Monday, February 23, 2015


Last week we commemorated the death of Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was killed in February 16, 1977 following allegations he was collaborating with the forces opposed to then president Idi Amin.

The official record is that he was killed during interrogation, but there is a strong suspicion that Amin himself may have actually pulled the trigger himself.

We read how attempts to portray Luwum’s death as a car accident didn’t hold. One nurse from Mulago testified that she saw bullet holes on his neck and chest, while another reported that a badly beaten Luwum joined other inmates briefly in the cells of the State Research Bureau (SRB) in Nakasero ours before his death.

During it all the good Archbishop does not seem to have lose his poise or lost his faith in his God. A useful study courage, defined as grace under pressure.

Reconstructing the mood of the time does not take a fertile imagination.

"An isolated Amin, by this time six years into his reign of terror, was seeing opponents – real and imagined around every corner. Either because of his limited exposure to the structures of civil society or because of a total disregard for due process or because he could, he and his system were eliminating people on pure suspicion....

The terror was made all the more universal, the anecdotal evidence suggests, with some people taking advantage of the situation to settle personal scores, to grab property or take over people’s girlfriends and wives.

Clearly Luwum fell prey to this heightened sense of paranoia, whether he sympathised with the opponents of Amin’s clumsy administration or not.

It has been suggested that the death of Luwum was the straw that broke the camel’s back, finally raising international awareness to the extent of how things had gone wrong in Uganda and galvanising support for regime change in Kampala.

Looking back almost 40 years it is maybe hard to fathom how things came to that.

A younger person in his 30s who ardently followed the series of articles on the Vision Group’s various platforms, leading up to the commemoration on Monday, was in genuine shock while declaring, “So Amin was this bad?”

Shock because in his experience it would be inconceivable for a senior prelate in such and secondly that a president would be personally involved (that is what he is convinced happened) in such an act.

It is probably that same naïvete that allowed Amin to run rough shod over the population and by the time people had got over their gullibility and stopped giving him the benefit of doubt, they were paralysed with terror and unable to mount any meaningful opposition internally.

It is useful to celebrate the life of Luwum, even make it a public holiday, but he would have died in vain if we do not look beyond the horror of the time to understand how the situation degenerated to such depths.

We can blame it on the politics.

Our post-independence politicians in trying to outmaneuver each other resorted to extrajudicial methods, circumventing established institutions and generally setting precedents that continue to reverberate down our history.

Once the powers that be begun to ignore the laws to ensure they got their way, they had begun the slide down a very slippery slope into chaos.

By February 1977 anything could go.

Agency or the role of an individual or group of people in shaping events will always be critical in the unfolding of history, but the sustainability of those changes or their continued progress, will depend on the viability of the society’s institutions.

Maybe one can’t fault a young independent Uganda whose institutions had not matured enough as to call the main actors to order at the time.

Maybe our major players were just inherently averse to operating in structured situations and preferred fluid situations where the ends justified the means and to hell with the rest.

Maybe we can blame fate that a coincidence of events that did not happen in neighbouring Kenya or Tanzania happened here and the problems of the 1970s and 1980s were predestined.

"They say that those that do not learn from history are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past. It offers no solace that they also say that, what we learn from history is that we do not learn from history...

Hence the importance of a deeper commemoration of Luwum’s death.

Thousands of people died during that horrific eight years of our history, and as inconceivable as it seems we can return to such a time unless we internalise and learn from what led to that dark age and determine that “Never Again!”

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