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Was Kabaka Mwanga a villain or hero?
Publish Date: Jul 08, 2014
Was Kabaka Mwanga a villain or hero?
Mwanga was fighting enemy forces from the British as well as his own subjects
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SUNDAY VISION
 
By Apollo Makubuya
 
The Kingdom of Buganda has seen rough times — not least during the 26 years when kingdom were abolished by Dr Milton Obote — but, perhaps, none as tumultuous as the 13-year period between 1884 and 1897, the reign of Ssekabaka Mwanga II.
 
In this period, the scramble for Africa by imperialist forces was at its height. Colonialists like Carl Peters, Captain Frederick Lugard, Gerald Portal and Sir Harry Johnston, working with religious missionaries like Alexander MacKay and Fr. Pierre Lourdel (Kapere) spear-headed the “civilising mission” whose real objective was not entirely to engender trade or spiritual emancipation of the native, but to dismantle traditional African institutions and exploit (B)uganda.
 
Religious bigotry, internal wars, outbreaks of disease like smallpox and severe drought combined with the colonial infiltration and co-option of Buganda’s luminaries like Sir Apolo Kaggwa and Semei Kakungulu to make Mwanga’s tenure troublesome. Indeed, because of these difficulties, Mwanga was forced off his throne three times but battled to reclaim it at each instance.
 
Few historians have examined this period in general, and Mwanga’s personality and reign in particular, without the influence of writings by MacKay and Lugard, plus their protégé Kaggwa.
 
These actors were central to the deposition of Mwanga and, ultimately, to the end of Buganda’s independence. Western accounts portray Mwanga as a foolish, fickle, fitful and barbaric tyrant whose murder of Bishop Hannington in 1885 and killing of young Christian pages in 1886 horrified Europe. 
 
In this book, Prof Samwiri Lwanga Lunyiigo offers a refreshing perspective of Mwanga and his reign. Lunyiigo argues that for all his failings, Mwanga was a fighter and a nationalist who, unlike self-seeking agents like Kaggwa, Stanislaus Mugwanya and Zacharia Kisingiri, resisted British imperialism and died in the struggle for Buganda’s sovereignty.
 
Mwanga comes off more as Buganda’s hero and less as the villain. By questioning and contradicting euro-centric notions and perspectives on Mwanga, Lunyiigo’s work is liberating. 
 
Indeed, in a commentary on the book, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani considers that Lunyiigo’s narrative ends the “long run of the victors” and tells Mwanga’s story “from the vantage point of the losers.” 
 
Has history judged Mwanga fairly?
 
Lunyiigo considers that historians have generally unfairly treated Mwanga. As an 18-year-old monarch in 19th Century Africa, Mwanga was caught up in an intractable struggle for power and control over Buganda involving the Germans, French and British as they scrambled for the continent.
 
The Berlin Conference had taken place four years earlier. This struggle was complicated by new religious zealots in the Protestant, Muslim and Catholic camps who were selfishly bent on undermining Mwanga’s Court.
 
They ultimately overthrew Mwanga in 1888 and replaced him with his elder brother Kiweewa. Kiweewa lasted one month before he was removed, hacked to death, and replaced by his brother Kalema, who lasted one year on the throne before Mwanga — who with help from the British who forced him to sign some phony treaties — regained it. 
 
Mwanga’s grandson, Sir Edward Mutesa II, who was also deposed by the British (and later by Milton Obote) argues that “Mwanga fought to free himself and his country of the intruders for all of his reign.
 
He did not like or want them; he was impressed by their power, but not interested in their ideas. He could neither recover the old way of life nor adapt himself to the new, and in his perplexed and unhappy groping in the gap between, he seems to me to deserve some sympathy. His cruelty cannot be denied but it was accepted by his people in a way we find hard to understand.” 
 
Mwanga’s popularity with common Baganda was in no doubt. When Mwanga and Kabalega of Bunyoro were captured by a force led by Semei Kakungulu, Andrea Luwandagga and Kaggwa, they were shackled and paraded from Lango through Kiteezi to Busabala, where he was deported to Kismayu in Somalia. But, far from mocking him, the Baganda begged Mwanga’s captors for his release and forgiveness.
 
For this reason, and the fear of a backlash, his captors changed their plan to take him to his former Court at Mengo — occupied by his young son Daudi Chwa for the ultimate humiliation — and instead marched the two former kings to Busabala.
 
Here, Rev. A. B. Fisher of the Church Missionary Society was waiting by the lakeside. And, before their boat could set sail on to their final exile, he promptly baptised them. With a dash of holy water, Mwanga thus became Daniel, while Kabalega became John. No doubt, for the Protestants, this was a major coup.
 
For Mwanga, who generally preferred the Catholics, it must have been a harrowing experience. It is in this context Mwanga ought to be judged. 
 
The pot calling the kettle black?
 
While the main historical accounts about Mwanga amplify the killing of Bishop Hannington in 1885 and the young Christian pages in 1886, the atrocities committed by Lugard and his assistant, Capt William and others, particularly during and after the Battle of Mengo in January 1892, have been muffled.
 
Lunyigo relies on the work of Msgr. Hirth to show how Lugard and William led the Protestant faithful in the burning of both Mwanga’s Palace at Mengo and the newly built Catholic Church at Rubaga.
 
Using the Maxim gun, Lugard and William were also responsible for the massacre of over 700 people at Bulingugwe Island where they followed Mwanga days after they had chased him from Mengo. Many drowned in an attempt to run away and others were captured to become slaves to the Protestant leaders.  
 
It is interesting that, following protestations of the French, the British Government admitted guilt and paid compensation of £10,000 to the Catholic Church, but none to Mwanga or the families whose people died, drowned or were injured.
  
A right to self-defence? 
 
Mwanga believed that the white visitors were up to no good and all they wanted was to “eat” his country. He refused to take sides with any of their camps in spite of all the beads and trinkets extended as “gifts.” Mwanga hoped to play them off one against the other.
He understood the politics of the missionaries who converted his youthful and trusted lieutenants and turned them against him.
 
This explains why he evaded baptism while a free man. He was caught up in profound changes that whittled both his power base and authority.
 
This is why he conceived a plan to lure all the leaders of the three religions onto an island on Lake Victoria and maroon them there to starve.
 
This plan leaked with disastrous consequences to Mwanga who was promptly overthrown by a group led by Kaggwa.  
 
A house divided cannot stand 
 
Lunyiigo correctly argues: “…if Buganda had stood as one united country against the British invasion, there was not much with which the British could have resisted Buganda. But Buganda was already a disintegrating polity” and, “Baganda chiefs went to war with their own levies who did not know that they were helping the British to establish their rule in Buganda.
 
It is interesting to note that contemporary Buganda continues to suffer similar polarisation and the politics of divide and rule. 
 
Greed and betrayal
 
Lunyiigo argues that Africans like Kabalega and Mwanga “...valiantly contested the imposition of alien rule and lost largely because some of their own subjects did not appreciate what their betrayal did to their integrity as a people.
 
The fact that Buganda’s leading elite, in this period and beyond, was compromised by white rule at the expense of king and country is one that needs deeper interrogation.
 
I consider that Lunyiigo’s coverage only touches the tip of a huge iceberg. Yet for many years, Buganda’s traitors have been held in high regard when history is replete with evidence that they sold their country.  For example, Kagungulu and Luwandaga received 1,000 Rupees each plus several cows and goats from the British for handing over Mwanga and Kabalega.
 
Also, save for venal reasons, it is unimaginable how Buganda’s regents “negotiated” the wholly dubious 1900 agreement with Sir Harry Johnston, with Mwanga deposed and his infant son Daudi Chwa installed on the throne.
 
Surprisingly, some of these actors, like Kaggwa and Kakungulu have roads and schools named after them. No major public buildings, facilities or roads have been named after Mwanga. No one talks about Gabriel Kintu, who stood by and fought for Mwanga and Buganda to his final hour. 
 
To resist or to collaborate with the enemy? 
 
In the foreword to the book, Prof P. Mutibwa raises the debate on whether Africa is better off because of collaborators of imperialism or in worse shape because of resistors like Mwanga and Kabalega. He considers that the book does not put this debate to rest. In my view, however, this is a zero-sum debate because in the end, Africa was conquered by imperialism. 
 
It has never recovered. The only difference perhaps is that today, the resistors are beginning to be hailed as heroes and many of the collaborators are frowned upon as traitors. Be that as it may, Lunyiigo ponders a valid question — had Buganda resisted imperialism in a more united and purposeful way, would it have retained its territory and independence in the same way that Ethiopia did? Or, would it have retained its territory and become independent in the same way Rwanda, Swaziland and Lesotho did in the post-colonial epoch? 
 
Only free men can negotiate
 
Lunyiigo’s work canvasses the various treaties of “friendship” and “protection” that Mwanga signed, first with the Germans and later with the British. In these agreements, the colonialists promised “protection” in return for the surrender of suzerainty; the inability to make treaties with other countries; the inability to raise an army and hold arms without British approval; the inability to declare war without British authority; the annexation of large chunks of land to the British Crown; the control of state finances and the monopoly of trade by the British.” 
 
Mwanga knew that signing these treaties meant the loss of sovereignty. This is why it was necessary to arrest and exile him in a distant land, before the British negotiated the one-sided 1900 Buganda Agreement with an infant king, represented by the very chiefs who had helped in deposing his father.
 
Using similar methods, the British exiled Mutesa in 1953 and tried to replace him with another king. Having failed, they negotiated the 1955 Namirembe Agreement with his chiefs, under which his powers were further eroded.
 
In The Desecration of My Kingdom, Mutesa II considered such treaties as acts “that the British see as a proof of faith and determination in a just cause, and the rest of the world sees as gross hypocrisy.”  
 
In view of the above, it is ironic that Buganda has often been accused by other parts of Uganda for collaborating with the British to overrun their territories. Lunyiigo succeeds in debunking some of these views, especially by showing how Mwanga worked with Kabalega, and the people of Lango, Ankole and Busoga to fend off a common enemy.
 
I commend Lunyiigo’s book for challenging the stereotype of Mwanga and for helping the reader understand the beleaguered king and his kingdom at the end of the 19th Century in a new light. Although the book covers a period 130 years ago, it is relevant today as Buganda rediscovers.
 
The writer is Buganda kingdom’s justice and constitutional affairs
 
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