The State of Uganda Vs All the King’s Men: The Kasese Violence Reconsidered

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Charles Wesley Mumbere during an interview at his house in Kasese, Sunday, Oct 18, 2009 hours before he was crowned king of the ethnic group the Bakonjo people in the Rwenzururu district of western Uganda. An African man who worked for years as a nurse's aide in the United States, caring for the elderly and sick, is back in his homeland after he was crowned king of his people in the mountains of western Uganda. (AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo)

Last November’s deadly skirmish at Kasese between Ugandan police and armed militants loyal to Rwenzururu King Charles Wesley Mumbere has become the subject of a national debate in Parliament. It is well that it should have. 87 people are reported to have been killed in the violence, including 16 national police and 46 of Mumbere’s Royal Guard, the so-called “Kirumira Mutima.” Added to the cost in human life is the blow to the NRM government’s already flagging political support in a region where the recent violence would suggest at least a significant minority rejects the Ugandan republic’s legitimacy altogether. This means that, if Statehouse had been intermittently compelled to massage tensions between Kampala and the Rwenzururu’s Bakonzo people leading up to the Kasese clash, President Museveni must now grapple with the damaging narrative, backed by local and international media, that Ugandan police summarily executed perhaps dozens of surrendered Kirumira Mutima. Suffice it to say here, this is a hot topic that demands answers: What provoked the violence? More specifically, why did it break out when it did? Finally, what is to be done moving forward?

Parliament has since launched an official investigation into the matter under the auspices of the Defense and Internal Affairs committee, with MPs Atkins Katusabe (Bukonzo West) and Robert Centenary (Kasese Municipality) calling for an ad hoc select committee to assist in the effort. Hansards for the ensuing debates are not yet available, but Parliament Watch staff have reported on the general tenor of the discussion on the floor. Mostly, and with the notable exception of the Honorables Katusabe and Centerary, it appears that the debate has taken on the quintessentially political dimensions of Parliamentary squabbles the democratic world over. There were token appeals for calm; the sort of principled reminders that talk, and not killing, is the only way towards meaningful reconciliation. On the other hand, it seems there were also political points to be scored against President Museveni’s administration. The Honorable Jessica Ababiku, (Adjumani Woman MP) thus demanded, “Where was the intelligence work to avert this? Can we strengthen the intelligence system to safeguard our people?”

While it would be unfair at this point to prejudice the workings of the Defense and Internal Affairs committee as it attempts to make sense of the Kasese affair, it is reasonable to point out that, so far, Parliament seems to be sidestepping the issues informed observers would reasonably point out as the underlying causes of last month’s violence. This paper seeks to outline some of these by briefly illustrating the earlier conflict between President Milton Obote and the Buganda Kabaka (king) Fredrick Mutesa II. It concludes by suggesting that the Kasese violence may well have been inevitable and that parliament’s investigation is not likely to be overly critical of Museveni’s handling of the situation.

Firstly, any serious attempt to understand the bloodshed must start with the historically fraught relationship between the postcolonial Ugandan state and the country’s traditional kingdoms. To simplify, the survival of the state, regardless of its national character, depends for its existence upon personal identity. The legitimacy of Ugandan statecraft, specifically, has rested on the somewhat flimsy, arbitrary notion of a single, unified Ugandan nation since independence in 1962. From the perspective of Statehouse, then, Ugandan nationalism is necessarily opposed to the persistence of subnational kingdoms whose authority stems from competing tribal loyalties.

This, it must be said, is not a uniquely Ugandan problem. It is well to recall here the words of the American essayist Randolph Bourne, who famously quipped in 1917 that, “the state is a jealous God and will brook no rivals.” Bourne’s pronouncement on the state bears relevance to the conflict between Kampala and King Mumbere when one remembers the standoff between the Baganda Kabaka Fredrick Mutesa II and then Prime Minister Milton Obote. In a scenario bearing obvious parallels to Mumbere’s upstart Kingdom (which President Museveni recognized only in 2008), the American political scientist David Apter had this to say on the threat of Baganda chauvinism in 1961:

Provincialism leads to intimacy. Intimacy leads to intrigue. Intrigue leads to an emphasis on loyalty. Loyalty requires followers. Their own intimacy involves further intrigue. The pattern of Kiganda political life consists of these swirling patterns of intimacy and hostility and the chipping and bending of factions.  

One can appreciate in this light that President Obote forced the Kabaka’s swift abdication in 1967 after Mutesa II had ordered the former Prime Minister out of Buganda.

That Ugandan police would meet the Kirumira Mutima’s alleged grenade attack at Kasese with overwhelming force is perhaps better understood in light of the fact that Baganda secessionism remained a significant security threat into the late 1990s. This threat was most pronounced in the Rwenzori region, where the Baganda-dominated Allied Democratic Forces notoriously burnt to death some eighty youth in Fort Portal’s Kichwamaba Technical School. Few in parliament would fault President Museveni for taking swift action against would-be insurrectionaries in neighboring Kasese nearly twenty years later.

Another contributing factor ignored in recent Parliamentary debates is the more immediate source of Rwenzururu hostility to the national government. Specifically, the kingdom is home to the historically subjugated Bakonjo people who view themselves as distinct from Uganda’s Banyankole-dominated state. Unlike Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, those among the Bakonjo who would seek to violently oppose the state are not trying to seize power in Kampala. Rather, this minority is seeking to secede from Uganda and form a Bakonjo state, the aspirant Yiira republic, astride the Western Ugandan border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The situation that exploded in Kasese was in many ways a modern reflection of the enmity between the post-colonial state and Kabaka Mutesa II’s erstwhile Buganda kingdom. While it’s not clear what, exactly, King Mumbere’s agenda had been when his guards attacked the fateful police patrol, the following conclusions can be drawn.

To begin with, Museveni’s official recognition of the Rwenzururu kingdom as a legitimate cultural institution in 2008 was probably the extent to which any reasonable head of state would bend. Granting the Rwenzururu federal status would’ve been absurd, ceding the territory claimed by the partisans of the Yiira republic an unmitigated disaster. Once Mumbere’s praetorian guard was in a position (much less willing) to threaten the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, some kind of bloody confrontation between Ugandan police and the Kirumira Mutima was inevitable.

Next, it may well be the case that the state surveillance apparatus the Hon. Jessica Ababiku has doubted from the floor of Parliament had anticipated what happened at Kasese. With Uganda’s principal donors Great Britain and the United States respectively distracted by “Brexit” and President-elect Donald Trump, it’s entirely possible that President Museveni has exploited a relatively lax international atmosphere by provoking the skirmish which, despite the massive loss of life, has removed Mumbere from the political equation. Of course, without supporting evidence, it is just as likely that the situation in Kasese got out of hand once Mumbere’s militia attacked local police. But whether or not local commanders lost control and overreacted (hence the pictures of bullet-ridden Kirumira Mutima with their hands tied behind their backs), it is likely that this scenario will form the storyline that emerges from Parliament’s investigation. If police were ordered to execute the surviving militiamen, Statehouse cannot afford for that to come to light.

Finally, MPs are right to debate the events at Kasese – that is their job. But parliament cannot realistically deliver a substantive resolution to the crisis – that is President Museveni’s job. Ugandan history amply demonstrates that traditional kingdoms have a legitimate role in the country’s political culture, albeit a purely ceremonial one. The death toll at Kasese is regrettable, but successful rebellions start small in Africa’s Great Lakes region. In relative terms, Museveni’s National Resistance Army started off with twenty-seven men when it ‘took to the bush’ in 1980. Given that police killed fully forty-six of Mumbere’s forces, the state’s reaction is less severe than outside observers (or cynical parliamentarians) would make it out to be. Perhaps the best outcome from Kasese, then, is that the situation won’t get worse before it gets better.

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