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Fire heightens tensions in Uganda

Destruction of historic Kasubi tombs stirs up frictions between Bagandan ethnic group and government.

Volunteers clear debris at the Kasubi Royal Tombs, destroyed by a fire on the outskirts of Uganda's capital Kampala, March 17, 2010. The fire burned the historic tombs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back 150 years. (James Akena/Reuters)

KAMPALA, Uganda — The fire which burned down Uganda's Kasubi tombs, the revered burial place of four Bugandan kings, has ignited smoldering tensions between the country's Bagandan  ethnic group and the government of President Yoweri Museveni.

The destruction of the historic site, on the outskirts of Kampala and the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Uganda, was met with dismay and anger across the country.

“The Kasubi Tombs are to Uganda as the pyramids are to Egypt”, said Lotani Kamiri, a Kampala restaurant owner, “... like the pyramids, the Kasubi Tombs are the burial place of kings.”

The Bugandan kingdom, which does not wield political power holds the allegiance of the Baganda people, Uganda's largest ethnic group that makes up 17 percent of Uganda's population of 32 million. The Bugandan kingdom dates back 600 years and is one of four historic kingdoms in Uganda.

Four Bugandan Kabakas (kings) are interred in the mausoleums, that were constructed about 150 years ago.

Tensions between the Buganda kingdom — headed by Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II — and the government of President Yoweri Museveni have increased in recent years. There has been friction over land and political power. The Bugandan Kabaka is limited to a ceremonial role overseeing traditional and cultural affairs but many see the Bugandan kingdom as a rival to the government.

Further increasing the tensions was the accusation by Museveni that the Buganda kingdom has received foreign funding to carry out a hate campaign against the government.

The Buganda territory covers a central part of Uganda. It is astride the equator and encompasses Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, the country’s largest airport in Entebbe, and shore of Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake which is also the world's second largest freshwater lake. The Buganda kingdom also includes the famed source of the Nile river, making the Baganda, one of Uganda's most influential ethnic groups.

The Kasubi tombs have been an important national tourist site and were valued at over $50 million, according to the Buganda kingdom.

“Government ... classifies the Kasubi Tombs as a National Cultural Tourism resource,” said the Minister for Tourism, Trade and Industry, Kahinda Otafiire.

Most importantly, many Baganda hold the Kasubi tombs with a reverence and respect that is almost spiritual in nature.

As the Kasubi tombs burned, Baganda people gathered at the site, wept and wailed in grief that was palpable even to non-Ugandans. However, as the fire was being put out, that grief turned to anger as rumors surfaced that the tombs were victims of arsonists, maybe even government authorized.

Though the rumors remain unsubstantiated, when government officials, including President Yoweri Museveni, went to view the remains, a protest ensued and grew into a riot. Three Ugandan men were killed, at least 3 were hospitalized, and car windshields were shattered, according to a statement issued at the Uganda Media Center.