What you need to know:
- President Uhuru and King Mutebi was that both their fathers, Mzee Jomo and King Freddie Mutesa, were the first Presidents of our countries.
- Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Raila’s dad, was quite probably a student contemporary of Mutesa at Makerere.
- Raila Odinga once paid Mutebi a well-publicised courtesy visit at his Mengo Palace in Kampala.
Last week, Kenya received a very important visitor. His Majesty Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, King of the Baganda of Uganda, was seen in the media calling on President Uhuru Kenyatta, at State House, and later, on Special Envoy Raila Odinga. I will not regale you with details of these high profile encounters, for two reasons.
The first is my monumental ignorance of and incompetence with matters political. Secondly, although I am a musajja wa Kabaka (man of the King) born and bred, I am not quite a fanatical royalist. I acknowledge and respect monarchies, including my own Kiganda one, from my safe commoner and peasant distance.
Still, in my incessant search for connections, especially of the East African kind, I was fascinated by these tête-à-têtes between Mutebi and our Kenyan leaders. The first link to leap to my mind between President Uhuru and King Mutebi was that both their fathers, Mzee Jomo and King Freddie Mutesa, were the first Presidents of our countries. Talking of fathers, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Raila’s dad, was quite probably a student contemporary of Mutesa at Makerere.
In any case, the three men are old time acquaintances, as Mutebi was, in his pre-coronation days, a frequent visitor to Kenya and, indeed, had long spells of residence in Nairobi.
Raila Odinga once paid Mutebi a well-publicised courtesy visit at his Mengo Palace in Kampala. Sources have even pointed out that the King takes his annual leave regularly around this time of year, and he had already planned for Kenya, intending to take in the spectacle of the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara.
What, however, is particularly striking about Mutebi’s current Kenya visit is its timing and his publicly (if not “officially”) taking in the two arguably most influential personalities in the country. I will go easy on speculation, as there is already enough of that, including some outrageously weird versions of it, especially in Kampala. We can, however, go by two plausible hypotheses.
The first is that the King’s cross-border travel in these Covid-19 times was known and sanctioned by both Ugandan and Kenyan authorities. Indeed, Mutebi recently collected his new diplomatic East African e-passport from Uganda’ Ministry of Internal Affairs, where he made a rare personal appearance.
My second, rather obvious, hypothesis is that there is more to the King’s visit than the mere sight of a myriad migrating gnus.
As a student of culture, I will go by Kenya’s State House tweet of August 21. It stated that the Head of State and the visiting cultural leader had “discussed subjects of mutual interest, among them the central role of culture in regional integration and peaceful communal co-existence.” That is a whale of an agenda, and even simply unpacking it would require a sizeable dissertation.
Let us, however, briefly share three interrelated thoughts inspired by these remarkable encounters. These are, first, the growing mutual confidence between the indigenous cultural leaders and the new-style political rulers.
Secondly, I believe that the confidence is the result of the reshaping of both the politicians and the cultural leaders. My third thought is that the centrality of culture in society is gaining increasing recognition in our region.
Regarding the mutual confidence and trust, it would have been almost unthinkable, even a few years back, that a Ugandan “cultural leader” (the official title for personalities like Mutebi) would publicly meet and discuss public issues with politicians anywhere. King Mutebi is not even a “constitutional monarch”, as some reports have called him.
That experiment was tried out in the early years of Uganda’s independence, with Apollo Milton Obote as Prime Minister and Kabaka Sir Edward Mutesa, Mutebi’s father, as constitutional President. It failed miserably, leading to Obote’s ousting of Mutesa in a coup in 1966, and the subsequent abolition of all Uganda’s ancient kingdoms in 1967. Mutesa, in his book of that title, described his ouster as The Desecration of My Kingdom.
The kingdoms were only cautiously and partly restored by the currently ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) in the 1990s, on the strict condition that they would keep off politics. Seen against this background, the Kabaka’s reception by Uhuru and Raila, apparently with Uganda’s awareness, is a significant signal of the growing trust between the politicians and the traditional leaders. But this trust has not been sudden or fortuitous. Rather, it is a stage in a long two-pronged process of transformation among both the politicians and the indigenous leaders.
On the one hand, the politicians are gradually shedding their anxieties about not being fully accepted and obeyed by the populace, despite their powers of the vote and the enforcement instruments.
On the other hand, traditional leaders, like King Mutebi, have learnt not to cling to the “semi-divine” assumptions of their predecessors, which invested them with the tremendous authority and influence they commanded among their subjects.
After all, Mutebi, a charming and affable gentleman, spent most of his early life in Uganda and England as a “commoner”. There was no kingdom for him over which to reign, until the restoration just under thirty years ago. He knows both sides of the coin, and this gives him acceptability to both the common people and the new political elite.
Finally and most importantly, I am encouraged by the growing realisation of our leaders of all shades of the important role of culture in our existence and growth as a society. This is what we have been saying all along, that culture is the very fabric out of which society is woven. This, of course, means culture in its essential sense of the way in which we identify, regulate, sustain and express ourselves.
I will leave the last word to “Baba” Raila Odinga, our Special Envoy to the African Union. He said he was pleased to host the Kabaka “and exchange views on historical, cultural, educational and trade ties that bind East Africans.”
Adding to this would be a dilution.