Sunday, August 9, 2015

Uganda Fragmenting: Kooki Chieftainship Secedes from Buganda Kingdom

A small, previously relatively unknown polity in south-central Uganda, the Kooki chieftainship, quietly declared independence a couple weeks ago, the culmination of long-simmering conflict with its larger neighbor—or, depending on whom you ask, overarching entity—the Buganda Kingdom.  The Kooki prime minister, Hajji Idi Ahmed Kiwanuka, announced his small nation’s independence from Buganda in a July 27th letter to the Baganda prime minister, Charles Peter Mayiga.

Uganda’s kingdoms, of which Buganda is the largest and most powerful.
(The Rwenzururu live between Toro and the Congolese border.)
The Republic of Uganda is not a monarchy, but, in a situation similar to that in Malaysia, Nigeria, or South Africa, monarchies within the state are tolerated and semi-officially established, though without constitutionally recognized powers.  The Ganda, occupying a large area in south-central Uganda, are the ethnic group for which the country as a whole is named (Ganda are the people, Baganda the adjective, Buganda the kingdom, and Luganda the language).  They are the largest group—both in population (almost 17%) and in territory (almost 25%)—and were favored under the United Kingdom’s colonial rule, which pitted smaller kingdoms against one another in a “divide and rule” tactic.  Uganda’s second president, Milton Obote, who was from the far north, came to power with Baganda support and made the large Buganda Kingdom nearly coextensive with the Ugandan state itself.  This lopsided situation provoked a rebellion by the neighboring Ankole Kingdom, Uganda’s second-largest, and Obote eventually disestablished the kingdoms in 1967.  Yoweri Museveni, an Ankole, rose to power in 1986 and restored the kingdoms but only to semi-official status—and he refused to restore some monarchies, including, surprisingly, his own Ankole one, as part of his own agenda to disrupt and divide the normal monarchic order.  Territorial disputes and rivalries have raged for decades and threatened to destabilize what would otherwise be one of central Africa’s most stable and prosperous countries.

Rakai District, homeland of the Kooki, is in the south of the Buganda Kingdom.
The Kooki, a few tens of thousands of people (though figures are hard to come by) living in the Rakai District along the border with Tanzania, have for more than a century been considered a chieftainship and a county within the Buganda Kingdom, the result of an 1896 merger that was part of the British plan for Baganda hegemony.  Opinion is fiercely divided today as to whether the Kooki were traditionally a sovereign monarchy and whether Kooki is its own language or is instead a dialect of Luganda.  (The homeland is tiny: Kooki County is only one of six in Rakai, a district considerably smaller than Rhode Island.)  Only within the past few years have the Kooki introduced their own flag and anthem.

“Irrespective of individual and/or institutional perspective,” Kiwanuka’s letter last month read, “Kooki, by all laws governing the Republic of Uganda, is a lawful cultural institution with a hereditary leader, governance structures, with due protocol and indeed independence.”  But the letter pledges “co-existence” with other institutions.

Hajji Idi Ahmed Kiwanuka, the Kooki prime minister,
at the site of the soon-to-be-built palace of the Kooki monarch
This had been building for some time.  In April, the Kooki announced the formation of their own sports league, and in May construction began on a new palace for Kamuswaga Apollo Sansa Kabumbuli II, the Kooki “cultural leader”—a hereditary monarch sometimes called a sovereign “chief,” less commonly a “king.”  Much of the funding for the palace comes from Japan and Abu Dhabi.  A conflict over land last year led to the establishment in November 2014 of a Kooki land board in the local government, in defiance of Baganda claims on Kooki lands.  And talk of independence had been swirling since Kabumbuli II’s swearing in of his new cabinet in September 2014, usually followed by official denials that Kooki were planning a secession.  Most bizarrely, Ganda–Kooki relations had deteriorated to such a point that the Kamuswaga felt the need to deny to the press accusations that Kooki were cannibals and, less slanderously, that they ate rats.

The royal Kamuswaga of the Kooki nation denying,
in a November 2014 press conference, that his people were rat-eaters.
Uganda has also been plagued by territorial conflict between the Rwenzururu and Toro kingdoms in the southwest of the country, demands by the Ankole and Songora for restoration of their monarchies, and separatist stirrings among the non-monarchical Acholi of the north, homeland of the dreaded Lord’s Resistance Army

An official portrait of the Kooki monarch
(If Kooki people did, one way or another, secede from Uganda itself, it would risk confusion among outsiders with the identically-pronounced Kuki nation in far-eastern India, some of whom seek to secede from Manipur as a separate state within India and some of whom wish to merge with the related Mizo, Chin, Lushai, Hmar, and Naga peoples (sometimes called collectively Zo) to create a vast, independent Kukiland or Zale’n-gam republic straddling what is now India’s border with Burma (Myanmar).  As discussed earlier in this blog, some Mizos and Kukis in particular identify themselves as descendants of ancient Israel’s Tribe of Manasseh, with kindred traditions, customs, and lore—a claim which has been bolstered by the investigations of folklorists and has even been accepted by the Israeli government, which has allowed thousands of these “Mizoram Jews” to settle in the West Bank and elsewhere.)

Uganda’s Kooki are no relation to the Jewish-identified Kuki people of eastern India.
There has not yet been a firm Baganda reaction to the Kooki declaration.  There is significance to the borders and divisions among Uganda’s kingdoms not only because kingdoms have authority over local land distribution but because many foresee a day when Uganda might break up along these very borders.  In fact, perhaps the most strident separatist movement is Buganda itself.  With the capital, the vast center of the national territory, and the very essence of Ugandan national identity, the departure of the Ganda from the lopsided union would mean the collapse of Uganda itself.  Then we might see lethal chaos of the sort that has plagued adjacent countries in what is clearly the most dangerous neighborhood in the world: the Democratic Republic of the CongoSouth Sudan, and Rwanda.  Many have been waiting for the provocation that might spark just such a civil war.  The Kooki declaration is probably not that spark.  But it adds to the tension—stoking Baganda discontent with the current order, inspiring other kingdoms with their own latent grievances, and perhaps bringing a day of division a little closer.

Apollo Sansa Kabumbuli II with his consort, H.R.H. Omugo Rebecca Talituuka
[You can read more about Uganda’s kingdoms and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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