Op-ed – Rwenzori Violence Part II: Who are the royal guards?

BY MUBATSI ASINJA HABATI

Rwenzori region has been described by some as restive. The violence witnessed in Kasese from 26-27 November 2016 is lending credence to this description. Over 60 lives have been lost in this brutal violence.  In the eye of the storm are the royal guards. This followed an operation led by a combined force of UPDF and Uganda police in Karangura Sub-county in Kabarole District on 24 November.

The Uganda police and army spokespersons have alleged that these royal guards are linked to the violence that has been occurring in Rwenzori since July 5, 2014. They want them disbanded.

But who are these royal guards?

Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu leadership recruits bodyguards who are commonly referred to as royal guards. They protect the king, high-ranking kingdom officials and cultural sites. These guards are volunteers, mainly youth and are in areas where the Bakonzo live.

The government of Uganda doesn’t want these guards in place as it’s illegal to train a personal army. Government says the mandate to protect cultural leaders belongs to its constitutionally established security organs. This seems to be the officially communicated point of disagreement over the mandate and purpose of these guards. In fact some people in government called the royal guards a militia.

The royal guards also include Rwenzururu veterans of 1960/70s. They have batons or sticks and knives as their weapons. Government asked the Omusinga (king of Rwenzururu) to disband the guards but he was reluctant to do so. That’s the cause of conflict, at least from the official government communication.

It’s important to note that the kind of people who volunteer to be royal guards are not children of rich Bakonzo. They are mainly children of the majority subsistence poor farmers, who, together with their children, did not get good education or have well-paying jobs. They are however happy to serve their king. Imagine the excitement of a desperate peasant in mountains hearing that they can be guards to the Omusinga and his people.

They look at this as a job opportunity, even when as royal guards, they are not salary earners. So how do these royal guards survive? Who looks after their families? When were the royal guards first recruited? They have been guarding the king since 2009, so why are they being hunted now?

In October 2016, there was an incident at Nyakasanga soccer pitch in Kasese Town where a guard allegedly slapped a police officer who had allegedly sat in the king’s pavilion tent. The police commander in the region was angry and demanded that this royal guard be handed to police but this never happened. In fact, the security at the coronation ceremony on October 19, was manned by these royal guards. The police kept a distance while demanding that the guard who assaulted a police officer be handed over. It said some guards would commit crime and hide behind their role as royal guards to Obusinga.

Many Bakonzo, especially those in villages, love their king and believe he is powerful and untouchable. As such, they cannot talk ill of the royal guards.

Most of these guards, because of little or no exposure (to formal education), believe witchcraft can protect them from bullets. If you tell them the contrary, they’ll say you’re a fool. In Nyabuswa in Kabarole District, for instance, a UPDF soldier who was on leave was allegedly killed as he tried to counsel some of these youths against fighting. The guards are prey to selfish individuals who can use them to achieve their selfish ends.

This is where the talk of secession feeds in. How many Bakonzo have publicly stated they want to break away from Uganda? Which Bakonzo leaders have come out in the open to say they want a state created for Bayiira (Bakonzo and Banandi in DR Congo are collectively called Bayiira)? Who is spreading the propaganda of the Yiira state?

Previously, Omusinga Charles W. Mumbere wondered why some people in government keep linking his kingdom to secession. He said if he wanted a state created, he would not be stupid to make that demand and stay in Uganda.

The issues in Rwenzori are complex.  They border on politics, land (due to high population in the area, access to land has become a challenge to many people), poverty, cultural identity (85% of Bakonzo support the cultural institution according to the 2007 Kajura Commission Report) and perceived discrimination. Narrowing the Rwenzori question to royal guards is just looking at one bit of these aspects.

Some political statements which might have annoyed the powers that be in government have been coming out of Obusinga. Most notable among these was during the 2016 presidential elections campaigns when FDC presidential candidate Kizza Besigye visited the Rwenzururu palace and the FDC ended up winning all parliamentary seats in Kasese District. The cultural institution is said to have also recently advised against splitting Kasese District. This politics could also be at play.

While there are mistakes made by some people in Obusinga, like those “leaders” who are brainwashing the youth, there might be mistakes being made by some people in government /security as well. However, each side wants to show that it’s being victimized and yet security personnel, royal guards and civilians have lost their lives. They have left behind dependents. It is a loss to the country.

Will attacking police or security operatives or shooting guards and innocent civilians and arresting Omusinga solve the problems in Rwenzori in the long run? Perhaps the question should be whether Uganda security forces used proportional force to deal with the recent disturbances in Rwenzori. What if the security personnel had used teargas to overpower the guards and then arrest them, wouldn’t that have saved lives? How about using rubber bullets?

How will those who lost their dear ones in this violence view the Obusinga or government? Dialogue is always the best solution in situations of conflicts. Convincing these people that they belong to Uganda and that disagreements can be solved amicably, will have a lasting solution in changing the mindset of people in Rwenzori.

It is time to have dialogue that includes all leaders in the region, not just meeting the cultural leader like we have seen before. Educating the masses in Rwenzori about the role of government is also an important effort that needs to be made.

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

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