Mutebi, Ronald 1956–
Ronald Mutebi 1956–
King of Buganda
The life story of Ronald Muwenda Mutebi has sometimes been characterized as a reverse Coming to America tale, in reference to the 1988 Eddie Murphy film in which an African king undergoes drastic culture shock when he visits the West. The son of the deposed king of the Buganda, Uganda’s largest ethnic group, Mutebi spent much of his life in England, and even worked as a window salesperson for a time. Mutebi returned to Uganda in 1987, and six years later was crowned the 36th Kabaka (king) of Buganda. The complex, tradition-rich ceremony marked the restoration of the ancient Ugandan kingdom 25 years after it and several others were technically abolished. Despite his years abroad and somewhat prosaic life, Mutebi asserted that he had always expected to fulfill his predestined duty. “Even though I had grown up in exile, I’d been brought up with the notion that I was my father’s heir and that this role was something I would eventually do,” he told Tim Carrington in a 1994 Wall Street Journal article.
Born in 1956, Mutebi is the son of Kabaka Sir Edward Mutesa, also known as King Freddy. The Bugandan royal house, which ruled over the 52 clans of the Bugandan people, enjoyed a tremendous position of power in Uganda. It was a rich, stable, and highly bureaucratized organization when the British arrived in the country in 1862 during the rule of Mutebi’s great-grandfather. Sensing an opportunity to conquer a longtime rival, the neighboring Bunyoro kingdom, Mutebi’s ancestor petitioned Britain’s Queen Victoria for military help in order to subdue the Bunyoro. The clash would have a generations-long impact on Uganda. In 1893, Uganda was formally created as a British protectorate, and the Bugandan administrative system was implemented across the entire country. This led to lingering social and political resentment.
In 1953, a dispute arose between King Freddy and Uganda’s British governor. The king was eventually ousted. “Exiled to England, King Freddy became a sportsman and a playboy, with a cool, classy presence reminiscent of Miles Davis,” wrote New York Times Magazine writer Alex Shoumatoff. King Freddy returned two years later as a constitutional monarch, and when Uganda won its independence from the British Empire in 1962, Mutebi’s father became the country’s first president, a largely ceremonial post. The kingdom
At a Glance…
Born 1956 in Uganda; son of Kabaka Sir Edward Mutesa (King Freddy); married Sylvia Nagginda Luswata (a public relations specialist), August, 1999; children: Junju. Education: Attended Bradfield College, Cambridge University.
Career: Worked as a double-glazing salesperson and freelance writer in England in the 1970s and 1980s; returned to Uganda from exile, 1987; crowned 36th Kabaka (King) of Buganda, 1993–.
Addresses: Office —Royal Palace, Kampala, Uganda.
of Buganda itself, however, still enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. By this time, a young Ronald Mutebi had been sent to boarding school in England.
The new prime minister of Uganda, A. Milton Obote, was not of the Bugandan ethnic group, and a power struggle erupted between the Bugandan elite and the ruling government. In 1966, Uganda adopted a new constitution that abolished all tribal kingdoms. The conflict between the government and King Freddy escalated, and the royal Bugandan palace was stormed by soldiers led by Obote’s army commander, General Idi Amin. Mutebi’s father jumped over a palace wall, managed to find a taxicab, and made his way to England. Three years later, King Freddy died in a shabby London apartment, possibly poisoned by rivals. In 1971, Amin overthrew Obote in a military coup, and several years of dictatorship and murderous human-rights violations followed.
During this time, Mutebi studied at North London Polytechnic, then spent time at Bradfield College, part of the Cambridge university system. For a time, he even sold double thermopane windows door to door and, in the 1980s, occasionally contributed articles to a Nigerian magazine. Amin was overthrown in 1979, and Obote returned to power. However, he was ousted in a 1986 uprising led by Yoweri Museveni. The following year, Mutebi returned from his long exile and took up residence in a newly stabilized Uganda.
Mutebi visited President Museveni in 1992, and urged restoration of the ancient Bugandan kingdom, at least in a ceremonial sense. Four other kingdoms were also allowed to resume leadership of their respective ethnic groups. Mutebi was crowned on July 31, 1993, in a lavish ceremony that re-created many of the traditional rites, except for an archaic practice of human sacrifice. He visited his father’s preserved umbilical cord in a temple, touched the neck of a white cow with a ceremonial spear, and wore genuine leopard skin and shawls made from bark. The event was the focus of jubilant festivities throughout the Bugandan region of Uganda. Many exiles returned for the celebrations for the first time in a generation.
As a condition of his royal status, Mutebi is prohibited from becoming involved in political matters. His actual role is to utilize ethnic pride and a sense of destiny to shape Uganda’s future. This includes using his position to generate support for various issues, such as halting the deforestation of Uganda and other environmental problems. “The more enlightened African governments in the 1990s have found, that rather than uproot ancient cultures, why not work hand in hand with them?” Mutebi explained to the Wall Street Journal’s Carrington. “A blending of ancient and modern is the only way Africa will progress.”
In Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, Mutebi enjoys a much different life than the one he led in England. He has three palaces, and income from Bugandan lands ensures his financial security. One of his most important tasks is to settle clan disputes. Because there was no tribal leadership in Uganda for 30 years, Mutebi and other Ugandan monarchs were presented with a backlog of petitions.
Facing pressure to marry and produce an heir, Mutebi—already the parent of one son, whom he had fathered with a Rwandan woman—wed 35–year-old Sylvia Nagginda Luswata, a British-born Ugandan woman, in August of 1999. Luswata, who is not of the Bugandan ethnic group, had resided in the United States since her teens and was a graduate of New York University. She had worked for both the World Bank and the United Nations. The marriage of Mutebi and Luswata was marked by nationwide celebrations. Foreign correspondents in Kampala interviewed many Bugandans who were extremely optimistic about the continuation of the ancient royal line, which New York Times writer Ian Fisher described as “more than the usual cultural desire for an heir. It is rooted in the long troubles of Uganda and the desire of the people here to see the nation go on now that those troubles are gone.”
Economist, December 19, 1998, p. 79.
New York Times, August 28, 1999.
New York Times Magazine, October 17, 1993, p. 24.
Time International September 13, 1999, p. 41.
Wall Street Journal, December 19, 1994, pp. Al, A6.
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