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When religion speaks the political language

Pastor Martin Ssempa (L), a Ugandan activist and founder of the Makerere Community Church has accused the Ugandan pop star popularly known as Bobi Wine (R) of changing the meaning/message of the song

Conundrum: Religion and politics have forever been bedfellows. That dates from the colonial times, for Uganda. Andrew Kaggwa explorers how this relationship has fared over the years as it has on many times been marred with controversy.
By the time Sir Henry Morton Stanley came to Uganda in 1875, Kabaka Muteesa I and many of his pages had already converted to Islam, thanks to the Arabs who had been trading with Buganda since 1844.

However, since he managed to get close to the Kabaka, Stanley was passionate in his effort to denounce Islam in favour of Christianity and what followed was the now famous letter asking the Queen of England to send missionaries to ‘civilise’ Baganda, whose political system had clearly taken him by surprise.

It is believed that the later struggle by the different groupings, the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) from Britain, the Roman Catholic White Fathers from France and Muslims that had been in Buganda longer was the beginning of political tensions arising from religion.

Even when most religious groupings in Africa constantly distanced themselves from their governments’ intentions, different writers like Edward Andrews wrote that much as missionaries were portrayed as visible saints, by the time the colonial era drew to a close, they had started being viewed as shock troops for colonial invasion.

For Buganda, it was after the religious wars in 1888 that the CMS directly asked the British government to take over Uganda or they would lose. In 1894, Britain declared Uganda a British protectorate and years that followed saw a stubborn Kabaka Mwanga exiled to Seychelles where he converted to Christianity and was named Daniel.

Sheikh Muzaata (L), Bobi Wine (R)

Religion and political party formation
The impact of the religious wars was still felt at the time Uganda was getting ready for independence in the 1950s.
Buganda had enjoyed a special relationship with the British and thus Baganda occupied a number of positions in the cabinet, but another thing worth noting, was that most of the people in those positions were of the Anglican faith.

In 1952, Uganda National Congress (UNC) is largely credited to have been formed as the first formal political party.
This was at the time Bataka Party, which mostly consisted of Baganda chiefs, had been abolished – most of UNC’s members are said to have been old boys of Buddo Kings’ College and like Bataka, many of them were Protestants.

It is said that the political exclusion of Catholics in Buganda prompted the formation of the Democratic Party (DP) whose view was at uniting all political outcasts of the then British protectorate.

But like the UNC, prominent in the DP leadership at the time of its founding in 1954 were majorly old boys of St Mary’s College Kisubi and were mostly Catholics.

Today, of course, these parties and newer ones formed have been mixed up but the strong hand of religion never shies away when there is a need.

For instance, in the 2006 elections, Pastors Joseph Sserwadda, Robert Kayanja and Alex Mitala, then chairperson of the National Assembly of Born Again Churches of Uganda, met the President and also candidate Yoweri Museveni to endorse his candidature.

Earlier this year after proposals to regulate church activities became public, many Born Again leaders seemed to argue that they are loved by Museveni and thus, Rev Fr Simon Lokodo, the Ethics minister was jeopardising his job by targeting them.

Politics and appointments
The signing of the 1900 Buganda Agreement established British takeover and Buganda enjoyed a special bond with the colonisers; it was at this time that religion started playing a big role when it came to political appointments.

For instance, Semei Kakungulu, a Protestant, easily became a powerful chief. Kakungulu was never a Katikiro partly due to his being a member of the Anglican Church. David E Apter, author of The Kingdom in Uganda, for instance, says of the positions created after the religious wars and the establishment of new systems, Omulamuzi was reserved for a Catholic, while the position of Omuwanika was for a Protestant, among other roles.

Pastor Solomon Male

Much as the role of Katikiro was never designated to be occupied by a person of a specific faith, by 1955, Buganda had not had a Catholic Katikiro in 60 years and only one Muslim Katikiro, Ramathan Gaanya Bulwadda is documented.

It was only in 1994 that Joseph Mulwanyamuli Ssemwogerere became the first Catholic Katikiro in as many years. In a 2009 interview with a local newspaper, he says that his appointment rubbed many leaders in Mengo the wrong way, mainly because of his religion; “Sabasajja circumvented them and made me substantive chairman of the executive committee but appointed me as deputy Katikkiro,” he is quoted saying it was at that time the deputy Katikiro position was created.

Since the colonisation of Uganda basically started in Buganda before spreading to the rest of the country, much of the religious politics is documented to have started in the region.

Yet in politics today, it is never a surprise for some religious leaders to complain about minimal representation in political appointments, especially those in the Cabinet.

In 2011 for instance, Muslim leaders were not happy with the President for what they referred to as a lock out in the Cabinet, then the 74 minister Cabinet named only had six from the Islam faith and only two were full ministers.

Religious music and politics
Religious symbolism has been used in local politics as a way of associating with a specific grouping – during elections, aspirants usually dress in attires associated to a faith on posters while others, even when they do not belong to a faith, will dress up and show up for prayers.

But religion being a DNA many Ugandans have in common and art being the way of life, nothing has been a political collaborator like religious songs, phrases or even Bible verses.

For example, many times when President Museveni wins an election, church leaders have been quick to call for calm and remind Ugandans that leaders are chosen by God, yet on the other hand, as leaders promise better in campaign, they often use the imagery of the Promised Land.

A paper written by Frederick Acheampong, a Ghanaian scholar, says the Christianity belief in the sovereignty of God is believed to transcend all aspects of human life including political leadership, thus, the choice of Christian songs to pass messages is never out of context since they talk about things people go through in the society.

“The ethos of these songs are naturally political, and thus seem to serve the purpose of most politicians whose work is made easy, as they can easily convey their political messages to the people through these songs,” he writes.

Acheampong further notes, most of the songs used are mostly centred on liberation, especially by the opposition while those of the incumbent are usually around victory and being blessed.

On December 31, while performing at the annual end of year fete hosted by the Kabaka of Buganda at the Lubiri, singer-cum-politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, launched his new song Tuliyambala Engule with a heartfelt performance. Moments after the New Year had been ushered in, he officially released it on his social media sites.

Tuliyambala Engule is inspired by a renowned church song of the same title that talks about wearing a shining crown after the world struggles. Of course, the song did not impress some church leaders who immediately asked Bobi Wine to retract the song, claiming it was blasphemous.

Appearing on NTV’s Morning Show, political analyst Mwambutsya Ndebesa said politics and religion have been borrowing languages from each other for years. “In Christian teachings, they usually talk about the end, and most of the end is mostly associated with triumph,” he says adding that the song is giving hope to people who the artiste believes are in anguish that there will be a day when they will be triumphant.

Pastor Wilson Bugembe

Rev Zac Niringiye on the same show noted that the continuous appropriation of political terms into religion and the other way round reflects a fundamental flaw that suggests that there is a language for politics and that of religion.

“Let us simply be clear, religion is about the ordinariness of people’s lives in community and how they relate to the otherness of God and politics is about the ordinary lives of people in a community, it is health care, education,” he says adding that religion is not only about the afterlife but even this life.

Ndebesa says people that think religious language cannot be appropriated for political matters should have the country’s motto changed and national anthem scrapped since it is a political worship itself.

Religious influence in world politics
Niringiye says we are in a state where the government has taken a repression position which can be compared to the apartheid in South Africa: “One of the leaders of the civil rights movement in America was a pastor and religious songs were at the heart of the struggle.”

But besides repressions that have had gospel songs like We Shall Overcome become identities of struggles, in places like Germany, church hymns Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken have done more good.

The song written by John Newton 1779 is believed to have been adopted when Germany needed a national anthem in 1922.
It is also believed that the George Bush’s defeat of John Kelly in the 2004 election was a religious victory since, even when there were issues to address, there was a focus on things surrounding morals like gay rights and abortion, among other values.
And of course like the US, Uganda has since adopted the national prayer breakfast, a tradition that has been in Washington DC since 1953, the event is attended by members of Congress and is organised on behalf of the Fellowship Foundation.
The Ugandan version has been held in October by Parliament since 1991, while at such gatherings members fellowship and inspire each other while discussing different aspects of the country, a clear sign that faith and what it stands for can not be divorced from what leaders are elected to stand for.

Dominance. According to, religion exerts its political influence in many different ways. Religion can be directly involved in partisan activity, whether it be supporting one side of a partisan political race or lobbying for legislative reform with religious values. Many candidates run for office on a religious platform and look to religious groups for support. Religion has been and is also often involved in policy debates that are non-partisan, and over topics such as abolitionism.

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