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The cause of Muslim wrangles in Uganda – and the possible remedies


Summary: For most of their 180-year history the Muslims of Uganda have been fighting each other. Remedies that fall short of replacing the community’s secular Constitution with a Sharia-based one, or fail to acknowledge the Buganda factor in leadership shall come to naught.

Author Biography: Badru Kateregga is Professor of Islamic Studies and Vice Chancellor of Kampala University.

Ugandan Muslims live with one another as brothers and sisters. They worship the same Allah and seek to be the people of God, yet they seldom listen to one another in matters of their leadership. As a Muslim it would be unreal of me not to be concerned with the incessant Muslim wrangles in the country.

Muslim wrangles have existed in Uganda and particularly in Buganda since Islam arrived around 1823 (Northern Uganda) and 1844 (Buganda) to the present day (August 2012). Of these 180 years of Islam in the East African country, 136 years have been characterized by conflicts and wrangles with short interludes of peace, unity and stability.

This intra-faith dispute was worsened by minor differences in the interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith (teachings of the Prophet). The different approaches used in the spread of Islam created divisions in the Muslim community, for instance, the Ahmad ibn Ibrahim’s group that came from the East African Coast and arrived during the era of Kabaka Suuna II hardly agreed with the 1876 group of Muslims that came from Egypt and Sudan, as we shall elaborate later.

This clash led to the execution of about 200 Muslims at the orders of Kabaka Mutesa I, a so-called Muslim, who refereed to them as rebellious. He also expelled Muslims from the palace, sparing only his step brother, Nuhu Mbogo. This bloodbath produced the first batch of Muslim martyrs – the forgotten martyrs – slaughtered at Namugongo by Mukajanga who, 10 years later, also murdered Christians at the same place.

Causes of Muslim wrangles

The causes of Muslim conflicts in Uganda can be traced from the historical perspective to the current issues, and for purposes of this presentation I will articulate and document the causes in a chronological order.

The spread of Islam

First and foremost, the manner and method of the spread of Islam led to conflicts. Unlike Christianity that was spread by the missionaries, Islam was spread by traders on a voluntary basis, some of whom lacked knowledge. This disorganization has persisted to present day.

The misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the Quran by the sheikhs equally caused problems. For example, the Zanzibaris allowed the Kabaka (King of Buganda) to lead prayers as a sign of tolerance and respect even when he wasn’t circumcised (in Buganda tradition the body of the Kabaka isn’t supposed to shed blood). However, this was opposed by the Egyptian-Sudanese radicals who insisted that the Kabaka must be circumcised.

They also argued that the mosque of the monarch faced the wrong direction (not the direction of the Kaaba – Qibla). This sparked off the conflict that led to the slaughter of Muslims at Namugongo.

Arrival of Christianity

There was a short interval of 32 years between the advent of Islam and the arrival o Christian missionaries (the Church Missionary Society arrived in 1877 while the Roman Catholics came in 1879). Since the missionaries were the forerunners to colonialism, they worked hand in hand with the colonialists to hold back Islam at all levels, creating conflicts between the Muslims on the one hand and the imperialists and their agents on the other.

Matters became worse when the British colonial administration left the control of education – a tool for development – entirely in the hands of the Church. Thus the Muslims couldn’t send their children to school, which served as conversion centers. For instance, Yusuf Lule who converted to Christianity while at school remains a vivid example in Muslim minds.

The products of these colonial-aided missionary schools ended up taking all formal jobs, leaving their Muslim counterparts to live as third class citizens – choppers of wood, butchers and taxi drives. They had no skills to talk about. In this marginalized and disgruntled section of the population, there was bound be a social source of conflict.

The colonialists further gave land to the chiefs and missionaries, leaving out the Muslims. In the 1990 Buganda Agreement, the Muslims were allocated only one county – Butambala – which was very small and dry. This discrimination denied Muslims the source of wealth, socio-economic development and created socio-economic imbalances that gave rise to ill-feeling toward their countrymen and governments.

Besides, the colonialists found the Muslims divided and did nothing to unite them. The theological conflict between Badru Kakungulu and Sheikh Abdullah Ssekimwany, for instance, went on unabated. The colonialists said that their duty was to throw Islam back to the Sudan and they only tolerated it because they only found it here.

Post colonial era

The situation of Islam didn’t change appreciably during the post-colonial era since those who inherited power were products of the colonial-missionary system. They brought no dramatic changes in Muslim-Christian or Muslim-government relations.

The NAAM versus Kibuli in 1965

A group of Muslim elite supported by the Uganda Peoples Congress government formed the National Association for the Advancement of Muslims (NAAM) based at Wandegeya. Sheikh Swaibu Ssemakula, who was a senior cleric at the Uganda Muslim Community of Kibuli, crossed to the NAAM and was declared the first Mufti of Uganda. Akbar Adoko Nyekon, a cousin to the executive premier Milton Obote, became the President of NAAM, deputized by Sheikh Obeid Kamulegeya.

Important to note is that although NAAM’s aim was to promote Islam, it used government patronage to seize mosques belonging to Kibuli. This resulted into bloody clashes between the two factions in Kajara, Ntungamo District.

Amin’s era and the formation of the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council

In 1971, Idi Amin overthrew Obote in a coup and assumed power. One of his earliest tasks was to redress the religious imbalances created by the colonial and post-colonial regimes. He formed the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, or UMSC, following a religious conference at Kabale. He forced all existing Muslim factions to form the Council with its headquarters at Fort Lugard, Old Kampala. Amin, most strikingly, gave the Council a secular Constitution that was prepared by Solicitor General Mukambo Mugerwa. The Muslim factions had no input whatsoever.

Sheikh Abdulrazak Matovu was consequently elected Chief Qadhi and Sheikh Islam Ali Kulumba became his deputy. It should be noted that the NAAM faction came out of the Conference victorious, having taken all posts except that of Deputy Chief Qadhi, which Amin personally requested for Kibuli.  As founder of the UMSC, the head of state controlled the operation of the organization, appointing and dismissing leaders at will.

Amin, for instance, dismissed Chief Qadhi Abdul Razak Matovu on allegations of incompetence and sent his successor Sheikh Silman Matovu on forced leave because of ill-health that resulted from a planned motor accident. The UMSC thus remained without top leadership until the fall of Amin in 1979. The military leader had placed the administration of the Muslim body in the hands of his secretary for defense, Col. Emilio Mondo, a non-Muslim.

The post-Amin era

Since the UMSC was Amin’s project, it almost collapsed with his departure in 1979. Paul Muwanga, the post-Amin minister of internal affairs, requested Prince Badru Kakungulu for a possible Muslim leader, paving way for the appointment of Sheikh Kassim Mulumba as interim Mufti. He was supposed to serve for six months.

Unfortunately, Sheikh Mulumba exceeded his term and prompted the stakeholders to elect a parallel UMSC administration in a 1980 Assembly that took place at Makerere University.

The Makerere Assembly elected Sheikh Obeid Kamulegeya as the rival Mufti and Prince Badru Kakungulu as Chairperson of the parallel leadership. Prince Kakukngulu later managed to convince the two competing muftis to bury their differences and work together in one administration. Thus Kamulegeya agreed to step down, and became deputy mufti under Mulumba.

This arrangement didn’t last for long. Sheikh Mulumba resigned under pressure from Sheikh Kamulegeya, leaving the latter as full mufti at Old Kampala. Mulumba, however, shortly after renewed his claim to muftiship and pitched camp at Masjid Noor on William Street. Mufti Kamulegeya used the police to drive his rival from William Street and confined him to a small mosque at Rubaga Road, popularly known as Kabalaza. Mulumba continued challenging the UMSC leadership from his Kabalaza base.

Tito Okello era (1985)

Following the 1985 coup by Tito Okello, Mulumba also mounted his own coup at Old Kampala against Sheikh Kamaulegeya. The January 1986 NRM takeover found the two rivals in Mecca trying to represent Uganda at the Muslim World League (RABITA) annual conference.

The Mecca Agreement

Reconciliation talks were held between the rivals in the holy city, resulting into the Mecca Agreement after successive Ugandan governments had failed to solve Muslim wrangles. These governments had instead interfered in Muslim affairs, exploiting factional differences for political advantage. The purpose of the Mecca Agreement was to unite the two warring factions represented by Sheikh Mulumba and Sheikh Kamulegeya.

It was agreed that the two muftis step down and an interim Chief Qadhi be elected. Accordingly, Sheikh Rajab Kakooza was elected Chief Qadhi, deputized by Sheikh Ibrahim Saad Luwemba.

A Constitutional Review Commission was set up to revise the 1972 Muslim Constitution. Elections were later held right from village mosques up to the UMSC General Assembly. Eventually Sheikh Luwemba was elected mufti, deputized by Sheikh Muhammad Ssemakula.

But the supporters of Sheikh Kakooza allied with the Tabligh (Salafi) group to prevent Sheikh Luwemba from accessing the Agha Khan Mosque, which then housed the UMSC headquarters. Luwemba and his group retreated to Rubaga Road and then took their rivals to Court. Luwemba won the case and was consequently installed as Mufti of Uganda in 1991.

As soon as Court declared Luwemba mufti, the Tabligh attacked Old Kampala. It took the combined effort of mobile and military police to round up and detain the attackers. Some of them spent close to three years in prison.

Following this bloody confrontation, a unity conference was organized. Invited by President Museveni, delegates from member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and other international organizations met in Uganda to explore possible solutions to the crisis in the UMSC. The Government of Uganda was represented by six persons, namely; Prof. George W. Kanyeihamba as the chairman, Hajat Anuna Omar, Hon. Gertrude Njuba, Eng. Salvano Katama, Mr. Ralph Ocan and Prof. Bardu Kateregga.

A meeting was convened in Kampala and later in Mbarara in 1993 (the Mbarara Proclamation) and resolved to drop both Sheikh Kakooza and Sheikh Luwemba. These were to be replaced by Sheikh Ahmad Mukasa and Sheikh Zubair Kayongo as mufti and deputy mufti, respectively. Both came from the Kibuli faction. However, President Museveni rejected the elections, arguing that he expected the Assembly to make recommendations; not to elect new leaders.

The swearing-in ceremony that was supposed to be held at Clock Tower was thus stopped by the then Vice President Samson Kisekka. The new leaders were nevertheless sworn in at Wandegeya Mosque and established their base at Kibuli.

Mufti Shaban Mubajje

Sheikh Luwemba’s death in 1997 paved way for fresh elections in 2000 since his deputy, Sheikh Muhammad Ssemkaula, was too old to cling to power. Various forces representing different interests contended for leadership. For instance, Kibuli fronted Sheikh Kakooza for mufti and businessman Hassan Basajjabalaba for chairman. However, Sheikh Mubbaje, having mobilized a lot of support from everywhere except in Buganda, emerged the winner.

Sheikh Twaibu Mukuye from the Luwemba group became deputy mufti, Ahmad Adrama from Northern Uganda was elected chairman and Basajjabalala of the Kibuli faction became vice chairman. However, 10 sheikhs from Kibuli led by Zubair Kayongo immediately denounced the election of Mubajje and vowed never to be loyal to him. Sheikh Kamulegeya was inclusive as the mastermind of the protests against the administration of Mubajje.

The short honeymoon

The first eight years of Mubajje’s reign constitute the longest period of unity in the history of the Muslim community in Uganda, and that was 2000 – 2008. This unity could have lasted longer if only the issue of property had been handled technically, professionally and ethically by the stakeholders at Old Kampala.

This brings us to the important question of operating a religious organization using a secular law (CAP 110) where the mufti doubles as General Manager. A manager of a company can sue and be sued, as it has happened in the UMSC history. It is therefore important that we separate management from spiritual leadership in order to avoid the embarrassment of the mufti appearing in Court to answer charges of misappropriation.

There is also the problem of politicization of religion and religionalisation of politics. The factions within the Muslim community normally make religion an avenue to achieve political scores and, at the same time, make politics as a channel to achieve their religious ambitions.

The way forward

In efforts to solve Muslim conflicts, the Muslims have used both internal and external approaches right from the colonial era to present day, but no concrete solution has been found. Ugandan Muslims have often blamed much of their failures on government interference. As discussed in the history of these wrangles, solutions have either been short-lived or have come to naught.

Therefore, in an attempt to forge the way forward, I wish to make it crystal clear that since all odds have been defied by the crisis in Muslim leadership in this country, the wrangles may be reduced or controlled in the following ways:

Constitutional review

As I argued earlier, the Muslims need to establish a constitutional review committee for restructuring their Constitution. The UMSC is registered and managed by a secular law under CAP 110 of the Companies Act. The committee should review and come up with a constitution that is Sharia-based, but practical and applicable in a multi-religious Uganda.

Federal arrangement

The most common cause of Muslim wrangles is based on property rights and ownership, as witnessed in the current conflict between Old Kampala and Kibuli. As a solution, the Muslims need to introduce a federal arrangement (in the proposed new constitution) so that each group manages its properties, even though it may pay allegiance to the UMSC.

Buganda factor in Islam

It’s a historical fact that Islam was first introduced to Uganda through the Buganda Kingdom. And it’s equally true that two kings of Buganda – Kabaka Mutesa I (1856 – 1884) and Kabaka Kalema Nuhu (1888 – 1889) – established Islam as a state religion in Buganda. It was also the Baganda converts who spread Islam to the rest of Uganda. Therefore, the tendency of using preponderance of numbers to eliminate the Baganda Muslims from leadership should be stopped.

The Baganda contributions and roles to Islam should be appreciated in the same way the Baganda should appreciate the contribution of other tribes. Islamic teachings emphasize consensus and not democracy. So the views of the minority are as important as those of the majority. There’s need for mutual respect if we are to solve these wrangles.

Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU)

As an impartial and umbrella body of faith-based organizations, the IRCU could be invited to provide a platform on which we can borrow a leaf from our sister religious organizations like the Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, among others. It’s even more interesting that the IRCU has launched a peace institute to forge solutions to religious conflicts in Uganda.

Separating spiritual leadership from management and fixing of term limits

In case of a reviewed constitution, issues of accountability, transparency and unethical behavior should be incorporated in the Constitution. Spiritual leadership should be separated from management. Term limits should be imposed on the office of the mufti instead of the current 75-year age limit.

Equally necessary is the establishment of a Muslim think tank, which would be crucial in seeking for solutions to conflicts.

Dialogue: Here the players relate with one another to bring about mutual enrichment without necessarily removing fundamental differences.

A National Muslim Elder’s Forum should be constituted from different groups to help in mediation.  

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation can similarly be sought as a mediator.

Involve the youth and women given their numerical strength. These groups should equally be empowered with religious knowledge to play more useful roles.

Advanced leadership training institute for sheikhs should be established to enhance their leadership skills.

Establish a Muslim Peace Council to promote peaceful relations and harmonious coexistence.

True faith in Islam: Muslim leaders should avoid pretence and avoid putting personal interests ahead of community interests.

Professionalism in property management: separate management from spiritual leadership, employ competent and ethical staff and pay staff salaries promptly.

Consider Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms as opposed to the Courts of Law, which have failed to solve Muslim conflicts in the past.

Avoid legal contradictions. Muslims should refrain from using two contradicting legal systems at ago – the western legal system and the Sharia law. They should stick to the Sharia in handling their conflicts.


It should be noted that conflicts are part of humanity and regardless of their intensity, they are never insurmountable. Much as solutions have been attempted to address conflicts in Muslim leadership in Uganda, we shouldn’t be daunted to continue applying Muslim solutions to Muslim wrangles.

The factions involved in the wrangles are so much taken up by their side of the story that they do not want to listen to the views from the other sides, however plausible they may be. Yet, the conflicting sides have no strategy or clear solution to their wrangles.

Much as Muslims should try to find their own solutions, they can still seek for external solutions. That’s why the Tripartite Committee comprising of the Government, Old Kampala and Kibuli groups should be given chance to contribute to finding solutions. Its success will depend on the seriousness of the parties involved.

Prof. Kateregga presented this paper to the Uganda Muslim Youth Assembly Ramadan Seminar on Sunday 12, August 2012, at Kibuli Primary Teachers College in Kampala.


0 #1 Nsereko Muhammad.M. 2017-01-23 17:54
May Allah bless you brother professor Kateregga.
It is really amazing for every sound mind Muslim not to know this information about the History of Islamic wrangles in Uganda.
I for one started an organization known as SOCIETY FOR UNION OF MUSLIMS AND EMPOWERMENT(SUM AE) and it is fully registered and incoorperated but it has come to my minds that I need to meet you for more information personaly
0 #2 Nsereko Muhammad.M. 2017-01-23 18:03
The problem of "politicization of religion and religionalisati on of politics". Ths a reality I agree that we need exactly to put a big gap between Religious matters and Politics, Spiritual leaders and Managment
0 #3 Nsereko Muhammad.M. 2017-01-23 18:06
Seperate western constitution from Shariah Law is very important and to set set the Term limit should be considered
-1 #4 Nsereko Muhammad.M. 2017-01-23 18:08
There is need for traing youth leadership and get them involved in administrative issues
0 #5 Abbas 2020-08-13 12:40
The formation of NAAM evolved from a process which started in Makkah and had back and forth interactions involving Kibuli UMC and others. It is not just a sitting at Wandegeya. It will be nice to read all those details.