migrants.
In such a situation, we need to define the basis of political rights clearly. If your political rights depend on your home, then the question that follows is: where is your political home, where your ancestors came from or where you live and your children are born?
Where is [Foreign Affairs Minister Sam] Kutesa’s home, in Ankole or in Buganda? Or, for that matter, where is Mamdani’s home, in India or in Buganda?
Who will be the winner and who will be the loser?
We need to recognise that the question we face is not one that narrowly concerns Buganda or, even less, just the establishment in Mengo and in Kampala. We need to appreciate that much more is at stake in this conflict. If we define the winner and loser narrowly in terms of individual personalities, then we the people are sure to lose. But if we appreciate the broader significance of the conflict, we can define the key issues and make them the focus of a broader, national discussion that goes beyond president, parliament and political parties.
If you were Museveni’s and Mutebi’s adviser, what would you tell them to do to end the conflict for good?
I would ask them to realise that how they deal with this issue is going to affect the political lives of Ugandans for a long time to come. For that very reason, it will define their long-term political legacy in the history of Uganda. My advice will be for them to initiate a national discussion without abandoning the responsibility of leadership.