Semei Kakungulu is said to have led many lives in Uganda. He was a guerilla leader, a chief, an elephant hunter, a border warlord and a British ally in military campaigns.
He is always mentioned in any discussion surrounding the history of colonialism in the east and north-eastern parts of Uganda (what was known as Bukedi).
Many agree that he was the mercenary the British used in their imposition of colonialism in that area.
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Though some accounts say he was a great philanthropist who introduced religion and education to the area, it has been documented that “he was the toughest soldier the British colonizers ever hired to fight their colonization wars in Uganda.”
Born Semei Lwakirenzi around 1870, Kakungulu (an honorary title which was later given to him) was the son of Semuwamba, a Muganda man – a member of the Baganda people of the kingdom of Buganda, now forming part of Uganda.
Semuwamba was originally from Kazinga village near Seguku in Busiro County before moving to the Kingdom of Kooki.
Accounts say Semuwamba and his wife were later executed, leaving behind Kakungulu and his six siblings.
At an early age, Kakungulu moved to Buganda where he became well-known for his hunting abilities. This was during the reign of Kabaka Mwanga, whom Kakungulu provided ivory to in exchange for foreign goods from Arab traders.
He would, however, gain fame as a war hero following his intervention in the battle between Christians and Muslims in 1889 to reinstate Mwanga who had earlier been deposed by the Muslims.
He then got involved in another battle at Kijungutte, and Mwanga subsequently rewarded him with the title of Mulondo. Kakungulu would also become the chief of Bulondoganyi, bordering Bugerere and River Nile.
During the 1880s, a Protestant missionary converted him to Christianity and taught him how to read the Bible in Swahili. Sources say that “Because he commanded many warriors, because of his connections to the Bugandan court and because he was a Protestant, the British gave Kakungulu their support.”
“He responded by conquering and bringing under the British sphere of influence two areas outside of the Bugandan Empire, Bukedi and Busoga. These areas were between the Nile River’s source in Lake Victoria and Mt. Elgon on the Kenyan border,” writes kalunu.org.
Specifically, in 1892, together with Captain Williams, Kakunlugu commanded a force of 600 Protestant Baganda which captured Bugala Island from the Catholics.
In May 1893, he also fought for the British when he led his army of Protestants to a Muslim base at Nateete and defeated them. The Muslims were then protesting against the colonial administration for disregarding them in the distribution of administrative posts.
Then in November of that same year, Kakungulu helped the British in the operations that captured Mwanga and Omukama Kabalega, the famed ruler of Bunyoro Kingdom.
The two fugitive kings had fled to an area called Lango. It is even believed that it was Kakungulu who extracted Kabalega from a swamp where he was hiding.
After launching the attack against Kabalega, Kakungulu was praised by Col Colville in his dispatch contained in the Blue Book of Africa number IV of 1894, saying: “To Kakungulu, the general of the Waganda army, my thanks are specially due alike for his already acquiescence to all my orders, his well-directed influence with his chiefs and men…”
Soon, Kakungulu became one of the most important men in Buganda and was made chief of what is now known as Bugerere. He had wanted to be more than that as he eyed the position of a prime minister but the British didn’t grant him that wish.
Nevertheless, he continued to fight for the British.
“After signing the 1900 Buganda Agreement and thus securing the Buganda territory, the British were facing firm resistance from other tribes who did not want their lands occupied.
“In the early 1900, the British employed and equipped Baganda fighters led by Semei Kakungulu with the deadly Maximu gun. Kakungulu and his fighters went on rampage and brutally subdued the Langi, the Banyole, the Bagisu, the Bavuma, the Basese, and other tribes around Lake Kyoga and in the end over-running those territories. He would then use oppressive methods to secure the loyalty of the vanquished,” writes Uganda In History.
Kakungulu was later moved to a region in Busoga Kingdom (one of five constitutional monarchies in present-day Uganda) to unite the various chiefs there and bring peace.
As a token of appreciation for his help in capturing huge territories, the British allocated huge chunks of land to Kakungulu, making him one of the richest landowners in Uganda.
But he later fell out with the British, especially when they did not grant him his ambition of becoming the first King of Busoga.
Returning to religion, Kakungulu began the Bamalaki religion, which was anti-medicine, with followers who called themselves the Christian Jews, an article by the Daily Monitor said.
Despite being at odds with the British, Kakungulu was awarded with the king’s medal for native chiefs in 1921 for his service to the British administration.
Sources say the British also continued giving him his annual pay of £300 ($331) until his death on November 24, 1924, at Mbale in the Eastern Region of Uganda.