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AFRICA : Ugandans Make Room for Royalty

July 31, 1993|TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KAMPALA, Uganda — Young Prince Ronald was away at an English prep school when his father, King Edward Mutesa II, was dethroned, stripped of his vast Ugandan land holdings and exiled to Britain. Now, after biding his time for more than two decades, the 38-year-old royal heir has returned to reclaim his ancestral kingdom.

After one false start, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II is expected to be crowned today the 36th kabaka (king) of Buganda, homeland of the Baganda people. His coronation will be a largely symbolic restoration of the dynasty that ruled Uganda's most powerful kingdom for nearly six centuries.

While other African nations are turning to democracy, Uganda is reviving its traditional monarchies in a nostalgic mood that supporters say will ease tribal and ethnic tensions. For many Bagandans, Uganda's largest ethnic group, the kabaka represents a return to civility after the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin and former President Milton Obote.

"We have endured years of oppressive regimes," said Charles Peter Mayiga, administrative secretary of the national Bagandan council. "Now the country will settle down because one reason for all the chaos and bloodletting was the forceful abolition of the institutions in which people have thrived."

Besides Buganda, monarchs from three other former kingdoms will be crowned in the near future. But it is unlikely that the future kings will ever wield the absolute power of their predecessors.

President Yoweri Museveni, who agreed to reinstitute Uganda's four kingdoms largely to appease the powerful Bagandan constituency, has said the new monarch will not play any political role. The royal duties, he said, will be limited to cultural matters, like promoting local languages and looking after historical sites.

But even that is a step too far for Ugandans who believe kings have no place in a modern democracy. They say that bringing back the kingdoms will reignite old tribal rivalries and foster ethnic separatism.

Their concerns appear to be well founded. In western Uganda, a dispute has already broken out between one of the new kingdoms and villagers who do not want to be included in its boundaries.

Still, there are many clamoring for the monarchy's return. Royalism has been especially popular in Buganda. It enjoyed an especially privileged status until the arrival of the British colonialists. Bagandan rulers used their standing to expand their territory and influence at the expense of rivals.

Even after independence in 1962, they retained tremendous power. They had authority to veto legislation and invoked that right, leaving the central government hopelessly deadlocked.

But in 1966, Obote abolished the kingdoms. His armies destroyed the Bagandan royal palace; Mutebi was left in exile. It wasn't until decades later that Museveni came to power and agreed to re-establish the kingdoms.

It has been a long road to the throne for Mutebi, the Cambridge-educated royal heir who once sold glass panes door-to-door in a London suburb. In May, opponents won a high court injunction blocking his coronation on grounds it was unconstitutional. That forced the government to pass a bill reversing its dissolution of the monarchy.

Earlier this month, Mutebi cleared a seemingly final hurdle when Parliament amended the constitution to allow the new king to reclaim royal properties that had been confiscated.

Still, Mutebi has one final challenge ahead of him--that of finding a wife. For although he likes to quote the local saying that "the kabaka is husband of all Bagandan women," Mutebi's bachelor status has reportedly been frowned upon by elders.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how the new monarchs will finance their royal lifestyle. The government appears dead-set against letting them tax their subjects. But Bagandans have put such worries aside for the moment, choosing to focus on preparations for the coronation.

With just a few days left, construction crews worked furiously to put the finishing touches on a circular house of papyrus reeds where Mutebi will be bathed on coronation day.

But workers' efforts were hampered by the thousands of people making the pilgrimage to the sacred hilltop at Buddo, just outside Kampala, where the ceremony will take place.

Many simply wanted to touch the gnarled trunk of the massive mboneredde tree where the ancient kabaka s once held court at a shaded clearing.

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