Welcome to our Black History Month 2018 profile. With the often negative narrative Africa has experienced through the years, the ranks of African royalty have not only been overlooked, but have also produced some remarkable figures with diverse backgrounds. One such individual is Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya of Toro, a woman who has rightly gained a reputation for her dedication to her nation, kindness, beauty and exceptional intellect. Elizabeth’s story is one of style, beauty, honour, dedication, intrigue, danger, love and loss.
The daughter of the Omukama (King) George D. Rukiidi III, Elizabeth was born in Toro, Uganda in 1936. Toro became an independent state in the 18th century when it seceded from the ancient empire of Bunyoro-Kitara, which covered parts of present-day Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zaire, and Uganda. Toro lost its kingdom status in 1967 when President Milton Obote’s government abolished monarchs in Uganda.
Elizabeth went to school in Uganda but completed high school at Sherborne, an exclusive English all-girls’ school. This presented new challenges: the young princess had to adjust not only to a new culture, but also to what it meant to be the only African student among white aristocrats.
“I felt that I was on trial and that my failure to excel would reflect badly on the entire black race,” she later wrote. After one year, she was accepted into the University of Cambridge, only the third African woman in the institution’s history. In 1962, she graduated from Cambridge. Three years later the princess became a barrister-at-law, becoming the first woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English Bar.
Following the death of her father in 1965 Elizabeth returned to Uganda and received the title of Batebe (Princess Royal), making her the most powerful woman in the Toro Kingdom as advisor to her brother the new King. Barely one year later, political turmoil ensued in Uganda under Milton Obote, and Elizabeth escaped to London where Princess Margaret invited her to model in a charity fashion show where she was immediately a hit. She took to modelling like a duck to water.
Elizabeth featured in Vogue, Look, LIFE, Ebony and Queen magazines. She continued her modelling career in New York. She became the first Black woman to appear on the cover of a top fashion magazine (Harper’s Bazaar). Elizabeth also dabbled in acting and had a role in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease among others.
Political changes in Uganda in 1971 interrupted her career. Obote was overthrown by General Idi Amin who invited Elizabeth back to Uganda. Prompted by the desire to serve her country and caught up in the euphoria that followed the military takeover, Elizabeth served Amin’s government, acting as Uganda’s Roving Ambassador. But Amin’s rule was arguably even more repressive than Obote’s.
As part of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Elizabeth participated in a campaign to dispel the prevailing international skepticism around Amin. By 1972 it was becoming increasingly difficult for Elizabeth to use her exceptional diplomatic skills to formulate a coordinated foreign policy as Amin’s actions became erratic, confrontational and murderous, with several international incidents being sparked by his actions.
It was during this explosive time that Elizabeth was appointed Foreign Minister in 1974. A short as her tenure was (less than a year), Elizabeth revived Uganda’s tarnished image abroad, tried to soothe hostilities, and encouraged heads of state to visit the country and mend broken relationships. Ironically, her success as an advocate for Uganda helped Uganda but was one of the causes for her downfall. Amin became envious. It was under this illusion that Amin unsuccessfully proposed marriage to Bagaaya on her return from overseas.
After a brief arrest Elizabeth fled Uganda, taking up political asylum in Britain. Four years later, Elizabeth returned to Uganda to help with the country’s first free national elections, which were won by Obote, who continued killing his enemies. Elizabeth and her fiancé Prince Wilberforce Nyabongo, an aviation engineer, escaped to London in 1980 and married in 1981.
Finally in 1985, Obote was overthrown and following a brief period of military rule, was replaced by Yoweri Museveni. In 1986, Elizabeth was appointed ambassador to the United States, a job she held until 1988. Later that year, Nyabongo was killed in a plane crash.
After to the death of her husband, Elizabeth decided to focus on charitable activities and became the official guardian of her nephew, the King of Toro who was crowned at the age of 3. Following a period of service as Uganda’s Ambassador to Germany and the Vatican, Elizabeth accepted an appointment as Uganda’s High Commissioner to Nigeria.
The restoration of cultural leaders by President Museveni’s government in 1993 beckoned Princess Bagaya to return and serve her people as Princess Royale to her brother, King Patrick Kaboyo Olimi VII. She was one of the key players in restarting the kingdom as most of the elders who knew all the rituals and protocol were dead or scattered all over the world. Upon the untimely death of King Olimi VII, she was named as one of the guardians to her nephew, the three-and-one half years old infant king, His Royal Highness Omukama Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV. She is, today, one of the key players in the kingdom reconstruction activities of The Batebe of Toro Foundation, to which she devotes most of her time.
The story of Princess Elizabeth of Toro relates the highs and lows in the life of a living legend, a fairy tale princess.
African Princess: The Story of Elizabeth of Toro (London: 1983)
Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess (1989)
A State of Blood: The Inside Story of Idi Amin (1977) by Henry Kyemba