The Bagungu – a sub-ethnic Bunyoro group – have lived in present-day Buliisa district on the northeastern shores of Lake Albert, for the past 1,000 years, deriving their livelihoods from fishing and farming, before the discovery of oil in 2006 which has disrupted their livelihoods.
Bagungu who speak Rugungu dialect are a product of the intermarriage between the Bantu and the Paluo Nilotics, historically, they are part of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom which is led by Omukama Solomon Gafabusa Iguru.
But, since 2016, there are efforts by some leaders to break away from Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom and create their own cultural institution called Butebengwa bwa Bugungu (Bugungu kingdom), citing ‘marginalisation’.
They also claim to have cultural heritage different from Bunyoro which must be preserved by the new institution.
According to the 2014 national census by Uganda National Bureau of Statistics there are 116,000 Bagungu. The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995 (as amended) recognises the Bagungu as a tribe in Bunyoro.
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 had a king of their own,” Nsamba told The Albertine Journal on September 24, 2022.
Prior, on September 17, while meeting leaders from Bunyoro sub-region in Masindi district, President 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 the matter soon, advised 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.
This comes after, a few weeks ago, the district approved its formation under the pretext that the community had approved of it.
On March 9, 2019, Iguru was quoted saying that there was no need for a breakaway from Bunyoro since his kingdom is a unifying, hospitable institution that cherishes the values of every tribe.
While Museveni maintains that Bugungu and Bunyoro should unite and work for development and looks at it as a simple matter that will be resolved, some say, the agitation is unleashing symptoms of a collapsing society.
Or, that, perhaps it could be true they (Bugungu) might be convinced by a covert operator that they will benefit from oil royalties for personal gain.
The Public Finance Act, 2012, says, 1% of oil royalties will go to the traditional leaders in whose area the oil has been found.
There is also a hint of the NRM Government promotes a divide-and-rule policy to maintain its firm grip on power. Kooki’s apparent secession from Buganda, and the Rwenzururu schism from Tooro kingdom are such pointers.
“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, says, adding, “The invisible hand feels if Bunyoro remains united and has the elite; no one can come, occupy and dominate such a place.”
Wabyona further says: “You see what they did, they made sure Kikuube district is curved out of Hoima. Now you can see how it (Kikuube) is being parcelled and sold completely. So, government finds it easy to deal with a less strong or less united society. The other time Kikuube was relating with Hoima but now where are we-the elite? You know the quality of councillors in Kikuube and Buliisa.”
“Whether the government is engineering it or not, it is enjoying it because otherwise it has a right to advise and say, ‘don’t go into that’. They are doing that to dominate and exploit,” Wabyona argues, adding that secession tendencies are not limited to Bunyoro but rather many areas in Uganda.
He cites gerrymandering and bulkanisation of administrative units as a good example. “You find an LCI is being broken into smaller LCs, Sub-County, a district it is the trend,” he said, adding that, societies or ethnicities no longer feel comfortable, safe and benefiting from the bigger Uganda.
“So every small group is retreating into its own shell where it feels safe. And, instead of a country that is developing and creating wealthy is only looking at sharing the wealth and not growing the wealth. So, it’s like now we are partitioning or appropriating the whole country to individualism. There is no longer any thinking of the common good, a bigger good and society. The way people are demanding for their own districts, sub-counties and kingdoms in places which did not have kingdoms before, they are creating their own kingdoms. Bagungu are not different,” he said.
Stephen Biraahwa Mukitale, a former member of parliament for Buliisa County, says lack of cultural institution has not been an issue but that it is opportunists and self-seekers who ride on it to sow seeds of discord.
“It comes at a time when we have Tilenga, Kingfisher and East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline oil facilities that will employ hundreds of people and increase business opportunities for the people to partake to improve their livelihoods that everybody would want to divide Bunyoro,” he told The Albertine Journal by phone.
On the other hand, Mukitale attributes this challenge to a failure to implement a regional tier system of governance that he hoped would unite people the more for development.
“All these divisions of districts and kingdoms would not be there. We would be speaking as one Bunyoro in a region government.”
As the debate of secession goes on, Bugungu has had unresolved issues of land grabbing which the Government has failed to resolve.
This escalated after land gained value following the discovery of oil in the area. Mukitale says since 2005 when the whole Buliisa was a grazing area, it was taken over by armed herdsmen and individuals, which increased calls to have a cultural institution.
“People said Buliisa possibly gets a kingdom, so that they can defend us but Bunyoro kingdom doesn’t have guns like the armed pastoralists from the state. They threw all sorts of accusations that since the NRM government came into power they have never had anybody from the area appointed in juicy government positions say to say a ministerial appointment that they all go to Hoima where the Omukama sits but the appointing authority is not Bunyoro but Museveni my NRM Chairman and commander-in-chief. So if it is marginalization in appointments and in government it is not Bunyoro kingdom and poor service delivery which collects taxes but the government,” he added.
Mukitale, says buy and large they have been getting little compensation from their land which has been earmarked for the various oil projects but the one who approves is the chief government valuer not Bunyoro Kingdom.
He said people are frustrated is some areas, they lose cases to court when they are the legitimate owners of the land but those who have fraudulently got land titles ostensibly outsiders and non-indigenous win cases.
“So those frustrating situations have increased and the leaders have not helped to make the common man to understand that Bunyoro is not a tribe but a nation where diverse tribes have found refuge. So, it is not correct that all those sub-tribes become kingdoms. But it is a symptom being caused by denying Ugandans regional tier governance and addressing their unresolved concerns.”
Otherwise, Mukitale, says this would be a rallying call to go back to the drawing board and stop divisions and balkanisation of Uganda.
He also says this might be diversionary or obscurantism to limit inquiries and understanding to make people concentrate on the issue of secession while outsiders are taking oil contracts to their advantage.
“They want by the time the $10b in contracts at Tilenga oil industrial park, Kingfisher and East African Crude Oil Pipeline gets finished, it’s when we shall realize that while we were fighting for secession or breaking into kingdoms, some will have looted the money and gone back to Kampala. What a shame?” he asked.
As rightly alleged, a few connected elites are taking over all contracts in the oil industry-accommodation in containers and tenders to supply foodstuffs to the detriment of locals.
Oil companies and the petroleum authority have in the past been forced into the defensive, after the contracts to supply food stuffs went out of the local farmers hands into a clique of connected elites from Kampala.
To the observers, the issue seems to have bought the government time. On the other hand, one analyst remarked again that the NRM cannot allow Bugungu to secede from Bunyoro because they (Bagungu) are known to be violent and spirited fighters.
If they did, it would be hard to contain them given the historical injustices that must be addressed.
“Bugungu has been impoverished. The land which was Bugungu was turned over to what they call Murchison Falls National Park, Bugungu Wildlife Reserve and the Bagungu were chased out of their ancestral lands,” Nsamba said.
Available records shows that the game reserves started in Bunyoro. Acholi was added much later and simply because Bagungu were stubborn fighters.
They were deposed to disarm them by imposing game and forest conservation on their lands where they were forced to migrate to other places because there were no opportunities in Bagungu and yet it was a prime area.
Nsamba says given that historically a king is not going to help them in any way, and they are wasting time.
“Let them demand to get the resources because they have virtually no land. If they demand the return of those lands which are now wild that would be a plus,” he said.
Asked on whether the proponents will succeed in seceding from Bunyoro, Nsamba said: “I don’t know and I don’t want to know. All I can say is they want to create a new precedent. Whether it works or it doesn’t, the guess is as good as mine. And Bunyoro would be behind them if they are demanding for ancestral land or compensation for the ancestral lands from the government of Uganda which confiscated them because they have since been benefitting through park fees from tourists and without Bungungu getting anything. The problem is the rulers of Uganda are indifferent to the plight of Bagungu,” Nsamba, who also doubles as the vice chairperson of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom Royal Commission, added.
Wabyona says it could be true they want to benefit from oil “but they don’t know what they are doing” and the invincible hand has taken advantage of the prevailing environment where opportunities are in the hands of the few.
He advises them to first ask themselves that what Bunyoro kingdom has benefited from the park, forests, and oil before popularising ideas he termed as reactionary.
“This can help them know this is what we can get or this is what we are losing. They just need to be guided but because we have selfish leaders and where there is lack of leaders, someone who has failed in life, who doesn’t know the benefits of a bigger society he finds that if I go and manages a small and uninformed society he will benefit. It is like a story of a big fish in a small pond,” Wabyona avers.
He wonders: “Whereas Europe is squeezing small countries into the European Union, America became the United States of America, people are making bigger economic entities, and now for us we are retreating to smaller things, useless, unfeasible. It is just backwardness.”
The Kingdoms and Cultural leaders Act, 2011, as amended?
What those agitating for the Bugungu kingdom don’t know is that they are not going to get a kingdom but a king in case they succeed in their quest, according to the current law.
Wabyona says because it is about a leader and not the community and which they seem not to know.
“If it were amended so that the king becomes accountable to the community or the institution is owned by the community, Wabyona notes, “maybe there you would know there is a check and balances, but as it is now what they are going to get is a king. “Otherwise, who has stopped them from practicing their culture?” he asked.
While the scale and preparations or behind the scenes to create the Bugungu kingdom remain unclear, many are calling for the addressing of the root causes of the secession.
But it is the government that must address them not Bunyoro kingdom as some secessionists have in the past claimed.
Kingdom rules out marginalisation claims
Isaac Kalembe, the Omutalindwa (Speaker) of the Rukurato of (Parliament) rules out marginalisation of the Bagungu as it is being claimed, citing the Kingdom cabinet as a good example where five (5) of the 12 cabinet ministers are Bagungu.
Kalembe said it was wrong for them to base their secession on oil since it is a finite resource which is likely to run out but the kingdom must remain united.
The kingdom, in its Sh15b budget for the 2022/2023 financial year, has earmarked to construct a Sh2b commercial building in Buliisa town which pundits say is meant to cement its influence and placate calls for secession by the area.
Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, on top of having the headquarters of the Omukama, purchased a Sh1.6b storeyed building along Main Street in Hoima City, has the kingdom palace in Masindi. Plans to establish a palace in Kiryandongo in a land which the National Forestry Authority claim is in Kaduku forest reserve, botched.
For observers, indigenous Bagungu may find it hard to impose their culture and the calls for a secession could not be real but a sign of exhibiting animosity against other ethnic groups who have since migrated to the area taking on their resources like land and fishing which has been their main economic activity.
Not all are Bagungu in Buliisa, though. The majority are Bafuruki (immigrants) either from West Nile or DR Congo and that means their power will be less.
They have land which is not arable – it can only be suitable for grazing which the Bagungu have failed to do.
The best animals are owned by non-Bagungu and not even migrants from West Nile. These are cattle keepers from somewhere else.
Most of the people who are benefiting from the lake are Alur or Bafumbira and it has been exhausted due to overfishing and contamination. For the Murchison Falls National Park, Bugungu has a smaller part, the rest is in Nwoya.
To John Kaahwa a resident of Kigwera in Ngwedo Sub-County in Buliisa district and a Mugungu, the solution is to remain with a bigger community that would advocate better.
“As per the stand now, our level of power and advocacy is going to be limited if we break away,” he added.