ONE feature of Uganda is the persistence of its five Bantu kingships. They have no formal political power but centuries of powerful tradition behind them. Foremost among them, or so its subjects crow, is the kingdom of Buganda, from which the modern state of Uganda takes its name and whose people, the Baganda, were once the most numerous and powerful. For many years, however, they have felt unfairly treated—and are becoming ever-more-hostile to the 22-year-old regime of President Yoweri Museveni.
Once again, land is a burning issue. The now ghostly realm of the Baganda takes in the fertile lands in and around the capital, Kampala (see map). The Baganda number only 5m of Uganda’s 31m people, but are proud and prickly about their past. They say they were never conquered by the British, but entered voluntarily into a protectorate. Certainly they were favoured with a measure of autonomy. The tensions between their kingdom and the Ugandan state have never disappeared and are now as high as they have ever been since independence.
The Baganda have long nurtured a catalogue of grievances. They cannot forget how their king, the kabaka, was burned out of his palace in 1966 and exiled. King Edward Mutesa, known abroad as “King Freddie”, a former officer in Britain’s Grenadier Guards who was then serving as Uganda’s non-executive president, later died of alcoholic poisoning in London in 1969; some Baganda think he was murdered. After a bloody interregnum during the years of Idi Amin (1971-1979) and the ensuing civil wars, the king’s son, Ronald Mutebi, was allowed to return by Mr Museveni. The idea was to use the kingships (the others being Ankole, from which Mr Museveni hails, Bunyoro, Busoga and Toro) to build national reconciliation and attract educated and prosperous Ugandans back to a ravaged country.
But the Baganda say that Mr Museveni is breaking a promise to give back their communal lands. They claim 9,000 square miles (23,310 sq km) of central Uganda. Mr Museveni dismisses this claim out of hand. He says that the calculations are erroneous, that the claims to title are shaky, and that those who occupied the land for the past few decades should have rights to it. His government says that 420,000 Ugandans with land in the best parts of the country should not have priority over 30m Ugandans who have little or none.
The minister of lands, Daniel Atubo, argues that the Baganda cannot reasonably lay claim to more than 700 square miles. This assertion was applauded by many non-Baganda, particularly the rival Bunyoro, to the north-west. The government is resolved to push through a new land law that would strip Buganda of its communal lands and weaken the hold of all landlords over the land they still control. The Baganda are also furious at a government policy of settling pastoralists from other parts of the country, along with their cattle, in Baganda villages.
Some fear that this could lead to war. Several young men filing out of Buganda’s Parliament building in Kampala on a sunny Saturday afternoon say so. “The government has squeezed the kingdom too far,” says one, waving a tract on Baganda land rights. “It’s time to fight,” says another. The potential for outbreaks of ethnic violence of the kind seen in Kenya after last year’s disputed general election is high; in some districts, fighting has already been reported. Aggrieved Baganda may target pastoralists and other poor non-Baganda with nowhere else to go.
Even if violence is prevented, the problem of how to settle and protect the displaced poor while not angering the landed would be hard enough. Moreover, Uganda has other big worries. Its population is exploding; in the past half century it has leapt from 6m to its present 31m. Grazing land for cattle is fast running out. In the north, some 1.7m people, mostly of the Acholi tribe, are still displaced as a result of the brutal decades-long rebellion of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Mr Museveni is far from achieving his ambition of turning Uganda into a regional industrial power.
Educated Baganda, especially those in the government, accept that a compromise is necessary if Uganda is to move forward but say land reform must be fair. They complain that some of the disputed land has been dished out to army officers friendly to Mr Museveni. Independent land experts and bankers agree with the government that some of Buganda’s land claims are hard to prove but add that the land law is full of inconsistencies.
By hook or by crook
Mr Museveni may be trying to split the Baganda’s vote before the next elections, due in 2011. Though he strong-armed Parliament three years ago into changing the constitution to let him serve his current third term as president, the latest whisper is that he is bent on having a fourth. Hence the latest grumbling among Ugandans of all tribes (except his own), but especially among the once-dominant Baganda.
Creating a clearer federal structure for Uganda could help, but Mr Museveni is against the idea. Though he has warm relations with the government of Ethiopia, which has championed ethnic federalism, he says Uganda is too complex, with many ethnic groups living together in mixed areas, for such a system to be anything but divisive. Besides, it would mean loosening his grip on power at the centre. The Baganda seem loth to rebel in the near future. But if the 2011 elections are badly handled, Uganda could slide into violence again. And the land issue could all too easily be the catalyst.