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Kabalega: Uganda’s Shaka Zulu

By Vision Reporter

Added 9th June 2009 03:00 AM

Today, the remains of this fort are no longer visible, unless someone points at them. There are no signs of the heavy battle that raged at this spot more than 115 years ago. However, the natural caves that provided Kabalega with the cover he needed are st

Today, the remains of this fort are no longer visible, unless someone points at them. There are no signs of the heavy battle that raged at this spot more than 115 years ago. However, the natural caves that provided Kabalega with the cover he needed are st

By Joshua Kato

Today, the remains of this fort are no longer visible, unless someone points at them. There are no signs of the heavy battle that raged at this spot more than 115 years ago. However, the natural caves that provided Kabalega with the cover he needed are still visible.

Through the years, they have been kept as a symbol of the great king’s resistance against colonial rule. Only 2km outside Hoima town on the Hoima-Butiaba Road are these caves.

When Kabalega was attacked in his palace and city at Mparo, two miles on the present day Hoima-Masindi Road in December 1893, he withdrew to this area and set up a battle front. The attackers who had expected him to fight to death for Mparo, his capital then, were amazed when he withdrew, 5kms away and made a stand.

The manner in which he set up his battlefield and the seven years it took the combined forces of the British, Baganda and Sudanese to defeat him made Kabalega one of the toughest opponents to be faced by the colonialists. His military astuteness ranks that of legends like Shaka Zulu.

At Kataisa, Kabalega mobilised his soldiers to dig up trenches, 8ft deep, in protective circles. The trenches provided cover from the bullets. The trenches were over 300 metres long and running in several directions. Kabalega had selected Kataisa due to its other natural gifts.

There was a deep cave too. “It had many tunnels that helped him and his soldiers move from one command post to another,” explains Georgina Beatrice Kisembo, the caretaker of the historical site.

It was not only the caves that showed Kabalega as an astute military strategist. Just before the fort location, there is a river located before Eco Gardens Hotel. This river provided the first line of defence for the fort. The National Resistance Army (NRA) was later to use rivers in Luweero for defensive purposes. Kabalega was to use other rivers for example Kafu and the great Nile for defense.

Likewise in the 1980s, almost 100 years later, the NRA used Kafu as a defense line from the Masindi side. “The construction of the fort took one month. On completion, Kabalega deployed the best of his troops there and waited for the British,” says Kisembo. The soldiers were well prepared with dried food that could take them through many months.

The fighting here was ferocious. The fort was finally overwhelmed in 1894 and totally destroyed. However, this was not the end of the fighting. Kabalega moved to Budongo Forest, now in Masindi district and set up base there. Long before Kataisa, Kabalega had already distinguished himself as a fighter. He ascended the throne by fighting and defeating his adversaries.

While the other princes saw the workers in the palace as just casual subjects, Kabalega trained them into fighters and soldiers.

Kamihanda Omudaya and other royals who possessed the Omukama’s body prepared to attack Kabalega at Kinoga. But after the battle, Kabalega won. More battles were fought until finally Kabalega triumphed. Other than administrative reforms, Kabalega significantly rebuilt the army.

Just like Shaka Zulu who trained his soldiers in the use of the ‘short spear’ Kabalega trained thousands of soldiers, whom he named Abarusura.

“This was different from the traditional one that was known as obwesengeze,” writes Kihumuro Apuuli in his book, A Thousand Years of Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom. For the first time, Bunyoro had professional soldiers. Like a king seeking to have a complete army, there was no discrimination in who joined it. This is why some of the regiments were commanded by Bairu, which was unheard of. “The regimental system meant that the Abarusuura was a state army, that derived its powers from the king” Apuuli says.

With a centralised command, it was easy to control and army. The Abarusuura comprised 10 regiments of between 1,000 to 2,000 men. Each of them was known with a number and unit base. They were deployed, just like modern armies, in strategic regions of the kingdom.

The new army moved swiftly. It quickly attacked and captured Toro and subdued all areas that were attempting to secede from Bunyoro, for example Chope near Lake Kyoga and Bugungu in present day Buliisa. The soldiers were armed with modern rifles of the time, that according to historical researcher and author Edward Steinhart, Kabalega acquired through trading with Arabs.

Fighting the Europeans
He had been longing for a fight with the British and Baganda supporters. His first fight against the Europeans was against Sir Samuel Baker. At the beginning, Kabalega and Baker lived in harmony.

However, in 1872 Samuel Baker annexed Bunyoro as part of the British protectorates. Kabalega fought him. When Colville attacked in 1893, Kabalega was forced to withdraw his forces from Mparo into Budongo.

The force that attacked him was overwhelming. It included 15,000 fighters all armed with Remingston rifles and supported by the feared maxim machine gun. He had earlier committed a strategic mistake when he sent four units of his feared Barusura to attack parts of Toro and Busoga.

By the time the British attacked, he had few units to put up a serious fight. Mparo was captured on January 2, 1894, just after three weeks of fighting. He put up a stand at Kataisa, but he was also defeated there. He then moved to Budongo and a guerrilla campaign ensued. His guerrilla war had started and soon the mixed Ganda and white army started feeling it.

“Kabalega staged the longest struggle against colonialists because of his tenacity,” says Steinhart. The attacks against the British were carried out by small but organised units and mainly against caravans on the move. This was the same style adopted many years later by the NRA in Luweero. Museveni’s tactic as a guerrilla was to attack the enemy on the move, harass them and withdraw, Steinhart observes.

In many of these attacks, supply lines for the British were interrupted. It became difficult for the British to move a few metres away from their garrisons. Some of the significant guerrilla actions included attacking caravans in August 1894, attacking Hoima in 1894, then on September 29, 1894, again on November 8, 1894 and many others. But there were also attacks against fixed garrisons.

In 1895 for example, he attacked the British at Kijunjubwa in Masindi. In this battle, he defeated an estimated 20,000 force. One mistake that he, however, did was to capture ground and stay there. Typical guerrillas, given his disadvantages, he would have just hit and left.

The attacks against the British continued through the years, with the British making endless trials at capturing him. When he was finally dislodged from Budongo, he crossed to Buruli and set up defensive positions on Kayimbera Island in Lake Kyoga.

“The Barusura had well guarded and prepared trenches on the island. They had several firing positions that provided more than three layers of firing cover,” Steinhart observes. The British with over 2,000 men and supported by Maxim guns attacked Kayimbera on March 2, 1895, but were thoroughly defeated. In the battle, one of the key British commanders, Dunning, was even killed.

A few days later however, the British organised one of the largest forces to attack Kabalega. The force had 20,000 Baganda fighters under the command of General Apolo Kaggwa, these in modern war fare are equal to two divisions, in other wards 30% of the UPDF strength.

This tells a lot about Kabalega’s strength. In addition, another Buganda General, Kakungulu, crossed from Busoga with 123 canoes of fighters. There were also over 200 Sudanese and British fighters, all armed with Hotchkiss rifles and supported by the ferocious Maxim machine gun.

Kabalega: Uganda’s Shaka Zulu

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