KAMPALA, Uganda — The fire which burned down Uganda's Kasubi tombs, the revered burial place of four Bugandan kings, has ignited smoldering tensions between the country's Bagandan ethnic group and the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
The destruction of the historic site, on the outskirts of Kampala and the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Uganda, was met with dismay and anger across the country.
“The Kasubi Tombs are to Uganda as the pyramids are to Egypt”, said Lotani Kamiri, a Kampala restaurant owner, “... like the pyramids, the Kasubi Tombs are the burial place of kings.”
The Bugandan kingdom, which does not wield political power holds the allegiance of the Baganda people, Uganda's largest ethnic group that makes up 17 percent of Uganda's population of 32 million. The Bugandan kingdom dates back 600 years and is one of four historic kingdoms in Uganda.
Four Bugandan Kabakas (kings) are interred in the mausoleums, that were constructed about 150 years ago.
Tensions between the Buganda kingdom — headed by Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II — and the government of President Yoweri Museveni have increased in recent years. There has been friction over land and political power. The Bugandan Kabaka is limited to a ceremonial role overseeing traditional and cultural affairs but many see the Bugandan kingdom as a rival to the government.
Further increasing the tensions was the accusation by Museveni that the Buganda kingdom has received foreign funding to carry out a hate campaign against the government.
The Buganda territory covers a central part of Uganda. It is astride the equator and encompasses Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, the country’s largest airport in Entebbe, and shore of Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake which is also the world's second largest freshwater lake. The Buganda kingdom also includes the famed source of the Nile river, making the Baganda, one of Uganda's most influential ethnic groups.
The Kasubi tombs have been an important national tourist site and were valued at over $50 million, according to the Buganda kingdom.
“Government ... classifies the Kasubi Tombs as a National Cultural Tourism resource,” said the Minister for Tourism, Trade and Industry, Kahinda Otafiire.
Most importantly, many Baganda hold the Kasubi tombs with a reverence and respect that is almost spiritual in nature.
As the Kasubi tombs burned, Baganda people gathered at the site, wept and wailed in grief that was palpable even to non-Ugandans. However, as the fire was being put out, that grief turned to anger as rumors surfaced that the tombs were victims of arsonists, maybe even government authorized.
Though the rumors remain unsubstantiated, when government officials, including President Yoweri Museveni, went to view the remains, a protest ensued and grew into a riot. Three Ugandan men were killed, at least 3 were hospitalized, and car windshields were shattered, according to a statement issued at the Uganda Media Center.
“I am suspicious but I don’t know whether it was a deliberate act or an accident. Unfortunately these people have interfered with the scene of the crime because we would have been able to ascertain if it was intended arson. Government will see how it can assist in undoing the damage caused,” said Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, after his visit to the site.
In further response to the anger, Uganda’s government set up a national task force to coordinate reconstruction efforts of the national treasure.
Although Museveni's statement suggested arson, Kampala police and the Buganda kingdom are still investigating the cause of the fires.
During a closed-door, heated meeting of the Buganda cabinet, many continue to blame the Ugandan central government, according to reports in the Observer, a Kampala newspaper.
However, the Bugandan Kabaka Mutebi II and his council have yet to issue a public statement about the tomb fires, except to declare a period of mourning. They have asked that Baganda and sympathizers wear black clothing and for all the kingdom’s flags be flown at half-mast.
The U.S. embassy advised Americans to “avoid areas where demonstrations have occurred and seek shelter immediately if you should come upon demonstrations or large crowds ... based on previous city-wide demonstrations experienced in September 2009, traffic could be severely disrupted with little notice.”
In September of 2009, tension between the Ugandan government and the Bugandan kingdom overflowed into what is called the “Kabaka riots.” More than 30 people died in the three days of rioting that erupted after the Ugandan government blocked the Kabaka from visiting a remote part of his kingdom.
With last year’s eruption in mind, Fred Opolot, director of the Uganda Media Center, called upon all Ugandans to “support police in their investigations and government appeals for calm.”
Editor's note: This dispatch as been updated to correct a spelling mistake.