Op-ed – Rwenzori Attacks Part I: Where did it all begin?

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Kabarole District in Rwenzori sub-region is mourning again. This time, eight people were killed in Karangura Sub-county, Kamabale Village. Reason? Uganda’s security forces say these people were planning attacks and had started looting food, animals and intimidating the wanainchi. The UPDF spokesperson claims these people had set up a “camp” in the mountains where they were making improvised explosive devices and preparing an attack.

Earlier this month, a UPDF soldier was killed in Nyabuswa in the same sub-county as he allegedly tried to counsel residents he met in a bar against undermining state authority. As the police and soldiers investigated his death, they ended up shooting four civilians. The region police spokesperson said the four were not civilians but “trained attackers”. We all know that dead men tell no tales.

Many have asked what exactly is behind the clashes and killings in Rwenzori. I can’t specifically know but, perhaps the history of the region can help us understand and contextualise what’s happening.

Rwenzori region has been shrouded in sporadic clashes since 1919. In 1919, the Bakonzo protested tax collection from Toro government chiefs. The reasons for this protest bordered on taxation without services delivered in mountainous areas where the Bakonzo tax payers lived. The Toro government, collaborating with the British colonialists, crushed the protest by publicly hanging the suspected ringleaders Nyamutswa, Tibamwenda and Kapolyo in 1921. The three were buried in one grave.

The hanging of the three leaders enraged the Bakonzo because they expected the British colonialists to see reason in their grievances against Toro administration instead of siding with their oppressors. This sowed seeds of future rebellion and unrest in the region.

In the 1940s, young Bakonzo who had been educated beyond primary school level began to trace their history. By 1950s, the Bakonzo had started organising themselves to demand independence from Toro government. Among the key demands was using Lukonzo as a language of instruction in Toro schools where few Bakonzo children studied. This demand for cultural identity was denied. Isaya Mukirania, a grade II teacher and others, started mobilising the Bakonzo under the Bakonzo Life History Research Society (BLHRS), which became the harbinger of Rwenzururu movement. Soon, BLHRS was rapidly spreading across Rwenzori mountains.

Other demands included establishment of schools in areas where the Bakonzo and Bamba lived, appointment in Toro government administration, access to health facilities, roads and political representation, among others.

At the same time, the Bamba students formed the Balyebulya Association to push for the interests of the Bamba who too had been lumped into Toro Kingdom as subjects.

By then, the main grievance was the need to recognise the Bakonzo and Bamba as separate ethnic communities within Toro kingdom government. This was a demand that Toro administration was not ready to accept. That is how the Rwenzururu movement began.

The moderates vs. fanatics

I have been reading a lot about the Rwenzururu struggle from 1962 to 2009. My interest was sparked by the conflicts that have rocked the Rwenzori mountains over the years, including the recent clashes.

One thing that stood out for me during my literature review, was a fight within the Rwenzururu struggle itself. During the Rwenzururu rebellion between 1963 and 1982, there were moderates and those I will call fanatic supporters. The moderates were mainly educated Bakonzo who supported Rwenzururu for demands like respect for human rights and social service delivery. This group were happy with having a negotiated settlement for the Rwenzururu question. They were few but influential and were mainly from lowlands and hills of Kasese. They were the ones that had maneuvered around the Toro education discrimination policy against Bakonzo by adapting Rutoro names.

So, when Idi Amin decreed that there be Rwenzori and Semliki districts out of Toro in 1974, the moderate Rwenzururu supporters were happy with this as it would give them the services and a voice they badly needed in Uganda.

The fanatic supporters on the other hand, believed in military confrontation as a way of getting their demands. The biggest number of these people were semi-educated or not schooled at all. This group was led by Isaya Mukirania who unfortunately died before the two districts were curved out of Toro. With time, this group demanded more. For example, when the two districts were created, they never abandoned rebellion. They also wanted a kingdom. At one point they established a kingdom government like those that existed during colonial time. They had cabinet ministers, they collected Rwenzururu taxes, collected market dues in kind and cash, fought with the colonial and later post-colonial police and army during Obote I and Amin regimes. Some of them looted food, animals and chicken from locals with or without knowledge of their leaders.

The politics of taxation

Soon, even the Bakonzo were to face the wrath of some elements in this group. Anyone who was found in the Rwenzururu “controlled” territory without a Rwenzururu receipted tax, would face their wrath. At the same time, if they found you with Uganda central government tax, you would also face it rough. This become a dilemma for those who lived in Rwenzori areas controlled by Uganda army. If the army or central government officials found you without tax ticket or with a Rwenzururu tax receipt, you would be in trouble.

To the fanatic group, the moderate Bakonzo were abakolikoli (traitors) and were often arrested or even killed. A big number of them fled Rwenzori to areas like Mubende and parts of Bunyoro. They abducted Kasese West MP, Ezironi Bwambale for not presenting Rwenzururu views in Parliament. The fanatic Rwenzururu supporters felt the colonial and central governments of Obote I and Amin persecuted them. So, they attempted to declare Rwenzururu an independent state.

When Charles Kisembo Mumbere took over the Rwenzururu leadership following the demise of his father in 1966, the Obote government hoped it had a chance to neutralise the rebellion. But they were wrong. The elders who had been working with Mukirania had mastered the art of dodging the Uganda army soldiers by hiding deep in the mountains and carrying raids. The central government of Obote II opted for negotiations as they kept the military option open.

In 1982, a negotiated settlement was reached. Charles Kisembo Mumbere descended the hills with some of his soldiers to settle down in Kasese as a Chief Elder. However, Richard Kinyamusitu, the Rwenzururu army chief of staff, did not agree with his commander Mumbere’s move to surrender. He remained in the mountains fighting for a state.

Maybe the moderates had won. But, new struggles emerged. In 1981, the National Resistance Movement begun a rebellion against Obote II regime. The NRA elements could not ignore Kinyamusitu and his men. Since 1982, Kinyamusitu and his men has been roaming the mountains looting from locals as they would go as far as some places in eastern Zaire (now DR Congo). Kinyamusitu found a way of working with NRA but later dropped out.

Demand for a kingdom and ADF factor

The second form of struggle emanated from Rwenzururu supporters of Mumbere and those against him. The Rwenzururu supporters wanted their king and kingdom recognised after the 1993 restoration of kingdoms.

As expected, the NRM government dragged its feet to recognise Rwenzururu kingdom. The demand for recognition of Rwenzururu kingdom became a hot political and social issue in Rwenzori Mountains. In Kasese, C.W. B Kiyonga led the anti-Obusinga group. Kiyonga was and is an influential figure in the NRM government so his opposition to Obusinga had a substantial impact on delaying recognition of the kingdom. But his group was outnumbered by the masses made up of ordinary Banyarwenzururu who wanted the kingdom and king recognised.

In 996, as the struggle for recognition of Rwenzururu continued, the ADF rebels attacked Kasese and later Bundibugyo and parts of Kabarole. Soon allegations and counter-allegations of who was supporting ADF were being made.  Some of these allegations were that Mumbere was sympathising with ADF which had merged with National Army for Liberation of Uganda and remnants of Rwenzururu under Kinyamusitu and Fenihasi Kisokeranio. These two had been soldiers under Mumbere’s command during the Rwenzururu rebellion.

The politicians opposed to the Obusinga recognition seized the opportunity to mud-sling the supporters of Obusinga and its crown king as having links to ADF rebellion. Mumbere boarded a plane to Kampala in 2001 to clear his name. But the damage had been done. The central government’s recognition of Obusinga was delayed even further.

One particular incident of great concern was after the 2001 parliamentary and presidential elections. Kasese again had voted overwhelmingly for the candidates that did not support the Movement system. In March that year, Kasese Town woke up to the sad news of over 11 people killed and 54 cars burnt to ashes by purported ADF rebels. After this incident, several pro-Obusinga politicians were arrested by government. Here again, some people in Rwenzori began feeling persecuted.

In the 2006 presidential election, President Museveni was defeated in Kasese by FDC’s Kizza Besigye. It was the only district in Western Uganda where Museveni lost to an opponent. The reason for the presidential defeat in Kasese was failure to recognise Obusinga. Museveni had some homework to do. He soon set up the Kajura Commission to inquire into the Rwenzururu-Obusinga question. The results of the commission showed that over 85% of the population supported the Obusinga with Mumbere as the preferred king.

In 2009, central government led by President Yoweri Museveni recognised Obusinga and installed Mumbere as king. There were massive celebrations among the Banyarwenzururu in Rwenzori and beyond.

In the 2011 elections, Museveni won back Kasese District although with minimal margin. However, in 2016 elections, Museveni’s NRM party lost Kasese at presidential and parliamentary levels. Some of the reasons were poor service delivery and perceived marginalisation.

In March 2016, a dispute over Hima Town Council LC III election, resulted in deaths of civilians. Rwenzururu royal guards were pinpointed in these attacks in Kasese. The situation got worse in Bundibugyo over dispute of the Local Council V elections and lives were lost.

Earlier on in 2014, there were attacks on military and police installations in Kasese, Ntoroko and Bundibugyo districts, leaving at least 100 people, mainly civilians (“attackers”) dead. A minister in Rwenzururu kingdom, Vincent Kipilongo, is alleged to have confessed to mobilising the youth in these attacks. Some Rwenzururu officials were arrested. Some of the suspects who participated in these attacks were tried in the court martial. Some were acquitted, others are still in prison while some suspects who surrendered were given amnesty.

But, where is Kipiliongo? Why did he mobilise the young people to carry out these attacks? What is being done to those he indoctrinated? What does this say about Rwenzururu leadership? And more importantly, what should be done to end this violence in Rwenzori? Is it not time for the palace to rein in its supporters?

Could it be that those who opposed the Obusinga recognition are working behind the scenes to say, “we told you so”?

The lives of young people lost because they were confused or lied to “that bullets won’t touch them” are regrettable. These young people in Rwenzori could be fighting some selfish persons’ wars. Dialogue should be the desired method in solving any concerns.

Parents, leaders at all levels should guide the youth and identify those behind this confusion. Rwenzori region has had enough share of conflict and definitely does not need one now. Ordinary people want to develop and feed their families. They should be allowed to do so in peace.

Mubatsi is a journalist and hails from Kabarole, Rwenzori region.


In the second part of the Rwenzori Violence series, Asinja explains who the royal guards are.


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