The city of Kasese in western Uganda suffered through another spasm of violence in recent days as police came under attack and then retaliated against the bodyguards and followers of a local king. At least four dozen people were killed.
The king’s name is Charles Wesley Mumbere, and he is the leader of the Bakonzo people, who live in the lowlands surrounding the Rwenzori Mountains along Uganda’s border with Congo. He presides, albeit with little vested power, over a region plagued by recurring ethnic conflict. Police have detained Mumbere, as well as more than 100 of his followers, though none have been charged.
This all might sound quite distant. But if you’re from suburban Maryland or Harrisburg, Pa., you may very well have met the king yourself.
From 1984 until 2009, Mumbere lived in the United States and worked as a nurse’s aide, keeping his royal roots to himself all the while. He only went public in an interview with the Patriot-News of Harrisburg just months before returning to his land in the shadow of the Rwenzoris to be crowned king after his long hiatus.
At his coronation, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni bestowed official recognition upon Mumbere’s kingdom, known as Rwenzururu. Museveni has conferred upon traditional kings their ceremonial titles, which had been stripped by his predecessor, but restricted their rights to dip into national politics.
Nevertheless, Mumbere’s life seems to have gone from American mundanity to militant African separatism. Ugandan police accuse him of leading a movement in Rwenzururu to secede. A local official told the Associated Press that he had seen copies of money printed by the secessionists, who aim to carve out a republic they would call Yiira.
Bakonzo militia members killed at least 16 police officers over the past week. As police fought back, gunfire rang through Kasese’s streets. Mumbere’s palace was attacked, and he was dragged outside and arrested. Photos circulated widely on social media showed bodies inside and around the palace. Police said they confiscated a huge cache of machetes, spears and gasoline bombs from the palace compound.
“The full picture of the weekend’s events is yet to emerge, but there appears to be shocking examples of unlawful killings and a complete disregard for human rights during the arrests,” said Abdullahi Halakhe, Amnesty International’s East Africa researcher. “In a shocking display of heavy-handedness, many people appear to have been summarily shot dead and their bodies dumped.”
Maria Burnett, an Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that “the government needs to investigate and put equal effort into prosecuting crimes by both sides, including government security or intelligence forces, and address grievances in the community, or the violence in the region may ignite again.”
Museveni has struggled to get the Bakonzo on his side, and the renewed violence is likely to deepen grievances. The Ugandan government has proposed redrawing the boundaries of districts within Mumbere’s kingdom, and those plans have sparked an outcry over excessive interference.
Mumbere inherited a secessionist tradition from his father, though he has denied trying to form a breakaway state in Uganda. He became king of Rwenzururu at 13, when his father died while leading a militia fighting against a predecessor state to Uganda, known as the Toro Kingdom. Mumbere then led his father’s followers out of the Rwenzori Mountains, and they laid down their arms, putting the secession issue on hold for decades.
In the intervening years, Mumbere received a scholarship to study in the United States and then, with almost no money to his name, trained as a nurse’s aide to pay the bills. The man who now sits in a Ugandan jail accused of orchestrating some of the country’s worst violence in recent years talked about working in America.
“It is a very difficult experience. Sometimes you have two jobs. You go to college in the morning, between 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Then you go prepare to go to work at 3 p.m. and then return at 11 p.m.”