UGANDA 60-YEAR CONFLICT (PART 1): Obote to Museveni: One game, different players

This year (2009) will go down as one of the bloodiest in Uganda’s history, thanks to the riots of September 10 - 12 in Buganda that killed at least 30 people and left scores injured.

Long in the brewing, the riots were sparked off by the government decision to stop Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II from visiting Kayunga, a part of his Buganda Kingdom. The clashes brought back memories of similar confrontations in 1953 and 1966, with many fearing that the Kabaka may, yet again, be booted out of his palace.

That fear may not have come to pass, but the political fallout could still turn out to be just as significant. In a special series beginning today, The Observer provides historical context to the latest duel between Buganda and the central government, and examines what the future holds for the relations between the two rivals, and for Buganda’s place in Uganda. In today’s maiden part, MICHAEL MUBANGIZI asks whether the 2009 confrontation is any different from the earlier ones.

Buganda is angry over land. It believes the central government is trying to weaken the kingdom by breaking it up. The government, on the hand, suspects that opposition politicians and foreign countries are using Buganda to undermine it. A crisis is brewing. The country’s leader picks up the phone and calls the Kabaka to discuss the situation. The Kabaka does not take the calls. The crisis comes to a head, leaving scores dead and injured.

Though it could well be, the year is not 2009. It is 1966. The leader is Apollo Milton Obote and the Kabaka is Frederick William Mutesa Walugembe. It is remarkable how similar the current standoff between Buganda and the central government is to the crises of 1953 and 1966. In both cases, Kabaka Mutesa found himself exiled to England.

On November 30, 1953, he was deported by the Protectorate government for rejecting the proposed East African federation and insisting on Buganda’s autonomy. Mutesa returned to the country two years later, on October 17, 1955, but it didn’t take long before he was forced back into exile after the May 24, 1966 armed raid on his palace ordered by Obote.

The two events could be the darkest in the history of Buganda Kingdom. Recounting his 1953 deportation, Mutesa writes in his book, Desecration of My Kingdom, “The news [of the deportation] struck the Baganda like a physical shock.” He adds that most Baganda refused to shave until he returned from exile. His sister, Alice, died and brother, Henry, vomited when they learnt of his banishment.

The demise of Mutesa in Britain three years later after the 1966 attack on the Lubiri, is an issue for which Baganda have never forgiven Obote’s party, the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC). When Obote died, ironically in exile, on October 10, 2005, some Baganda jubilated. Obote’s casket was denied passage in parts of Buganda on its way to his ancestral home in Akokoro, Apac.


There are parallels between Buganda’s rejection of the proposed East African federation, which led to Mutesa’s deportation in 1953, and the kingdom’s lukewarm response to current efforts to turn the East African Community into a federation. In fact, the proposed regional federation is expected to come under attack during the Buganda Conference that kicks off at Hotel Africana this Thursday (Read details of Mutesa’s deportation in the next issue).

Although Buganda has not officially rejected the proposed East African Federation, there are those in the NRM government who regard the kingdom’s unrelenting push for “federo” (federal status within Uganda) as a stumbling block to the East African unity.


In January 2008, The Observer reported that an army officer, Capt. Vincent Bitature, had authored a document for the UPDF leadership calling for the dismantling of Buganda Kingdom and other communities that might oppose the East African Federation.

Among other actions, Capt. Bitature called for the abolition of the mailo land tenure system in Buganda, the return of Nakasongola and Buwekula to Bunyoro, and the division of Buganda into pre-1850 kingdoms.

“The aim of all such changes is to weaken all those propelling the parochial interests of Buganda and any other community likely to support Buganda’s hard line position towards the East African Federation,” said Bitature’s document. (Why Kabaka Refused to Meet Museveni, The Weekly Observer, January 3, 2008).

Some will see the passing of the Land Bill, despite Buganda’s opposition, and the propping up of “Sabanyala” Capt. Baker Kimeze, which are at the centre of the current standoff, as an implementation of Bitature’s proposals. On May 20, 1966, four days to the Lubiri attack, a charged Buganda Lukiiko (parliament) passed a George Kaggwa motion ordering the central government to vacate Buganda soil within 10 days.

“Unless we pass the motion of no confidence in Dr. Obote today, he will not understand that we have rejected him and his constitution,” the Uganda Argus of May 21, 1966 quotes a Lukiiko member, Sheik Kulumba, as saying during the fiery debate.

Commentators say this resolution played into the hands of Milton Obote, who used it as an excuse to attack the palace. (In the coming series, find out why the Katikkiro at the time, Jehoash Mayanja Nkangi, opposed the resolution and how he was defeated). The resolution followed the revocation of the 1962 constitution on February 22, 1966, ending Buganda’s cherished federo and monarchical rule.


Under the new “pigeon hole” Constitution, Buganda lost its revenue collection under the mailo land system and the right to send indirectly elected members to Parliament. After the constitutional annulment, Kabaka Mutesa petitioned the UN Secretary General, challenging Obote’s decision.

“The Uganda constitution of 1962 as amended, gives the Prime Minister power to move in Parliament by way of a resolution to remove the president. This procedure was open to Dr. Obote, why did he not avail himself to that procedure?” the Kabaka, who was then president of Uganda, wrote in his memo to the UN boss.

He added: “It is difficult and in fact almost impossible to expect me or the people of Buganda, and indeed some other parts of the country, to accept the new Constitution. The acceptation of that document would mean the unconditional surrender of our power for which some of us would be prepared to undergo the most gruesome experience.”

The attempt to evict the central government from Buganda in 1966 was, in effect, an attempt at secession. It was not the first time Buganda had tried this course of action. On January 1, 1961, as Uganda prepared for independence, the Lukiiko proclaimed Buganda’s independence. Little effort, however, was made to make the claimed independence a reality.   

Whether Buganda’s leaders believe in the kingdom’s independence from Uganda, or they simply use it as a bargaining chip against the central government is not clear. It is perhaps not clear even to Mengo, the seat of the kingdom, itself. What is clear is that demands for an independent Buganda feature prominently whenever there is a disagreement with the central government.

Recently, separatist demands have been led by Makindye West MP, Hussein Kyanjo. Some senior Mengo officials, including the Deputy Katikkiro, Yusuf Nsubuga Nsambu, support him.
“How can our things be taken as we simply look on? Why? I want to remind you that Buganda is a state in itself, which accepted to unite with other states to form Uganda with love.

Now that that love is no more, why don’t we secede from Uganda so that we take our different directions?” he told The Observer recently, claiming that he was already looking for money to finance an independent Buganda.

Nsambu had earlier attempted to table a motion calling for Buganda’s independence in the Lukiiko, but it was resisted by some in Mengo saying it would undermine talks between President Museveni and Kabaka Mutebi.


The head of Makerere University’s Political Science Department, Dr. Yasin Olum, says both the 1966 crisis and the present tussle are about land.
“In 1966, Mutesa said remove the capital from my soil, now the demand is over land, Kampala, its expansion. To me what transpired in 1966 is not different from what is happening now,” says Olum.

The government has fronted plans to expand Kampala, the country’s capital, to parts of Wakiso, Mpigi and Mukono. Mengo has opposed the plans, seeing them as yet another attempt to weaken the kingdom by depriving it of its lands.

Although Kampala is physically located in Buganda, it is not listed as part of Buganda in the constitution. Any expansion would be at the expense of the districts that are constitutionally recognised as being part of Buganda. Some analysts consider the loss of territory to Bunyoro in 1964 to be the turning point that led to the 1966 crisis.

In his book General Amin (1978), Davin Martin says, for instance, that “writers on Uganda generally paid far too little attention to the ‘lost counties’ referendum as the crucial issue for Obote’s showdown with the Baganda in 1966...”

In the referendum of November 1964, supported by Obote but opposed by Mengo, the counties of Buyaga and Bugangaizi voted to return to Bunyoro. The two countries had been given to Buganda by the British colonialists as a reward for its support in their bid to subdue Bunyoro.  

Although the independence constitution provided for a referendum on the “lost counties”, Buganda saw it as an attempt by Obote to weaken the kingdom. Makerere University history professor, Tanga Odoi, agrees, saying that Obote only supported the referendum opportunistically to gain Bunyoro’s support.

“He never did it because he was a constitutional man,” says the historian.
Buganda views President Museveni’s apparent support to ethnic groups trying to break away from Buganda, notably the Baruli and Banyala, in the same light. Indeed, it is government’s backing of the Banyala, who objected to Kabaka Mutebi’s visit to their area, that sparked off the September riots.


Foreign involvement has also been cited in both the 1966 and 2009 crises. As the 1966 crisis built up, Kabaka Mutesa is alleged to have approached the British High Commission in Kampala, seeking military assistance. Obote also accused Mutesa of seeking help from Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

It is not clear whether the Kabaka sought help only to defend himself or move against Obote, or perhaps both. Whatever the truth of the allegations, they, together with the related claim that Mengo had acquired guns to overthrow the government, provided Obote with the ammunition he needed to attack the Kabaka’s palace (Look out for our report on whether there were illegal guns in Lubiri later in these series).

Following the September riots, President Museveni made similar claims about foreign involvement.
“I also got information that Mengo elements got foreign funds to further their aims of fighting the NRM and undermining the Constitution,” he told the nation on September 10. Fingers eventually pointed at Col. Muammar Gadaffi of Libya.

Once Museveni’s ally, the two fell out mainly over their conflicting approaches to the question of a united Africa. Libya has maintained direct relations not only with Buganda, but also other kingdoms, bypassing the central government.


The nature of the Lukiiko has been a constant factor in conflicts between Buganda and the central government since 1953. Recounting events leading to his banishment in his book, Desecration of My Kingdom, Mutesa says the March 1953 increase of directly elected representatives to the Lukiiko to 60 out of the 89 members and three ministers escalated the conflict.

The changes were opposed by the Lukiiko but supported by Mutesa. He wrote: “Not all the Lukiiko welcomed the new members as I did myself…That is not to say that the changes were unimportant. The more respectably democratic the Lukiiko became, the less the Governor could control or ignore it.”

The debate on the composition of the Lukiiko rages on. President Museveni has on several occasions talked of imbalances in the Lukiiko, saying it is dominated by opposition leaders who lose elections. He argues that though it is a cultural institution, clan leaders are not represented in the Lukiiko.

Although Museveni prefers an elected Lukiiko, Mengo insists on Lukiiko members nominated by the Kabaka. Mengo continues to oppose a compromise arrangement where there would be an elected Lukiiko dealing with political issues and an appointed one dealing with cultural issues. Mengo also rejects an elected Katikkiro.

The Lukiiko wields significant power, sometimes prevailing upon the Katikkiro and even the Kabaka. Just as it opposed secret talks between Kabaka Mutesa and Governor Sir Andrew Cohen in 1953, the Lukiiko recently passed a resolution barring Kabaka Mutebi from holding direct talks with President Museveni.

It was the Lukiiko’s insistence on throwing Obote’s government out of Kampala against the advice of the Katikkiro, Jehoash Mayanja Nkangi that prompted Obote to invade the Lubiri on May 24, 1966.

Nkangi himself had become the Katikkiro following the resignation of Michael Kintu under pressure from the Lukiiko and some Baganda, who blamed him for the loss of Buyaga and Bugangaizi to Bunyoro.

Yet the Katikkiro’s tussles with the Lukiiko didn’t end with Nkangi. The current Katikkiro, Eng. J.B. Walusimbi faces similar ridicule before the Lukiiko and sections of Baganda. Walusimbi is accused by several Lukiiko members of being a pacifist, insisting on what they see as meaningless dialogue with the central government.

In a recent Lukiiko meeting, Walusimbi was booed by some members when he claimed ignorance of the details of the recent Mutebi-Museveni meeting. Also, the Lukiiko wanted to pass a resolution condemning the continued closure of the kingdom’s radio, CBS, but this was resisted by Walusimbi.

Walusimbi’s woes started on February 13, 2007, the day he was named Katikkiro, replacing the more belligerent Daniel Muliika. In what was seen as defiance of the Kabaka, who customarily has the last word on Buganda issues, groups of Baganda vigilantes opposed Muliika’s removal and camped at Bulange insisting that the Kabaka retains him.


Both the government and the opposition have always sought to use Mengo and the Kabaka as a political tool. President Museveni has, for example, often accused the Kabaka of harbouring his political opponents. He accused the opposition, particularly Democratic Party spokesperson, Betty Nambooze of orchestrating the September riots.

Earlier on July 18, Nambooze, who is also the chairperson of the Buganda Civic Education Committee, had been arrested, along with Buganda ministers Medard Lubega and Peter Mayiga, on accusations of “terrorism”.

Nambooze and Lubega were eventually charged with “sedition” while Mayiga was released without any charges. The three had been strong critics of the Land Bill, which has since been passed by Parliament.

State House is also said to have been behind the sacking of Daniel Muliika as Katikkiro. Apart from his confrontational approach, he was seen as being too close to the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), in particular its then national chairman, Dr. Sulaiman Kiggundu.

President Museveni’s insistence on an elected Katikkiro under the regional tier system, as opposed to one appointed by the Kabaka, is seen as a strategy to influence the choice of Katikkiro and have a counter-weight to the Kabaka in Buganda.

Like Museveni, Obote tried to influence the appointment of Buganda officials in his favour. Historian Phares Mutibwa writes in his book Uganda Since Independence (1992) that “it was said at the time that Obote’s agents [in the Lukiiko] were instrumental in the choice and election of Mayanja-Nkangi as Katikkiro.”

Obote similarly suspected his opponents, notably Minister of State and UPC Secretary General, Grace Ibingira, and Kabaka Yekka Secretary General, Daudi Ocheng, of trying to use Mengo to undermine his regime. Betty Nambooze may not be quite the Kabaka’s confidante that Daudi Ocheng was, but more parallels can be drawn between the two.

Nambooze is as much a thorn in Museveni’s flesh as Ocheng was in Obote’s. Although Museveni blamed Nambooze for the September riots, she was bed-ridden at the time. She suspects poisoning by government agents. Ocheng’s widow, Namuli Ocheng, told The Observer that her husband was poisoned by elements in Obote’s government.

He, too, was bed-ridden in Mulago at the time of the 1966 attack on the Lubiri. He died shortly after on June 1, 1966. (Look out for Namuli Ocheng’s account of the 1966 crisis, and her take on the current tussle between Buganda and the government in forthcoming series). Much of the blame for the 1966 crisis, which is seen as the start of Uganda’s descent into political anarchy and civil conflicts, is laid on Milton Obote’s feet.

However, the fact that he inherited the conflict between Buganda and the central government when he took the reins of power from the colonial government in 1962, and that the conflict continues almost 25 years after he left, suggests that he was not the sole culprit. While acknowledging Obote’s role, some analysts, such as Phares Mutibwa in his book Uganda Since Independence, have argued that Buganda and the Kabaka should take some of the blame for the 1966 crisis.

“When [an authoritative account of the 1966 crisis] is written, his [Mutesa’s] role will certainly emerge as one among the most important, fatally so because in many ways Buganda’s disaster and indeed that of Uganda as a whole can be traced to the misguided leadership and unfortunate activities of Sir Edward himself and his lieutenants in Mengo,” he writes.

President Museveni has been making a similar argument about the current standoff. Except, predictably, he does not concede any blame on the part of his government.

It would, however, be inaccurate to view the current conflict as one purely between President Museveni and Kabaka Mutebi, or even between Buganda and the central government, says Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan Professor of Government at Columbia University in the United States.

“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,” he says. (Look out for Prof. Mamdani’s insights on the conflict later in the series).

It is not Buganda’s search for “federo” at the heart of the conflict anymore but rather, Uganda’s search for democratic governance. It makes the stakes all the higher.

In the next issue (Thursday), read details of how Kabaka Mutesa fell out with the colonial government and later the Obote government and, on both occasions, found himself in exile.













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