Last month saw the Buganda kingdom celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the coronation of Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II as Kabaka of Buganda.
The media was dominated by special reports and analysis of the occasion, as Buganda still occupies a central political and cultural position in Ugandan history.
The anniversary, however, also led to much soul-searching about Buganda, Uganda and the historic tensions between the two entities and where this relationship stands today and is headed.
Many Baganda who viewed the late 1969s as the darkest chapter in Buganda history in 70 years were surprised that the restoration of the kingdom in the 1990s did not fully address key pending issues.
There was also a perception among other Ugandans that Buganda had not shaken off its sense of entitlement and special status within Uganda and in its dealings with the central government, was sometimes willing to sacrifice the common, national good in return for private arrangements that served its ends.
But when these private arrangements failed to work out, many Ugandans felt, Buganda tried to get the rest of the country to sympathize with it over wrong agreements that it had reached with the central government without consulting the rest of the Ugandan citizenry.
In May 1966, tensions between the Mengo government and the central government and between Edward Mutesa and Milton Obote reached their climax when the army attacked the Lubiri and Kabaka Mutesa fled into exile in Britain.
The kingdom was abolished in 1967 and Uganda became a republic.
It was a deeply traumatic event for Buganda and Obote became the most hated man the kingdom ever knew.
However, it would take another 40 years before Buganda had enough new insights, experiences and room for comparison for the events of May 1966 to be better understood.
In 1992, the NRM government restored the traditional kingdoms, Crown Prince Ronald Mutebi was enthroned in July 1993 and it seemed a new chapter in relations between the Uganda government and Mengo had started.
However, doubts soon began to grow.
Over 90 percent of Baganda had indicated during the process of gathering views on the view constitution between 1988 and 1993 that they favoured a federal form of government.
The hoped-for federo status that Buganda had stated it wished for under a new constitution was aborted in 1995. Buganda felt betrayed.
To add insult to that particular injury, a bill was tabled before parliament in 1998 to reform land in Uganda. The Land Bill raised suspicions and anger in Buganda, with a widespread view that the westerner-dominated NRM regime was trying to take over Buganda land.
There had been an urban legend and rumour for a few years, of a secret plot by Museveni to create a “Hima-Tutsi” empire in the Great Lakes region of central Africa and this rumour fed the Buganda anxiety over the intentions behind the Land Bill.
In chapter 17 of his famous political treatise, The Prince, the Italian thinker Machiavelli wrote concerning the human attachment to property: “[The Prince] above all things…must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”
What Machiavelli noted in the 15th Century is true for Uganda, still a largely agrarian society like the Europe of the Middle Ages.
Land has become one of the most emotive issues in Uganda today, particularly in Buganda.
Machiavelli in The Prince argued that one way for a ruler to gain or consolidate his political power is to acquire land. It appears that the NRM leadership has taken notes from Machiavelli.
Every since they came to power in 1986, several high-ranking army officers and politicians from western Uganda have bought and now own large tracts of land in Buganda.
Most of the land grabbing and allocation to foreign investors takes place in Buganda.
Baganda in rural areas and in and out of Kampala, overwhelmed by the high cost of living, education, medical treatment and business, have been forced to sell off their inherited land to try and make ends meet.
Most found selling their land had only helped in the short run but they were soon back in debt and this time without land. The Kabaka during his tours of Buganda made it a point to urge Baganda not to sell their land, but there were few choices available to Baganda.
Dispossessed of their land, mostly unemployed or barely getting by, living in disgraceful urban poverty but no longer able to fit in the rural areas, the large population of young Baganda has become a political problem for the NRM government and a discomfort for the Mengo establishment.
Mengo is confronted by the desperation in Buganda at each and every turn. It is also coming under pressure to show some results to its people. The result is the temptation to go with whatever deal they can conclude with Museveni.
J.B. Walusimbi, Katikiiro of Buganda until last year, started negotiations with Museveni for the return of some of Buganda’s properties. The secret negotiations were concluded with the Memorandum of Understanding announced on Friday August 2, 2013 between Museveni and the Buganda kingdom.
The fact that Mengo was negotiating with President Museveni rather than a cross-section of Uganda’s important decision makers was immediately criticized. The agreement did not indicate any mechanism of enforcement and therefore depended entirely on Museveni’s personal good faith to implement it.
Across the Internet and in Uganda’s print and broadcast media, there was a feeling within a week that this latest Memorandum of Understanding was going to prove yet another embarrassment and frustration for Buganda.
The heckling that Museveni received during the 20th coronation anniversary celebrations in Kampala on August 3, 2013 showed that although the Memorandum had been announced the previous day, most Baganda were either skeptical that it would yield any results or even if it did, they were now too angry to care about any gesture by the president.
It is also occurring to many Baganda that on a daily basis, what goes on at Mengo does not directly affect them. The kingdom was restored in 1992, the coronation a year later, but over the last two decades ordinary Baganda’s fortunes have continued to steadily decline.
Various palaces and properties have been returned and it has cheered up the kingdom. But while the prestige of the Kabaka is one thing, these properties do not translate into incomes and employment opportunities for young men and women.
About 80 percent of the Ugandan economy is made up of agriculture. But much of this agriculture is the non-food kind, like growing flowers, sugar, vanilla, cocoa, tea and coffee.
So millions of Ugandans live in a country often described as a potential “breadbasket of Africa”, but go to bed hungry at night for lack of “real” food like posho, millet, matooke, sweet and Irish potatoes, beans, groundnuts and meat.
The vast majority of Baganda work outside the royal circles, at ordinary jobs in the private sector, the civil service of the Republic of Uganda, NGOs, in petty trade and agriculture.
The economy now requires cash more than it did in the 1960s and the lack of cash to solve pressing personal emergencies is the state in which most Ugandans and Baganda live today.
Ugandans, at the end of the day, are not profoundly philosophical people. They will wish for the best and most comfortable situation but if this situation is not within reach, they will accept the reality.
They will accept the reality, that is, until their very livelihood and property are touched.
They are more directly affected by the policies, waste, corruption, investment and directives of the central government than the Mengo government.
Their daily frustration is with the NRM government and their outlet for this frustration is in the mainstream news media, their membership of political parties, activist groups and NGOs.
Even if all the Buganda kingdom’s properties were to be returned today, at most it would create administrative jobs for a handful of Baganda; but it would not address the overall national unemployment crisis.
In that sense, the major issue of the day in Uganda is not the relationship between the central and Mengo governments, not the classic Buganda versus Uganda contest of authority and legitimacy.
Rather, it is the relationship between Ugandans as a whole and the NRM government. It is the fundamental question of what Uganda functions like in the second decade of the 21st Century, no longer with an industrial base.
The specific “Buganda question”, while it remains an emotional one among Baganda, is by and large only one of many unfinished pieces of business as part of the unfinished business that is post-1990s Uganda.
Chinese companies are doing most of the hard construction work, civil society groups mostly funded by the West, with the central government playing a largely ceremonial role in the country’s affairs.
The Buganda government would still need to work with the central government and they in turn or they combined, would still need to work with the Chinese government and corporations that are increasingly shaping the Ugandan landscape.
By Timothy Kalyegira