Kingdom, Government Clash In Uganda

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This year has seen a violent reminder of Uganda's past: riots by those loyal to an ancient kingdom. The riots were sparked by a government decision to stop the liege of the once-powerful Buganda kingdom from traveling within his realm.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Gwen Thompkins.

For all of its merits, democracy lacks a certain pageantry, the regal bling, if you will, that monarchies have in abundance. When George Washington said he wanted to be called Mr. President and not Your Highness, he lost out on all the flourishes that punctuate a monarch's day, like this one we recently heard for a royal family in East Africa.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: Nor can a song like "Hail to the Chief" match the same percussive glee that a king in Uganda whips up when he walks into a conference room in the nation's capital.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: Uganda has it all - a democracy and kingdoms that in some cases date back to the 13th century. Uganda's kingdoms no longer have political power. They hold special cultural status in the country. But lately, the liege of Uganda's wealthiest kingdom has been accused of acting more like a head of state. And the nation's president has been accused of acting more like a king.

In September, the two men clashed. There were riots, and the kingdom was displeased. At a recent conference in Kampala, King Ronald Mutebi II - or the kabaka, as he's known - sets up.

King RONALD MUTEBI II (Uganda): I believe that Uganda can accommodate all of us and that we can live in peace and harmony. However, it is important to recognize that members of our family have their peculiar needs and concerns, which should be seriously attended to. That is how the family can be kept happy and prosperous.

(Soundbite of applause)

THOMPKINS: The kabaka and Uganda's president disagree over how to form a more perfect union. The kabaka wants federalism - self-governing states working with the central government. Under federalism, Uganda's three active kingdoms and other areas would become states. And in the south, the kabaka would govern the state of Buganda, including the capital city of Kampala.

With more than four million subjects, Buganda's proportions would be like New York and California combined. But President Yoweri Museveni doesn't want self-governing states, especially when commercial oil production is due to begin soon in a kingdom near Buganda. Museveni has proposed new regional administrations. Under his plan, Uganda's kings would remain politically neutral. David Mpanga is an adviser to the kabaka.

Mr. DAVID MPANGA (Kabaka Adviser): Central governor is there over a neutral king as a king who does their bidding and has brought up various photo ops to rally support to them. In fairness, you can't blame them. They're politicians. They would want that institution to work for them.

THOMPKINS: Tamale Mirundi is the spokesman for the president.

Mr. TAMALE MIRUNDI (Spokesman, President Yoweri Museveni): Federalism means Buganda, all of the kingdoms, were sittng down and they create a central government. This is arrogance. Where do they get to mandate, dictate or not? Where do they get the mandate?

THOMPKINS: Buganda says it has history on its side. For hundreds of years, the kabaka handled the often complex affairs of the kingdom. Buganda has always been multiethnic and these days it's both Protestant and Catholic. Even now, the kingdom has its own prime minister and volunteer parliament.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: At the conference, amid the fur-bottomed dancers, the leopard skins and the centuries with crowns of twigs on their heads, Queen Sylvia said federalism is a more African way of governance.

Queen SYLVIA (Uganda): Federalism is a compromise that can enable the diverse peoples of Uganda and Africa as a whole to build happy, prosperous and great nations in the 21st century, while at the same time preserving that which makes us truly African.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: But there may be intrigue afoot. The president's spokesman claims that Buganda is planning to secede from Uganda - the kingdom has already tried twice before. And Tamale Mirundi, who is Buganda, says secession plots are a drain on everyone.

Mr. MIRUNDI: In Buganda we are very poor because we have spent a lot of time fighting every regime.

THOMPKINS: Secession may be on Buganda's mind due to a most unpleasant episode. In September, the government barred the kabaka from traveling within his own kingdom. The government said it was for the kabaka's safety because there had been tensions in the area. But the confrontation sparked rioting, and government security forces reportedly killed nearly 30 people.

Yacin Alume(ph) teaches political science in Kampala. He says the incident might have softened Uganda's other kingdoms toward the rival, Buganda.

Mr. YACIN ALUME: The way they handled the king, if you like, that maybe was very harsh. Several people lost their lives, and for three, four, five days, the country was quite ungoverning. So, in spite of the fact that the other ethnic groups might not like the superior tendencies of some Buganda, I think on that occasion they may have been a little bit sympathetic.

THOMPKINS: The incident recalled a time in the 1960s when a hostile president abolished all of Uganda's kingdoms, including Buganda. Many say that the current president wants a weak Buganda, and that's ironic because the kabaka supported the guerilla movement that brought Museveni to power. Again, Yacin Alume.

Mr. ALUME: Most of the freedom fighters under Museveni's guerilla movement were actually Buganda.

THOMPKINS: It's widely believed here that Museveni and the kabaka had a gentleman's agreement. Alume says in exchange for Uganda's support. Museveni may have agreed to make Buganda a federal state.

Mr. ALUME: The restoration of that kingdom which then came was not what the Buganda say was agreed between President Museveni when he was in the Bush (unintelligible). They wanted a full political kingdom. So the Buganda are saying that they are being cheated.

THOMPKINS: Relations between the kabaka and the president are frosty. Museveni is now blaming Buganda's radio station for inciting last year's violence, a charge that the kingdom calls ironical. And yet in the greater war for the hearts and minds of the Buganda people, Museveni just might win the day.

Land reforms that he recently signed into law give Buganda's peasants their first chance at land ownership, something the kabaka would probably not have done. But at the end of the day, Museveni still has an ambitious kingdom on his hands. The Buganda sing two national anthems - one for Uganda in English...

CROWD: (Singing) United we fall, (unintelligible)...

THOMPKINS: And the other for the kingdom of Buganda in the Luganda language.

CROWD: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

THOMPKINS: Folks seem to know the second anthem a whole lot better.

CROWD: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

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