The pitiful state of Mugaba, the palace of Omugabe of Ankole, did not prepare us for the shocking condition of a house on a hill just across the valley from the king’s palace. That house was once the residence of the single most influential figure in that kingdom’s history.
The gentleman was Owekitiinisa Nuwa Mbaguta Rutiinw’Abashaija rwa Katangaaza ka Rwambubi rwa Rwamahe, Rukara Rurenga, Mukama w’Abashaija, Bikaito Bishara Omuhanda, Omushambo Okunisa Kibooko.
Mbaguta was the first formal Enganzi of Nkore and Ankole. Born in Nshaara, Nkore in 1867, Mbaguta had a distinguished pedigree. His grandfather had served in the court of Omugabe Gasyonga I ga Bukundu (1811-39.)* His father had been a courtier and senior military leader under Omugabe Mutambuuka Rubinga-Rushaija (1839-67.)*
Naturally, Mbaguta entered the royal court, serving Omugabe Ntare V ya Kibooga Rugingiiza (1867-95)* just as the British were taking control of Nkore. A man of extraordinary vision, sense of timing, progressive authoritarianism and an uncanny ability to take advantage of the changing landscape at the dawn of colonialism, Mbaguta became one of the most successful nyamparas (headmen) of the British colonial state.
First, he signed the first Ankole-British Agreement on August 29, 1894 on behalf of King Ntare V Rugingiiza. This act alone elevated his stature and confirmed him as Britain’s main man in Nkore.
Second, he used brilliant brinkmanship to defeat Prince Eria Kahitsi Rukirana mwene Mutambuuka who had usurped the throne following the death of Omugabe Ntare V in 1895.
Mbaguta mobilized the support of Kabaka Basammula-Ekkere Mwanga II of Buganda and the British colonial authorities to install the young Prince Kahaya mwene Igumira on the throne of Nkore.
From then on, Mbaguta, literally the kingmaker, became the real power behind Omugabe Edward Solomon Kahaya II Rugyengamanzi. He was so powerful, in fact, that he upstaged the king in the exercise of executive authority. Whereas he was resented by many Nkore aristocrats, few doubted his commitment to transform Nkore/Ankole into a modern nation.
To a very large extent, Mbaguta succeeded. He used his partnerships with British administrators and other colonial agents to entrench colonial government, to spread the Anglican religion, and to establish communication systems, health services and western education. For example, Mbaguta gave the 221 acres of land upon which the current campus of Mbarara High School is built.
Such was Mbaguta’s determination to implement transformative change and development in Ankole that he never hesitated to cane recalcitrant citizens. His was the original Kisanja Hakuna Mchezo. Part of his praise name was “Omushambo Okunisa Kibooko” (he of the Bashambo clan who wields the cane.) “Okuteera eza Mbaguta” is a Rukiga-Runyankore expression that means caning someone Mbaguta-style.
In him, the British found a very dependable collaborator in the mold of Sir Apolo Kaggwa of Buganda. F. Lukyn Williams, the British District Commissioner of Ankole (1931-35) described Mbaguta as “a man of exceptional administrative ability, a stalwart fighter, a wise counsellor, a loyal subject, a generous host and a staunch friend.”
The British reciprocated Mbaguta’s loyalty by giving him enormous power over an expanded Nkore kingdom that was renamed Ankole in 1901.
Mbaguta retired from the premiership in 1938**, an influential and wealthy man, an honoured member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), whose assets included the house in Ruharo, an upscale suburb of Mburara, and at least 40 square miles of land. Mbaguta’s house is said to be the first private residence that was roofed with amabaati (corrugated iron sheets) in Ankole.
He died at Kyakabunga on August 10, 1944, exactly two months before the death of Omugabe Kahaya II Rugyengamanzi.
Seventy-four years after his death, there is very little evidence of Mbaguta’s personal wealth. His land holdings in Mburara area appear to have been reduced to a small piece that surrounds his house, itself in a very sorry state.
Although I have not been able to establish its exact age, Mbaguta’s house dates back to the first three decades of the last century. When my wife and I visited the home on January 8 and 9 this year, we were amazed by its architectural and functional design. Set back about 200 metres from the road, the four-bedroomed house, with a spacious living room, separate dining room and a hallway, must have been quite an impressive place when Mbaguta was in residence.
However, its current state is better seen than described. The original roof, now severely rusted, remains. Whereas the front door and its lovely hardware, as well as the front windows remain, the rest of the original doors and windows were allegedly stolen and sold off by squatters (not related to Mbaguta) who occupied the house for about thirty years.
Mbaguta’s furniture and other material possessions are gone, except for his nameless drum that still sounds great. A framed copy of his famous photograph – seated with a regal pose and attired in his ceremonial robes and medals – hangs on the wall.
The house was successfully reclaimed by the Mbagutas a few years ago. His 79-year old son, Geoffrey Mugyerwa, lives there, together with the widow of one of Mbaguta’s great-grandsons and her children.
Mbaguta is buried in the compound, very close to the house. Next to him are graves of some members of his family. Not much else remains that tells the story of Nuwa Mbaguta, a man who was a major transformative force throughout his 42 years as prime minister of Ankole.
Besides a short street in Mburara and a student dormitory at Ntare school (and perhaps elsewhere) there is hardly anything that tells his story and his times.
Mbaguta’s house cries out for government intervention. It should be declared a national heritage site, acquired from the family and restored. It should be turned into The Mbaguta Centre – partly a museum, partly a repository of his papers and other historical documents, and partly an education centre focusing on governance for local government officials.
To do nothing is not only to dishonour Mbaguta, but also to deprive ourselves and posterity of the knowledge and lessons from one of the most consequential people in twentieth century Africa.
* Various sources give different dates for the reigns of Abagabe of Nkore. In this article, I have used the dates based on the calculations by Dr. Samwiri Rubaraza Karugire, historian and author of one of the seminal works on the history of Nkore. He gives them as follows:
Gasyonga I 1811-39 +- 17 (years)
Mutambuuka 1839-1867 +- 14
Ntare V 1967-95 +- 10
** Without access to the Ankole Kingdom archives, I am unable to be certain about Mbaguta’s retirement date. In Abagabe b’Ankole II (Fountain Publishers), which was first published in 1955, A.G. Kataate and L. Kamugungunu state that Mbaguta retired in 1938 (page 32). This is the same date that is given by Karugire on page 265 of A History of the Kingdom of Nkore in Western Uganda to 1896 (Published in 1971) and by S. Tibaanyendera and P. Barireeba Irungu in Katondoozi y’ebya Nkore ebya ira, page 44 (Fountain Publishers, 2011). On the other hand, the information that is engraved on Mbaguta’s gravestone records his retirement year to have been 1937. That engraving and the tiling on the grave appear to be recent additions, perhaps within the last 30 years.