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NATIONAL LANGUAGE: How Luganda lost to Kiswahili


ARTICLE SUMMARY: Buganda was allowed a privileged position during colonial rule, but the colonialists preferred Kiswahili to Luganda as a lingua franca. This was one of the earliest signs that the political dominance of Buganda faced an uncertain future.

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

The history and status of Buganda should have made Luganda the natural national language of Uganda. Before and after the beginning of colonial rule in the late 19th Century, Buganda was the only bull in the kraal of what came to be known as Uganda. The British enhanced this status by empowering the people of the kingdom with schools, cash crops and administrative posts. But the colonial administration could not prefer Luganda to Kiswahili when it thought about a national language.

The British favored Kiswahili even though it faced strong opposition and indeed open hostility from the two most powerful players then after the government: the Kabaka and the Church.

The Churches – Protestant and Catholic alike – wanted Luganda for no reason but because they hated Kiswahili, which they associated with Islam. Islam had been introduced to Uganda by the Arabs and their Waswahili associates from the East African Coast. This history linked Kiswahili in this part of the world to Islam, a religion with which Christianity shares a past of rivalry, hostility and even war. In the eyes of the paranoid Christians, the elevation of Kiswahili to the status of national language would translate into the same status for Islam. Mazrui (1995) quotes Bishop Tucker:

Mackay… was very desirous of hastening the time when one language should dominate Central Africa, and that language, he hoped and believed, would be Swahili…That there should be one language for central Africa is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but God forbid it should be Swahili. English? Yes! But Swahili, never. The one means the bible and protestant Christianity – the other Mohammedanism…sensuality, moral and physical degradation, and ruin… Swahili is too closely related to Mohammedanism to be welcome in any mission field in Central Africa.[i]

Besides linking Kiswahili to Islam, the Christians reasoned that native languages were more suitable for evangelism in their respective areas than a lingua franca. Mazrui notes, “A lingua franca was deemed unfit to reach the innermost thoughts of those undergoing the conversion to Christianity”. It was argued that a child needed to be educated first in his native language in order to comprehend. [ii]

The Christian opposition to Kiswahili was significant in the sense the Church controlled the schools, which were supposed to teach the language. 

The second front of opposition to Kiswahili was led by Kabaka Chwa II, the Buganda monarch who could not simply watch as an ‘alien’ language supplanted his native language. Buganda’s opposition was equally significant in the sense that the monarchy enjoyed a special relationship with the British colonialists. The British had come to Buganda at the invitation of a Buganda king and had substantially relied on the support of the kingdom to subdue other parts of the colony. It would therefore indicate a degree of ungratefulness and even betrayal on the side of the British to empower Kiswahili at the expense of Luganda. A newspaper quotes the Kabaka’s 1929 memorandum making his protest against Kiswahili clear:

I feel however that it is my duty to add here in conclusion, that it is quite unnecessary to adopt the Ki-Swahili language as the official native language of the Baganda in place of, or at the place of, their own language…[iii]

Despite this determined opposition to Kiswahili, the British went ahead and promoted it with a view of imposing it as the national language. In his 1927 memorandum, the development of Ki-Swahili as an Educational and Administrative Language in the Uganda Protectorate, Governor Sir WF Gowers strongly recommended:

Kiswahili should be adopted as the lingua franca throughout a considerable part of this Protectorate…for purposes of native education in elementary schools, and on the lines adopted in Tanganyika...Kiswahili is the only vernacular language in East Africa which can provide in the long-run anything but an educational cul-de-sac, in Uganda as in Kenya and Tanganyika...[iv]

Consequently, Kiswahili was taught and imposed as the lingua franca in vast parts of Eastern Province, Northern Province, and West Nile. Three factors could have motivated the British to prefer Kiswahili to Luganda. One could have been Kiswahili's wider usage in the East African region. The British inclination toward Kiswahili was possibly inspired by their dream of creating an East African federation.  Secondly, the colonialists didn’t consider the Kiswahili-Islam link a threat enough since the Muslim population was too small to turn the tables on the Christians. Where the Muslim population and influence was substantial, for instance in Buganda, Kiswahili was not imposed though it was taught as an additional language to Luganda.

The third and most enduring factor was the hostility of Bunyoro and the North toward Luganda. Bunyoro had suffered a great deal at the hands of Buganda. It has lost vast territories to Buganda both before after the advent of the colonialists. The British conquest of Bunyoro, though it would ultimately have come to pass with or without the help of Buganda, was greatly facilitated by the military contribution of Buganda. For this contribution Buganda was rewarded with parts of Bunyoro territory. Bunyoro’s opposition to Buganda and Luganda was therefore understandable.

When the opportunity to vote for a national language came in 1973, the Banyoro joined the Nilotics of the North in voting overwhelmingly for Kiswahili and against Luganda.

For its part the North has always been hostile to everything south, especially Buganda, owing in part to the British colonial policy of divide and rule. The Northerners had always looked at the south with jealousy, thanks to the schools, hospitals and roads that the colonial government concentrated in the region, especially in the Central. This bitterness would later drive the Northern-dominated army to brutalize southern communities after independence.

This widespread opposition towards Luganda could not have motivated the colonial government to favour Luganda as a national language. The colonial behavior of promoting Kiswahili had far reaching implications for Luganda and Buganda influence in general. By the 1953 when the British abandoned the Swahilisation campaign, Kiswahili had become the language of the armed forces,including the army which has since 1966 played a central role in the political management of Uganda.

Following independence the Swahilisation campaign gained new momentum.In 1973, twelve districts would vote for Kiswahili as the national language as opposed to only eight, which voted for Luganda. The results prompted then president, Idi Amin, to declare Kiswahili as the national language on 7, August 1973.[v]

Whereas Amin didn’t enforce Kiswahili as the national language, his decree was undoubtedly a blow to Luganda.  Since no subsequent government has repealed this decree, it follows that Kiswahili is the national language of Uganda.

President Museveni’s government has even gone as far as declaring – albeit without enforcing – the teaching of Kiswahili compulsory in schools. In practice there are more people speaking Luganda among various ethnic groups compared to Kiswahili since the latter has had about 150 years of spreading. The large scale spread of Luganda dates back to the religious wars of the late 19th Century in Buganda, which forced Muslims to disperse in various parts of the country. The movement of the Baganda Muslims went hand in hand with the introduction of Luganda wherever they settled, including in parts of Ankole where the word Muslim became synonymous with Muganda.

The use of the Buganda model of administration and its Baganda chiefs during colonial era further spread Luganda far and wide. Despite this near-universality of Luganda, government policy has consistently favored Kiswahili. To the Baganda this is part of the jealousy and resentment that members of other tribes, who have composed government since 1966, harbour against Buganda. But to others Kiswahili would suppress the tribal sentiments likely to rise from the adoption of an indigenous language as a national language.

As the movement towards an East African Federation registers more steps, the support for Kiswahili is likely to multiply and fortify.



[i]Ali Al’Amin Mazrui, Swahili State and Society: The Political Economy of an African Language. East African Publishers 1995, p53.

[ii]Ibid., pp54

[iii]P.H. Gulliver, Tradition and Transition in East Africa: Studies of the Tribal Element in the Modern Era. University of California Press (1969, pp.118)

[iv]Ali Al’Amin Mazrui, p.56.

[v]Viera PAWLIKOVÁ-VILHANOVÁ, Swahili and the Dilemma of Ugandan Language Policy, Asian and African Studies, 5, 1995, 2, 158-170



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0 #1 kwizera lwanfizi 2013-10-31 11:02
Buganda should have swallowed their pride
nevertheless one ought to understand that
language grows as need arises
0 #2 Nakisanze Segawa 2015-08-24 10:25
Dear Sseremba,

Well as i find your articles engaging, i can't help but to think that you are one of the few self hating Baganda.

There is nothing worse than talking badly about your own people.
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