FORT PORTAL, Uganda — When a lanky Ugandan teenager recently took charge of one of his country’s oldest tribal kingdoms it was difficult to tell how the young monarch felt about the job he’d inherited.
Eighteen-year-old Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV technically became the king of western Uganda’s Tooro kingdom at age 3, when his father died suddenly of a heart attack.
But Tooro custom dictates that a king cannot fully assume the duties of office until adulthood.
So, a few days after his 18th birthday, with the ice-capped Rwenzori mountains in the distant background, Oyo’s enthusiastic subjects crammed into the garden of his hilltop palace to witness a coming-of-age ceremony attended by tribal leaders from across Africa and Uganda’s political elite, including President Yoweri Museveni.
Some guests, the distinguished ones seated on the raised platform adjacent to the palace door, wore nothing but animal skins and bangles.
Others, the evidently less wealthy clan chiefs from the Tooro kingdom, wore dark slacks and poorly pressed dress shirts, but carried spears, tacitly acknowledging the “tribal” nature of the event.
Through most of the ceremony, whether he was greeting a visiting noble from Ghana, or a well-wishing guest from a nearby village, Oyo looked uncomfortable, perhaps even grumpy.
“He’s a very friendly, but very reserved young man. I don’t know how he copes with the pressure,” said Evah Baguma, a 50-year-old family friend.
“I have seen him in the palace and sometimes I feel bad for him. All that protocol. Rules on how to behave.”
Oyo’s apparent unease during the ceremony might have been related to the politically volatile status of tribal kingdoms in modern Uganda.
The country’s independence from Britain in 1962 resulted directly from a pact between the political and tribal elite. The firebrand socialist and independence crusader Milton Obote became Prime Minister and handed the ceremonial presidency to King Edward Mutesa of Uganda’s largest tribe, the Buganda.
But the deal didn’t hold. In 1966 Obote expelled Mutesa, claimed the presidency for himself and outlawed all tribal kingdoms.
The instability and resentment of Obote that followed those expulsions largely led to the 1972 coup by the colorful but brutal military dictator Idi Amin, according to many Ugandan historians and analysts.
Museveni, president since 1986, restored the tribal monarchies in 1993, but insisted they function strictly as “cultural institutions,” to prevent a repeat of the 1966 crisis.
Now, that strictly “cultural” designation is unravelling.
More than 2 billion barrels of oil has been discovered in northwest Uganda on land historically owned by the king of Bunyoro, a tribal region that surrounds Lake Albert.
Bunyoro’s monarch insists his kingdom is entitled to a share of all future revenue, but the central government has scoffed at the claim.
In central Uganda, the Buganda monarchy is vocally demanding their region be granted a semi-autonomous federal status, citing serious and worsening corruption in Museveni’s regime.
The tension between Museveni and the Buganda led to riots in the capital Kampala that killed at least 30 people last September.
With the queen of Buganda seated some ten feet away from him, Museveni to his immediate right, and officials from his own monarchy condemning the government for illegally occupying kingdom land and not paying rent, it’s possible that 18-year-old King Oyo felt a bit uneasy stepping into the political minefield that defines relations between Uganda’s president and its tribal kings.
Those who claimed to know him suggested he might have preferred to be watching football.
“He’s a teenager! He loves Arsenal!” said Princess Dorothy Kagoro, minutes before the ceremony started.
In interviews with local media, Oyo talks enthusiastically about Jay-Z and does not mention politics, but that seems likely to change, partly because many people in Tooro still revere the monarchy and look to the king for leadership.
“He has the power of uniting us. He can call us, which can make us come together,” said John Mugisha, a clarinet player in the police band playing at the ceremony.
Oyo’s official spokesman didn’t rule out the possibility that the kingdom might also agitate for a semi-autonomous federal state.
“We still have to study the various proposals,” the kingdom’s Information Minister Frederick Nyakabwa Atwoki said.
At the ceremony Oyo said nothing.
He sat on his new throne — a gift from the Tooro expatriate community in London — received gifts of spears and drums from nervously approaching clan leaders, and when the moment came, took an uncomfortable but ceremonially crucial walk through a series of thatched huts, a walk taken by every king before him.
“We are now going to learn what he is,” Atwoki said. “He has been a young person, now that he has age we are going to know what kind of man he is.”