On June 3, Christian pilgrims remember converts who were killed by a young king in colonial times, but it is a story that has long been manipulated for political gain.
On June 3 every year, Christian pilgrims across East Africa and beyond complete their journey to Namugongo, a suburb in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, to pay their respects to long-dead Christian converts who suffered public execution at the hands of Kabaka (King) Mwanga II of Buganda (1868-1903).
The story of the Uganda Martyrs is well known, and for readers it is often the victor’s version of the story that is within reach. The government of Uganda, local and international media continue to cash in on the tragedy of the martyrs and the teenage king that ordered their execution.
It is however the aftermath of the actions of a young king caught up in a tri-religious struggle between Catholics, Protestants and Muslims at the height of a growing British occupation, that has provided a convenient box on which a broad spectrum of political, cultural, and religious contestations are claimed, including the curious absence of female martyrs.
One such front is in the retelling of colonial struggles, resistance and revolutions in schools since independence, aimed at instilling an anti-colonial mindset in young Ugandans. The ambiguously narrated story of the martyrs occasions a quiet admiration for Mwanga despite the sweeping guilty conscience associated with the young monarch’s approach. Subsequently, political entrepreneurs have continued to benefit from the tragedy of the martyrs by constantly shifting their narratives.
A century later, on Martyr’s Day 1986, President Yoweri Museveni, who had recently seized power, pounced on the martyrs’ tragedy for political gain. He portrayed the martyrs as symbols of self-sacrifice likening them to his victorious National Resistance Movement fighters while Mwanga was likened to rival dictator, Milton Obote, whom he had been fighting.
More recently, in a bizarre subversion of the colonial resistance narrative, Museveni argued that Uganda should honour the martyrs in an effort to resist ‘gay-friendly’, neo-colonial influences from ‘abroad’. For those not aware, part of the British campaign against Mwanga included publically smearing his character and accusing him of homosexuality, at the time a crime and grave offence in British society. That aside, Museveni went on to sign a controversial ‘Gay Bill’, clearly a populist gambit aimed at inviting support from Ugandans wrapped up in the moral panic over homosexuality that swept the country in the early 2010s. Later, the bill was luckily annulled as unconstitutional.
He is likely to fall back on this politically convenient trope especially now when he is beleaguered by a growing opposition threat led by musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine.
It is not surprising that in the week before the 2019 Martyrs’ Day commemoration, Museveni continues to cash in on the convenient currency of the martyrs. This time he is appealing to Muslims whom he had in an earlier Martyrs’ Day speech associated with Arabs and homosexuality.
A sage tactician, Museveni, mindful of a sizeable Muslim population in central Uganda (where the execution site is located), has been changing tone.
“People who were killed in Namugongo were Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, they were killed because they had joined Christianity and Islam,” he said. This claim was followed by a promise that the president would seek to identify the names of the Muslim Martyrs and develop a memorial site alongside that of the Christians.
The contested narrative of the Uganda Martyrs and the man who ordered their execution gained some international attention a while ago due to the continent’s mostly anti-gay legislation and allegations of the King’s own alleged ‘sexual deviance’.
It is, however, the transformation of Mwanga from a resistance figure to a tyrant and then a homosexual that has been a subject of debate over decades, with the help of some dominant institutions that use the story of Uganda Martyrs to suit their own ends.
In colonial times, Mwanga antagonised the British colonists to the extreme - he, for instance, ordered the assassination of the missionary Bishop James Hannington even before he entered the kingdom of Buganda in 1885.
He was quite unlike his father Kabaka Mutesa I, who skillfully played and traded with Arabs. Mutesa allowed missionaries into Uganda and pitted Catholics against Protestants to his political advantage. Just like some present-day African presidents, he took advantage of the situation and disorganised his opposition. Unlike his son Mwanga, Kabaka Mutesa I survived.
The tragedy of the martyrs gave the colonial masters leverage to discredit the resistant king and provided the perfect opportunity to undermine their rival religion, Islam. The British alleged that the king’s homosexuality was ‘learned’ from Muslim Arabs who had introduced Islam to the kingdom decades earlier.
Employing similar divide-and-rule politics, Museveni resurrected the old colonial religious bigotry in his speech claiming knowledge of Mwanga’s ‘Arab-induced homosexuality’.
Possibly taking a cue from the president, an explosion of US-funded, extreme evangelical churches in Uganda has also been riding on bigotry to stoke moral panic over 'the gay issue’. This has been to the benefit of churches, the government and the development aid industry (the whirlwind of homophobia nicely propping up the racist narratives of African backwardness on which the industry depends).
June 9, a week after Uganda Martyrs’ Day celebrations, is another national holiday in Uganda - Heroes’ Day. This could be yet another opportunity for Museveni to exploit tragedies as the nation remembers the thousands who died during the 1980-86 bush war. The commemoration of those who died during struggle remains centred on present ruling elites. Figures such as Mwanga who relentlessly defied British occupation remain in the historical archives of bad dictators.
The martyrs met their unfortunate death as a result of the clash between hardcore colonialists and a hardcore resistance. Since 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. At the very least, the story of Mwanga and the martyrs should teach us to view history with a critical frame of mind and remember that it is only ever the victor whose version of events is told.
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