NAIROBI, Sept 14 – In the space of a month, Yoweri Museveni’s 23-year-old grip on Uganda appears to have been rattled by deadly riots and the return of a major rival.
What started Thursday as protests by supporters of an influential traditional ruler, the king of the Buganda, degenerated into street battles between rioters and security forces that have left at least 14 people dead.
The Baganda are the people of Buganda, a powerful pre-colonial kingdom in the south of the country that resisted the British when they invaded, and which gave its name to present-day Uganda.
What rights groups described as excessive use of force by the east African state’s security apparatus against the country’s largest ethnic group could cost Uganda’s veteran strongman dearly in the 2011 polls, observers warned.
"The war between Buganda and president Museveni can only have one winner and could easily tear the country apart," warned The Monitor, a pro-opposition newspaper.
"Unless checked, this stand-off could have genuine repercussions on voting patterns in the 2011 polls, or even on national stability," the paper said.
The Baganda have always had great political and economic clout in the south, the country’s most prosperous and developed region.
Oppressed under all the northern presidents after independence — Milton Obote, Idi Amin Dada, Tito Okello — the Baganda had found a ready ally in Museveni, a southerner from the minority Banyankole group.
In a carefully calculated move, Museveni in 1993 symbolically restored the kingdom of Buganda, placing it under the authority of the federal government.
"Museveni’s reward for restoring the monarchy has been unfettered support from Buganda in the 1996, 2001 and 2006 polls," The Monitor said.
Over the past two years, however, the idyll soured as many Bagandans sought to free themselves from Museveni’s control and oil discoveries fueled regional aspirations across the country.
According to a recent Baganda manifesto, the king’s subjects have recently felt betrayed by "an autocratic government that tries to monopolise the resources" of their native lands and stoked ethnic discord.
Last week’s violence erupted when the regime barred the king from visiting an area controlled by a much smaller tribe that has recently received government backing.
Benson Obua-Ogwal, a northern MP who was involved in organising the return to Uganda of a senior opposition figure, Olara Otunnu, said the latest events were further "evidence that Museveni has been very deliberate in his divide-and-rule strategy."
"The way things are going, the government has probably lost Buganda now. It seems it has shot itself in the foot," Obua-Ogwal, also a leading member of the opposition Uganda People’s Congress, told AFP.
The rare political riots came three weeks after Olara Otunnu, a former foreign minister and seasoned diplomat exiled since Museveni’s 1986 coup, made a high-profile return many saw as a serious challenge on the presidency.
"The general climate in Uganda is very tense … This regime is very nervous, it’s currently at its lowest point," said Obua-Ogwal.
In his stand-off with King Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, the reigning Bagandan monarch, Museveni seems to be going in for strong-arm tactics and has said he intends to push through a new law defining traditional kingdoms as mere "cultural institutions".
The president, a former guerrilla fighter, issued a clear warning to Baganda representatives, reminding them that his movement "fought many battles; we shall win this one also".