Africa’s monarchs are resilient. For centuries they ruled through intricate hierarchies of clan and kinship. Then colonial invaders polarised them, deposing some and courting others. Independent African states are proving just as testing for traditional authorities.
Many African states – from Morocco to South Africa – provide a role for traditional rulers. Just two kings run countries but countless others manage access to land, promote investment and attempt to preserve cultural traditions on the regional level.
Africa’s history is littered with monarchs who fought civilian authorities and lost. Now, chiefs and kings must adapt to changing circumstances that could weaken their power, such as high rates of urbanisation, a rise in interest in large-scale agricultural projects and civilian authorities seeking to extend state power to all corners and sectors of the country.
It was Ghana’s independence leader Kwame Nkrumah who summed up the nationalist view of traditional rulers in 1950: “Those of our chiefs who are with us, we do honour. Those who join forces with the imperialists, there shall come a time when they will run and leave their sandals behind them.”
After gaining presidential power, Nkrumah hardened his position further, often seeing traditional rulers as a focus for regional opposition and reaction.
Africa’s recent wave of republicanism began in Egypt when the Free Officers Movement forced King Farouk to abdicate in 1952, launching a period of military rule, occasionally legitimised by staged elections, that lasted until February 2011. Nationalists ousted all of North Africa’s kings, save Morocco’s, between 1952 and 1969. Habib Bourguiba deposed Bey Muhammad VIII al-Amin, declaring Tunisia a republic on 25 July 1957; and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi overthrew King Idris on 1 September 1969.
Republics go it alone
Elsewhere in Africa in the same period, kings struggled to adjust to new realities where they were sometimes seen as threatening the shaky post-independence regimes. Burundi’s first president, Michel Micombero, deposed King Ntare V Ndizeye and declared a republic in 1966. In neighbouring Rwanda, a referendum led to the deposing of King Kigeli V Ndahindurwa in 25 September 1961.
Africa’s constitutional monarchs have fared better than their regional counterparts since independence, but no condition is permanent. It was not until 2011 that a major protest group, the Mouvement du 20 Février, targeted the Moroccan kingdom, mainly because of the draconian rule of King Hassan II.
Even those who protested against the government of Mohammed VI were careful not to question the monarchy as an institution. They wanted “constitutional reforms”: specifically the removal of Article 16 that defined the king as sacred. Despite initial scepticism about his abilities, Mohammed VI is proving to be skilful and pragmatic: the new constitution, adopted by referendum in July 2011, distinguished more clearly between religion and the monarchy and delegated more of the king’s powers to the government.
By contrast, Swaziland’s King Mswati III has clung on to his absolute powers, maintaining a 40-year state of emergency to shut down democracy protests that are
often backed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Mswati has used reforms to try to entrench his powers, such as a constitution in 2005 ruling that any citizen seeking constitutional change is guilty of treason. Through a royal holding company, the Swazi monarchy controls substantial stakes in joint venture projects with international investors.
Although Lesotho also has a constitutional monarch, his role is wholly ceremonial. King Moshoeshoe II, who steered the country into independence in 1966, was twice forced into exile, then stripped of his powers to be replaced by his son, Letsie III in 1996. Now Letsie III promotes trade and is the University of Lesotho’s chancellor.
Regional kings and queens and paramount chiefs make up a network of traditional power and authority that stretches across Africa. Some enjoy popular support as a counterweight to elected politicians and as community and cultural representatives. Some are doing the bidding of those politicians who protect and pay them.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni is facing growing opposition to his rule and so is trying to resolve disagreements with the King of Bunyoro and the Kabaka of Buganda.
“You have to understand that this was a very wealthy kingdom. We had land and holdings both in Uganda and abroad including a building in central London that was confiscated from us by the Obote government in 1966. We had invested shares in many companies around the world. We had foreign re- serves,” says the Buganda information minister Dennis Walusimbi.
Now Museveni is offering to return some of the assets to the Buganda, presumably in the hope of regaining the people’s electoral support. But there is scepticism. “Putting pen to paper is one thing. The actual return of the properties is another entirely,” says Walusimbi. “The president agreed to return some of the kingdom’s lost properties as well as rent arrears amounting to USh20bn (about $78m). They have so far paid out USh2bn.”
The position of the Bunyoro Omukama (king) at the epicentre of Uganda’s oil industry is even more problematic. “This palace was a mess before the restoration in 1993. The army had tried to occupy it and failed. There were people growing sweet potatoes on its grounds. The royal family was in disarray,” recalls Yolamu Nsamba, a retired historian who acts as the Omukama’s principal private secretary.
Envelopes of money
Unlike Buganda, which hosts the national capital, the Bunyoro and Omukama Rukirabasaija Agutamba Solomon Gafabusa Iguru I enjoy no such advantages despite of their hopes about oil revenues. “The public maintains the king. People come here with envelopes – the same way bishops are maintained by their congregations,” says Nsamba.
“We are told that the 3.6bn barrels will make Uganda a mid-league player in the global oil industry. But it is the government and private companies that are locked in discussions. Our people are disappointed that the government has not offered to share the oil with the local people,” says Henry Ford Mirima, the Bunyoro kingdom’s spokesman-at-large.
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