King Mutesa of Buganda in the Drama of Decolonization in Uganda

John Otim


John Otim, novelist, poet. critic, composer, taught creative writing at Ahmadu Bello University, Editor of Nile Journal



The First World War did away with some of the most powerful and colorful monarchies and empires the World had known. The Ottoman Empire, the Austro Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the German Monarchy all were overnight swept away by the tide of history. In Africa despite the tide and despite European colonial aggression or maybe because of it, kings and monarchies remained in vogue and even flourished. Zulu kings survived apartheid and in West Africa a whole range of kingdoms still exist.

He was born in 1924 right in the middle of this most turbulent of periods in the twentieth century when all across Africa European powers ruled the land. He grew up to become one of the most colorful monarchs of his time. In Africa his only rival was the one and only Haile Salase, King of Kings, Lion of Judah, the Emperor of Ethiopia. His name was Edward William Frederick David Walugembe Mutebi Luwangula Mutesa. Probably the longest name there ever was. The name foreshadowed the character of the man. Mutesa grew up to become the Kabaka of Buganda, or as his friends fondly called him, King Freddie. He was young, handsome, charismatic, and for sure a playboy.

Under British colonial rule, Buganda was a province of Uganda. Unlike the mighty Sokoto Caliphate of Northern Nigeria to which Buganda is in many ways comparable, Buganda was not defeated in battle. It read the tide of history correctly and voluntarily placed itself under the might of Empire. Some might say this was a less than honorable act for a proud and ancient African kingdom. But for Buganda it was an act of survival. Buganda went on to field its own armies in battle against neighboring territories on behalf of the marauding British. And with the help of the British it defeated its mortal enemy, the once mighty Kingdom of Bunyoro Kitara whose King was giving the invading British and its Nubian mercenaries a run for their money. Thus Buganda earned the gratitude of Empire. As a province of the colony of Uganda it was treated like a favored son. Under British dominion Buganda grew strong and rich. Its people, the Baganda, had access to good education and good jobs and became prosperous and at times contemptuous of other Africans. Its women became one of the most fashionable in all of Africa. To be the King of Buganda was to be a power in the land.

In 1942 Mutesa was crowned King of Buganda. He was only 18, still a student at the prestigious King’s College Budo near Kampala, his father Kabaka Daudi Chwa had died when Mutesa was a mere fifteen and therefore too young to rule. By 1942 the war still raged in Europe, with the final outcome far from certain. That morning November 20 1942 Mutesa set off from his hilltop palace near Kampala and drove in a colorful convoy first to the nearby hill of Namirembe for royal mass. Amidst the throng his progress was slow. His subjects lined the routes drumming dancing and singing as only the Baganda can. Uniformed white colonial officials were his eager aide de camp and body guards. When Mutesa and his convoy at last arrived at the sacred groves high on Budo hills where the kings of Buganda are traditionally crowned, a large and exhilarate crowd waited. Alongside the crowd was the representative of the British Monarch and the Governor of the land, complete in his colonial gear of hats and plums. He saluted the young King. It was a mark of deference from a white to a black man, unusual in a colonial situation.

But Mutesa was no ordinary black man. Born in privilege to ancestors who had exercised absolute powers over their domains, educated at Cambridge and later at an exclusive British military academy, Mutesa was used to exercising authority. In a colonial situation which demanded invisibility of all black people Mutesa was the most visible personality in all of colonial East Africa. Some of this visibility he deliberately cultivated and was in the end political. When in 1953 the authority of the King conflicted with that of the Governor, the Governor banished Mutesa to Britain. The act if not the action was pure James Bone. The Governor invited the young King to his residence to sort out their disagreements. Mutesa was only 28 and the Governor was old enough to be his father.  A point arrived in the conversation and the Governor left the room. Through a secrete door, in marched six white police officers who seized the Kabaka and drove him straight to the waiting plane whose engine was already running and with only  one man at the controls. As soon as Mutesa got through the door or was thrown inside the plane, the plane took off.

But Sir Andrew Cohen, that was Governor's name, had misfired. His action saved the Kabaka whose playboy lifestyle, in the eyes of his own once adoring subjects, had brought his rule into disrepute. Overnight King Freddie became a hero not only in Buganda but of the entire black world. He was featured in Time Magazine. There were protests in Trafalgar Square and in the British House of Commons against the deportation. A year later Mutesa returned triumphantly to his kingdom as the hero of the new Africa, and a major player in Uganda’s politics. All now depended on how the Kabaka played his cards. Nobody stood a better chance than he did, to take over the leadership of Uganda from the British and rule it as an independent country. But a single problem stood in King Freddie’s way and in the end threatened to derail Uganda’s otherwise smooth path to independent statehood.

At the onset of their colonial campaign in East Africa, the British had seized a large chunk of land from the Kingdom of Bunyoro and handed it over to the Kingdom of Buganda as a reward for Buganda’s support against Bunyoro. Bunyoro never forgot their injury and the land became known locally as the lost counties. Now as the British prepared to pack their bags and depart Uganda, Bunyoro demanded back their land before any move to independence could begin. Under the Kabaka, Buganda swore that not an inch of soil would be surrendered. It was a bitter deadlock. The British knew about hubris. They knew they were done for. Next door they saw Lumumba fall, they watched the Congo burn; they did not wish this to happen to a piece of prized colonial real estate they called their own that they once christened the Pearl of Africa. The British were loathed to tackle the problem themselves, much as they themselves had created it. Now at this late hour neither they nor anyone else had an answer.

Enter Apollo Milton Obote, the man from the outlying districts who lived his life perpetually in a world of possibilities. Obote proposed an interim solution, by which Uganda would move on to independence on condition that a referendum would be held in the lost counties to determine final ownership, within a period not longer than two years following independence. Obote was interested in securing Buganda support so that he may win power and become the first leader of independent Uganda. His move appeared like the perfect solution to the bitter deadlock that hung over everyone like an albatross. It let the British off the hook. It allowed Uganda to move on to independence. But Obote’s solution was a gamble and a big one too; it depended on the political goodwill of all concerned. Like all such gambles, either you succeed or disaster follows. In the case of Uganda disaster was by no means inevitable. Had the Kabaka, the King of Buganda, now as the President of all Uganda, given a nod to the referendum, the decent into total chaos might have been avoided. Idi Amin would not have happened; Museveni’s wars would not have taken place. Given its rate of progress three years following independence, Uganda was on its way to becoming an African Tiger. Who knows how many other African Tigers would have followed its lead?