Extraordinary and powerful kingdoms are widely celebrated in Africa – and they have all played a part in the shaping of the modern continent. Ivor Agyman-Duah reports from his recent visit to one of Africa’s longstanding kingdoms – that of Buganda.
European colonialism wrecked the power and strength of a huge number of African kingdoms. Most of the leadership of independence movements was drawn from educated elites that did not aim to strengthen chieftainship systems but take over the nascent state structures implemented by the colonisers.
Today, traditional leaders across the continent are adapting to the new norm of civilian, multiparty politics rule; the Buganda kingdom is no exception. But it is trying to maintain its relevance to contemporary Africa.
However, the Buganda Kingdom was almost ruined forever when Uganda’s first post-independence Prime Minister Milton Obote (later president) abolished it in 1966, almost destroying its palaces as well as one of the world’s biggest royal mausoleums in the world – the Kasubi tombs, which reportedly date back to the 13th century and are the revered burial ground of the Kingdom’s Kabakas (kings).
The current president Yoweri Museveni restored the Kingdom in 1993, seven years after he came to power. The tombs are now a Unesco world heritage site.
After its abolition by the new Prime Minister, the Kabaka, Sir Edward Mutesa II, who became non-executive president in the newly independent Uganda under Obote, fled into exile in London where his son – the current Kabaka, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II (37th on the throne on Buganda’s patrilineal inheritance) – was raised and attended the University of Cambridge.
The Kabakaship, the most powerful traditional authority in Central Africa at its apex in 1854, included northern Tanzania, which for strategic economic reasons, the Kingdom ruled through sub-chiefs and also with a navy controlling Lake Victoria to the south, and Lake Kyoga to the north. Eastwards, it controlled the source of the River Nile. All this was partly aimed at resisting British expansion of its colonial interests.
But much of this pre-colonial power and control declined by independence. Interestingly, Obote had strong alignments with Ghana’s prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, who faced similar contestation of anti-republicanism when the Asantes, another powerful 19th-century West African kingdom, which from 1954-57 also argued for a federal system
of government through the National Liberation Movement, desired to make the Asantehene or King of the Asantes supreme sovereign of the largest group within Ghana.
Both the Buganda and Asante kingdoms would lose these battles as their predecessors over a century earlier had done to the British. Nana Agyeman Prempeh I Asante, king from about age 19, was exiled from 1896 to the island of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, as was Mwanga II (Danieri Basammula-Ekkere Mwanga II Mukasa) of the Buganda in 1899 – first to Somalia, before joining Prempeh I in the Seychelles islands.
The Baganda people today make nearly 6 million of Uganda’s population. They control a sizeable percentage of the country’s wealth, held in land around Kampala and other forms of asset.
A visit to the Kabaka’s palace
A lot has changed in the Kabaka’s kingdom. There is a new impressive palace adorned with imperial designs. It faces the old palace directly with an 800-metre stretch of street, and an elaborate roundabout, which is only open for the passage of the Kabaka’s vehicles – just as things are at Buckingham Palace in England.
Today the Kabakaship has a Cabinet and governing departments of traditional chiefs responsible for implementing the “Buganda Kingdom – 5-Year Strategic Plan 2014-18”, which acts to dignify and preserve the Kabakaship and Buganda’s land, natural resources, property, and the territorial integrity of its boundaries; as well as create wealth and improve the welfare of its people. The current Kabaka Mutebi II explains that “The Buganda Kingdom Development Strategy Plan is, in essence, a route map to guide the next leg of the continuing journey of the Kingdom’s development; a journey that started centuries ago and that people from many cultures have joined and contributed to over time. Progress has not always been easy but it has been achieved, despite encountering many obstacles.”
Mutebi II is also the Chancellor of the Muteesa I Royal University, a private university with 4,500 students established in 2007. It is named after Kabaka Muteesa I Mukaabya Walugembe Kayire, who had introduced British educational systems in the kingdom from the 19th century.
“Buganda cannot exist without the Kabaka. The allegiance to him is solid. When Obote abolished the Kingdom, things fell apart and that was where as a nation, we started to fall apart,” says William Matovu, Minister for the Royal Treasury and Chief Palace Advisor.
About 30 minutes’ drive from the new Buganda palace is the sacred shrine, Namugongo, where martyrs of early conversion to Christianity – specifically to the Catholic and Anglican doctrines, lost their lives to the Kabaka in 1888. But there are many tales to this story, as well as misconceptions, according to His Grace Wilson Mutebi, Anglican Emeritus Bishop of the Mityana Diocese within the Buganda Kingdom, who explains that the problem arose during the reign of the Kabaka Mwanga when these missionaries started using the converts within his palace to sabotage his administration and degrade traditional values.
“The palace administrators would not perform any duties – domestic or religious – for the King when they began to view him as a pagan. The Kabaka decided to give them the ultimate punishment of death. So he had them killed as subjects who rebelled against his authority or in today’s terms, engaged in mutiny.” To many historians, unfortunate as the event was, it explains why no missionary or Western advocate of Christianity was killed with them. He further explains that before Christianity was introduced to Buganda, “the Kabaka was seen as an image of God. Some of us fought against the abolition of the Kingdom under Obote because as Christians we also depended on this African institution for stability of society. We could operate peacefully and see economic growth through the stability the Kabaka symbolised.”
On a visit to Buganda, what is evidently clear is that the Kingdom clearly survives on the reverence, cherishing and glorification of its historical past.