World News Fall of the mountain kingOne year after a massacre in Uganda, a king faces trialE

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Wednesday, 03 January 2018

Fall of the mountain kingOne year after a massacre in Uganda, a king faces trial

More than 100 people died when police and soldiers raided a royal compound. Who was to blame?

THE palace gates are locked, but the bullet holes remain. It is a year since the Ugandan army and police raided the compound of the Rwenzururu king in the western town of Kasese. More than 100 people were killed, the bloodiest incident in the country for more than a decade. The king, Charles Wesley Mumbere, and nearly 200 people were arrested; they still await trial, on charges including murder, terrorism and treason. “The situation is only calm on the surface,” says Geoffrey Madebeya, a local councillor. “Inside, we have tears.”

The Bakonzo people, the main ethnic group in Kasese, straddle the vertiginous borderland between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Rwenzori mountains. It is here, the Ugandan government alleges, that Bakonzo radicals want to carve out an independent kingdom. The king denies this, but people in these parts have long felt marginalised by the state. Deadly violence erupted in 2014 after groups of young Bakonzo men attacked police and army posts. On November 26th 2016, the day before the palace raid, at least 40 civilians and 16 police officers died in clashes at the kingdom’s offices and rural police stations.


King Mumbere once led a state of sorts, founded by his secessionist father. From its mountain base the unrecognised kingdom collected taxes, ran schools and sent hopeful letters to the United Nations. In 1982 Mr Mumbere came down from the hills, trading dreams of statehood for a house, some cars and a scholarship to study in America. The kingdom was restored in 2009, but only as a “cultural institution” that is meant to rise above politics.

Yet politics is inescapable. The kingdom’s supporters lean towards the opposition. The government tried to buy them off, luring the king’s brother with a cabinet post. But pumping out patronage may have fed ethnic divisions. “The Bakonzo people have taken our land,” complains Nelson Byabasaija, who belongs to an ethnic minority. Other groups soon demanded their own kingdoms, saying they wanted to be free from Bakonzo domination.

Cultural politics are especially intense in Kasese, but the region is not unique. The Ugandan nation was thrown together from a jumble of pre-colonial kingdoms and decentralised societies. Traditional institutions were abolished after independence. They have made a comeback under Yoweri Museveni, the president, though he worries about their power.

In Kasese there has been no investigation into the massacre. Peter Elwelu, the commander in charge that day, has been promoted. Maria Burnett of Human Rights Watch says the killings illustrate the “entrenched impunity” of Mr Museveni’s regime. Chapter Four, a Ugandan human-rights group, says three people have been killed by the security forces in recent months. A fourth was shot on the anniversary of the raid.

In 1921 the British suppressed the first Bakonzo rebellion by hanging three of its leaders. The state has chosen force over reconciliation ever since. That approach does not work, says a local clan leader. “It may take time for the violence to return,” he says. “But as long as the king is not free, it will come.”

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline "Fall of the mountain king"
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