28 March 2023

Royal Profile: Princess Elizabeth of Toro

It is often forgotten that many of the revolutionary republics of Africa still have traditional kingdoms, ruled by hereditary rulers, within their borders.

From The Mad Monarchist (16 July 2012)

With the often traumatic history that most African countries have gone through over the years, the ranks of African royalty have produced some remarkable figures with very diverse and colorful backgrounds. Certainly one such individual is Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya of Toro, Toro being one of the subsidiary nations of Uganda. During her life she has gained a level of fame around the world for her kind nature, stunning appearance and exceptional intellect, breaking all sorts of new ground in the process. She was born Princess Elizabeth Christobel Edith Bagaaya in 1936 to Lieutenant Sir George David Matthew Kamurasi Rukidi III or King George Rukidi III and Lady Kezia Rukidi in 1936. Her father was the eleventh king or Omukama of Toro from 1928 to 1965. Her mother, Lady Kezia Byanjeru Abwooli was a daughter of a senior tribal chief named Nikodemo Kakoro. Her original title was Omubiitokati which roughly translates to princess. During her childhood the Kingdom of Toro was at the height of its prestige as part of the British Empire and the Princess had many opportunities previously unknown to girls like her, even royal ones.

She attended a local elementary school before going on to Gayaza High School in Buganda, a prestigious boarding school for girls. After graduating she was sent to England to the Sherborne School for Girls where she felt the pressure of being the only Black student. This motivated her to study harder and push for success as she felt that her performance, as the only Black student, would reflect on all those like her. She sufficiently proved herself that within one year she was accepted to Girton College in Cambridge, only the third African woman to ever attend the institution. She graduated in 1962 with a law degree and in 1965 became the first East African woman to be admitted to the English Bar. She was successful working lawyer but that same year was called back to Africa by the death of her father. She was present at the enthronement of her brother Rukirabasaiia Patrick David Matthew Koboyo Olimi VII as the twelfth Omukama of Toro at which time she received the title of Batebe or ‘Princess Royal’. In the traditional hierarchy, this made her the highest ranking woman in the kingdom and a close confidant of her brother the king.

However, this was a troubled time for Uganda as the exhilaration many felt with the end of colonialism and the hope of a new future turned into a downward spiral of intrigue, infighting and conflict. Upon obtaining independence King Frederick Mutesa II of Buganda became the ceremonial leader of the tribal kingdoms as the first President of Uganda with the untrustworthy Milton Obote as prime minister. Soon Obote was plotting to seize power for himself and in collusion with the commander of the army, General Idi Amin, he launched an attack on the palace, forcing “King Freddie” (as he was affectionately known) to flee the country. Obote became president and in 1967 abolished all the traditional, subsidiary tribal kingdoms of Uganda. Princess Elizabeth was afraid her brother would be killed in the ensuing turmoil but, thankfully, he managed to escape to London. Threatened by the political establishment in her own country, Princess Elizabeth traveled to the United States, moved to New York at the suggestion of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and quickly made a career for herself as an actress and model. Her star rose rapidly and soon she was being featured on the covers of Vogue and Harpers. She was also featured in such films as “Sheena” and “Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease” which was her first starring role.

Princess Elizabeth had obtained great fame in America, but her royal roots gave her an urge to serve her native country. During her time away President Obote had been overthrown in a military coup led by General Idi Amin and in 1971 he issued a special invitation to Princess Elizabeth to return to Uganda and serve as an ambassador to the world for her country. In those early days hopes for a better future were high and the Princess returned but was soon abroad again after being appointed by Amin to serve as Uganda’s ambassador to the United Nations. Idi Amin wanted to put the best possible face on his regime and his appointment of Princess Elizabeth was part of that plan. In 1974 Amin made Princess Elizabeth his Minister of Foreign Affairs. However, it quickly became more and more obvious to people in and outside of the country that Idi Amin was a bloodthirsty tyrant and possibly out of his mind.

Princess Elizabeth determined to have nothing more to do with Idi Amin or his government, which of course the dictator took as an act of betrayal. For a time the Princess was in great danger and fear for her life, not always knowing who she could trust or who might be coerced into acting against her. Yet, unlike a great many of her fellow Ugandans, the Princess remained alive and managed to escape to Kenya in February of 1975. From there she moved to Vienna and finally to London. After years of his nightmarish rule, Idi Amin was overthrown in a coup and the princess was invited back to Uganda to help oversee their first free national elections since the fall of King Freddie. Still wanting to help her people, in spite of everything she had been through, Princess Elizabeth came back. However, things did not change much for the better. The original author of the country’s misfortunes, President Obote, gained power again and began taking retribution on his political enemies in a campaign of revenge. Princess Elizabeth and her boyfriend Prince Nyabongo managed to escape to London in 1980 and were married the following year.

In 1985 President Obote was brought down by another military coup and though conditions in Uganda did not immediately improve, the situation at least became more stable so that progress could be made. By then a respected figure in her own country and around the world, the next year Princess Elizabeth was made ambassador to the United States, serving in that post until 1988. Sadly, in 1989, her husband Prince Nyabongo was killed in a plane crash. After that, she devoted much of her time to charity and stayed away from politics. However, after the end of the dictatorship she had provided invaluable assistance in the restoration of her brother and the other sub-national kingdoms. So many people had been killed, particularly among the tribal elders and chiefs, that few people knew anything about the traditions and protocol of the old monarchies and the Princess helped see that all was done properly and that the ceremonies were set down for future generations.

After the death of her brother King Olimi VII in 1995, Princess Elizabeth was one of the guardians of his young son, the new King of Toro and she has helped in his upbringing as well as the continued reconstruction of the Kingdom of Toro and the subsidiary monarchies of Uganda. Finally returning to national service, Princess Elizabeth has been the Ugandan ambassador to Germany and the Vatican before her most recent appointment as High Commissioner for Uganda in Nigeria. She published a book about her eventful life called “Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess”. Her story is a remarkable one with many ups and downs, from the heights of being a Princess Royal, Uganda’s first female lawyer, a successful actress, supermodel, minister and diplomat as well as being on many occasions in the greatest danger because of her heritage and political positions. Through it all though she has remained devoted to her country, her people and their traditional culture, truly an example to all.

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