Uganda: Is Buganda's Non-Partisan Approach Paying Off Dividends?

10 February 2021

During the run-up to the 2021 elections, presidential candidates turned Bulange, the headquarters of the Kingdom of Buganda, a place of pilgrimage.

The presidential candidates wanted to assure the leaders at Mengo that they have their interests at heart. Many bought certificates as a sign of allegiance and promised that they respect the institution of the Kabaka.

No other institution did the candidates visit as much as the Kingdom of Buganda. Although President Yoweri Museveni didn't attend, he was represented by his party leaders. Some other presidential candidates, though, had requested to visit Bulange, but it was too late in the campaign schedule to do so.

By political leaders visiting Bulange, it continues to show the kind of soft power Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II enjoys in Uganda and the influence he commands among the Baganda and the population at large.

Buganda is the most influential among traditional kingdoms, and politicians tread carefully before making decisions that they think will negatively affect the region. But it also continues to show how Mengo has changed over the years. Previously, Mengo was seen as too opposition by the central government. Today, the current leadership has tried to maintain a middle ground.

Not pro-opposition and at the same time not pro-government. Mengo, over the last few years, has maintained the same stance -- we support anyone who respects the kingdom's aspirations. Obviously this created some discomfort especially with supporters of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).

The NUP fielded popular musician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu a.k.a Bobi Wine as the presidential candidate and his supporters assumed that the Kingdom of Buganda will, therefore, be out campaigning for it.

Kyagulanyi is a Muganda of the Mbogo clan and for some time he identified himself as Omubanda wa Kabaka or Kabaka's man in the ghetto, the constituency he says he represents.

The NRM government, on the other hand, looked at Buganda as not doing enough to support them because Yoweri Museveni, upon assuming power, supported the return of kingdoms by restoring them, starting with Buganda in 1993. Milton Obote had abolished kingdoms in 1966. The Baganda have never and will never forgive Obote for that heinous act.

Museveni understood that and enjoyed support during his protracted guerilla war in Buganda, on the account that once in power he would support the restoration of the kingdom. Museveni's act to restore the kingdom in 1993 brought him immense support within the kingdom, leading to his first elective victory in 1996.

The Baganda have always voted him until 2021. Under pressure from Kyagulanyi, the NRM thought the kingdom will offer it support yet at the same time the kingdom took a middle ground and criticized the excesses of the NRM, such as the killing of people during the protests in November 2020 after Kyagulanyi had been arrested.

Kingdom leaders tactically found an approach that restored its immense influence. This didn't start during the run-up to the 2021 elections. This approach can be traced back to May 2013 when Kabaka Mutebi appointed his long-term "protégé" Owek Charles Peter Mayiga as Katikkiro (Prime Minister).

Upon assuming office, Mayiga decided to change tact. Mengo had been too opposition-leaning, which frustrated it from carrying out its core activities--uplifting the livelihood of the people of Buganda. Opposition politicians such as Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, MPs Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, Betty Nambooze didn't take this approach lightly.

Mayiga, they claimed, was taking away their platform. Mayiga argued publicly that he is neither an opposition activist nor a ruling government spokesman, and will do what he thinks is good for the kingdom.

The NRM government, in turn, put no barricades in his way, enabling him to carry out his programmes, including Ettoffaali and now Emmwanyi Terimba, which has contributed significantly to the increased numbers of coffee exports that we see today.

It is that approach of a Buganda that is non-partisan that is misinterpreted by NRM, describing the losses they suffered in Buganda as sectarianism. The majority of the people of Buganda, though, see their kingdom as one, that is regaining its influence politically, socially, and economically.

The author is a lawyer.

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