ON Tuesday, Ugandans will celebrate Martyrsâ€™ Day. Between a rock and a hard place, this is where Kabaka Mwanga, the 33rd king of Buganda found himself when faced with the decision to order the execution of 45 Christian martyrs. Most of them were his most trusted pages, close friends and advisers.
AT the end of a long and frustrating hunting spree on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 25, 1886, so goes the story, Kabaka Mwanga went back home infuriated.
According to Fr. Joseph Mukasa Muwonge, a researcher on the history of Uganda martyrs, on his way back from Bulingungwe Island on Lake Victoria, where he had gone hunting, Mwanga had met a diviner seated on a small stone called Mulungu.
â€œSeeing the king in a foul mood, this diviner asked the kabaka what the problem was. After intimating his problems, the diviner told the kabaka that all his woes were a result of the association of his pages with the whiteman,â€ says Muwonge.
Returning to his Munyonyo enclosure by the lakeshore, he found, to his chagrin, that his pages were not home. â€œI do not see any of my attendants here. Where are they? he asked.
And before one of his companions, probably Andrew Kaggwa could answer, the irate king shouted: â€œRubbish, I know where they are. They have gone to the whitemen to study religion. Now I know that the country is no longer mine, but the whitemanâ€™s.â€
This event sparked off the rage that saw Ssebugwawo (Dennis), Kaggwa (Apollo), Buzabalyaawo (James) clobbered to death in a slaughter trail that ended up at Namugongo on June 3, 1886. But this was just a climax to a series of events that had been driving the kabaka into a dangerous fury for some time.
Three months earlier, Mwangaâ€™s palace in Mengo had caught fire on the evening of February 22, killing and injuring a number of royal servants and destroying the kabakaâ€™s property.
The katikiiro's residence where the king sought refuge was destroyed by a thunderstorm shortly after his arrival there. Mwanga then retreated to his hunting lodge in Munyonyo.
The king would suffer another upset later in a failed expedition against the Banyoro and the conversion to Christianity and, contrary to Kiganda tradition, the marriage of his sister, Princess Nalumansi.
All these events, says Fr. Muwonge, determined the course of Mwangaâ€™s actions in his dealings with the Christian converts that later faced his wrath. â€œHe was frustrated and saw himself as increasingly vulnerable to the influence of the whitemen,â€ says Muwonge.
For a man who felt that much of his authority had been eroded by Christianity and its agents the decision to kill the people that we know as martyrs was, therefore, not totally unexpected.
â€œHe was the kabaka at the time and as the supreme leader, he had the authority over everything and everybody in the land. What was he supposed to do when these young people disobeyed his orders,â€ asks Prof. Foster Byarugaba of Makerere University.
Byarugaba says before judging Mwanga, it is important to understand the set up of Buganda Kingdom and the role of the kabaka at that time.
The kabakaship in Buganda Kingdom
By the early 19th century, Buganda had developed a well-organised, efficient administrative hierarchy and a sophisticated political system centred on the institution and the kabaka.
The kabaka was also the high priest and supreme judge of the land. Ruling through a system of governors and district chiefs, the kabaka maintained absolute control over his ever-expanding kingdom.
From his absolute powers came the common Ganda saying: â€œKabaka tebamutunula mu kamwaâ€ (No one looks inside the kingâ€™s mouth). In other words, the kabakaâ€™s word is final and cannot be challenged.
As a matter of ensuring discipline in an isolated community, the kabakaâ€™s word was law and never questioned. To this effect, Mwanga as an absolute ruler was invoking his powers. But history seems to suggest that circumstances may not have been favourable for the monarch.
Overwhelmed by the times
Coming to power at a time when Buganda had been infiltrated by foreign nations and influences, Mwanga was hit by a new wave of changes.
The acceptance of Christianity in the kingdom by Mutesa I, Mwangaâ€™s father and predecessor had introduced the local people to a new way of life and diverted them further away from the traditional norms in favour of the whitemanâ€™s ways.
The Arabs also, having seen the Christian missionariesâ€™ efforts to convert the local people, had started to teach Islam. There was confusion and conflict as each of the new religions struggled to influence the Kabakaâ€™s court. For a new youthful and inexperienced king, this was overwhelming.
â€œHe was 18 when he became the supreme ruler of the country that had been held together just by the strength and subtlety of a remarkable man. The different religious groups had created factions, if not quite political parties.
To continue to play them off against each other needed authority and courage,â€ writes King Edward Mutesa II, the 35th King of Buganda and Mwangaâ€™s grandson, in his book Desecration of my Kingdom.
T. B. Fletcher of the Church Missionary Society agrees with Mutesa: â€œTo steer a straight course through a time when such radical changes were taking place needed a man of strong character, a firm will and wide vision.
Those characteristics Mwanga did not possess. He was nervous, suspicious, fickle and passionate â€” a man whose one desire and object was to live his own life to the full,â€ he writes.
The evil counsellors
Mwangaâ€™s immaturity played into the hands of his ill-intentioned advisers. In his book, African Holocaust, J.F. Faupel says: â€œHe was merely a boy, brought up without discipline and surrounded by evil counsellors who, taking full advantage of the kabakaâ€™s youth and gullibility, launched an intensive campaign of vilification against the missionaries,â€ he writes.
At the heart of this vilification campaign was the chancellor (katiikiro), Mukasa and other chiefs who feared that Christianity if not checked, might destroy the pagan social system to which they subscribed.
History shows that quite a few executions such as the January 1885 killing of the three first protestant martyrs in Busega were not Mwangaâ€™s bidding, but a result of Mukasa and his croniesâ€™ influence over the kabaka to destroy the converts.
Worried that the friendship between the Kabaka Andrew Kaggwa and Joseph Mukasa might threaten his position, the chancellor always persuaded Mwanga to get rid of these â€˜disobedientâ€™ pages.
According to J.F. Faupel, Mwanga was prepared to allow Bishop Hannington into Buganda, but the chancellor, supported by other chiefs, urged him to have the bishop and his team put to death and their goods seized.
Hannington was, eventually, killed and later Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe executed for condemning the bishopâ€™s murder.
While Mwanga might have ordered the execution of the martyrs, he was clearly influenced by his advisers. Prince David Alexander Ssimbwa, one of Mwangaâ€™s surviving grandsons, corroborates this statement: â€œMwanga never intended to kill the Christian converts, it was his men who influenced him,â€ says Ssimbwa.
As a king, he relied on the counsel of these advisers to act, but found out later that it was all a mistake,â€ he says.
A tortured mind
Many times, Mwanga is presented to have deeply regretted the decisions to kill some of his pages, an indication that his heart was not into the execution.
It is reported that after ordering the execution of Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe in Nakivubo, he sent a messenger to refrain Mukajanga, the chief executioner, from killing his loyal servant.
The messengers did not arrive in time to save the man. Whenever things went wrong at his court, Mwanga reportedly regretted his decision to kill his loyal pages and replacing them with inefficient ones: â€œThey led me to kill my loyal servants, now see what has become of my kingdom,â€ he is quoted.
To what extent, therefore, could Mwangaâ€™s actions have been a result of the difficult circumstances and his tortured mind?
Dr. Fred Kigozi, the director of Butabika hospital, says Mwangaâ€™s actions had very little to do with the circumstances. â€œAs was the practice then, the kabaka had powers over all his subjects. He was the law itself and his word was never questioned.
It was the order of the day to put to death all those that disobeyed him. In the times, Mwangaâ€™s actions were the norm and, therefore, not a result of any personality disorder, he says.
â€œHe was a king and not a constitutional ruler who had full powers over his subjects. whatever happened was in his full control,â€ says Rev. Dr. David Kyeyune, the executive secretary of the Pastoral Liturgical Commission at the Uganda Catholic secretariat, also in charge of Namugongo Martyrs Day celebrations.
Even as a youth, Mwanga had the choice to use his discretionary powers to save the situation. He could have sought good counsel and listened a little more, just like his father, but he did not. He easily gave in to wrong advice,â€ adds Muwonge.
Drawing on his sociological background, Pastor Martin Ssempa says leaders make prudent decisions basing on advice. â€œI think Mwanga acted too hurriedly in his decisions.â€ Despite his dilemma, there is little to show that Mwanga could have helped matters.
His homosexual tendencies, which J.F Faupel highlight in his work, and his capricious nature deprived him of the moral authority to exercise proper judgment. He acted as the king that he was.
Did Mwanga have to sign the Martyrsâ€™ death warrant?