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Royal riots expose Uganda tensions

People attempt to put out fires during riots in Kampala, Uganda (10 September 2009)
The Buganda king's supporters were angry he could not attend a youth event

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Kampala

The royal riot that left 20 Ugandans dead and 50 injured last week seems to expose the tension between state control and the ambitions of the traditional Buganda kingdom.

The violence erupted when supporters of the king were angered by an attempt by the government to stop their cultural leader from attending a youth ceremony in a district near the capital, where the local community is trying to break away from his rule.

The authorities feared violence and refused to allow King Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II to attend.

The protest quickly degenerated into an all-out riot. Hundreds of the king's supporters rampaged through the middle of Kampala, setting up burning barricades, looting shops and fighting running battles with police.

The police responded with tear gas and live ammunition.

By the time the authorities regained control and the king agreed to postpone the ceremony, the rioting had exposed a deep undercurrent of anger and frustration.

Political gamble

The kingdom of Buganda claims a proud 600-year history, and it is the most powerful of Uganda's four traditional kingdoms.

Buganda king, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi
King Ronald Mutebi heads the most powerful traditional kingdom

Its traditional lands include most of Kampala and the surrounding districts. The terms can be confusing: the kingdom of Buganda rules over the Baganda people.

In 1963, the post-colonial constitution formally recognised the power of the traditional kings in a federal system.

But in 1969 the then-President Milton Obote scrapped the constitution and sent the kings into exile.

In what many say was a calculated political gamble, the current President Yoweri Museveni decided to restore the monarchy, but only as a cultural institution under central authority.

"It [the rioting] was not about failing to address the problems concerning Baganda," Mr Museveni told the BBC.

"It was about some elements trying to use that monarchy to get political power."

The president accused the monarch and those around him of moving beyond their legally defined role as cultural leaders, and meddling in partisan politics to undermine the government.

Its not so much a government-in-waiting, as a de facto government
Apollo Makubuya
Buganda attorney general

In some respects, it is not hard to see why the president is so concerned.

At least superficially, the kingdom of Buganda looks for all the world like a government-in-waiting, like an alternative centre of power with all the trappings of a political administration.

The Buganda parliament is an imposing colonial building that looks as though it was designed for governing.

Inside, there is a parliamentary chamber, complete with speaker's chair, government and opposition benches and a public gallery. And government officials run ministries, as well as their own radio station.

'Public anger'

Apollo Makubuya, the Buganda "attorney general", gave me a guided tour.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (C) in Kampala (15 September 2009)
Mr Museveni says politics should be left to political leaders

"It's not so much a government-in-waiting, as a de-facto government," he said.

"We don't want to take power from central government at all. We just want the legal authority to run our own affairs in a federal system, just as it was in the post-colonial constitution."

But the Baganda also see themselves as forming the only serious political challenge to Mr Museveni in a country where the formal opposition has been largely silenced.

"There is no political space for serious debate any more," said one Buganda official who did not want to be named.

"We aren't talking about taking power from the president at all, but just the fact that we raise issues like land reform and constitutional reform is confronting to Museveni, and he doesn't like it.

"What you saw last week is an expression of public anger at not just his treatment of the Baganda people, but of democracy."

The president has a ready retort: "Should we even discuss these issues with the kings? Or should we leave it to the political leaders?

"Prince Charles doesn't talk about partisan politics in Britain, and nor should they."



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