KAMPALA, UGANDA — While exiled in Britain during Uganda's civil war, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi hopped from job to job. First he was a glass salesman. Then he tried freelance journalism. But when the war ended, he was able to return home to inherit the job he was born into, that of kabaka, ruler of Uganda's Buganda kingdom.
Mr. Mutebi's coronation in 1993 fulfilled a promise made by President Yoweri Museveni to restore Uganda's once-abolished monarchies, albeit with some changes. While the old kingdoms were semiautonomous rivals, constantly competing with the government for power, the new ones were to be constitutional monarchies that concerned themselves only with cultural issues.
However, the Buganda people, the largest of Uganda's four kingdoms, appears to have become a major political force once again. And this resurrection has prompted some people to wonder if African democracies, such as Uganda, can successfully contain traditional institutions under modern political systems. While skeptics say the kingdoms are outdated creations that fuel political instability, others say they are an important part of African history that must be cherished.
"Each Buganda belongs to a clan, and every clan has a strong relationship with the king," says Kabaka Mutebi. "It is a cultural and historical bond that cannot be uprooted."
The kingdoms existed long before Uganda was colonized by the British a century ago. By collaborating with the colonizers, Buganda enhanced its supremacy in relation to the other monarchies. After independence in 1962, Buganda maintained its authority and the kabaka even gained the right to veto federal legislation. This proved too much for Milton Obote's military regime, which abolished all kingdoms in 1966.
Now in exile in Zambia, Mr. Obote played a pivotal role in the May presidential election. In an attempt to win votes in the north, where the former military dictator maintains support, opposition candidate Paul Ssemogerere vowed, if elected, to bring Obote back to Uganda.
But in making such a promise, Mr. Ssemogerere underestimated the power of the Buganda.
"He lost the 5-million-strong Buganda vote," says Apolo Nsibambi, a professor at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. "It was Obote who abolished the kingdoms, and there is still a lot of Obote-phobia in Buganda.''
Although not publicly supporting any one candidate in Uganda's first presidential election, the kabaka did urge his people to register to vote.
The Buganda people threw their support behind incumbent President Yoweri Museveni, who won a landslide victory. And in the subsequent parliamentary elections, Buganda clan leaders told voters to support candidates who pledged to protect the Buganda heritage.
The monarchy's shift toward a more active role in Uganda's political affairs prompted Mr. Nsibambi to resign earlier this year from his post as minister of constitutional affairs in the kabaka's cabinet. Still, Nsibambi remains a staunch believer in the importance of the kingdoms.
"The kabaka is a source of traditional authority," he says. "When Obote destroyed the kingdoms, he destroyed our sense of unity and made Uganda more tribalistic.'' Only one kingdom has not reinstalled its monarch.
Others, especially younger Ugandans, are less convinced. "Most of my friends don't care," says twentysomething George Mugambe. "It's the old people who want to preserve them.''
Some people from other kingdoms also worry about the power of the Buganda. "As long as the kingdoms remain cultural, I have no problems," says Balu Tarubo, who is from southwestern Ancholi.
"But I think the monarchies, especially Buganda, are used for political gains and exist primarily to benefit those close to the king," he says.
As far as politics are concerned, Uganda's constitution is clear: The kingdoms must stay out. Even the kabaka admits that he has a fine line to tread.
"Whatever we do, it is bound to cause some friction," he says.