Kampala — President Yoweri Museveni's now controversial letter in which he proposes the ring-fencing of senior political positions in Bunyoro for only members of the indigenous Banyoro ethnic group, has resurrected the ghosts of the country's dark history, with renewed demands being made on Uganda's former colonial master to pay for their past wrongs.
Emerging information indicates that the proposal has added fire to Bunyoro Kingdom's long stated wish to have colonial injustices corrected. These include the payment of reparations by the British government for a genocide their troops committed here between 1893 and 1899, to demanding for a substantial share of the new-found oil wealth in the region.
Sunday Monitor has learnt from kingdom officials that the President's letter adds a new twist to their demands. President Museveni in his letter alluded to money that was received from the British government to be used in Bunyoro.
"Government should have a special programme for developing Bunyoro using money provided by the central government including the British funds," Mr Museveni wrote in the July 15 communication to the Minister for the Presidency, Beatrice Wabudeya.
Although Mr Museveni did not elaborate which British funds he meant or why the British gave funds for the development of Bunyoro, Sunday Monitor has learnt that the Banyoro leadership has interpreted this to be an affirmation that the British have finally relented and passed on the money in a bid to dissuade the Banyoro from pursuing a standing war reparations suit against them.
In 2004, 10 senior Banyoro filed a civil suit No. 595 against the British government and others over the alleged plunder of Bunyoro during the colonial era. The Banyoro sought compensation from the British government. This matter became something of an embarrassment to the government with matters almost coming to a head in the run-up to the Commonwealth leaders' summit held here in 2007. Kingdom enthusiasts threatened to take to the streets in a direct attempt to embarrass England's Queen Elizabeth II.
But on June 15 this year, Mr Museveni invited senior Banyoro to a meeting with him at State House Entebbe. During this meeting, reliable sources say, Mr Museveni reportedly said that the government has received money from the British for the development of Bunyoro. He never said how much though. This raised suspicion about the President's intentions.
"It's true we met the President on June 15," said Bunyoro kingdom publicist Ford Mirima. "He said the money is available for Banyoro but he is the one to control it," Mr Mirima added.
Prior to this and following pressure from the lawsuit brought by Bunyoro, Mr Museveni intervened to assure the kingdom that some accommodation can be arrived at outside litigation.
A highly placed government source described the British-Uganda arrangement as "an out of court settlement" and also said it was meant to channel British funds through the UK aid arm, Department for International Development instead of risking paying reparations ordered by a court of law. Such reparations could potentially open a padora's box and encourage similar suits. Among others the Bunyoro Kingdom has also demanded a formal apology from Britain and an acknowledgement of the crimes committed by British troops during the six year campaign which turned much of the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom into a wasteland.
The suit involves a British campaign which begun in 1893 with an invasion of the kingdom by a force of 16,000 men and ended with the capture of Omukama Chwa Kabalega in 1899.
Citing information procured from war diaries kept by British servicemen, Bunyoro Kingdom says during the war the Banyoro community was totally crushed and its population reduced to just a quarter of its pre-war figure. Mr Museveni referred to this in his July 15 letter as a genocide.
The British High Commission refused to comment on the matter. "We can offer no comment. This issue is one for State House," Mr Chris Ward, the media relations officer at the Commission, told Sunday Monitor. Bunyoro are now demanding greater transparency from both Mr Museveni and the British government.
Although Mr Museveni hosted his Banyoro guests to sumptuous foods and drinks in June, sources that attended the meeting said as the guests dined, they were unhappy at their host's proposal that he reserved the right to distribute the British pounds to Banyoro as he so wished.
"This is the money given by the British government but I am the one to know which Munyoro to get it and how much," Mr Mirima quoted Mr Museveni as having told them.
According to Mr Mirima, the President's refusal to declare how much money he received was suspicious.
In the 2004 suit, Mr Mirima said the Banyoro wanted the British to pay Bunyoro at least 500 million pounds or Shs1,727 billion. "We are not going to keep quiet because they (the British) have given money to Museveni not us," Mr Mirima said. "Museveni is telling us unofficially. He was not being straight forward."
In addition, the Banyoro have since sued the government and two British-registered oil prospecting firms: Tullow Uganda and Heritage Oil and Gas Ltd over what they say is illegal drilling of oil in the region.
Suit papers dated July 31 show that the Bunyoro are demanding cancellation of any grant of title or oil exploration rights within the kingdom. According to the Banyoro, oil exploration in the kingdom was done against the Bunyoro Agreement of 1955 signed between the British colonial agents and the kingdom.
According to their lawyers, Ayena Odongo and Co Advocates, by an agreement signed between Her Majesty's government of Great Britain and the Bunyoro Kitara kingdom, a relationship between Bunyoro and the colonial government was refined to give rights and privileges to the Omukama of Bunyoro.
Article 35 of the Bunyoro Agreement of 1955, a copy of which Sunday Monitor has obtained reads thus: "The property in and control over all minerals and all mining rights in the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara are vested in the Governor. In exercise of such control the Governor shall consult the Omukama and the Rukurato and shall give consideration to their wishes and in particular to the interests of the people of Bunyoro-Kitara".
"The Governor may grant to the Omukama or to the people the right to work the salt deposits at Kibiro and the graphite deposits at Kigorobya and any other mineral deposits which are required to meet the normal domestic or agricultural needs of the people, on such terms and conditions as may be agreed upon."
But Article 36 was more explicit on mineral activities in Bunyoro. It reads: "In the event of any mineral development taking place a substantial part of the mineral royalties and the revenue from mining leases shall be paid to the Native Government of Bunyoro-Kitara."
It's on that basis that the Banyoro think the ongoing oil exploration was done without their input and therefore want it halted. Whether this colonial agreement is binding on the independent Ugandan state remains a question of contention. For instance, while lawyer Ayena Odongo insists that just like the Nile Waters colonial agreement (which Egypt and Sudan excessive control over use of the River Nile waters) that still binds, the 1955 Bunyoro Agreement is still binding because, according to him, the 1995 Constitution was silent about it.
But other lawyers contest Mr Ayena's legal interpretation. "After the 1967 Constitution, it marked the end of all those colonial agreements like the 1900 Buganda Agreement," said Erias Lukwago, a renowned constitutional lawyer and a legislator.
Mr Lukwago told Sunday Monitor that Article 46 of the 1995 Constitution talks about restoration of cultural institutions for purely cultural purposes and it did not give them powers to inherent properties as stipulated in the colonial agreements. He said that successive constitutional orders have rendered the Bunyoro Agreement a nullity "but they can ask for fresh negotiations."
Mr Lukwago said the Nile Agreement was binding because it was a treaty between Egypt, Sudan and Britain.