The consequences of the triumph of religion over tradition in Buganda

The people of Buganda were under the control of clan heads (Bataka). The Kabaka was little more than primus inter pares – senior member among clan heads. However, by the 19th century, most of clan heads had lost their powers to the Kabaka who established supremacy beyond the original three counties (Busiro, Mawokota and Kyadondo) largely through the use of force. The Kabaka who became head of all clan heads exercised absolute rule.

However, no individual owned land. An individual could use land, pass it on to relatives but he could not separate his part from the kin system. Thus, the kin owned the land and the people used it. The 1900 Buganda Agreement changed all that tradition and replaced it with the landed gentry dominated by Christians that have controlled the political economy of Buganda – and of Uganda – since then.

The passing of Mutesa I in 1884 was accompanied by the struggle for power among Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and traditional chiefs. In the end the traditional chiefs and Kabaka Mwanga who opposed religious influence in his kingdom lost. Mwanga fled, was captured and died in exile. He was succeeded by an infant King Daudi Chwa. Power was exercised by three religious regents led by Katikkiro Apolo Kagwa of the Anglican Church. To consolidate their position, the regents collaborated with Sir Harry Johnston who drew up the 1900 Uganda Agreement that revolutionized Buganda politics, economy and society.

For the first time in Buganda history, land was transferred from the peasants (Bakopi) who used it under communal system to individual freehold without consultation or compensation. Half of the kingdom’s land that was unoccupied became Crown Land divided between the government and churches. The other half which was occupied was divided among the Kabaka, his relatives and some 4000 chiefs. Harry Johnston had wanted to allocate land to a few chiefs and leave sufficient land for peasants under the statutory Board of Trustees. This proposal was rejected by the new chiefs to maintain control over peasants.

Buganda was divided into 20 counties. Ten counties were allocated to Protestant chiefs; eight to Catholic chiefs and two to Muslim chiefs.

From the beginning of the Agreement the Bataka and Bakopi who lost their land complained all the way to the Colonial office in London. In his ruling the colonial Secretary L. S. Amery rebuked the three regents in very strong terms for misusing their powers in allocating land to the new owners. However, he noted that practical considerations made it impossible to reverse the decision. Compensation was denied not because there was no genuine case for it but because the sums involved were prohibitive, implying that should the financial situation improve clan chiefs and peasants should be compensated commensurately. Ipso facto, the matter was left open.

Although the Kabaka would continue to rule over his people, real power shifted to the cabinet of three ministers – Katikkiro (Prime Minister), Chief Justice and Treasurer – and Lukiko (Legislative Council) made up of Christian and Muslim members. The pagans were not represented. In the 1995 Namirembe Agreement, the Kabaka was reduced to a constitutional head and Kabaka Mutebi II was restored as a cultural head. Thus, although the institution has remained, the power of the Kabaka has been drastically reduced.

Besides religion triumphing over tradition, the 1900 Agreement introduced serious distortions and inequalities. The peasants who lost use of the land for their livelihood were also forced to pay taxes to the government and to the new landlords. This combination of deprivation impoverished peasants and increased inequality between them and landlords.

The Uganda Agreement gave Buganda a special status in Uganda. Buganda was designated a province whereas other kingdoms had a district status. The Kabaka was given the title of His Highness that gave him a special status vis-à-vis other kings.

The independence constitution merely transferred power from British officials to Uganda officials. Virtually everything else remained the same. The post-NRM federal system should correct all the distortions and inequalities not only in Buganda but also in the rest of the country to lay a solid foundation for unity, stability, justice and dignity for all Ugandans.

Eric Kashambuzi