Over a 28-year reign on the throne, Kabaka of Buganda Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II had never missed presiding at a premier kingdom event; the opening of Buganda parliament (Lukiiko), his birthday fete, coronation anniversary, opening and closing of Masaza Cup and general community cleaning (Bulungi bwansi), among others.
But in March, he was conspicuously absent at the closure of the annual Masaza Cup at St Mary’s Stadium Kitende. Katikkiro Charles Peter Mayiga, who stepped in for the king, told the small crowd, diminished by Covid-19 restrictions, that the Kabaka couldn’t make it because he had an urgent meeting with some visitors in Kenya.
His absence fed a rumour mill that had started gaining traction on social media that the Buganda monarch was critically ill and his tours to Kenya were not for recreation but, rather, treatment.
The rumour which started way back in September 2020 claimed that the now 66-year-old king had been poisoned and rushed to Kenya for treatment. Pressured by the persistent rumour, the kingdom released photos of a seemingly jovial Kabaka meeting with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and former prime minister Raila Omolo Odinga.
The photos were meant to reassure his subjects and friends that all was well with the Kabaka. In one of his last appearances at the opening of the Masaza Cup in December 2020, and during the opening of the 28th Buganda Lukiiko on January 11, Kabaka looked a little different. His facial skin had lightened a bit –probably a small pointer to a skin complication.
When he failed to show-up for the Masaza tournament closure, the rumour mill of ill health gained more traction. Actually, some online rookies pronounced him dead. The katikkiro continued to reassure the country that the king was in perfect health.
On April 13, when he showed up to celebrate his 66th birthday, the kabaka’s ill health spilled into public view. He arrived at Mengo palace in company of the Nabagereka Sylvia Nagginda. But as he alighted from his car, it became obvious to many in attendance and others watching on TVs that all was not well.
Some in the audience actually started crying on seeing a frail Kabaka. He seemed to have lost weight, he struggled to keep his eyes open and his speech was slurred. A video of him struggling to breathe properly and also cut his own cake made rounds on all social media platforms.
People started asking why he was allowed to attend the event when he was in frail health. A source close to the palace told The Observer that there was intense debate on whether he should come out in public or not.
“If he didn’t, then this would confirm the rumour that he was very sick or actually dead like some people had announced. So, it was agreed that he should come out because surely no one will believe anything if the person celebrating his birthday didn’t attend the party in person,” the source said.
The palace source said Buganda officials were still worried about the fallout from his appearance.
“The katikkiro has consistently been saying he is okay but surely it would be obvious to anyone that he is sick. But he made an appearance after a lot of work. I don’t know what those who are making noise now would have said if they had seen him a few weeks earlier,” the source said.
With the storm raging online and offline, katikkiro last week came out and addressed a press conference. He admitted that indeed his boss had health issues. Mayiga said the Kabaka, just like any other person, gets health challenges from time to time that need to be effectively managed.
Unlike what has been propagated on social media and elsewhere, Mayiga said the Kabaka’s health challenges are caused by allergies, which trigger breathing difficulties especially when he has a mask on or a shield over his face.
“The rumours doing the rounds that the Kabaka was poisoned are totally false… they are baseless and they should totally be disregarded. The Kabaka’s condition is being managed by requisite expertise and we hope and pray that he will achieve full recovery soon,” Mayiga said.
But Buganda didn’t seem sold by the allergies diagnosis. When asked how long the Kabaka has been sick, Mayiga said that is private matter that should be left to Mutebi, his doctors and his close family members.
“The kabaka coming out in public is one of the ways in which we celebrate him. There was nothing to stop him from coming to the public especially when we are celebrating such an important function like his birthday. We can’t go into the specifics of his health complications because those are private matters that should be left to him and his doctors,” Mayiga said.
Asked why a frail kabaka was allowed to attend a public event, Mayiga said they were in a catch-22 situation.
“If he doesn’t appear, they say you are hiding him; if he appears, they say, why did you bring him while he is sick? But I want to tell you that the kabaka is not very sick like it’s being portrayed. You saw him properly get out of his car without being supported by anyone or using a walking cane, you saw him standing up to hand over plaques to those he had honoured. Therefore, there was no reason for him to remain at the palace,” Mayiga said.
He said, however, that people have a right to be concerned because the king is one of the most loved public figures in Uganda.
“The Kabaka is one of the most popular figures in this country; he is a symbol of humanness, civility and of course he’s the custodian of the heritage of the kingdom of Buganda. He is not an ordinary person. And when somebody who is not ordinary is in that condition in which people saw him, they are going to get concerned. The only disappointment is the people who make baseless allegations especially on social media platforms, that’s where the danger comes from. And some people think what is posted on social media is what is correct,” Mayiga said.
Attack on the Katikkiro
A day after the Kabaka’s health became a public discussion, a fake letter appeared on social media purporting to be relieving Mayiga of his duties as the katikkiro of Buganda. There was also significant negative commentary about Mayiga, accusing him of a litany of issues.
Some believe the katikkiro should have refrained the kabaka from appearing in public while others think he is the reason the kabaka has not sought more specialized medical attention abroad. Before he came out to speak about the health of the kabaka, Mayiga was also accused of trying to cover-up.
A source at Mengo said it is wrong to accuse Mayiga of not speaking out about kabaka’s health or allowing him to make a public appearance.
“The problem with some of our people is that they think the katikkiro is the boss of the kabaka. He is not; therefore, he can’t order him on what to do or what not to do. Imagine him speaking out about something as sensitive as one’s health without first getting clearance to do so. Surely, like any other person, he might have made mistakes as katikkiro but most of the attacks on him are unreasonable,” the source said.
When asked by some journalists what he made of the attacks on him, Mayiga said it is expected because he is resourceful.
“It’s only a tree with fruits that birds perch on; it’s the same tree that they throw stones at. I have a lot of work on my hands helping the kabaka administer his kingdom. I have no time for those who attack me. A person I don’t know, a person who has nothing to do but attack me in order to generate likes on social media, why should I get annoyed?” Mayiga said.
Asked why the kabaka wasn’t flown abroad for speciliased treatment, Mayiga said his situation can be handled locally.
DOESN’T STAY ALONE
“A person who has just seen the kabaka only once is the one who wants to tell us what to do. What about us who stay with him every day; you think we don’t know what’s best for him? The kabaka doesn’t stay in the palace alone; he stays with people,” Mayiga said.
Denis Jjuuko, a communication and visibility consultant, said Katikkiro Mayiga’s immense popularity within and outside the kingdom is the reason some people are envious of him and thus attack him.
“The people who attack him aren’t many; it’s a few people with hundreds of social media accounts. If you critically analyze, those who abuse him, have no real faces on their profile photos. They either hide in the faces of Bobi Wine, NUP [National Unity Platform] or kingdom symbols. If Katikkiro Mayiga drives into any place, hundreds of people will turn up and cheer him. People respond to all his messages. Look at the people who turn up even in these Covid tough times to contribute Oluwalo Lwaffe. Look at how people respond to Emmwanyi Terimba. If you look at requests for him to preside at events or just to meet people, you will be amazed. If you are as successful as he is, you will attract attacks from a few self-seekers,” Jjuuko said.