Uganda: Is Museveni ready to take on Buganda Kingdom in a tough fight over land?

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 27 August 2021 01:52

Uganda's President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (R), the King of Buganda Kabaka Ronald Mutebi (2nd R), retired Bishop of Mityana Wilson Mutebi (C), Katikiiro Eng. J.B Walusimbi (2nd L) and Prince David Wasajja (L) attend a meeting at the State House, 30 September 2009. REUTERS/PPU PHOTO/Hereward Holland

Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is hinting that he may seek to weaken the Buganda Kingdom by reforming land laws that could hurt its hold on valuable properties around Kampala. He drew ire in June from Buganda, the country’s largest traditional institution, when he described a land system introduced in 1900 by British colonialists - who gave the kingdom a large tract of land - as something “very bad”.

Museveni had also sent signals to the institution by appointing a lands minister who detests the system – known as ‘Mailo’ – whose history is long, complex and contested.

When Britain declared the Buganda Kingdom its colony in 1900, it apportioned 19,600 square miles of land to the Kabaka (king), regents, chiefs and colonial government. A large chunk of this land was subsequently occupied by tenants who are supposed to pay rent to the land owners.

What’s the problem?

Buganda Kingdom covers central Uganda, including Kampala, the capital city. In the past decades, land prices skyrocketed and acquisition became a key priority for the monied classes, as Kampala and its adjacent administrative units grew rapidly. The rush for land acquisition led to rampant evictions of tenants and land grabbing.

You can’t afford to lose Buganda politically. It’s not sustainable. Obote tried it and failed…

In 2018, the World Bank said the overlapping of ownership and use rights on Mailo land is a key impediment to investment and improved productivity in Uganda’s agriculture-dominated economy. “Because the productivity reductions are significant, and the amount of land under Mailo type tenure is substantial, the overall losses from overlapping land rights are substantial,” World Bank researchers said.

Museveni and Buganda’s tumultuous relationship

Kingdoms were abolished by Uganda’s first prime minister, Milton Obote, in 1966, in what was a struggle for power between him and the Buganda King Edward Muteesa II, who was the ceremonial head of state. The king went into exile in Britain, where he died years later.

When Museveni started a guerrilla war in 1981, its nucleus was in Buganda Kingdom. The Baganda (people from Buganda) supported Museveni’s rebels with fighters and well wishes.

As a consequence, after capturing power, Museveni rewarded them by restoring kingdoms. Buganda’s current king, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi, was enthroned in 1993. At an event held to thank the president for his role in the restoration of the kingdom in July that year, Museveni argued that “Buganda is a microcosm of Uganda.”

“What Buganda is today is what the rest of Uganda should be,” he said, urging other traditional institutions to emulate it. This was seen as the most generous and reconciliatory speech to the Baganda by any sitting president, Charles Peter Mayinga – the current prime minister of Buganda – said in a book titled King on the Throne. “Museveni is actually not known to have repeated such sentiments anywhere else.”

Museveni also supported Buganda during the 1995 constitution-making process, when the kingdom was agitating for a federal system of government that would put it at the centre of political and financial management of administrative units within its area. The system was never adopted.

The president is taking drastic moves, and it can cost him more than he may gain politically.

In 1999, Museveni attended Kabaka’s wedding and gifted him 100 cows. However, relations between the central government and Buganda Kingdom started deteriorating in the mid-2000s.

In 2009, security agencies blocked a delegation of Buganda Kingdom officials from visiting an area that was under dispute between the kingdom and another cultural institution. This triggered protests across Buganda, resulting in clashes with security agencies and leading to deaths of over 40 people.

  • Another incident occurred in 2011 when Kasubi Tombs, a mausoleum where Buganda kings are buried, was burnt. There was suspicion across Baganda that the central government was behind the arson.

Following the restoration of traditional institutions, the central government had returned some of Buganda’s properties that it had occupied since 1966, when kingdoms were abolished. The kingdom’s demand for the return of all its properties, and land, as well as adoption of a federal system of governance, have been key factors in the relationship between the two institutions over years.

The government’s response to the demands from Buganda have been slow, even after several agreements to return all confiscated properties. The kingdom has also been demanding expeditious payment of about $60m that the central government agreed to pay as accumulated rent arrears and compensation for properties it wasn’t going to return.

Vested interests

Every time the central government proposes to amend land laws, the kingdom fights for its interests. The kingdom has land in the most strategic locations in the country: in Kampala, the capital city and adjacent areas. Every acre that the kingdom owns or receives from the government, in the process of reacquiring its properties, is highly valued.

There is not much publicly available information about land and house sales in Kampala. However, as an indicator of the stakes involved, Andrew Mwenda, one of Uganda’s veteran journalists, recently wrote about a friend who was selling half an acre and a house in one of Kampala’s upscale suburbs at $500,000.

If the government proposes to scrap the Mailo land system in the Land Act amendments to be soon tabled in parliament, the kingdom will lose its most valuable assets. Government officials have been giving vague responses when asked for details on the land amendments.

Sentiments such as ‘You people came, conquered and took our land’ are likely to emerge…

The kingdom is defending what it already has, not fighting for more of its properties in government hands. This is why kingdom officials have vociferously been telling the government that the Mailo land tenure system is not a problem. King Mutebi, while celebrating his 28th coronation anniversary on 1 August 2021, said those claiming that land tenure in Buganda is derailing development “want to weaken the kingdom […]”.

Museveni met kingdom officials, led by the king, on 4 August. Though details of the meetings were never disclosed, it created a sense of calm, with many arguing that thorny issues had been ironed out.

‘So-called kingdom’

Nevertheless, all hell broke loose when government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo wrote in the New Vision, a state newspaper, on 8 August, that the king “was being disingenuous when he questioned why so much focus is on the land system in Buganda”.

“Mutebi’s mindset is a false imagination that his so-called kingdom, even in its diminished form, is something useful merely because Ugandans have been so accommodative to Mengo’s [the area in Kampala where the Kabaka‘s main palace is located] insatiable greed for easy wealth,” he said.

Museveni also gave an interview to the New Vision that was published on the same day as the government spokesperson’s commentary. The president dismissed arguments that the Mailo land system is one of the defining features of the kingdom.

“Some people have been saying that Mailo land is one of the pillars of Buganda,” Museveni said. “No, it’s not one of the pillars of Buganda. It was introduced by the British in 1900 in an unfair manner.” Museveni opined that the way in which the system was introduced in 1900 is akin to “simple robbery” given that it rewarded only collaborators who had accepted to hand over the kingdom to the British as a protectorate.

Is Museveni politically secure?

During the January 2021 presidential election, Museveni lost his stranglehold in Buganda – for the first time – to Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, a musician-turned-politician. Museveni scored 1.03 million votes against Wine’s 1.8 million. Wine’s National Unity Platform also won half of the 109 legislative seats in the kingdom.

Can Museveni afford to take on Buganda without political ramifications? No, says Sabiti Makara, a political scientist at Makerere University. “The president is taking drastic moves, and it can cost him more than he may gain politically.”

There is a likelihood that any move to abolish Mailo land can be used against Museveni, Makara says. He opines that a situation could emerge where ordinary Baganda could interpret land reform as an attempt to transfer the land from them to other ethnic groups. “Sentiments such as ‘You people came, conquered and took our land’ are likely to emerge,” he says. “It will trigger ethnic sentiments.”

Muwanga Kivumbi – the chairperson of the Buganda legislators caucus – warns that if Museveni thinks he can afford to ignore Buganda politically, such a move would backfire. “You can’t afford to lose Buganda politically. It’s not sustainable. Obote tried it and failed. If [the] National Resistance Movement [Museveni’s party] want[s] to take that path, [it] should take a lesson from history,” he says. “I don’t think Museveni is so unwise to take that approach.”

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