FORT PORTAL, Uganda — There's a place in Africa where Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi is still king, but it's a long way from his unmarked grave deep in the Libyan desert. To get there, you have to travel south through the searing plains of Darfur and the scrubby brush of South Sudan and across the jungles of northern Uganda to its capital, Kampala. Then head west -- roughly 150 miles over rutted, potholed roads -- to the green hills of the Kingdom of Toro, ruled by a fatherless young monarch who grew up under Qaddafi's patronage.
Here, in the town of Fort Portal, in the smaller, more modern of the two Toro palaces atop Kabarole Hill, a portrait of Qaddafi still dominates the royal receiving room. Hung opposite the king's chair, it shows the Libyan leader triumphant, fist raised. The image dwarfs the room's other adornments: photographs of unsmiling former Toro kings, overstuffed furniture, animal skins. "The royal family is going to miss him quite a lot," Phillip Winyi, the kingdom's minister of information and foreign relations, tells me. The Qaddafis "were like another family."
The Toros, a pastoralist tribe of 2 million people tucked above Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains and made up primarily of Christians with a Muslim minority, trace their history back to the 16th century, though they only achieved independence in the early 1800s, splitting from the Bunyoro Kingdom to the north. The Toro connection with Libyan "royalty" is much more recent, dating to an unlikely encounter between Qaddafi and the Toro royal family at Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's 2001 swearing-in ceremony in Kampala. Local legend has it that the Libyan ruler was enthralled by the sight of 9-year-old King Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV -- King Oyo, for short -- all decked out in his ceremonial garb, the world's youngest monarch when he ascended the throne at age three. Soon after, Qaddafi's private jet was waiting at Entebbe International Airport to pick up the Toro royals for a visit to Tripoli. In July of that year, Qaddafi descended on Fort Portal for a ceremony in King Oyo's honor with so much pomp, circumstance, and security that one local journalist recalls it was like "the sky was coming to get in touch with the earth."
Mustopher Akolebirungi sells cosmetics at a wooden stall in Fort Portal's market. When Qaddafi came to town, Akolebirungi was part of a dance troupe that performed for the Libyan dictator. "I was graced because I saw a great man," he tells me. At the event, he received a T-shirt bearing Qaddafi's smiling face, which he wore until it disintegrated from too many washings.
Akolebirungi's opinion of Qaddafi is that the Libyan was one of Africa's great leaders; it is a view I hear many times across this city of more than 40,000 people. Perhaps he stayed too long in power, but Qaddafi was "not supposed to be killed in such a way," says Akolebirungi. "He should have been exiled." Perhaps even to the Toro Kingdom.
Qaddafi certainly could have lived here in one of the more dramatic symbols of his benevolence -- the royal palace. In the late 1970s, President Idi Amin and his troops did a number on the traditional home of the Toro kings, known as Omukama's Palace, using it as a military garrison. When they moved out, looters trashed the place, grabbing doors, windows, and fixtures. A smaller palace atop Kabarole Hill was built for the royal family next to the remains of Omukama's Palace, as the kingdom could not afford the extensive renovations to the decades-old structure.
During his July 2001 visit, however, Qaddafi cemented his promise to fund the restoration of the enormous, hatbox-shaped palace by laying an official foundation stone. Within a few years -- after several hundred thousand dollars, according to Winyi, and a final coat of coral-pink paint -- it was finished. A plaque was affixed at the entrance honoring the "great leader," and residents of Fort Portal took to calling the structure "Qaddafi's Palace."