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Early Political Systems

As the Bantu-speaking agriculturists multiplied over the centuries, they evolved a form of government by clan (see Glossary) chiefs. This kinship-organized system was useful for coordinating work projects, settling internal disputes, and carrying out religious observances to clan deities, but it could effectively govern only a limited number of people. Larger polities began to form states by the end of the first millennium A.D., some of which would ultimately govern over a million subjects each.

The stimulus to the formation of states may have been the meeting of people of differing cultures. The lake shores became densely settled by Bantu speakers, particularly after the introduction of the banana, or plantain, as a basic food crop around A.D. 1000; farther north in the short grass uplands, where rainfall was intermittent, pastoralists were moving south from the area of the Nile River in search of better pastures. Indeed, a short grass "corridor" existed north and west of Lake Victoria through which successive waves of herders may have passed on the way to central and southern Africa. The meeting of these peoples resulted in trade across various ecological zones and evolved into more permanent relationships.

Nilotic-speaking pastoralists were mobile and ready to resort to arms in defense of their own cattle or raids to appropriate the cattle of others. But their political organization was minimal, based on kinship and decision making by kin-group elders. In the meeting of cultures, they may have acquired the ideas and symbols of political chiefship from the Bantu-speakers, to whom they could offer military protection. A system of patronclient relationships developed, whereby a pastoral elite emerged, entrusting the care of cattle to subjects who used the manure to improve the fertility of their increasingly overworked gardens and fields. The earliest of these states may have been established in the fifteenth century by a group of pastoral rulers called the Chwezi. Although legends depicted the Chwezi as supernatural beings, their material remains at the archaeological sites of Bigo and Mubende have shown that they were human and the probable ancestors of the modern Hima or Tutsi (Watutsi) pastoralists of Rwanda and Burundi. During the fifteenth century, the Chwezi were displaced by a new Nilotic-speaking pastoral group called the Bito. The Chwezi appear to have moved south of present-day Uganda to establish kingdoms in northwest Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.

From this process of cultural contact and state formation, three different types of states emerged. The Hima type was later to be seen in Rwanda and Burundi. It preserved a caste system whereby the rulers and their pastoral relatives attempted to maintain strict separation from the agricultural subjects, called Hutu. The Hima rulers lost their Nilotic language and became Bantu speakers, but they preserved an ideology of superiority in political and social life and attempted to monopolize high status and wealth. In the twentieth century, the Hutu revolt after independence led to the expulsion from Rwanda of the Hima elite, who became refugees in Uganda. A counterrevolution in Burundi secured power for the Hima through periodic massacres of the Hutu majority.

The Bito type of state, in contrast with that of the Hima, was established in Bunyoro, which for several centuries was the dominant political power in the region. Bito immigrants displaced the influential Hima and secured power for themselves as a royal clan, ruling over Hima pastoralists and Hutu agriculturalists alike. No rigid caste lines divided Bito society. The weakness of the Bito ideology was that, in theory, it granted every Bito clan member royal status and with it the eligibility to rule. Although some of these ambitions might be fulfilled by the Bunyoro king's (omukama) granting his kin offices as governors of districts, there was always the danger of coup d'état or secession by overambitious relatives. Thus, in Bunyoro, periods of political stability and expansion were interrupted by civil wars and secessions.

The third type of state to emerge in Uganda was that of Buganda, on the northern shores of Lake Victoria. This area of swamp and hillside was not attractive to the rulers of pastoral states farther north and west. It became a refuge area, however, for those who wished to escape rule by Bunyoro or for factions within Bunyoro who were defeated in contests for power. One such group from Bunyoro, headed by Prince Kimera, arrived in Buganda early in the fifteenth century. Assimilation of refugee elements had already strained the ruling abilities of Buganda's various clan chiefs and a supraclan political organization was already emerging. Kimera seized the initiative in this trend and became the first effective king (kabaka) of the fledgling Buganda state. Ganda oral traditions later sought to disguise this intrusion from Bunyoro by claiming earlier, shadowy, quasisupernatural kabakas.

Unlike the Hima caste system or the Bunyoro royal clan political monopoly, Buganda's kingship was made a kind of state lottery in which all clans could participate. Each new king was identified with the clan of his mother, rather than that of his father. All clans readily provided wives to the ruling kabaka, who had eligible sons by most of them. When the ruler died, his successor was chosen by clan elders from among the eligible princes, each of whom belonged to the clan of his mother. In this way, the throne was never the property of a single clan for more than one reign.

Consolidating their efforts behind a centralized kingship, the Baganda (people of Buganda; sing., Muganda) shifted away from defensive strategies and toward expansion. By the mid-nineteenth century, Buganda had doubled and redoubled its territory. Newly conquered lands were placed under chiefs nominated by the king. Buganda's armies and the royal tax collectors traveled swiftly to all parts of the kingdom along specially constructed roads which crossed streams and swamps by bridges and viaducts. On Lake Victoria (which the Baganda called Nnalubale), a royal navy of outrigger canoes, commanded by an admiral who was chief of the Lungfish clan, could transport Baganda commandos to raid any shore of the lake. The journalist Henry M. Stanley visited Buganda in 1875 and provided an estimate of Buganda troop strength. Stanley counted 125,000 troops marching off on a single campaign to the east, where a fleet of 230 war canoes waited to act as auxiliary naval support.

At Buganda's capital, Stanley found a well-ordered town of about 40,000 surrounding the king's palace, which was situated atop a commanding hill. A wall more than four kilometers in circumference surrounded the palace compound, which was filled with grass-roofed houses, meeting halls, and storage buildings. At the entrance to the court burned the royal fire (gombolola), which would only be extinguished when the kabaka died. Thronging the grounds were foreign ambassadors seeking audiences, chiefs going to the royal advisory council, messengers running errands, and a corps of young pages, who served the kabaka while training to become future chiefs. For communication across the kingdom, the messengers were supplemented by drum signals.

Most communities in Uganda, however, were not organized on such a vast political scale. To the north, the Nilotic-speaking Acholi people adopted some of the ideas and regalia of kingship from Bunyoro in the eighteenth century. Chiefs (rwots) acquired royal drums, collected tribute from followers, and redistributed it to those who were most loyal. The mobilization of larger numbers of subjects permitted successful hunts for meat. Extensive areas of bushland were surrounded by beaters, who forced the game to a central killing point in a hunting technique that was still practiced in areas of central Africa in 1989. But these Acholi chieftaincies remained relatively small in size, and within them the power of the clans remained strong enough to challenge that of the rwot.

Data as of December 1990

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