The confrontation between Uganda government security forces and the royal guards of the Rwenzururu King Mumbere, near the border with the DR Congo last weekend, was unusually ferocious – even by Uganda’s standards.
Several of the victims were stripped, their hands bound behind their backs, before they were executed. A huge pile of dead bodies was placed in front of the king’s palace like a horror exhibition.
Female workers at the king’s palace were stripped naked, and paraded with their hands roped behind their backs.
The king himself, in a shabby state, was carted away by security officers, towed by the waistband of his pants like a street pickpocket.
In the end, nearly 100 people on both sides had been butchered.
However, the bloody violence tells a bigger story. Whichever of the accounts of the violence is true doesn’t matter in the end.
If the royal guards struck first, then the fact that a traditional kingdom, even one with a long history of grievance against the central government like the Rwenzururu, could be so angry as to attack the symbols of the state with such fury, suggests that its compact with Uganda has broken badly.
If, as Rwenzururu supporters say, an increasingly paranoid government attacked the palace to dissuade it once and for all from being troublesome, and to send a message to the other “kingdoms,” then its brutality shows a final collapse of its ability to have its way by civil methods.
This scenario could play out with varying degrees of disaster across the region.
In Burundi and South Sudan, which have been embroiled in their own internecine wars, there have been warnings of possible genocide.
In Ethiopia, the demons born of long repression and marginalisation broke loose. In protests and violence that have claimed over 600 lives in the past year in the Oromo and later Amhara, regions, the same searing fury has been on display.
There is a sense in which this response of radicalised marginalised groups is Africa’s “Trump moment.” They are the equivalent of the nativist rage and rebellion against the elite that led to the recent election of Donald Trump, a fascist, as president of the US, the election of a deranged Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, or even the rejection by Colombians in a referendum of a peace deal to end 52 years of war with Farc guerrillas.
However, here, it seems a rejection of the centre will not lead to the election of a Trump, but to a challenge to the patchwork that is our post-colonial states.
To their credit, our ruling classes actually understand what is at stake. That it is no longer just regime change, but the whole edifice of states.
The house, of course, doesn’t have to come down. Some countries like Kenya, where term limits – or Tanzania, where there is a dominant party whose rules mandate internal term limits – ensure that there will be a leadership overhaul at least every 10 years, have a safety valve that allows them to make or fake change.
But where you have long-ruling parties, and in Uganda’s case a long-ruling leader, and no limits, you can’t pull such political rabbits out of the hat.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]