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The military factor in the downfall of Buganda


ARTICLE SUMMARY: The colonial establishment did everything to keep Buganda at the top, giving her the best schools, the best jobs and lucrative cash crops. But the British barred the Baganda (and the Bantu in general) from the military, a profession that was restricted to the illiterate children of the North. It is this military imbalance that changed the balance of power in 1966, sending Buganda to political limbo from which it has never resurrected.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY: Yahya Sseremba is the publisher of The Campus Journal current affairs website.

For their collaboration with the imperialists the people of Buganda occupied a privileged position throughout the colonial era. Their region received the best schools, hospitals and roads. Their sons took the best jobs, including serving as administrators throughout the protectorate. Their peasants pioneered the growing of cash crops, generating an income that elevated their standard of living. There was however one no-go-area for the Baganda and the Bantu people in general, an area that was to turn the lords of yesterday into the underdogs of today. And that was the military.

The colonial government mounted a divide-and-rule policy that produced what historian Samwiri Karugire has called an “ethnically unbalanced” armed force, restricting military recruitment to the Northern tribes of Acholi and Langi and to some extent the peoples of the West Nile. The South was made to concentrate on agriculture whose revenue ran the colonial government.

The colonialists, according to Karugire (2003), justified this ethnic polarization on grounds that the tribes of the North were naturally martial and soldierly given their “strong physique, stamina, speed of reaction and upright bearing.”[1]

Historians have however roundly dismissed this supposition, contending that the Bantu tribes of the South have a history of military distinction that has no comparison in the North. Karugire notes:

Buganda had attained her commanding position in the intercustrine region because of her military prowess and her well regulated political control of her fighting men. Bunyoro had fought the Egyptian expansionists, and then the British and her local allies for some two decades, largely because of her sophisticated military organization. The other kingdoms, to a lesser degree to be sure, had built up their fighting capacities, and this is what had enabled them to control relatively larger populations that nay that had expiated in any of the northern communities. None of these southern communities had any need to have recourse to the employment of the northern warrior tribes as Grahame calls them.[2]

Having convincingly dismissed the colonial argument that the northern communities had a superior military physical and psychological orientation, historians have gone ahead to explain the real reason why the military profession was restricted to the Northerners. Iain Grahame, a British commander in the colonial army known as the King’s African Riffle, admits that the colonial establishment could not tolerate an army of educated and enlightened Southern tribes, which would be difficult to control and manipulate:

…Since the policy in the army, during the fifty seven years of its existence, had always been to enlist from the northern tribes, almost the entire cream of the force was composed of the most backward people in the country… It is only fair to stress that at this stage we ourselves were prejudiced against the Bantu southerners. Many of them seemed, paradoxically, too educated and with the experience of the Mau Mau fresh in our minds, we had an understandable dread of “barrack-room lawyers” and other political agitators. So much for “warrior” of “martial” traditions![3]

It is this northern-dominated military that post-independence politicians from the north would exploit to assume dictatorial powers. With an armed force constituted by his tribesmen, Executive Prime Minister Milton Obote needed a lot of restraint to survive the temptation of grabbing power for himself. To monopolize power he accelerated the colonial policy of building an “ethically unbalanced” army, as a Member of Parliament laments:

…when they (recruiting teams) go to the north, they spend two or three months recruiting, but when they come to Kampala, they spend here one day and they recruit mainly those whom they have directed to come to Kampala because they failed to recruit them in the north. When they go to Masaka, they spend half a day to recruit only about three people – two of them probably those Northern people who are living in Buganda. When they go to Mbarara, they spend half a day to recruit only three people…[4]

If the colonial and post-colonial governments kept the Baganda and the Bantu in general away from the military, the Bantu equally showed little enthusiasm to join the military. In fact, the Baganda seem to have developed a belief that the army was a profession for the less privileged and the failures in life. Buganda did not try to use the influence it had over the British to advocate for a representation in the military.

It is also clear that whereas the Baganda had attained military excellence in pre-colonial era, they had by independence forgotten and largely abandoned their military tradition. This was evident following the attack on the Lubiri (Kabaka’s palace) in 1966. Far from mounting a rebellion, which had great chances of succeeding given the presence of a popular cause, the Kabaka fled to exile where he starved and died.

The Kabaka adopted a defeatist mentality, claiming that his people stood no chance against Obote’s forces. He says, “I had thought at first of trying to raise a force, but discarded the idea as impossible. I would rally all my most loyal subjects only to have them shot.”[5]

This remark shows how the Baganda had been demilitarized and demoralized and how their fighting tradition had given way to cowardice and despair. Obote’s force, being ill-trained, ill-equipped and illiterate, could not have been insurmountable especially by a monarch who had undergone military training in Britain, whose international contacts would have brought him arms, and whose people were willing to sacrifice their wealth and lives for their him. In fact, 20 years later, a much weaker, little-known Munyankore guerilla known as Yoweri Museveni would exploit anti-Obote sentiments in Buganda to launch a five-year rebellion that shattered the Northern grip on power.

Buganda’s failure to join the military is first and foremost blamed on the British policy of divide and rule. But the Baganda equally take a portion of the blame for allowing the British to completely take to pieces their fighting spirit to the extent that they could not pick up arms when their kingdom was desecrated by a ragtag force.

The Baganda later played a key role in the war that propelled the National Resistance Army (NRA) to power. But they did so merely as followers, not as leaders, and after victory their share of the spoils could not exceed their status before victory. There was one Muganda who attempted to form a fighting force with the aim of capturing power, but he didn’t receive the kind of support that his tribesmen gave to his NRA rivals.

Museveni’s National Resistance Movement proceeded to build a military that was equally ethnically-based, one dominated by people from western Uganda and on which the Baganda continue to have little influence. If they wish to change their humiliating political status, they will have to retrace their old military tradition. This will be the case even in the age of democracy in which their numerical advantage should have helped to propel them to the helm.

Numerical advantage alone is insufficient since the idea that power comes from the barrel of the gun has continued to dominate political contest even as democracy gains ground. In parts of the Muslim world, for instance in Egypt and Turkey, Islamists, despite winning elections, still find it virtually impossible to implement their Islamist agenda largely because they have little control over the secularized military. In Africa and in much of the world, the rule of the majority remains largely on paper.



[1] Samwiri Karugire, The Roots of Instability in Uganda. Fountain Publishers 2003, pp33

[2] Ibid pp33

[3] Ibid pp34

[4] Ibid pp 67

[5] Muteesa II, Desecration of My Kingdom. Constable 1967, pp18


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