An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Rise of the Kingdoms

Since the start of this year, officials from the Kingdom of Bunyoro have been repeating calls for the creation of a ‘regional tier of government’ for their part of Uganda, and also claiming that this should receive up to 12.5% of all revenues from the region’s new oil fields (in the Albertine Graben) – once production starts. The demand is unlikely to be met by President Yoweri Museveni, but it nevertheless demonstrates just how emboldened the kingdom has become in its dealings with central government since major oil discoveries were first made in the area (in 2006). Following the discoveries, the government initially proposed an 80%-20% split in future oil revenues between the state and the districts from which the oil had come. Crucially, though, it was argued that as a ‘cultural institution’, the kingdom itself lay outside the formal structures of district administration, and was therefore initially entitled to nothing. 

However, from that time onwards the kingdom and its allies have mounted a concerted lobbying campaign both in parliament – especially through regional MPs associated with the Bunyoro Parliamentary Caucus and the Greater North Parliamentary Forum – and in the media, and this has latterly forced the government’s hand. From mid-2009 onwards, Museveni has had to consult the kingdom on practically all regional matters, and he was eventually forced to concede on oil revenues as well. Thus, when the first new piece of oil legislation, the Petroleum (Exploration, Development and Production) Bill was finally passed – in December – it included provision for some of the monies to be paid to the kingdom as well.

However, kingdom supporters are now using this newfound political leverage to try to force
The Kingdom of Bunyoro
concessions on various other issues as well, including on some which are not directly related to oil. For example, in April last year, Bunyoro officials lobbied the Ministry of Justice over the establishment of a regional justice centre in Hoima Town. In July, the King of Bunyoro himself, Solomon Gafabusa Iguru, met with the president at his official residence in Kirukura District, during which he pressed Museveni over state investments in regional education, health care, and road building projects. Then in October, kingdom supporters also played a leading part in getting the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), to release its long proposed plan for an upgrading of the main Kigumba-Masindi-Hoima-Kabwoya Road (one of the main thoroughfares through the region). Yet perhaps the biggest display of the kingdom’s new found confidence occurred in July, when Bunyoro officials sponsored a major fundraising event at the Ndere Centre in Kampala, which was attended by a broad swathe of the capital’s ethnic Banyoro elite. The event was both a celebration of cultural pride, but also an attempt to mobilize support for the kingdom’s ongoing efforts over oil revenues, and regional development in general.

The discovery of such large oil reserves within the kingdom’s historical territory has of course given particular impetus to Bunyoro’s recent political resurgence (current estimates put the reserves at least 3.5 billion barrels). However, jockeying over future petrodollars is only one of the factors that has led to the revival of the kingdom as a political force. Equally, if not more, important has been the effects of the Museveni government’s long-standing policy of ‘decentralization’ – which have fuelled the rise not only of Bunyoro, but of a number of other ‘traditional’ kingdoms (and other traditional authorities) in other parts of Uganda as well.

Decentralization has been the cornerstone of the Museveni government’s internal political policy since it came to power in 1986. Institutionalized through a range of legislation passed between 1987 and 1997, the system claims to increase popular participation, and improve accountability and service delivery. However, in recent years, a growing consensus has emerged that from the 2000s onwards, Museveni has also used decentralization – and the proliferation of local administrative structures that it allows for – as a kind of ‘divide and rule’ strategy, aimed at fragmenting political opposition throughout the country. For example, it is notable that when Museveni came to power, in 1986, Uganda had 22 districts, whereas today, it has 111 and one city (Kampala).

However, effective as this strategy has undoubtedly been in thwarting major opposition parties such as the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), it has also latterly spawned a generation of MPs who are more committed to local issues that to the political centre (for example, all of the younger rebel MPs who have challenged Museveni in recent times began their political careers in the local administration system). More generally, the proliferation of districts has generated more complex sub-national political landscapes. It is in this context, then, that ‘traditional’ authorities have latterly started to thrive. And this revival of kingdoms (and other traditional authorities besides) has been particularly marked in those places where the institutions involved have been able to mobilize local grievances over resource allocation – as Bunyoro has done in relation to oil.

Buganda is another traditional kingdom that has recently revived its political relevance by mobilizing grievances over resources. In one sense, the ‘Buganda question’ – the question of exactly how (by what institutional arrangements) the Kingdom of Buganda is incorporated into the Ugandan nation state, has been a vexed one from colonial times onwards. However, the issue has become politically charged again in recent years, as a result of decentralization. In Buganda’s case, the fragmentation of the kingdom’s historic territory into an ever greater number of separate districts initially weakened the ethnic Baganda elite’s sense of common purpose. In response, both kingdom officials, members of the Buganda parliament (the Lukiiko), and Baganda members of the national parliaments, lobbied intensively for increased powers for the kingdom, as the rightful ‘supra-district’ political entity in the central region. Museveni refused to grant these powers, but he did eventually concede to the creation of a separate ‘Buganda Council’ – to coordinate healthcare, education and infrastructure projects across districts – and he later talked about the creation of a ‘regional tier of government’ for Buganda as well (although to date, this has never been instituted).

However, since the mid-2000s, the kingdom has made its greatest gains over questions of land – gains which have ultimately resulted in Buganda becoming, once again, a key player in the national political landscape. The main catalyst here was Museveni’s new Land Act (which was passed in 1998, although was not implemented until several years later), which devolved all land claims down to newly created District Land Boards (DLBs, one of which was established for each new district in the country). One of the key effects was to divide a number of existing, and in some cases very long-standing, land disputes across multiple DLBs – effectively making it less likely that these claims would ever be settled. The kingdom itself had a particular stake in the problem, given that it is at the centre of the largest land dispute in Uganda (relating to 9000 square miles of land that were taken away from Buganda in 1969, yet which are still claimed by the Kingdom). However, its attempts to challenge the government on the Land Act resonated with a wide range of ethnic Baganda land owners, many of whom found that their claims were similarly divided across different districts (and this situation was relatively common, even for relatively small land owners). More generally, the kingdom’s attempts to present itself as the ‘defender of land’ also resonated with the wider Baganda public – even with those who owned very little, or even no, property at all – in the context of rapid population expansion in Kampala. Following attempts by the kingdom to further provoke the issue through its main radio station, CBS, the issue eventually resulted several days of rioting in and around the capital (in September 2009).

Recent years have also witnessed an attempt by elites associated with the former Kingdom of Ankole to
John Patrick Barigye, self-proclaimed Ntare VI of Ankole before his death in October 2011
re-establish their political relevance by mobilizing over resource issues. Ankole is in many ways the most controversial of Uganda’s former kingdoms, given that it was historically divided into two castes – an elite pastoralist caste (the Bahima), and a ‘commoner’ agricultural caste (the ‘Bairu’) – and was thus, in a sense, always divisive. Indeed, for this reason, it was the only one of the traditional kingdoms to not be reinstated by the Museveni government in 1986, and even today, it is still not officially recognized. Nevertheless, this has not stopped those associated with the current claimant to the Ankole throne, Charles Rwebishengye (son of the late John Patrick Barigye), from attempting to reinsert themselves in the region’s political affairs. In recent years, this group has mobilized under the umbrella of the Ankole Cultural Trust (ACT), which has again gained in popularity by assisting its members with land disputes and, more importantly, by providing a range of education scholarships to supporters’ children – especially in some of the poorer new districts in the Southwest. The success of these initiatives was demonstrated in August, when the ACT staged a huge fundraising event in the region capital, Mbarara, which was attended by all of the 200 most prominent clans in the region.

Recent developments have therefore highlighted the various ways in which Uganda’s ‘traditional kingdoms’ have now become a key part of the country’s increasingly complex national political landscape. Whilst kingdom elites remain unlikely to directly challenge President Museveni’s power in the short term, they may become more important players in the future, especially in the event of any radical shift in Uganda’s governing structures (a prospect that has become more plausible, in recent months, following talk of 'palace coups', and the like). Indeed, it was in order to check this potential rise in their influence that in 2010 the president tabled the Traditional Leaders’ Bill - which aimed to limit the powers of Uganda’s various monarchs (something that Museveni is technically already entitled to do, under article 246 of the constitution). However, as a further sign of the kingdoms’ political force, they were able to mobilize their supporters in parliament to have the more controversial clauses of that bill dropped.

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