The Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, one of Uganda’s oldest monarchies, is fighting to preserve its unity against the backdrop of calls for breakup by secessionists said to be driven by the appetite for oil royalties.
Those counter-secession efforts appear to be holding, according to confidant kingdom officials.
They say that rebellious tendencies were first noticed in Bunyoro in 2013 when some elements from Bagungu began agitating for their own cultural institution.
The Bagungu are one of the 64 indigenous communities in Uganda as of February 1, 1926, according to the third schedule of the amended constitution of Uganda.
But for thousands of years, they have lived as a sub-ethnic Bunyoro group in present-day Buliisa district on the northeastern shores of Lake Albert, deriving their livelihoods from fishing and farming before the discovery of oil in 2006 which has somehow disrupted their livelihoods.
Speaking Rugungu dialect and well represented in the Bunyoro-Kitara parliament, the Bagungu are an offshoot from intermarriage between the Bantu and the Paluo Nilotics, who historically are part of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom currently under the stewardship of the Omukama Solomon Gafabusa Iguru.
Agitators for secession cite alleged ‘marginalisation’ by Bunyoro and difference of cultural heritage as their main reasons to demand for formation of a new cultural institution.
Article 246 (1) and (6) allows traditional or cultural leaders to exist anywhere in Uganda by birth or descent in accordance with the customs, traditions, usage and consent of the people where applicable.
Yolamu Nsamba, the former Principal Private Secretary to Omukama Iguru, says the salient point is birth or descent but the cultural institution proposed by the Constitution has never existed in Bugungu.
“The Bagungu never had a monarch before. We have historical precedent that shows that Bugungu has always been part of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom and the Omugo Munywisa (one of the ritual Queens of the king) speaks or addresses the King in Rugungu.”
“And the Munywisa is responsible for dressing the king. She keeps the king’s regalia and some of the customs are conducted in Rugungu.”
“They know it that this kingdom is their institution and they have been part of it since time immemorial and they never have been marginalised,” Nsamba told The Albertine Journal.
On September 17, 2022, while meeting leaders from Bunyoro sub-region in Masindi district, President Yoweri Museveni was asked to intervene after the kingdom Prime Minister, Andrew Kirungi Byakutaga, told him that some people from Buliisa were fuelling secession.
“Mr President, there are people who are instigating the Bagungu to secede. We have reports from different people, including Bagungu. They are intimidating them, threatening and using harsh statements based on tribal lies,” Byakutaga was quoted as saying.
Museveni, who promised to meet the two parties to harmonise their difference has not done so but he in the interim advised the Bugungu and Bunyoro to work together for development.
“I don’t want to get involved in the issues of cultural institutions because they were restored to unite and not divide the people,” Museveni said then.
In response, Fred Lukumu, the chairperson for Buliisa district, who has been a proponent for the secession but had denied it before the Omukama during the 2016 empango (coronation fete), told the President that Bagungu people differ from Banyoro and are entitled to their cultural institution.
“We are agitating for the formation of a cultural institution not secession because we don’t have kingdoms in Uganda but cultural institutions,” Lukumu was quoted by the media.
Previously, Lukumu was alleged to have influenced the district council to approve the formation of Butebengwa Bwabugungu cultural institution arguing that the community had approved of it.
A section of councilors have since gone to court to challenge the resolution alleging that it was done irregularly.
Bagungu secession talk which had been going on in murmurs reached its height in 2018 immediately after the Omukama sacked the then Prime Minister, Norman Lukumu, over allegations of maladministration.
Some pundits say Lukumu (Norman) a native of Buliisa seem to have tasted that there is abundant money in cultural institutions which could be driving him to covertly push for secession.
Others opine that quest for anticipated royalties from petroleum prospecting for personal gains could be fueling the appetite for secession by some groups in Bunyoro.
The Public Finance Act, 2012 provides for 1% of oil royalties to be given to the traditional institutions in whose area the oil has been found.
“Take Bunyoro having oil. It has fertile land. These days it is only in Buganda in Central Uganda and Bunyoro in Western Uganda where there is market for land. What would you expect?” Jackson Wabyona, a political analyst in Hoima, told The Albertine Journal.
“The invisible hand feels if Bunyoro remains united and has the elite loyal to the kingdom, no one can come from outside to occupy and dominate such a place,” he added.
Bunyoro is renowned to poses fabulous riches below and above the ground including tropical forests, fertile land, oil and gas, minerals, fishing, unique tourist features and a rich culture.
It is comprised of the districts of Hoima, Masindi, Buliisa, Kiryandongo, Kikuube, Kakumiro, Kagadi and Kibaale.
Omukama Iguru has been on record stating explicitly that there is no need for any group to break away from Bunyoro because the kingdom is a unifying and hospitable institution that cherishes the values of every subject.
In January this year, the Kingdom parliament unanimously passed a resolution rejecting plans by Bagungu to breakaway.
Earlier on December 8, 2022, Byakutaga met Makerere University students under Kitara Students Association in Hoima City who expressed dissatisfaction over the same.
The students held that allowing Bagungu to break away will trigger other communities to do the same, further weakening the kingdom.
Stephen Mukitale Birahwa, a former Member of Parliament for Buliisa County, has weighed in saying that a breakaway agitation by the Bagungu should be a rallying call to go back to the drawing board to stop divisions and creation of new administrative units in Uganda which tend to encourage creation of new cultural institutions too.
He also says this might be diversionary tactic by outsiders to make people concentrate on the issue of secession while they take oil contracts to their advantage.
“The elders have also been told about negative effects and the need to promote peace, co-existence and unity,” said John Katuramu, an elder from Buliisa, adding: “although there should be better engagements on how to address these issues that they (secessionists) usually hinge on. Putting a bucket under a leaking roof can never repair the roof.”
Sadly, the Bagungu are not alone in demanding to break away from Bunyoro. Another group that calls themselves the Mubende Banyoro Committee (MBC) wants to break away from Bunyoro to establish Buyaga-Bugangaizi Kingdom which would take the entire greater Kibaale-Kakumiro and Kagadi districts.
In a letter dated January 18, 2023, MBC wrote to the Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom about their intention to establish the aforesaid kingdom.
Top on the agenda is a dialogue with stringent conditions including demand for finances and legal backing from the Kingdom to sue Britain for reparations over a plethora of historical injustices committed against Banyoro during the colonial era.
In the same letter they say after thorough investigations in UK courts that there are no attempt whatsoever by any person or group from Bunyoro pursuing a court case.
MBC claims it is currently gathering historical evidence against Britain and that the legal team of UK and Uganda requires them one million pounds (sh4.5b) to cater for all costs during the impeding proceedings.
One of the most powerful kingdoms in Uganda at the onset of colonization, development and unity of Bunyoro-Kitara was decimated when the British adopted a scorched earth policy to crush popular resistance by Omukama Kabalega Cwa II.
More than two million people are estimated to have died during and after the 1893-1899 war, mainly from starvation, disease and murder.
MBC says it also wants support from Bunyoro on land ownership and compensation to Banyoro in Buyaga and Bugangaizi by the central government for settling Bafuruki (immigrants) community on their ancestral land.
They are demanding for two permanent ministerial positions in administration and another two permanent positions in kingdom Rukurato (parliament) to represent the issues of MBC, of which names of appointees will always be proposed and forwarded by MBC.
They further want one permanent position in central government at parliamentary level to represent the grievances of lost counties at the national level as it is the case with the UPDF, workers and people with disabilities, among others.
Another demand is for construction of a royal palace in Kibaale so that subjects can easily access their king.
Others are employment and scholarship to students from greater Kibaale, renovation of royal tombs of former Kings of Bunyoro in Buyaga and Bugangaizi and appearance of his Majesty the Omukama in public irrespective of the situation he is in.
“If there is no solution to the above in a specified period of time of not less than 45 days from the date of the letter, we will continue with our proposed programme [of secession] as per the Constitution of Uganda under Article 246 and the Traditional leaders Act of 2011,” the letter concluded.
Faced with the chorus of dissenting and diverse demands, the current kingdom administration has now embarked on actions aimed at preserving its unity and relevance.
It has successfully lobbied district councils in the region that have responded by passing resolutions blocking the planned secession, especially of the Bagungu.
The kingdom last year met Members of Parliament from the region who pledged to use their clout to block any move to break away from Bunyoro.
The Albertine Journal understands that the kingdom is engaging MBC and sweet talking them to dustbin their secessionist proposal in exchange for help to pursue their court case against Britain.
Livingstone Bakumira, the spokesperson for MBC in an exclusive interview confirmed that the kingdom met them on February 11, 2023 at Rukurato (parliament) hall in Hoima City over the same.
“The kingdom convinced us to withdraw [secession agenda] and promised to help us fulfill our agenda of seeking reparations from Britain,” he said.
Bakumira told The Albertine Journal that one of the conditions was for the kingdom to write to the government on the way forward which the kingdom has since done.
In a letter dated February 13, 2023 to the Attorney General of Uganda, Kiwanuka Kiryowa, Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, which The Albertine Journal has seen, Byakutaga quotes another letter dated December 16, 2016 which was written by the Principal Private Secretary to the President requesting for government’s assistance in pursuing their claims against the British government.
The letter reads: “The President directed that you study their claim and prepare an opinion for him on its merits before government’s intervention. This is because the Kingdom has been approached by leaders of MBC to follow on this. This will guide us on the next course of action. In the same vein, we request for an engagement with you at your earliest convenience,” the letter states.
The Attorney General of Uganda has acknowledged receipt of the letter on February 17, 2023.