Who Burnt Buganda's Kasubi Tombs?On the Night of 16 March, an Arsonist Set Fire to the Royal Tombs of Uganda's Dominant Ethnic Group, the Baganda. by Burning It Down, the Arsonist Struck at the Very Heart of Buganda's Cultural Identity, Reports Agnes Asiimwe from Kampala

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AS THE MOUNTAINOUS FLAMES rose towards the sky, more people arrived on the scene and looked on in disbelief. Some people attempted to throw buckets of water at the fire but the grass thatched dome was burning furiously, and realising there was not much they could do to save the house and its items of rich historical significance, they started to wail. Some wept silently and others clasped their hands over their heads, as the hungry flames tore through the dry thatch. The pride of Buganda--one of Africa's oldest traditional kingdoms--quickly burnt to ashes. To many Baganda, it was like some close relatives had died!

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The royal tombs of Buganda were burnt within two hours, destroying artefacts and royal regalia that had been around for 128 years. The big round hut housed a mausoleum of four kings as well as symbols, books, musical instruments, ceremonial weapons and a big collection of handicraft work.

All was lost in the fire that was started by an arsonist on the night of 16 March. The grief of Buganda was palpable as hundreds of Baganda poured in from all corners of the kingdom and camped by the burnt mausoleum. The crowd that surrounded the smouldering tombs blamed the government of President Yoweri Museveni for their misfortune. Thus, when the fire brigade arrived about 50 minutes after the fire started, the angry mob stoned the trucks and smashed the windscreens, and accused them of incompetence.

The Kasubi Tombs, a 10-minute drive from the centre of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, are the burial grounds of the Kabaka, the kings of Buganda, the largest ethnic group in Uganda. The big, round, grass-thatched hut under which the tombs of the kings and other symbols nestled was known as Muzibu Azaala Mpaga or "a fiery one brings forth rough ones".

Because of its richly woven reeds and a smooth finish, the structure was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in December 2001 for being "a masterpiece of creativity and a major example of an architectural achievement in organic materials", principally wood, thatch, reed, wattle, and daub.

The hut was rebuilt by King Mutesa I because an earlier one, constructed by his father, King Suuna in 1820, became old. Rebuilding the palace was only one of the changes Mutesa I made. He also received the first European visitors to Buganda in 1862, John Hanning Speke and James Grant. He was the first king of Buganda to embrace foreign culture and agreed that the Europeans and Arabs convert his palace staff and his subjects.

When he died in 1884, he became the first king to be buried at Kasubi. His successors followed the tradition, hence Mwanga II, Daudi Chwa II, Edward Mutesa II--the father of the present king, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II--are all buried there.

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Each prince and princess who is a descendant of the four Kabakas has also been buried at Kasubi Tombs. The mausoleum's main significance lay in its intangible values of spirituality, continuity and identity. By burning it down, the arsonist struck at the very heart of Buganda's cultural identity. "We are perturbed that someone cannot honour our dead and destroyed our heritage that has been there for over 100 years," said John Baptist Walusimbi, the prime minister of Buganda Kingdom. "The building we shall replace but how about the valuables?"

The fire couldn't have happened at a worse time. Relations between President Museveni's government and the Buganda Kingdom have been at an all-time low since September 2009 when the Baganda rioted in protest against a government decision to block their king's trip to Kayunga, a district in Buganda.

The riots left 27 people dead and the kingdom's radio station CBS shut down for inciting the chaos. During the riots, President Museveni revealed how the king had snubbed his phone calls for two years. Hence some people blamed the government for being behind the fire. …