Locals lowering caskets in a mass grave in Kasese on December 4, 2016 (Photo: S. Nduhukire)
By Bright Anthony
In the afternoon of Sunday 27th November 2016, the standoff at Buhikira Palace between UPDF/Police on one hand and the Rwenzururu Royal Guards on the other was relayed to the rest of the Country through pictures of dead bodies and a burning palace followed by videos of the arrest of Omusinga Charles Mumbere. The public received this with shock and condemnation. This was followed with accusations and counter accusations on what went wrong and who should be held responsible for the ugly scenes at the palace. The discussions and debates havesince centered on this particular incident, forgetting that this was a climax of a 3 days standoff, failure of 6 months of negotiations from the post February 2016 elections fights and a reflection of hostilities that have existed between the Country’s armed forces and the Rwenzururu kingdom Royal Guards since July 2014.
Focusing on this recent incident strips the conflict in Kasese of its underlying causes that have remained unresolved. The Kasese Conflict should not only be looked at as a 26th and 27th November 2016 incident but rather as a conflict that is rooted in the recent past (July 2014 to date) and also as a conflict that carries forward historical grievances that have remained unresolved.In choosing to only focus on the Buhikira palace incident, theCountry might successfully address the 26th and 27th November fights (such as who is responsible for the Palace killings) but will fail to address the accumulated unresolved issues that keep piling each passing day, yet they are the gist of the Kasese Conflict that keeps looking for an opportunity to express itself to the public.
How did we get to this?
Since the official coronation of Omusinga Charles Mumbere in 2009 and the recognition of the Rwenzururu Kingdom, the Institution of ObusingaBwa Rwenzururu (OBR) became a Power Center in Kasese and Rwenzori Mountains. The New Kingdom was not supported to play its role as a cultural institution in the region but rather left vulnerable to powerful individuals who would easily steer it in any direction that would favor their interests. Rather than being a unifying entity, OBR became a center of Power contest between NRM and the Opposition in Kasese. This has grossly undermined the role of ObusingaBwa Rwenzururu and influenced the manner in which it is viewed by the Population in Kasese. OBR did not dedicate enough time and effort (and equally did not receive support) to concentrate on its cultural role that aims at promoting traditions, customs, values and people development, but rather positioned itself as a power center and owing to its history as an alternative administrative unit within its areas of influence.
Politicians across the divide hijacked the institution of OBR at different times and used it for their political capital. Contradicting and misleading messages were being passed on to people breeding a lot of intrigue within the institution and cultivated a sense of mistrust that keep fueling misunderstandings within officials of the institution and politicians in the area that ends up being spreads to the communities. The tendency to prioritize politics than people’s social development by leaders at all levels in the District led to more tension resulting into communities viewing every action or inaction as an act of politics aimed at favoring one community and disenfranchising the other.
Government (NRM) on the other hand did not help matters in the District. It equally played into the politics of the day, getting more interested in winning votes from the area than focusing on its core function. Looking at the present situation, you notice that Government has not proactively provided facts about its engagement with the institution of OBR which has created room for peddling falsehoods that keep creating tension and fueling conflict in the area.
The continued re-occurrence of fights in Kasese is an illustration that Government has not dedicated enough effort in comprehensively resolving the concerns raised in Kasesefrom an all-inclusive approach that looks at the Kasese conflict as a whole but rather opts to address individual problems such as this without recognizing that these incidents are intertwined with historical grievances that remain calling for attention. Addressing an incident independently without taking into account the contributing factors of that incident has always left grievances unresolved, resentment and room for the grievances to manifest themselves in another form at a later date.
In addition to all this and without undermining the historical grievances, the continued failure to timely and proactively address the land distribution question which remains at the center of the conflict has led to increased suspicion among the people leading them to view recent Government proposals such as the creation of more districts in Kasese as an act of grabbing land from cultivators and giving it to pastoralists. The Institution of ObusingaBwa Rwenzururu interprets this as a move of dividing and weakening their kingdom by creating districts that will end up with own Kings. This has entrenched resentment among people leading to a situation where they find any excuse or is it opportunity to express their frustration.
There are key questions that have come up in debates and discussions relating to the 26th and 27th November incident that I wish to address myself to, as they will help in providing a contextual understanding of the conflict in the District and provide a historical perspective to the conflict.
Question on Co-existence
Communities in Kasese (we have several of them Bakonzo, Basongora, Banyabindi, Bachingwe, Bagaboetc) have co-existed for long without tensions. Animosity towards each other became evident in the later part of 2000s following thede-gazetting and land distribution process(Land is a key factor of production and heritage in the area). The land was distributed on a ratio of 1:3 (One Acre of Land to Cultivators and three acres of land to pastoralists). Cultivators felt disenfranchised and started looking at Pastoralists as a source of their problems. This can be resolved through revisiting the land distribution formula, have targeted economic empowerment programs and carry out awareness campaigns to promote a sense of a one community rather than tribal groupings to enable people coexist as they have always done.
Question on Yiira State
The sentiments raised by people shouldn’t be ignored and rubbished, rather Government should focus on addressing the reasons why people feel disenfranchised. Government should aim at articulating its development programs in the area, and demystify continued misleading talk that makes people feel neglected and left out of development programs.
Government should work on letting people understand why the Districts of Kasese and Bundibugyo were granted in 1974. There is a school of thought among some peoplewho believe that owing to the fact that Bakonzo and Bamba resisted and asked for autonomy from Tooro, this was supposed to translate into complete autonomy, and not only Districts. I have heard several people describing the Yiira state issue as propaganda orchestrated by Government as a justification for its military action. The same people have asked whether Elites in Kasese or among the Bakonzo are involved in this talk or process. These people forget one fact that it’s not Elites involved in the fights but rather our Local communities that are strongly rooted in the old Rwenzururu movement that fought for independence from Tooro, and that even after two Districts were given to Bakonzo and Bamba, the fighters didn’t abandon fighting but continued to fight for autonomy. It’s these people Government needs to pay attention to not the elites and academicians that understand how untenable this quest is but are doing little or nothing at all in reorienting the Old Rwenzururu fighters into abandoning this quest. There is need for people understand the decentralization approach to governance and how this contributes to the wider governance structure in Government and how Kasese as a District feeds into this structure and the development agenda of the country.
Question on Witchcraft
There is need to male communities understand and realize the distinction between Cultural practices and Witchcraft. As a cultural institution, OBR is expected to perform a number of cultural rites, customs and traditions but these do not necessarily mean Witchcraft. Trying to associate such practices as witchcraft is wrong in the face of a cultural institution. Culture should be positively viewed as a means of developing people rather than involving themselves in negative witchcraft practices that contribute to instability based on unfounded beliefs.
Question on mode of recruitment of Royal Guards
All leaders especially in the institution of OBR should agree that royal guards are to perform a cultural function and supportive roles in the administration of Buhikira Palacerather than providing security. Security should be a preserve of Government. Royal Guards should serve a specified period of time after which they are to return to normal community life, than looking at the role of a royal guard as a life time employment.
Lessons form Bakonzo – Tooro Conflict of the 60s
Leaders in the OBR and Kasese District at large should appreciate that the key cause of Rwenzururu movement against Tooro kingdom was as a result of the refusal of Tooro to recognize Bakonzo and Bamba in the administration of Tooro Kingdom. Leaders in the District should reflect upon the question of Basongora, Bachingwe, Bagabo and Banyabindi and see how they have involved these communities in both the affairs and administration of the District Local Government and also the affairs of the institution of OBR.
In addition to this, there is a question of Bakonzo from Busongora North that have for a long time expressed dissatisfaction against Bukonzo County. There is a feeling of marginalization among this section of Bakonzo in the greater Bakonzo Community in the District where they feel that their marginalization is being orchestrated by Bakonzo in Bukonzo County. Actually the loudest cries ofmarginalization is from this part of the District and interestingly it’s being raised by Bakonzo against Bakonzo. This is the dynamic the rest of the country needs to understand. Bakonzo from Busongora North are the ones at the forefront of asking for a separate District, but when the rest of the Country hears Busongora, they imagine that it’s the Basongora not knowing that its Bakonzo who occupy Busongora North that need this District and in an event that these Districts are granted, Basongora will be beneficiaries of a campaign spearheaded by Bakonzo. (I thought I should also provide this background for purposes of contextualizing the marginalization we hear of). Lessons from the Tooro – Bakonzo conflict will help in informing how to address the current grievances among the communities within Kasese. We can’t afford to revert to old mistakes!!
The continued reoccurrence of fights resulting into avoidable deaths is not only an indictment on the leadership of OBR but also on Government leadership whose primary role is to ensure peace and security for people and property in the country. OBR as an institution has had over 7 Prime Ministers in its 7 years of existence since 2009. What does this reflect? Government has looked on as the situation has deteriorated to this level. Where was Government when the kingdom recruited over 10,000 Royal Guards (as they claim) and turning cultural sites into training and holding camps for the Royal Guards? This is not intended to get into the blame game but rather a call for self-reflection in addressing this conflict.
There is need to support the Institution of OBR to understand its mandate as a cultural institution and how this contributes to the development of its people. This will enable the institution to be positioned as a development vehicle rather than a divisive entity in the area.
Politicians across the divide should be kept away from the affairs of OBR and letting cultural leaders spearhead the affairs of the kingdom including leading its development agenda and resolving the current conflict. This is aimed at having OBR as a unifying entity rather than one that plays into the politics of NRM Vs the opposition.
Leaders from Central Government and OBR should agree to table and discuss concerns raised by the communities without prejudice such as the land distribution question, proposed District boundaries, the Basongora / Banyabindi cultural question, tensions between Busongora North and Bokonzo County among others.
Communities should be engaged on the role and mandate of Government and that of OBR so that there is an understanding of what they should expect from the cultural institution and from Government. This will help in managing expectations and also limiting on falsehoods that often mislead people.
Peace, stability and harmony should be the guiding principles in addressing the Kasese conflict with an aim of restoring hope, confidence and building trust among people.
Parliament and Government of Uganda should support OBR to be a cultural institution that involves itself in development. This will enable people find the institution relevant to their lives and livelihoods, reduce on tension and suspicion and focus on being a unifying factor.
In Handling Omusinga Mumbere, Government should be cognizant of the fact that he is a leader despite the circumstances we find ourselves in. Desist from actions that might easily be interpreted as vindictiveness which infuriate people but rather focus on corrective actions to restore trust, hope confidence and continuity among people.
The Writer is a resident of Kasese