About the author:
Martin Doornbos is a retired professor of the ISS, and this post is based on his new book The Rwenzururu Movement in Uganda: Struggling for Recognition, published by Routledge in 2017.
A few years ago, the self- styled kingship of the Rwenzururu movement in Uganda was recognized by the government. When in 2016 armed clashes between the Rwenzururu king’s bodyguard and a patrol of the Uganda army erupted, the new king was held responsible and he is currently being kept under house arrest. Fascinated by this movement that few people outside Uganda know about, I had set out to explore and write about the origins and evolution of this movement.
The Rwenzururu movement was a case of sub-nationalism emerging in the early 1960s and seeking liberation for the Bakonzo and Baamba people from Batoro overrule, all of these representing ethnic groups in Western Uganda. It soon gave rise to a highly complex and in some respects spectacular situation which would endure for decades to come.
The Rwenzururu movement originated on and around the Mountains of the Moon, on the borders between Uganda and Congo (DRC). At the establishment of British rule in the early 20th century, Bakonzo and Baamba had been included into Toro Kingdom, which became a district within the Ugandan colonial set-up together with three other (neo-traditionalized) kingdoms. The Bakonzo and Baamba constituted sizeable minorities (just under 40%) in this district that was dominated by the Batoro. Throughout the colonial period Bakonzo and Baamba had been treated as second-class citizens by the dominant strata of Batoro within Toro kingdom. They lacked equitable representation and were seriously neglected in terms of educational opportunities and elementary government services.
Unsurprisingly, as independence approached and a possibility of redrawing of district boundaries seemed in reach, the two groups joined hands in a movement of protest, Rwenzururu, that first sought recognition of equal status within Toro. When this was refused they demanded a separate district. At the micro level at that time, a separate district was perceived almost like attaining independence. As these demands received negative and rather high-handed responses from the Toro district government and the central Uganda government, protest soon gained momentum, and in subsequent years led to numerous violent encounters with Batoro militias and Uganda government troops.
One wing of the movement took the more radical step to secede from Uganda and set up its own, rudimentary government. Its leader, Isaya Mukirane, first became President, later King of Rwenzururu. Upon his death in 1966, his young son Charles Wesley Mumbere was nominated to succeed him. The other wing of the movement continued to struggle, under considerable hardship and harassment from both Ugandan army and police forces and from Rwenzururu militias, for equal recognition within the Uganda political framework by way of a separate district.
In 1967, the Uganda government of Milton Obote abolished the (neo-)traditional kingdoms within Uganda, thus removing the Toro kingship which had been one of the sources of discontent and envy to Rwenzururians. The next government, that of Idi Amin, resolved another key source of frustration by granting the Baamba and Bakonzo a separate district each. Then, after the toppling of the Idi Amin regime and the (controversial) return of Obote as president in the 1980s, the secessionist Rwenzururu kingdom, now with Mukirane’s son Charles Wesley as its leader, showed itself responsive to overtures for reconciliation and agreed to a settlement. The deal involved the ceremonial laying down of arms by Rwenzururian forces and the resignation of Charles Wesley as ‘king’, in return for promises of development funds for social welfare and education. For the ex-king himself there were material incentives including a bus, a shop, and a government scholarship for study abroad, which was to materialize in the United States.
The Rwenzururu saga continued, however, for mainly two reasons. One, not all secessionist Rwenzururians were supportive of the idea of reconciliation and some who had initially been in favour slipped back into armed resistance, lured by larger profits and powers offered in an environment ideally suited for contraband and guerrilla activities. Second, Uganda in 1986 once again saw a change of regime with Yoweri Museveni taking over. Having its power base in the National Resistance Army, his new government in due course felt it had to accommodate pressures from Buganda(the largest of the neo-traditional kingdoms incorporated within Uganda) pleading for restoration of its kingship. As it is legally difficult to restore a single kingship where all had been ‘banned’, parliament in 1993 passed a ‘un-banning’ order allowing the restoration of ‘cultural leaders’, provided ‘the people so wish’. In emulation of the restoration of Toro’s kingship and out of a strong wish to be at par with that, however, Rwenzururians claimed that their own kingship, albeit a novel institution, should also be restored. Thus a popular movement swell to have Rwenzururu’s ex-king, Charles Wesley, return from the United States where he still lived and be recognized by Museveni’s government. He did indeed come for a visit in 1998, but this was not immediately followed by official recognition. Charles Wesley at that time preferred to return to his job in the United States.
But Rwenzururu involved much more than the kingship issue. Many or most other Bakonzo and Baamba, living in the more accessible plains and on the lower mountain spurs, were equally strongly engaged in ‘Rwenzururu’ without subscribing to the idea of secession or the newly invented royalty. Associating Rwenzururu mainly with the secessionist wing and its (indeed spectacular) history amounts to a narrowing of perspective and leaves underexposed the struggles fought at another level, and with altogether different objectives, by a majority of Bakonzo (and Baamba) for whom secession was no realistic option or target.
More broadly, looking back at the conditions in the region at the time the Rwenzururu movement emerged, there can be little doubt that these were then just ‘ripe’ for a rebellion to break out and would have spurred that in one way or the other, just like they did elsewhere in Uganda at the time – in Sebei, Ankole, and Kigezi, in particular. Such social dynamics are of crucial importance in understanding why a protest movement emerges and what course it may take. In the case of Rwenzururu, it is interesting to note that decisions made about the future shape of ethnic relations and ethnic subordination at the time of the establishment of colonial rule in Uganda, would now, more than a century later, backfire and lead to renewed ethnically inspired violence between the groups concerned and even involving the central government.