Thursday, September 17, 2009




The riots witnessed in Kampala and neighbouring districts last week pitted two principals; President Museveni and Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi against each other. But who emerged winner? Seasoned journalist and columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo gives the verdict.

First of the kind
Last week was one of the most dramatic in Uganda in the last 22 years. In the north, which has endured rebellions since 1987, at one point it had become normal for dozens of people to be killed in a day. In Teso too, for example, in 1989 in the Mukura massacre alone, nearly 70 people were roasted to death in railway wagons by the army.

Those were situations of “war”, but still this is the first time in Museveni’s reign that at least 20 people have been killed, 100 injured, and over 560 arrested in political protest south of the Karuma Bridge. The deaths occurred as pro-monarchist protestors battled security forces after the government prevented Buganda king (Kabaka) Ronnie Mutebi from visiting Kayunga, a stubborn corner of his kingdom.
For this reason, we must ask: “to what avail?”

Kabaka Mutebi
It is probably too early to say how last week’s events will play out in the near years to come, but for sure they have altered the balance of political fortunes between Kabaka Mutebi and President Museveni.
As soon as the crisis broke out, there were several battles within the wider conflict. We examine six of them here:

Who would blink first?
Mutebi was determined to travel to Kayunga. The government said he wouldn’t, and for good measure Museveni left no one in doubt that it was a serious order by flooding the area with troops.

Museveni had drawn a line in the sand. Would Kabaka dare cross it? In the end, however, Museveni moved troops and surrounded Mutebi’s palace, making it difficult for him to leave. Subsequently, Mutebi called off the Kayunga visit.

VERDICT: A draw.
Mutebi 1. Museveni 1.

Who emerged more popular?
Going into the crisis, Mutebi’s (and Mengo’s) image – at least according to what NRM voices have been telling us in recent years, was that of a paper tiger, a malcontent who wasn’t happy to enjoy the trappings of a cultural leader and was hungry for political power. He represented, to use minister Kahinda Otafiire’s words, an “obsolete” order. His subjects were not with him, but with the NRM, and given a choice would always choose the side of their bread that is buttered – the Movement.

In the end, though, Mutebi’s subjects left no doubts that they were willing to die for him. There were pro-Kabaka protests all over Buganda, and no pro-NRM ones to counter them. Indeed, some of the usual criticism of Mutebi and Mengo from sections of Buganda politics was almost totally absent.

Mutebi 2. Museveni 0.

Who was the more powerful?
Mutebi might have emerged more popular, but did he look powerful? There was an element of spontaneous anger in the protests, and clearly it was not a well-oiled operation managed by Mengo.

The protests run on a mixed fuel of emotion and piled-up grievances. Museveni meanwhile got off to a slow start, unprepared as his machine seemed to have been, but he rallied his troops quickly and by the end of Day One, they were out in force. In Kenya in 2002, the opposition faced off with President Daniel arap Moi saying they would wreak havoc if he rigged the election. Moi hit back with Musevenisque table thumping and promised them hell and brimstone if they did not stand down.

Instead, now Prime Minister Raila Odinga, called out the opposition troops, and gave Moi a counter-proposition: They would not marshal just one million protestors, but two million and march on State House. Moi smelt the coffee, a fair election was held, and his successor was trounced. By Day 2, it was evident that the number of protestors was not going to double.

Museveni 2. Mutebi 0.

Who grew his brand?
The country has seen Museveni perform in these kinds of situations, and fully expected he would take the battle to Mutebi and not ease off. Though he is accused of having grand political ambitions, the country does not really look at Mutebi as a politician, and in many parts of it he is considered no more than a spoilt royal. Because he has always played it safe whenever Museveni rolled his eyes in irritation, Mutebi was not expected to take this episode to the wire.

But, lo and behold, he did. Parts of the country where Museveni is not the favourite local flavour, like the north, must have given this “young king” from Buganda a second look. Last week thrust Mutebi firmly into public attention as a political factor and he got noticed where he was previously a non-factor.

Mutebi 2. Museveni 0.

President Museveni

Who was more statesmanlike?
The question here is who more magnanimous, and resisted the temptation to land an easy punch? This was one Museveni was never going to win. As a general, he has perfected the art of raising the stakes until his opponent flees, surrenders, is captured, or is killed. So as Day One closed, Museveni ratcheted up the pressure. There was a great opportunity for Mutebi to score more points, and rival the place of his great fore father, Kabaka Cwa.

If he had defied the security cordon around his house and scaled the wall, even if he had fallen right down at the foot of a soldier, the story would have been refined and embellished into a great act of bravery and heroism in Ganda lore in generations to come.

He didn’t. Instead, he called off the Kayunga visit. Now, if Museveni had been his shrewder old self, he might have gotten into his car, and driven to Kireka to talk face to face with Mutebi as soon as the stones started flying. If he had, he would have dealt Mutebi a deadly public relations blow he would never have recovered from. Instead, he allowed Mutebi to snatch a glorious crown from the jaws of defeat.

Mutebi 2. Museveni 0.

Who showed greater awareness of the international world?
For many observers, one of the striking things about the Mutebi-Museveni face-off was how much both sides seemed oblivious to how the skirmishes were playing out internationally. The deployment of heavily armed soldiers and mambas against civilians with stones looked excessive.

The images were actually shocking. Within hours, videos of the mayhem were on YouTube and being clicked furiously. The Monitor and Independent sites (The Independent had the best hourly updates with text and photos, and was the only one that took advantage of Twitter) soon overheated with traffic and crashed.

From outside, Uganda’s calm and stability that Museveni likes to tout, was going up in smoke. So what does the government do? It goes one worse, and bans five independent Luganda language radio stations!! On the other hand, Mengo failed utterly to exploit the opportunities presented to it to play victim. And, in addition, it had no messaging about its cause, either coming from inside Uganda, or outside where it has an impressive array of savvy supporters.

Mutebi 0. Museveni 0.

So, with the dust settled, who won?
Here is the SCORECARD:

•Mutebi 7.
•Museveni 3.