It’s the time of year again when pilgrims complete their journey to Namugongo, to pay their respects to long-dead Christian converts who suffered public execution at the hands of Kabaka Mwanga II of Buganda (1868-1903). The story of the Uganda Martyrs is well known, and for readers not yet in the know, the bones of the story are detailed here.
I went to ‘Uganda Martyrs’ High School in Kampala, a Catholic school which favoured the official Catholic version the executions. As a result, I am very familiar with the popular story of the Martyrs- it formed part of our school culture.
Ugandan education was puzzling indeed. We spent time learning about men knighted by the Queen of England for the services to the then-crumbling empire; we studied the revered figure of Apollo Kagwa (in fact, the school opposite to the one I attend in junior education took his namesake), together with Semei Kangungulu who sold out Buganda to the British; we studied that Martyrs disobeyed their king and thus sacrificed themselves in the name of the Christian faith (I escaped the misfortune of having to study Henry VIII and the deaths of his unfortunate wives). At the same time, this seemingly model post-colonial curriculum also included undercurrents of rebellion and resistance and we studiously observed the histories of political revolutions, whether French, Cuban, Algerian or Russian. This mish-mash was the official history that I had to cram for exams to obtain Uganda Ordinary Certificate of Education.
The study of the Martyrs stood out- being in a Catholic school made the Martyrs' story as essential as learning about Henry VIII in the UK. Of course, as a kid the culmination of all this in Uganda Martyrs’ day was just another public holiday, and so just an excuse not to go to school.
But the tales of colonial struggles, resistance, and revolution that littered the curriculum in 90’s Uganda sparked a quiet admiration in me for Mwanga. Here was a man who resisted colonialism to the extreme. In our history classes, we were being taught about great revolutionaries (the idea, I suppose, was to instil us with an anti-colonial mindset and prepare young Ugandans to resist neo-colonialism) however our own example of a man who resisted the system was frowned upon. When we celebrate Martyrs’ day, is the converts who are the heroes, not the Kabaka. I am not denying that he did wicked things- he murdered men in a barbaric manner with the explicit purpose of warning others not to follow in their footsteps. In this way, Kabaka Mwanga too was an a oppressor, of individual freedoms. But it always seemed incompatible with our revolutionary syllabus that he had been forever cast as the anti-hero, unlike the converts and sycophants who were martyred.
Being brought up as a Christian and admiring the Kabaka for his resistance to colonialism was a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he was a murdering bigot. On the other, he was a sage tactician. Kabaka Mwanga demonstrated that unity across kingdoms would be required to overcome the common enemy. He sought unity with Bunyoro Kingdom, Buganda’s sworn enemy, and struck and alliance with the Omukaka (King) of Bunyoro to fight the British. In my childhood days, I started equating these kings with Shaka, King of the Zulu. Fellow students would whisper that Mwanga was an African patriot, the Martyrs imperial collaborators. With a guilty conscience I secretly admired Mwanga.
As an adult, I have even more questions: why were the Martyrs all men? Were women at the king's palace smarter and secretly practiced their religion? Why were there no Muslim Martyrs? The transformation of Mwanga from a resistance figure to a tyrant has taken place over decades with the help of some dominant institutions that use the story of the Martyr’s to suit their own ends. As the saying goes, until the lion learns to write, the story will always glorify the hunter. Here, I try to clear up some common threads in the Mwanga story and show how they are used to suit the agenda of important social institutions, thus altering the way that Mwanga is remembered:
Mwanga antagonised the British colonists to the extreme- he ordered the assassination of the missionary Bishop Hannington even before he entered the kingdom of Buganda in 1885. He was quite unlike his father Kabaka Mutesa I, who skillfully played the Arabs and traded with them. Mutesa allowed missionaries in Uganda and pitted Catholics against Protestants to his political advantage, just like present day African presidents. He took advantage of the situation and disorganised his opposition. Kabaka Mutesa I survived.
For his son, Mwanga, it was a different story. He hated the colonisers, and they hated him too. In a bid to destroy him, the British employed one of their finest soldiers, Lord Captain Frederick Lugard, the crusher of resistors, from Nigeria to India. For the execution of the Martyrs and under the watch of Lugard, the British imprisoned Mwanga in Bukoba, a remote town in neighboring Tanzania. Against the odds, Mwanga made his escape from Bukoba and re-established his kingdom. Taking no chances, Lugard retaliated by exiling Mwanga to the Seychelles Islands, where he would eventually die.
A side note- Lugard was the man who convinced the UK parliament with his “Dual Mandate” to retain Uganda as a colony in 1890. This only added to my confusion: why was Lugard, the man responsible for Uganda's colonisation, commemorated with Lord Lugard Avenue in Entebbe while Mwanga, Uganda's most notable resistor, relegated to notoriety?
The tragedy of Martyrs was what gave Lugard the excuse to expel Mwanga from Buganda. This enabled the British to wash their hands of the troublesome king, but also won support from politically ambitious Ugandans (such as Apollo Kagwa), who were quick to appropriate Buganda’s land and fill the political void left behind after his departure.
What's more, the appropriation of Mwanga's legacy continues today; politicians still cash in on the Martyrs’ story, imbuing the lore surrounding the story with different meanings depending on the social situation. For example, Idi Amin’s reading of the tale was closer to my own but for different reasons, as we shall see. Amin oversaw the murder of the then-Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwumu, and used the Martyrs’ story to expunge himself of guilt by likening Luwumu’s murder to the killing of the Martyrs, painting himself as a revolutionary resistor of Western tyranny as he accused the Bishop of spying for West.
More recently, two speeches by President Museveni highlight good political entrepreneurship. On Martyrs day in 1986 the President's speech portrayed the Martyrs as symbols of self-sacrifice (like Museveni’s victorious NRM fighters), while Mwanga was likened to the ousted dictator Obote. This portrayal of the Martyrs is similar to the official explanation of the Catholic Church, which sets them out as Martyrs to their beliefs as Christians.
Museveni’ s 2010 Martyrs’ Day address, in stark contrast, warned of the dangers of sodomy. For those not aware, part of the Brits’ campaign against Mwanga included publically smearing his character and accusing him of homosexuality, at the time a crime and grave offence in British society. Whether there was any truth in this claim is questionable- the first written account alleging Mwanga had same-sex relationships was written some 50 years after his death (and, coincidentally, at a time when the British were facing heightened resistance from their Ugandan 'colonial subjects’). Similarly, when Museveni emphasised Mwanga’s hypothetical sexuality on Martyr’s day, he was inviting support from Ugandans wrapped up in the moral panic over homosexuality that swept the country in the early 2010s. It was a simple populist gambit.
In a bizarre subversion of the colonial resistance narrative, Museveni argued that Uganda should honour the Martyrs by resisting gay-friendly, neo-colonial influence. This confusing comparison between Mwanga and neo-colonialists nonetheless was successful, in part thanks to President Obama’s intervention in the homophobic narrative which only confirmed the US’ interfering neo-colonial ambitions for many of Museveni's supporters.
Mwanga’s sexuality was a guarded secret in the official history of the Martyrs, like that which I was taught in my early education. The explosion of US-funded, extreme evangelical churches in Uganda broke the silence over that. These religious institutions have significant leverage over the media and have stoked moral panic over 'the gay issue’, to the benefit of churches, government and the development aid industry (the whirlwind of homophobia nicely propping up racist narratives of African backwardness on which the industry depends).
It is ironic and, depending on how you feel about him, tragic, that Mwanga the violent revolutionary has been reincarnated to serve the purposes of violent neo-colonial institutions in his homeland.
I am inclined to believe that Martyrs met their unfortunate death as result of the clash between hardcore colonialists and a hardcore resistance. As both Mwanga and the Martyrs are dead, their stories will continue to be told without them, and will be twisted to suit the needs of whoever's day it is to take the stage. The history of Mwanga is the history of a power struggle, and so we will never know with truth the full story. If nothing else, the story of Mwanga should teach us to view history with a critical frame of mind, and to remember that it is only ever the victor whose version of events is told- there is always an untold side to the story.