Fighting With Reeds to Save the Buganda Kingdom

By Joachim Buwembo, The East African (Nairobi), 18 June 2001

Kampala—The Baganda ethnic group of Uganda have spent several months waiting for the birth of a king.

As last week drew to a close, British embassy officials were swamped by visa applications by Baganda who wanted to travel to the UK to witness the royal birth.

The frantic search for a successor to Kabaka Ronald Mutebi started about three years ago.

Although Mutebi, who was crowned in 1993, is not elderly and enjoys good health, he had taken his time getting married. Some restless rebel princes and princesses came up with this theory that he was not a legitimate son of his late father, the last Kabaka, Edward Mutesa II.

The continuity of the dynasty, which dates back hundreds of years, was under threat. The Luganda daily, Bukedde, started a crusade of sorts, identifying the likely queen for Kabaka Mutebi.

Bukedde ran a series of profiles on the women in the kabaka's life. Conservative Baganda were incensed. How dare a newspaper start probing the kabaka's romantic life? they wondered. But the rest of the six million Baganda were excited and started debating which of the ladies the kabaka should marry and produce a successor to the throne.

Not long after, it was announced that Mutebi would take Sylvia, a communications expert then working in the US, as his wife. The Baganda were ecstatic. But the conservatives had not forgiven Bukedde for its controversial series, until the kingdom's prime minister, Mr Joseph Mulwanyammuli Ssemwogerere, handed the credit for Buganda's getting a queen to the newspaper.

Meeting the Bukedde editors shortly before the royal wedding, the premier joked that sometimes a shy big boy needs to be tickled in order to react in the desired direction.

Royal institutions are always shrouded in secrecy and thrive on the mystery surrounding them. For the top kingdom official to praise a tabloid for meddling in the king's love affairs is quite unconventional. But if the kingdom is to survive into the new century, it needs such progressive officials.

The constitution of the republic allows Ugandan kingdoms to exist only as cultural

institutions without political power. They also have no power to levy taxes.

Their survival therefore can only be assured by enough people having enough love for traditional culture, which is not very likely in these days of stiff competition for survival. It is men like Mulwanyammuli (the name translates—he who fights using reeds, apparently when he has run out of spears and sword) who can keep the institution moving with the times so it retains appeal for the young and old alike.

It may surprise some to learn that while a student at Dar es Salaam University, Mulwanyammuli, was one of the pioneer fighters in President Yoweri Museveni's first guerrilla group, FRONASA which was involved in the Mozambican liberation struggle. He was also one of the first administrators in the ruling movement.

When he joined the service of the kingdom, which had neither fire nor political power, he has had to sharpen his reeds and start fighting. The most important weapon he has in his arsenal now is public relations. And much to the chagrin of the conservatives, he has got the press on his side.

The man who fights with the reed (a writing implement as opposed to the sword?) has had to neutralise a group of conservatives called grandchildren of Buganda over the queen's much publicised pregnancy.

The grandchildren started by attacking the media for announcing the royal pregnancy. The premier shut them up. Then the grandchildren took on the kabaka himself. They castigated him for taking the queen to deliver abroad. They argued that the future monarch cannot be born on foreign soil. Mulwanyammuli this time threw the grandchildren off the kingdom premises in Mengo Hill where they had been holding their reactionary meetings.

It remains to be seen how far Mulwanyammuli will succeed in fighting the conservatives so the kingdom can move with the times. It may prove more tricky than the jungle battles he fought with a Kalashnikov rifle. He may have to continue sharpening his reeds for a long time.