Uganda: standing on ceremony: The installation in traditional style of Ronnie Mutebi, a Cambridge drop-out, as the 36th king of Buganda may herald a new era of upheaval. Richard Dowden explains

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The Independent Online
IN A stupendous and ancient ceremony on Saturday at Buddo in central Uganda, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi (Bradfield School and Magdelene College Cambridge) will be installed as kabaka of Buganda - the 36th king of the Baganda people, according to oral tradition.

The throne has been vacant since 1966, when Mutebi's father, Kabaka Frederick Mutesa II, was driven into exile, dying three years later in alcoholic penury in Bermondsey, south London.

But Mutebi's ancestors ruled one of the most powerful states in Africa. At the height of their power in the mid 19th century, the kabakas ruled over a sophisticated, prosperous state of more than a million people. A fertile crescent around the north-west corner of Lake Victoria, well and regularly watered, Buganda had complicated administrative and legal systems and a state machinery that ensured continuity between the rule of one kabaka and the next.

The Ganda state was also one of the most murderous in the history of mankind. Not only was it at war almost permanently with its neighbours, but every royal event was accompanied by human sacrifice. The execution of the kabaka's subjects - by law, ritual or whim - was an almost daily event.

The revival of the kabakaship, even in a ceremonial form, will emphasise tribe at the expense of nation at a time when African countries are being torn apart by atavistic ethnic rivalries. Despite the efforts of Africa's politicians, are pre-colonial states to be resurrected, tearing down modern the boundaries?

In Luganda, the language spoken by the Baganda people, the word for a monarch's reign is emirembe. It is also the word for peace. The periods between reigns were certainly times of chaos and killing. On the death of the kabaka, the royal princes and their supporters slugged it out, sometimes for months, until one emerged, having slain all his brothers, and was installed as the new kabaka.

The last time a man called Mutebi tried to become the kabaka of Buganda, he was killed by his brother, Kamanya, in a war of sucession. That was in the early 19th century. Kamanya was so paranoid he even killed his own sons. The ghost of one of them is said to have driven him mad.

Mutebi will not have to undergo this fearsome Darwinian process when he is installed as kabaka. And the ceremonies will be free of the traditional rituals that reflected the power of the kabaka to kill.

The programme notes for Saturday's ceremony are obtainable from a London public relations consultant who has been hired to sell exclusive rights to cover the ceremony to the highest bidder. According to the hand-out, the ceremony begins with a mock battle between the kabaka's army and the semanobe, the traditional keeper of the hill at Buddo where kabakas have traditionally been invested. When the semanobe has been ceremonially defeated, the kabaka enters the sacred area and is invited to stand on the ancestral throne. The semanobe hands him and his queen special clothes, made from cloth worked from beaten-out bark, and a spear.

Tomorrow's ceremony will not include the ancient rituals of sacred fire, which burns throughout a reign, or the choice of a personal bodyguard for the king. These ceremonies, recorded by Baganda historians, demand that two men are brought blindfolded to the new kabaka. One, whom he wounds with an arrow, is given the embers of the sacred fire of the previous reign and sent into exile as a scapegoat. The other, the kawonawo, is taken to the place of human sacrifice, called seguku. There, eight men are beaten to death and disembowelled; their entrails hung around the kawonawo's neck. The killings are said to give the king vigour and make his bodyguard strong and faithful.

The programme says that the kabaka will be crowned by Chief Nankere with a leopardskin crown, but omits a description of the traditional ceremony that used to go with it. The chief selected one of his sons who was then, for one month, treated like a prince; well fed and tended. At the end of that time he was presented to the kabaka, who handed him to his bodyguards who beat him to death with their bare hands. The muscles and sinews from the back of the slaughtered boy were removed and dried and made into anklets and a whip for the king. This was supposed to give him long life.

The programme notes say 'all the royal drums and the clan drums will be played' at the end of the ceremony. The drum is one of the symbols of royal office and the kabakas traditionally had an orchestra of 93 drums. The programme notes omit the fact that the biggest drum, the kaula, was consecrated with the blood of a decapitated man. Traditionally, when the accession feast finished, the drummers would deliberately leave one drum, the busemba, behind. A man, chosen by the court, was deputed to run after the drummers and tell them: 'You have left one behind.' He was then killed and his arm bones used as new drum sticks for the busemba.

Ritual murder accompanied practically every stage of the coronation of a kabaka as he re-enacted the heroic deeds of the ancestors. If the monarch's reign was identified with peace, it was a peace established by his arbitrary and absolute power over his subjects. One of the titles the kabaka is known by is 'the one who feels no pity for the parents whose children he has killed'.

It was not just criminals and adulterers who were smeared in oil and roasted to death over a slow fire. Hundreds of other minor social misdemeanours were punishable by death: coughing or sneezing at court, touching the kabaka's leopardskin rug, seeing the kabaka eat.

As one historian of the Baganda wrote recently: 'Violence was intrinsic to the kingship as the central institution of justice and political order.'

The early European recorders were appalled at the amount of blood spilt at these events. So were the Baganda themselves, who converted to Christianity in droves. In one of the first recorded moments of opposition, Joseph Mukasa, a newly converted Christian, tried to persuade Ronald Mutebi's ancestor, Kabaka Mwanga, to stop buggering his page boys. For speaking out, Mukasa and scores of Christian Baganda were burnt to death at Namugongo, creating Africa's first modern Christian martyrs.

Why was such killing necessary in a state that in other ways was one of the most sophisticated in 19th century Africa? Although the kingdom was almost permanently at war with Bunyoro, its north-western neighbour, this does not explain the need for blood at home nor the puzzling way in which those selected to die in rituals went to their deaths, uncomplaining. Could this explain why Idi Amin's murders and executions were met with submission rather than resistance by the Baganda? After what their own rulers had done to them, submission had become a habit.

So why has the Ugandan government chosen to revive this ritual now? At one level the restoration of the Baganda monarchy is a piece of political manipulation by the present ruler of Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni.

Mutebi's father, known as King Freddie, was the first President of Uganda when a loose coalition put together by a schoolteacher, Dr Milton Obote, became independent Uganda in 1962. But in the 1966 coup, Prime Minister Obote overthrew Mutesa II and drove him into exile. The Ganda Kingdom, which had retained some autonomy when the country became independent, was abolished, along with the three other kingdoms, Toro, Ankole and Bunyoro.

Idi Amin, who overthrew Obote in 1971, went some way towards placating the Baganda by allowing Mutesa's body to be returned to the country and buried with his forefathers in the Kasubi tombs in Kampala. The young Mutebi was also allowed to return, and underwent rituals that made him crown prince, but Amin would not restore the kingdoms and turned the Lubiri palace in Kampala, the seat of the Baganda monarchy, into a barracks. The tombs, the magnificent complex of reed compounds containing the largest grass hut in the world, became a quiet, if awesome, shrine to the dead kings. It is guarded by old Baganda women and visitors to the huge, dark, domed hut must remove their shoes, sit with their legs curled up under them and speak in whispers as they face the portraits of the last three kabakas, their tombs and an array of spears and shields.

Idi Amin destroyed all Uganda's institutions and when he was overthrown the country disintegrated into chaos and war. It only began to crawl back towards peace with the victory of Museveni in 1986, after a four-year guerrilla war. Museveni, who was not from Buganda, relied heavily on Baganda farmers and their children to fight in his National Resistance Army and has owed them a debt ever since. One way of repaying them would have been to restore multi-party democracy. The majority of the Catholic Baganda peasant farmers traditionally supported the Democratic Party, the largest party. But for various reasons, political and philosophical, President Museveni opposes a return to multi-party democracy. Instead he has sought to placate the Baganda by restoring the monarchy in a ceremonial capacity.

In doing this, however, he may be letting a genie out of the bottle. The first generation of independence leaders in Africa derided tribes and tribalism in their attempts to forge nation states, but as states have begun to disintegrate, people are withdrawing to their own kind.

Ronnie Mutebi is not made of the stuff that his ancestor warrior kings were and is unlikely to lead the Baganda into a revitalised Ganda state, separate from Uganda. Ronnie, as he is known to his friends, sounds like any other public-school-educated member of the world's aristocracy suffering exile in Kensington. It is a society in which failing one's law exams for the umpteenth time is cause for another gin and tonic. Ronnie, aided by British friends and supporters in his studies, did not complete his law degree.

But now even his old Ugandan friends in London have to call Ronnie 'Your Majesty' and kowtow in public. Baganda society was, and in many ways still is, slavishly hierarchical. Women will kneel before their husbands and fathers and a servant will kneel and writhe in self-abasement before his master. Ronnie's advisers in Buganda may try to use this respect for tradition and authority - and therefore for Mutebi - for their own political ends. Unlike his ancestors, he is not in absolute control and his precise role in Uganda is yet to be defined.

There will be many at the coronation who will simply enjoy the dancing, drumming and the banana beer, but there are others who will see the period between the exile of King Freddie and this coronation as a time of chaos and misery, and the restoration of the monarchy as the restoration of peace, emirembe and the restoration of the political power and predominance of the Baganda.

(Photographs omitted)