Oulanyah’s demise reveals cracks in the fabric that binds Ugandans together.
On March 20, this year, Ugandan Parliament Speaker Jacob Oulanyah died at a hospital in the United States, where he was receiving treatment.
Messages of condolence, as is customary when a high-ranking government figure dies, pour in thick and fast. Among government officials, President Yoweri Museveni took the lead.
Not to be outdone, business executives and members of Parliament-both from the government and the opposition-sent condolences to the late Oulanya’s family, including Robert Kyagulanyi, commonly known as Bobi Wine, who stood against President Museveni in 2021.
However, one MP expressed strong emotions when grieving Oulanyah. Tribal feelings are a festering sore in Uganda that is unrecognized, neglected, and disregarded. However, the decay and odor lie barely under the surface.
While eulogizing the late Speaker, Gilbert Olanya, MP for Kilak County in northern Uganda, said that the Acholi people suspected foul play.
He went on to say that whenever an Acholi was assigned to a position of power, they died.
He then mentioned the deaths of Lt-Gen Paul Lokech, a former deputy inspector general of police, and Maj-Gen Julius Oketta, a senior army commander.
The remark may have been ignored as merely another emotional response to the loss.
However, it acquired traction and relevance when the country’s Chief Justice, Alfonse Owiny Dollo, chastised Ugandans living in the United States who protested against Oulanyah, labeling them “wicked…lumpens.”
On February 7, Ugandans staged a protest outside the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where the Speaker was receiving treatment. Some supporters of Uganda’s largest opposition party, the National Unity Platform (NUP), organized the protest.
The marchers accused Mr. Oulanyah of being part of a government system that has failed to prioritize health-care delivery, despite the fact that people flee to other countries for treatment when they get sick.
During a vigil outside Oulanyah’s house in Muyenga, Kampala, Justice Dollo said, “How can you allow these lumpens to be considered as speaking for Buganda?” How, how, how?
There will be a cost, and it will grieve me to watch the place I have revered, the place where I have the finest friends, slipping down, and you call it politics?”
“Your ethnic leader was flown to Germany on a presidential aircraft using public cash to which he was not authorized.”
You did not show up. Is it because Oulanyah is a member of the Acholi tribe? Is it because Oulanyah doesn’t understand you? “Only a terrible person can fight someone who is struggling for his life,” he continued.
These emotions aggravated previous wounds. For starters, negative feelings toward the Kabaka are not tolerated by his subjects. It was the same with the Chief Justice.
There have been demands for him to quit for flashing his tribal colors while Ugandans want him to be impartial.
Buganda’s Katikiro (prime minister), Charles Peter Mayiga, made a statement denying the Kabaka’s usage of the presidential plane.
“When the Kabaka travelled to Germany in August 2021, he flew on KLM Airlines, not the presidential plane,” Mr Mayiga said.
The Katikiro were also offended by the Kabaka being referred to as a “ethnic leader.”
“I made an incorrect and impolite allusion to His Majesty, the Kabaka of Buganda.” I therefore categorically, fully, and freely withdraw such reference, and I also hereby apologize to His Majesty, the Kabaka. “I will immediately write in writing to the Katikiro of Buganda, recording my apologies,” he stated.
Noah Kiyimba, the kingdom’s spokesman, appreciated the apology and urged Kabaka’s citizens to accept it as well.
“The Chief Justice of Uganda and the Katikkiro of the Kingdom of Buganda deserve appreciation for changing an awkward moment into a chance for peace,” said Norbert Mao, a major Acholi leader and the president general of the Democratic Party.
Uganda’s tribal scars date back to the country’s independence on October 9, 1962.
The political basis of the nation was established on differences between northerners, who controlled the military services, and southerners, who dominated the civil service. As a result, the war for independence was based on tribal feelings; political groups’ support bases were either ethnic or religious.
At the time of independence, Milton Obote, the prime minister, lured the Baganda to join his Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), promising them a dominating position, and formed an alliance with the Buganda monarchist party, Kabaka Yekka (king only).
He solidified the political tie by marrying one of the Kabaka’s subjects, Miria Kalule, in a ceremony attended by Kabaka Mutesa II, Uganda’s president at the time.
Even yet, the countrywide nationalism that was opposing Kiganda nationalism was not extinguished.
Shortly after independence, Obote organized a referendum that restored Buyaga and Bugangaizi counties to Bunyoro, which infuriated the Kabaka, culminating to the conflict on May 24, 1964, in which Obote assaulted Lubiri Palace and drove the Kabaka into exile. The Kabaka died in exile later in life.
Obote’s subsequent embargo on the kingdoms was seen as a direct attack on Buganda. The 1980 election, in which Obote defeated Muganda Paul Ssemogerere, was contested on rigging grounds, resulting in the bush war waged on Buganda territory in central Uganda (Luwero Triangle), which brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986.
The Baganda are so enraged by Obote that when he died in 2005, his cortege was allegedly refused entrance via Luweero (Buganda), the quickest route to his house in Akokoro, Apac, and had to proceed through Jinja, Mbale, Soroti, and Lira.
The national military forces were controlled by Obote’s people, the Langi and the Acholi. Obote had violated his own Common Man’s Charter, which sought to unify all Ugandans under a unified banner of economic equality, justice, and human rights.
Idi Amin, Obote’s successor, appeased the Baganda by burying the Kabaka in state. His emphasis on making Swahili a national language and imposing it in the armed services was intended to reduce ethnic tensions, but it did not work. He didn’t help things by silencing critics and anyone he perceived as a danger to his reign.
Museveni’s no-party system plan in the late 1980s was intended to ease ethnic and religious conflicts, but 35 years later, this effort at unity has failed. He sponsored and implemented the anti-sectarian statute three years into his presidency.
Even with laws, the thread that holds the north-south partnership together is fraying. Baganda members, for example, primarily avoided Mao and the DP party. His recent media clashes with Bobi Wine’s National Unity Party are often seen as unhealed ethnic scars.
Previously, the north had voted against President Yoweri Museveni, blaming him for the ousters of Obote and former President Tito Okello. Under Museveni’s leadership, the north endured two decades of violence, which killed thousands and displaced millions. Recovery has been sluggish thus far, but Museveni is desperate to win them over.
Since the beginning of his leadership, Museveni has selected either a Muganda or a Catholic, or both, to the position of Vice President: Samson Kisseka, Specioza Kazibwe, Gilbert Bukenya, and Edward Ssekandi.
Following Museveni’s dismal performance in Buganda in the 2021 elections, he removed numerous ministers from the country, including Vice President Ssekandi. He gave the vice presidency, Speakership, and Chief Justice to the north and east.
When the governor of the Bank of Uganda, Prof. Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, died earlier this year, there were calls for the president to pick a Mukiga from southwestern Uganda to replace him.
In the same line, northern Uganda has asked that the office of Speaker be reserved for them as a political prize. A caucus of more than 130 MPs from northern Uganda and West Nile insisted that the president meet with them or they would not vote for the new speaker to replace Oulanyah.
Museveni refused to back down, claiming that the government would not be compelled to make “errors in broad open.”
President Museveni informed his party about a decade ago that he would not accept tribalism. When one of the members questioned him why he had selected senior security personnel from the same area (western Uganda), he responded it was because of personal contributions to the battle to create the party.
According to Juma Okuku’s book Ethnicity, State Power, and the Democratization Process in Uganda, the establishment of the Uganda Revenue Authority, Civil Aviation Authority, Privatization Unit, and Uganda Investment Authority created a breeding ground for sectarianism because they were separate from the civil service structure.
“The NRM regarded the establishment of these groups as a chance to reward its political and ethnic clientele from the southwestern portion of the nation with employment,” Okuku says.
Despite the presence of the Equal Opportunities Commission, this is still the case.
Political pundits perceive the response to Oulanyah’s murder as a chance to discuss tribalism in the nation, which is strangely touted as a unifying force by many.