Once, in western Uganda, lay the Kingdom of Bunyoro which at its time was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Central and East Africa from the 13th to the 19th century.
An extensive and prestigious kingdom―its people are known as the Banyoro or Nyoro (and Munyoro for singular)―Bunyoro was blessed with strong rulers whose words were highly respected by their subjects.
Historically, the kingdom (or Bunyoro-Kitara) was started after the collapse of the Kitara Empire in the 16th century by the Abatembuzi who were succeeded by the Bachwezi (Chwezi). Areas of Lake Victoria, Lake Edward, and Lake Albert were all under the control of this kingdom which occupied areas of Kabarole, Kasese, Kibaale, Hoima, and Masindi districts, and some parts of Eastern Congo, Northern Tanzania, and Western Kenya. The kingdom was not only large but very powerful and well organized.
At the height of its strength, this once-thriving kingdom was forced to engage in a long and bitter standoff against colonialism; this resistance spearheaded by the man known as Kabalega.
The Man Kabalega
Born Chwa II Kabalega (June 18, 1853–April 6, 1923), the charismatic figure was the Omukama (or king) of Bunyoro who ruled from 1869 to 1899, and was the last great king of one of the greatest kingdoms in the Great Lakes region and Africa.
Kabalega ascended the throne, after the death of his father, at the age of 16 as the 23rd Omukama from the Babiito Dynasty. Upon ascension to the throne, he chose the throne name ‘CHWA II’ after Omukama CHWA 1 Ente-Nkore Rumoma-Mahanga, whose stories are said to have inspired him as a child.
As king, Kabalega saw to a historic revival of his kingdom, led his people to several victories which helped them reclaim lost territories, and increased food production and cattle rearing. At his time, Bunyoro was the centre of iron smelting, had the Kibiro Salt Works, and was an important centre for trade.
Kabalega was a war genius who fiercely resisted western encroachment and attempts to colonize his kingdom and region in a nine-year war against British forces. In June 1872, he defeated Sir Samuel Baker’s troops at Masindi, frustrating Baker’s attempt to annex Bunyoro and the entire Lake Victoria region for the equatorial province of Egypt.
At the peak of the British offensive on Bunyoro, Kabalega went into hiding in Acholi and from there, consistently led the “Nyangire” rebellion which proved a great problem to the colonial power. For five years, Kabalega was able to successfully fight off the British, who had enlisted help from other countries such as Somalia and Nubia.
At the height of resistance, on April 9, 1899, Kabalega was shot, wounded in the arm and captured alongside Kabaka Mwanga II (who at that point was allied to him), by Andereya Luwandagga and Semei Kakungulu―two Baganda military generals collaborating with the British.
Subsequently, he was sent into exile; first to Kismayu and later the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean for 24 years, while his son Kitahimbwa―having little power as the kingdom was administered nearly directly by the colonial authority―was appointed king.
After being granted permission to return home, Kabalega died in Jinja on April 6, 1923 on his way back to Bunyoro from exile.
Kabalega: Tyrant or hero?
Various articles/publications written on the king have often portrayed Kabalega as a villain. However, many today gainsay their claims, and point out that Kabalega was indeed a hero.
According to New Vision, the “Sunday Vision magazine of June 15 insinuated that Omukama Kabalega of Bunyoro Kitara might have been a villain!”. This position it maintains “is misleading and unfair and was an insult to the Banyoro”, and adds that “his 23-year incarceration, after a nine-year war against the British forces in which he was shot and lost an arm, and where over two million Banyoro were killed, not to mention the total destruction of his country, makes him an African worth of praise”.
Monitor, on its own part, writes that “If truth is the first casualty of war, then the real story of Omukama Kabalega is one of the first and most enduring casualties of the wars that brought colonialism to Uganda”, while also noting that “the imperial war was, of course, won by the colonialists and it is their account of the war that has, for over 100 years, shaped the narrative, including cementing the reputation that Kabalega was a tyrannical leader who destroyed his kingdom in his attempt to resist the “progress” of colonialism”.
To bring to light other achievements of Kabalega, it should be pointed out that the King oversaw an age of advancement in science and innovation. According to the medical missionary R.W. Felkin, in 1879, Kabalega’s Bunyoro was the only place in the world where the cesarean section was performed to save both mother and baby. In other places, he notes, the mother’s life was sacrificed for the child. Also, during his reign, Bunyoro discovered a cure for sleeping sickness, which its citizens used to be immunized against endemic syphilis which was introduced by the British.
In a previous article, we wrote of the lawsuit which the King’s grandson, instituted against the British, for their colonial terrorism against Omukama Kabalega Of Bunyoro, and the people of Bunyoro. Rukirabasaija Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I, the omukama of Bunyoro, in a statement about the terrorism of the British in his kingdom, said that:
“The British burned down houses, destroyed crops and introduced syphilis to my people,” the king said. “They were responsible for the deaths of 2.4 million people. Moreover, they stole my grandfather’s cattle and ivory. It is not what we expected from civilized people. What they did then is no different to what al-Qa’eda is doing today,” he added.
Although history tried to forget him―and failed, the story of Kabalega is well told today. In 1972, President Idi Amin renamed Murchison Falls and the national game park of the same name after Kabalega, though this was later reversed. Under President Yoweri Museveni’s leadership, in 2009, Kabalega was declared a national hero of Uganda.
Furthermore, in 2010, the most honorable ‘Order of Omukama Chwa II Kabalega’ was founded in honor of Kabalega. Kabalega continues to be an inspirational figure for Ugandans and Africans at large.
(By Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo)
SOURCES OF AUTHOR’S INFORMATION
Monitor. (2012, April 10). Kabalega: The king history tried to forget – and failed. Retrieved June 13, 2020 from Monitor: https://www.monitor.co.ug/SpecialReports/ugandaat50/1370466-1383478-14dx9su/index.html
Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom. (2018, July 16). Omukama Kabalega – Full Biography. Retrieved June 13, 2020 from Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom: https://bunyorokitarakingdom.org/2018/07/16/omukama-kabalega-full-biography/
Miirima, H. F. (2006, July 10). Omukama Kabalega was a hero. Retrieved June 13, 2020, from New Vision: https://www.newvision.co.ug/news/1145036/omukama-kabalega-hero