The return of Rwenzururu; the kingdom of the hills

Saturday November 14 2009
mago sub 2 pix

A royal gift fit for the president: King Mumbere gives President Museveni a ceremonial spear after the government of Uganda officially recognised the Rwenzururu Kingdom. Photo/ABBEY SANKARA

Interest in the Rwenzori mountains dates back to ancient Greek’s attempt to explain the source of River Nile.

Greek philosopher and teacher Plato thought there could be a mountain to provide a fountainhead for the Nile.

He hazarded a name: The Mountains of the Moon.

The region’s inhabitants, the Bakonzo, call it Rwenzururu (the snow mountain or that which bears snow).

The Bakonzo also claim to be the natural curators of the Rwenzori Mountain Ranges, now a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site.

Described as sturdy and short, the Bakonzo have lived on the Rwenzori Mountains as long as they can remember.


Free men (and women), they are masters of the mountainous terrain as a strategic retreat from the hazards of the lower lands, such as disease and war.

The lower lands were only good for hunting big game in what is now Queen Elizabeth National Park, and for fishing in Lake Edward and Lake George.

The fertile mountain soils and temperate climate were good for cultivation and an escape from malaria, locust invasions and the rampaging Luo-Bito conquest.

Their survival of the Luo invasion is signified by the fact that the Bakonzo are the only people in Western Uganda who do not share the legend of the Batembuzi, the Bachwezi and the Luo-Bito overrule.

Lhukonzo, their language, does not share any similarities with dialects associated with the Luo-Bito heritage like Runyankore, Rutooro, Runyoro and Ruhaya (Tanzania).

All that freedom ended with a new kind of over-rule: British colonialism.

The British colonialists seem to have appreciated the difference cultural heritages between “the mountain people” and their neighbours of the Luo-Bito heritage.

Even the seminal “arrangement” Capt. Fredrick Lugard entered into with King Kasagama of the Toro Kingdom in 1892 was very clear: These parts were not under the jurisdiction of Kasagama.

When Uganda was declared a British Protectorate, the counties of Bwamba (now Bundibugyo district) and Busongora (Kasese district) bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo were not part of the Toro Kingdom.

However, it seemed to have been expedient for the British colonial administration that these parts be administered by Toro.

That is how the Bakonzo were conquered and became subjects of the Luo-Bito over-rule of the Tooro Kingdom.

Fast forward: On October 19 this year, the Rwenzururu Kingdom celebrated the 43rd coronation anniversary of its second king.

During the ceremony, President Yoweri Museveni announced the official central government recognition of the kingdom and King Mumbere as its king.

Without a tradition of centralised polities, the only way one can appreciate a kingdom among the mountain people is perhaps to say that it came out of the blue. But with official government recognition, it is now legal and a constitutional reality.

Yet it is not that simple: It has come a long way.

A mountain people, the Bakonzo have no evidence of tradition or scholarly documentation of an overlord who ruled over the entire community.

So, what is the justification for the creation and consequent recognition of the Rwenzururu Kingdom?

The only legitimate argument can be found in the Kinyarwanda proverb: I’ngoma s’Umwami, n’Abagabo (the throne is but the men, not the king).

In other words, the people want it as a vehicle for expressing their “collective identity and destiny.”

Yet the enthusiasm with which the people demanded government recognition of the kingdom was not a mere identity and destiny rhetoric; it has some historical basis.

The contemporary history of Bakonzo is the story of a struggle for national identity and destiny manifested in the resistance of Toro’s over-rule.

The Kingdom of Toro was a creation of the British colonial administration as strategic response to the Bunyoro Kingdom’s resistance to colonialism.

It started as a confederacy of five counties namely Mwenge, Kyaka, Kitagwenda, Kitagweta, Nyakabimba and Tooro Proper.

Indeed, a clause in the Toro Agreement (between the British colonialists and the Toro Kingdom) clearly says that areas bordering the Congo Free State (DR Congo now) were “to be administered by the principal European official placed in civil charge of the Toro District.”

In 1893, the Bakonzo-Bamba chiefs expressed open hostility for Toro over-rule as captured in the journal entry of one of the colonial officials.

While in Toro, Roddy Owen took Kasagama on a tour with him to Fort George in the south.

The local chiefs asserted their independence from Toro and their hostility to Kasagama while swearing direct allegiance to the British regime, according to Edward I. Steinhart, in Conflict and Collaboration of the Kingdoms of Western Uganda (Fountain Publishers, 1999).

This incident represents perhaps one of the first recorded attempts by the Bakonzo at preserving their identity.

“In March 1902, an attempt was made by the county chief Petero Tigwezire, to collect hut tax in Bwamba, which was still effectively ruled by its own local headmen. The attempt was met with armed resistance. Eleven men were killed, with Tigwezire returning to Fort Portal to call for a punitive expedition against the tax refusers in Bwamba. The resident commissioner refused to act, agreeing with the Bamba in seeing the alleged tax collection as an unjustified raid for ivory against a people who did not recognise Toro’s right to rule (Steinhart).

In 1921, clan leader Tibamwenda challenged the legitimacy of the Toro rule over the mountain people.

He was attacked and captured. Later, Tibamwenda and his aides Kapoli and Nyamutswa were killed and buried in a single grave at Kagando in Kisinga sub county.

These killings seemed to have resulted in a lull in the challenge of the Toro authority over the mountain areas. Until 1961.

By 1955, it was generally accepted that British colonial rule would end soon.

This can be deduced from some policy actions that attempted to correct what were viewed as historical mistakes.

So, the colonial administration leaned on the Toro authorities to have mountain areas represented in the Rukurato (the kingdom’s parliament) by universal suffrage. Hitherto, there were no Bakonzo and Bamba in the Orukurato.

In 1961, there were elections to the Orukurato in which 21 Bakonzo and Bamba councillors were returned.

One of those councillors was an “angry” former teacher called Isaya Mukirania.

He represented Harugali East in Bwamba County (now Bundibugyo district).

Mukirania’s anger derived from a letter he had received from the district education officer in 1954.

“This is to acknowledge receipt of your request for early retirement. I have consequently been directed to inform you that your request has been received, reviewed and accepted,” read the letter.

Of course Mukirania had not requested for early retirement.

He was just being dismissed in a clever way.

A grade one teaching certificate holder, he was one of the highly educated Bakonzo at the time and destined for a bigger leadership role.

The letter did not come as a surprise as he is said to have questioned the wisdom of teaching Rutooro in predominantly Bakonzo areas.

In the Orukurato, the 21 Bakonzo councillors found an opportunity to make a case for their people.

They demanded that: The Toro Agreement, the constitutional basis for British rule over Tooro Kingdom, be revised to include and recognise the existence of three main native communities, namely the Batooro, the Bakonzo and the Bamba in Toro Kingdom; while in the Orukurato, the Bakonzo and Bamba be allowed to debate in their native languages.

In the Orukurato, Isaya Mukirania was a member of the constitutional committee charged with the collection of views that would be incorporated in Uganda’s Independence Constitution.

In the committee, Mukirania proposed that the kingdom’s prime minister be appointed in a rotational arrangement among the Batooro, Bakonzo and Bamba communities. To this, the Toro Kingdom retorted: “We are all Batooro, but only a Mutooro nyakabara [pure Mutooro] can hold the office of the prime minister.”

In a special Rukurato session of February 13, 1962, called to review the work of the constitutional committee, Mukirania’s idea of a rotational prime minister was defeated.

The 21 Bakonzo councillors led by Mukirania stormed out of the Orukurato in protest.

For the act of “disrespectfully” storming out of the Rukurato, Mukirania, Yeremia Kawamara and Petero Mupalya were later arrested and charged with disrespect for the King of Toro.

Mukirania is said to have made annoying (actually treasonable) remarks on the floor of parliament challenging the authority of the Toro Kingdom over the mountain areas.

Since the speaker of the Orukurato held the office on behalf of the king, Mukirania and his group were accused of challenging the authority of the king.

The trio were sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment.

They appealed and were released on bail. Mukirania jumped bail and ran off to the Rwenzori Mountains where he declared war on the Tooro Kingdom — and by extension the government of Uganda — under the banner of the Rwenzururu United Freedom Movement.

The objective of the movement was clear: Separate district status for the mountain areas of Toro Kingdom.

Spurred on by the popularity of the armed struggle, Mukirania declared a Rwenzururu Republic on June 30, 1962 with himself as president.

This was a clear attempt at cession.

Tom Stacey, a British journalist, was engaged by Prime Minister Milton Obote to talk “his old friend” out of the idea of seceding from Uganda and lay down arms.

Stacey has captured his interaction with the Rwenzururu armed rebellion, republic and kingdom in Tribe: The Unknown Secret of the Mountains of the Moon.

However, Mukirania later realised that the concept of a republic would not go down well with the peasant population in the mountains.

So, on June 30 1964, the Ab’Issemalhambo (landlords) who also happened to be clan leaders agreed to transform the republic into a kingdom: Rwenzururu United Kingdom. “United” represented the union of the Bamba (another minority in the mountain areas) and the Bakonzo, in DR Congo invariably called Bandandi.

“And in the dead of night … Isaya Mukirania was installed as the first monarch of Rwenzururu United Kingdom. He took the honorific moniker of Kibanzanga (I dare),” says Yolamu Mulima.

Mulima, one of the first Bakonzo youths to enlist in the armed struggle in 1961, is now a respected Mukonzo elder, having served in various positions in the kingdom.

Mukirania’s reign did not last long.

He died on September 2, 1966 and was succeeded by his son Charles Wesley Mumbere, who was installed on October 19, 1966.

Mumbere took the honorific Iremangoma (Ruler Overlord).

In the first years of Obote II, the Uganda government engaged King Mumbere leading to the agreement that reintegrated the Rwenzururu United Kingdom into Uganda.

And since the Constitution then did not provide for kingdoms, Rwenzururu was officially disbanded on August 15, 1982 at a colourful ceremony in Kasese.

The government gave King Mumbere a bus, a private saloon car, two commercial buildings and a residence as a resettlement package. Mumbere was also given a special government scholarship to the US where he lived as an ordinary citizen.

In 1992, a law to recognise kingdoms (and their leaders) abolished in 1966, and the creation of new ones, where the people so wished was passed.

Since the enactment of the law, King Mumbere has been lobbying the government to recognise his kingdom.

His request was granted on October 19, when President Museveni declared official government recognition of the Rwenzururu kingdom.