They Call it Uganda
Just the name “Uganda” should tell the educated observer that this country has internal security problems. “Uganda” is the Kiswahili name for the Kingdom of Buganda, which contains less than 20 percent of the Republic of Uganda’s population. A native of Buganda is a muganda, a group of locals are baganda and their language is called Luganda,
The Republic of Uganda is named for the homeland of one of its dozen or so ethnic groups translated into the language of one of the other ethnic groups. In any language, that is pronounced trouble.
If you’re unfamiliar with African geography or history, think about it in European terms. Yugoslavia was a country with a Serb plurality with large helpings of other ethnic groups: Slovenes, Croats, Bosniaks, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Albanians and Hungarians. As you may recall, despite some periods of real prosperity, the federation did not end terribly well. The Serbs felt that they should be the dominant group to the consternation of the other nations. Now imagine that in order to soothe Serb demands the great powers had, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, named the country Serbia. (It was actually called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes). The other ethnic groups would have been furious. So suppose that in order to cushion the blow, Wilson, George and Clemenceau decided that the best option was to keep the name Serbia but to have the official name be in Albanian. Would these linguistic gymnastics have prevented the country’s disintegration in World War II and again in the 1990s?
And yet this seems to have been exactly the plan for Uganda. The British named their protectorate after Buganda, whose people make up a bare plurality at around 17 percent of the population, but translated the name to Kiswahili, the speakers of which, are not even a plurality in Uganda and are much better represented in Uganda’s giant neighbors Kenya and Tanzania. Of course, the whole exercise makes a great deal more sense when one considers that the British had no interest in promoting ethnic harmony. Divide and conquer is as British as black pudding.
Still, the British persisted in promoting the fantasy of Uganda as an organic whole. Winston Churchill called the Protectorate “The Pearl of Africa.” For the master of metaphor, a man coined the highly accurate term “Iron Curtain,” it was either a rare failure of imagination or a deliberate misrepresentation. A pearl is the smooth little moon of a jewel that emerges when a tiny irritant, perhaps a grain of sand, becomes lodged in an oyster’s flesh. If Anglophone Africa has a pearl, even in Churchill’s time it would not have been Uganda. A better choice would have been another former British protectorate, Botswana, where a scant population of three million, ethnic homogeneity and the lack of anything of particular value until diamonds were discovered after independence allowed it to emerge as one of the most progressive economies and functional societies on the continent. Uganda, by contrast, resembles what might happen if one crammed more than a dozen grains of sand into a single oyster. If it is a pearl, it is a misshapen one.
A better metaphor for Uganda might be the costume jewelry of Africa. Each element is beautiful and unique. Perhaps Busoga is a feather, Buganda a rhinestone and Acholiland a clasp of gleaming brass. But thrown together they clash garishly, a mismatched trinket on the wrist of a continent that is already mixing polka dots with plaids. Its continuous existence is, as much as anything, based upon the insistence of its leaders and the Westphalian system that it must exist.
It is at this point that I should concede that after six weeks, I know almost nothing first hand about Uganda. Buganda, I more or less understand. I live and work here; I have traveled and relaxed here. While my understanding is flawed, it is about as good as it can be such a short stay. Buganda, however, is not Uganda.
This may come as news to the Baganda, who, due to the sophistication of their ancient civilization, have long dominated neighboring tribes. At the core of Baganda civilization was the kabaka, the absolute monarch. For generations, Buganda enjoyed competent, though not always compassionate, governance because of the nation’s embrace of a strong monarch combined with its rejection of royal primogeniture. Whereas most dynasties pass the crown onto the monarch’s first-born son, the Baganda explicitly forbade the first-born son from becoming kabaka. Instead, a council of advisors chose the next kabaka from among all of the other sons. The kabaka’s polygamy gave advisors a large number of legitimate heirs from whom to choose, creating the likelihood of a truly talented prince taking the throne, instead of a mediocrity blessed only in birth order.
Buganda’s preeminence was not lost on British imperialists who identified the Baganda as a people to be used as the protectorate’s commercial and administrative class, though the Baganda would have a lesser role in the economy than Indians shipped in from their corner of the empire. However, in classic British fashion, the crown separated military power from economic power giving most opportunities in the armed forces to the Northerners who were largely shut out from commerce. The British used the relatively short stature of the Baganda to disqualify most of them from military service. In the long run, having shillings without guns proved disastrous for the Baganda.
Since independence, the Baganda have been stuck in the odd position of dominating commerce, culture and language without ever actually wielding political power. While Kabaka Mutesa II served as the ceremonial President of Uganda after independence, the real power lay with Prime Minister Milton Obote, a Protestant Lango. When the Kabaka and his largely Catholic people declared independence in 1966, Obote and his army chief of staff, a Muslim from the West Nile province named Idi Amin, shelled the Kabaka’s palace, ultimately driving Mutesa II into exile in London. The Kabaka died soon after, perhaps as the result of poisoning, ending any hopes of Baganda sovereignty, much less hegemony, and solidifying Obote’s position as the most hated man in Buganda.
When Amin overthrew Obote in 1971 he became, at least for a while, a hero to many Baganda by virtue of his outstanding quality of not being Obote. His key role in the attack on the kabaka’s palace was largely forgotten. However, he was a homicidal lunatic, who killed 300,000 people, and deported the Indian population of 70,000 before being deposed by the Tanzanian army in 1979 after an ill-advised land grab.
Still, Amin, internationally reviled as one of history’s great villains, is remembered more fondly in Buganda than in other areas of the south. Perhaps this is because Obote took another 100,000 lives, many of them Baganda, after returning to power in 1981 following a series of short-lived presidents.
One Muganda, who is too young to remember Amin, responded to a question about her opinion of the former dictator by pointing out “that guy, if you listen to his speeches, was so funny.”
It is a peculiar choice of words. While there is a certain terrifying comedy to Amin’s daft insistence that he was the rightful King of Scotland, his portrayal of Mussolini in two films, and his friendly advice to Richard Nixon that the best way to deal with Watergate would be to execute Dean, Woodward, Bernstein and friends, “funny” remains a painfully odd adjective. Somehow, it is difficult to image even a fellow Khmer Rouge describing Pol Pot’s wonderful sense of humor, or even the most ardent of Serb nationalists talking about Slobodan Milosevic’s gift for the pun.
Even when Obote’s second reign finally ended and order prevailed, the Baganda did not win power. Instead, the Banyakole tribe from southwestern Uganda ascended. After placing poorly in the rigged 1981 election that returned Obote to power, Yoweri Musseveni, a Banyakole, and his National Revolutionary Movement took to the bush. By the time General Tito Okello deposed Obote in 1985, the NRM already controlled much of the western part of the country, and in 1986, they took Kampala.
The Baganda, have undoubtedly done better under Musseveni than under Obote. The NRM government even restored the monarchy, albeit as a purely ceremonial institution, in 1993. And yet the trend continues. In the country that bears their name, albeit in a foreign tongue, the Baganda remain politically impotent.
However, the dissatisfaction of the Baganda is the least of Uganda’s problems today. Even with Musseveni’s Banyakole tribesmen dominating politics and advancing in commerce, the Baganda are, at a minimum, free to do business, grow crops, tend cattle, and promulgate their ancient culture. If Buganda faces an alienating identity crisis, other regions face more tangible crises as ethnic conflict bloodily persists.
The most pressing security concern comes from across the border in Congo where Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed “prophet of God,” continues to lead the largely Acholi “Lord’s Resistance Army,” in rebellion. The LRA, a force peopled heavily by child soldiers and renowned for mutilating dissident Acholi and anyone else they can, has no political agenda save for the vague manifesto that Kony should rule all of Uganda in accordance with the ten commandments. In many ways, Kony is a grandiose madman in the tradition of Amin. For example, he recently invited Ramoush Hardinaj, the former prime minister of Kosovo and an indicted, though acquitted, war criminal to come to Uganda to mediate between the LRA and Musseveni. Hardinaj has no Africa experience. When it comes to statecraft, Metternich, Kony is not.
In the East, the Karamajong remain among the most traditional of Uganda’s tribes, facing intense pressure to assimilate into the mainstream of Ugandan society, while at the same time continuing with traditions that are, at best, antisocial. The Karamajong believe that all of Uganda’s cattle belong to them. If someone else has a cow, the only possible explanation is that the individual or his ancestors stole a cow from the Karamajong at some point in history. The Karamajong believe this gives them the right and responsibility to take cattle from anyone whenever possible, including fellow Ugandans and nearby Kenyans. Even in some cities, Karamajong carry spears, an ominous warning to anyone whose ancestors might have stolen a cow. Cattle rustling is sadly not a strong basis for economic growth or democratic governance, thus the Karamajong have remained a nation apart within Uganda.
While the Buganda’s problems are not as pressing as the Acholi, the Karamajong or a handful of other tribes, the glittering gem on the costume jewelry that is Uganda remain a troubled people. The restoration of the monarchy and the omnipresent framed photos of the current kabaka hanging on walls throughout Buganda cannot hide Buganda’s identity crisis.
The Baganda, the monarchy’s restoration notwithstanding, appear to suffer from the same problem as many kingdoms and empires that have perished from the Earth. Just as the Austrians struggled mightily to figure out what their country was absent the Hapsburgs and the Serbs struggled to maintain preeminence when Tito’s partisans ended the Karadjordjevic and Obrenevic dynasties’ waltz with power, the Baganda seem to be struggling to determine their role in this hodgepodge of a country. Are they the rightful lords of Uganda or just another of its constituent pieces? Is their destiny their own, or is it tied forever to the future of people from the north with whom they share no language and no culture save that which the British crown imposed?
In light of all of these contradictions and conflicts, all of the division and diversion, it is unsurprising that I have seen fewer national flags in Uganda than in any other African country I have visited. The horizontal stripes of red, yellow and black fly above the government buildings in Kampala, appear in a few hip hop videos and that is about it. The crested crane, the national emblem, that perches in a white circle in the flag’s center does little to unite the country. How can a nation of more than 32 million be represented by a bird that appears in just a tiny sliver of its territory?
Perhaps a better symbol would be the marabou stork, the huge, hideous bird that subsists on the garbage of major cities. It is not that the stork is a scavenger that makes it a fitting totem, but rather that it is a survivor. Despite being a vast and gangly mishmash of seemingly incompatible parts, two huge wings, long pencil legs, a dull red scalp and a yellow needle of a beak, it survives. Somehow this bird that looks as though it was assembled from spare parts holds together, somehow it finds food, somehow its disparate parts, which have nothing in common save a body, manage to do what must be done to live for the next day.
It is inelegant but hearty. It is awkward, but resilient. It is not Buganda, but perhaps it is Uganda.