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African teen king lives dual life

By Faith Karimi, CNN
  • Uganda outlawed kingdoms in 1967 to prevent conflict with central government
  • President reinstated four kingdoms in 1990s on condition leaders focus more on culture
  • King Oyo ascended to throne at age three after his father died in 1995
  • King Oyo will become sole decision-maker when he turns 18 in April
  • Uganda

Fort Portal, Uganda (CNN) -- At first glance, he looks like any other 17-year-old.

He bobs his head to rapper Jay-Z, plays video games and reads the "Twilight" vampire books. When he's not doing homework, he kicks a soccer ball in his backyard.

Yet looks can be deceiving.

People in this corner of western Uganda know the young man as King Oyo, one of the world's youngest ruling monarchs. The teen king rules over more than 2 million people in the Tooro kingdom, one of four kingdoms in Uganda that conjure images of pre-colonial Africa.

King Oyo lives for part of the year in a palace perched on a hill in Fort Portal, a place where bicycles stacked with bananas race past ramshackle huts in the shadow of a snow-capped mountain. He also has a palace in the bustling Ugandan capital, Kampala, where he studies at a private school while soldiers stand guard.

Friends at school greet him with hugs and handshakes, but back home, subjects kiss his feet while sprawled before him on the ground, as if they were doing push ups.

"I still find it a little uncomfortable when people bow, especially the older ones," says the king, whose full name is Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV. "My friends at school (could not) care less that I'm a king. They like me for who I am, not for what I am."

King Oyo has worn the crown for as long as he can remember.

He ascended to the throne aged three, after his father died in 1995. For his coronation, the toddler sat on a miniature throne and played with toys after a mock battle with a grown-up "rebel" prince. At one point, his majesty dashed from the throne to climb onto his mother's lap. He also yanked off a lion-skin crown that was too heavy for his little head.

The next day, King Oyo attended a meeting with Cabinet members who were old enough to be his grandparents.

Now he stands nearly six feet tall and looks much more regal. He sits on a throne draped with leopard skin and wears a royal robe of blue and gold, his cropped hair covered by a crown with a fluffy white tail.

"The first few years, I did not know what was going on," he says. "I think I realized when I was about 6 that I really was king, and my life was going to be different. I was going to have responsibilities toward a lot of people."

King Oyo oversees a Cabinet that includes a prime minister, board of regents and councilmen. The president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, advises him. So does Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

In addition to serving as the figurehead for members of the Batooro tribe -- the group that makes up most of the Tooro kingdom -- the king oversees efforts to raise money for projects involving such things as health and education. He implements programs to boost cultural pride. He also helps oversee how his kingdom spends tax money that it gets from the Ugandan government.

The king makes major decisions with the help of regents and advisers. His mother, Queen Best Kemigisa, lives in the palace and works closely with him, though King Oyo will become the sole decision-maker when he turns 18 in a few weeks.

"It's a huge responsibility," the king says, "but I have a lot of support from my mother, my sister and others, so I know I can do it."

The job has its perks.

Fawning subjects give him livestock and spears. He travels to meet world leaders. And teenage girls and young women flock to his palace for public events, though the king changes subjects like a veteran politician when asked whether he's dating.

"I can't wait to see the new 'Twilight' movie," he says with a sly smile.

There are downsides.

King Oyo travels with a security detail of military guards who also hover around his school. That makes it hard to blend into a crowd.

"At times, I'll have things I want to do, but I can't just get up and do them like ordinary teenagers do," he says. "I can't always do what I want because I have obligations."

Kingdoms in Africa date at least to the Egyptian civilization, though their numbers have declined in the last few hundred years.

The monarchies are based on ethnicities, sparking concerns of a setback in national integration efforts, said Ndebesa Mwambutsya, a history professor at Makerere University in Kampala.

"Ugandans identify themselves first with their tribes and kingdoms, then as citizens," he says. "This works in most African cultures because people have lost faith in the government, and tribes and kingdoms provide a nucleus around which an identity can be forged."

Finding a balance between national unity and tradition can be a challenge, according to the professor.

"It's a paradox in itself. It is important that African culture is preserved because a people without culture is like groping in the darkness," he says.

"At the same time, there's globalization, there's consumerism, there's national integration. Making all those fit in with traditionalism is a tall order -- it needs perspective to ensure kingdoms are not counterproductive."

Many Africans, like the people in King Oyo's realm, identify themselves as a member of a tribe or ethnic group first and as citizen of a nation second. That is partly a legacy of colonialism, when European powers drew boundaries for countries and territories that lumped together people of various tribes and ethnic groups, including many who had a history of poor relations.

Tension between ethnic groups within the same country often has flared into violence around the continent. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which killed nearly 800,000 people, for example, was a result of inter-ethnic violence. So was the post-election violence in neighboring Kenya that left more than 1,000 dead in 2008.

In Uganda, the central government outlawed kingdoms in 1967, but the president reinstated four of them in the '90s on the condition that their leaders focus more on culture and less on national politics.

Other African countries, such as Lesotho and Swaziland, also have kings. The king of Swaziland is famous for festivals at which scores of virgins dance for him, but King Oyo is sedate by contrast. He presides over a kingdom where time seems to have stopped.

Snow-capped Mount Rwenzori peeks through the mist and glints under moonlight, a hulking backdrop to the shacks and banana plantations that dot rolling landscapes. The lush, green vegetation does not translate into wealth, though: Most people in the kingdom -- like people in the rest of Uganda -- live in poverty.

Even so, some people have pinned their hopes on the young king.

"His age brings a lot of financial support from leaders who want to mentor him and see him succeed," says Ruhweza Remigious, 34, a carpenter who lives in a mud hut across from the palace in Fort Portal.

"Most Africans are led by older people who don't do anything," Remigious says. "He is young and eager, and we hope he will give us a better life and modernize our infrastructures."

That's a heavy burden for anyone to shoulder. It puts particularly strong pressure on a teenager who likes to hang out with his buddies from school and root for his favorite soccer team -- Arsenal, of the Premier League in England.

So would he have chosen to be king?

He pauses.

"I'm not really sure if I can answer that question," he says. "Being a king is not easy. Sometimes I wish I could just be ordinary."

Journalist Samson Ntale contributed to this report.