The late Y M Chemonges the Kingoo (King) of Sebei
The Sebei are few in number and live on Mount Elgon and the nearby plains close to Uganda’s border with Kenya. Their traditional political organization was decentralized. No individual could command obedience from all Sebei. The initial district (Kapchorwa District) was a backwater county of Bugisu during the colonial period and shared in policies producing modernization only to a small extent until a road was built across the mountain in the late 1940s. There were few missions, few schools and few means of earning a cash income.
Map of Uganda showing the location of Sebei
Meanwhile their neighbours, the Bagisu, had several schools and grew high quality Arabica coffee in a scheme introduced by the colonial government. In addition Bagisu were steadily migrating to Sebei areas to grow coffee. The majority of teachers in Sebei primary schools were Bagisu.
Sebei political consciousness began in the 1950s and quickly intensified in response to the introduction of the Bugisu district council in 1956. Sebei political leaders felt that the interests of their people were being neglected by Bagisu, who controlled the council, and that independence would only make matters worse. They complained that few Sebei were employed by the district administration or the co-operative union. When the central government insisted on reduction of services to Bugisu to cut down a deficit created by a district council resolution to lower tax assessments but not social services, Sebei county lost an expected ambulance and a new road. The Sebei felt they were being “punished” for the Bagisu councilors mistakes.
A branch of the UPC was formed in 1956, but the ethnic movement did not take root until 1960, when Yovan Maigut Chemonges became its leader. He had served for fifteen years with the Kenya Police and was well known in the district. Through his flamboyant behavior and his ability to articulate Sebei grievances, Chemonges became a charismatic leader unifying the Sebei for the first time.
Toward the end of 1960 Chemonges set up a road block at Sipi and stopped the car of an assistant district commissioner. Standing on top of the car with a spear and shield, he demanded a separate district for his people. His subsequent arrest and fine aroused the Sebei. The Sebei leaders then announced that no further taxes would be paid to Bugisu district but would be collected by the county council. No Bagisu officials were permitted to enter the country. Bagisu primary school teachers were driven out. The Bugisu district council responded by suspending all services to the county in April, 1961.
The dispute was then transferred to the national arena. Chemonges was elected to the Legislative Council in 1961 as a UPC candidate. However, the DP government under Kiwanuka agreed to make Sebei a separate district in late 1961 and Chemonges won the 1962 election as a member of the DP. The nearly identical vote totals for Chemonges and his two Bagisu opponents in the two elections, in spite of changing party labels, indicate that politics in the district revolved around the separate district issue. When the UPC/KY Coalition took power, Chemonges crossed the aisle again and campaigned for the UPC candidates in the district council elections of 1963.
Sebei’s ethnic demands were officially consolidated when its district council created the position of constitutional head, called “Kingoo”. Chemonges was the unanimous choice to fill this position and received three votes in the election for the presidency of Uganda. Henceforth, Chemonges would be known as Kingoo of Sebei. The fruits of district status came to Sebei in the form of a new hospital (Kapchorwa) and a senior secondary school (Tegeres). Chemonges had sufficient influence to gain government approval for the creation of the Sebei Elgon Co-operative Union, which was curved out of the Bugisu Union. Not surprisingly there was intimidation of Bagisu farmers living in the district who refused to join the new union. Many took refuge in Bugisu.
In 1967 the Co-operative Officer reported to the Sebei district team that because of heavy transportation expenses, the Sebei alone could not produce sufficient coffee to permit the union to break even. Nevertheless, members of the union were not prepared to accept the larger Bugisu Co-operative Union’s offer to amalgamate and give ten administrative posts to Sebei Union members. In addition to increased ethnic prestige, these new projects and the staffing of the new district administration meant many jobs for the men of Sebei.
Achievement of a separate district meant satisfaction of the major goal of Sebei subnationalism.
Source: The shrinking political arena: participation and ethnicity in African Politics, with a Case Study of Uganda - by Nelson Kasfir
Article posted by Beatrice Chemonges