Compared to Omukama Kabalega’s War of Resistance, the Nyangire rebellion in Bunyoro was a low-key affair. The rebellion was at its heart, a peaceful rebellion against British authority, exercised through hated Baganda chiefs who were collaborating with the colonial officials.
The revolt arose from the arrogance of the Baganda chiefs, many of whom were more interested in private accumulation of wealth, the mistreatment of Banyoro as an inferior people, and the giving away of its territory, including the ‘Lost Counties’ to Buganda in the 1900 Buganda Agreement.
The Christian missionaries, whose division of the people of Buganda along religious lines had accelerated the destruction of the ancient monarchy, also played a role in Bunyoro.
Not only were the missionaries unwilling to translate the Bible into Runyoro – thus perpetuating the assimilative ambitions of the Luganda speakers – but also began dividing up the people of Bunyoro as Catholics and Protestants.
Bunyoro was not the only part of the country in which Baganda chiefs had been appointed – for instance Semei Kakungulu had been promised his own kingdom as a reward for helping bring British authority over Busoga and Bukedi.
However, the British had a particularly nasty attitude towards Bunyoro which had influenced their war against Kabalega and which would continue to influence colonial policy towards Bunyoro almost until independence.
Banyoro chiefs, officials and locals had complained about the character and conduct of the Baganda chiefs to the British. They were, in particular, concerned about the potential loss of more land through the new policy of granting freehold ownership of land.
This policy drew its inspiration from the 1900 Buganda Agreement and although the Banyoro revolted largely out of fear that the imposed chiefs would grab and own their land, the policy would lead to even wider revolts in Buganda itself when the reality of what had happened occurred to the hundreds of thousands of peasants.
Although the British had removed Baganda chiefs in other areas where local populations complained, they refused to do so in Bunyoro. “The absolute refusal of the British to remove the Baganda chiefs signalled that Bunyoro’s humiliation and low constitutional status would be a long-term feature of colonial rule,” notes Shane Doyle, a historian who has researched the issue extensively.
The rebellion started slowly as a boycott of Baganda officials before degenerating into the burning of huts and destruction of crops, forcing the Baganda chiefs and officials to flee to Hoima for their safety.
The rebellion, however, was mostly peaceful defiance and eloquent arguments for political and constitutional reforms. The Banyoro proposed to have representatives from Toro, Ankole, Buganda and Busoga form a council to debate and settle the Bunyoro Question.
“What is so impressive about the Nyangire,” Doyle writes, “is that Bunyoro’s chiefs advanced such reasoned, convincing arguments for political reform, while ensuring that the protest remained non-violent, and organising pan-ethnic support for a general campaign against Ganda sub-imperialism.”
However, George Wilson, the British official in-charge at the time, had a very dim view of African natives generally and Banyoro in particular. “Natives under a wise restraint can be like good and even clever children,” he had once noted. “Natives in their wild impulses and with passions aflame can be very devils incarnate.”
Wilson could not believe, therefore, that native Africans were capable of such sophisticated political thought and action. He believed, instead, that the Catholic missionaries were behind the rebellion in an attempt to short-change their Protestant rivals.
Rather than resolve the matter politically, Wilson ordered for a militant solution. Some 54 Banyoro chiefs and opinion leaders were arrested and exiled from the kingdom. Of these, 49 were Catholics. They were replaced with another set of Baganda chiefs of whom 51 were Protestant.
According to Doyle, “Wilson’s ultimate solution to the Nyangire crisis, as in his earlier investigation into the murder of a colonial officer in Ankole district, was to create a limited number of scapegoats and then re-emphasise the colonial state’s alliance with favoured local allies.”
Chiefs who had supported the rebellion had their land taken away and given to the pro-British puppet Omukama Duhaga. Non-protestant chiefs were deposed and one prominent chief, Byabacwezi, was fined the princely sum of £500.
Why didn’t the Banyoro resist the reinstatement of the hated Baganda chiefs? Doyle had argued that a smallpox epidemic and famine following almost a decade of war and instability meant that ordinary Banyoro peasants were not in a position to actively resist or fight.
There was also the small matter of the reinstated chiefs being escorted by 50 armed soldiers – evidence, if any was needed, that they were an occupying force.
Although Nyangire did not succeed, it meant that the first two decades of colonial rule were, in Bunyoro, informed primarily by the need to maintain the authority of the Baganda chiefs, for good or for worse.
It also led to administrative instability in Bunyoro, which came to have the highest rate of turnover of officials. For instance, in the five years up to 1907, there had been 17 different colonial officers in charge of Bunyoro, with five in 1906 alone. By comparison, a territory in German East Africa, which had 10 administrators in eight years, was considered unstable.
The ineffectiveness of colonial administration in Bunyoro would, as this series, will later show, hold back the economic development of the region and lead to widespread socio-demographic problems, some of which persist today.
It would also inspire revolts and resistance to Ganda sub-imperialism in other parts of the colony and shape the alliances that would, in future, come to influence the politics of Uganda.