The Kings of Africa

MARK KRIKORIAN

September 08, 1993|By MARK KRIKORIAN

MANASSAS, VIRGINIA — Manassas, Virginia. -- Troubled Uganda may have found part of the answer to Africa's agony.

This small East African nation has paralleled the continent's problems: a once-flourishing economy in ruins; governments ranging from the merely brutal to the genocidal; widespread war, civil strife and disease. Despite billions in aid and the best efforts of modern experts, both Uganda and Africa have suffered a shocking decline.

So, to help stabilize the country and legitimize the state, Uganda is restoring its four traditional kingdoms, abolished in the 1960s.

Such a move may not seem obvious in the 1990s, with democracy on the march around the world. But one principal reason for Africa's woes is the alienation of her people from their traditional culture and forms of government because of European rule and the artificial nature of the states that became independent when the Europeans left.

Several years ago Elizabeth Nyabongo, a member of the royal family of the Kingdom of Toro in western Uganda, wrote a memoir entitled ''Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess'' (Simon & Schuster, 1989), which discussed this problem at some length. She wrote that:

''[I]n Uganda, as elsewhere, the question was no longer whether independence would ever be granted, but to whom the colonial state would be handed over. The British decision, which was designed to perpetuate British influence and its economic exploitation of the country, was to implant the British political system, handing over state power to hurriedly formed political parties and by- passing the age-old and well-organized indigenous systems.''

Although her understanding of Britain's motives may be incomplete, she correctly stated the results:

''The consequences of imposing an alien system on Uganda were catastrophic, both politically and socially. The fundamental conflict between the central government -- the successor of the colonial state -- and the monarchies came to a head: in a conflict between dictatorship and democracy. The monarchies and the regions were crushed in 1966 and 1967 by [Milton] Obote's coup d'etat.''

Uganda's history in the intervening 27 years has been sad indeed, gaining the most attention in the West during the bloody reign of Idi Amin.

Yoweri Museveni, who became Uganda's president in 1985 after a five-year guerrilla war, has made good on his promise to restore the kings, albeit as figureheads only, with authority over cultural matters. At the end of July Prince Ronald Muwenda Mutebi was crowned 38th kabaka, or king, of Buganda, the largest of the four kingdoms. Dates for the coronations of the other three princes have not yet been set.

Unfortunately, virtually all African states and leaders lack the legitimacy that Uganda hopes the kings will help provide. Most of the continent's countries are like the former Soviet Union: artificial constructs contrary to the natural patterns of authority respected by the people, and held together by force. Like the Soviet Union, the political elites in Africa need these artificial states and their false ideologies to justify their very existence. And like the ''Motherland of Socialism,'' the countries of Africa are falling apart.

However much leaders in Africa vilify the West and try to ''Africanize'' their countries -- by renaming towns, lakes, even the countries themselves -- they can only restore truly African rule by relinquishing some of their power to truly African political forces.

While Swaziland and Lesotho, both in southern Africa, are the only black African states currently ruled by kings, other countries have had monarchies in the past: Ethiopia, whose emperor was murdered by the Communists; Madagascar, whose queen was deposed in the last century by the French, and Burundi, where the monarchy was abolished in 1966.

Furthermore, ignoring existing monarchies within states can be perilous. The transition of South Africa away from apartheid may end in disaster because the African National Congress and the white government have failed to engage the Zulu royal house, represented by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and King Goodwill Zwelethini. If the Zulu nation, representing nearly a quarter of South Africa's people and the black ethnic group with the strongest national identity, is not party to democracy talks, any agreement reached could be in jeopardy.

It is true that the moribund apartheid regime often took advantage of traditional rulers to facilitate its policy of excluding blacks from South Africa by assigning them to tiny homelands. But the very effectiveness of such a policy, while it lasted, testifies to the power of pre-colonial relationships in modern Africa.

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