Containing religion’s social and political influence has always been a major concern in Ugandan leadership, right from the pre-colonial era when Kabaka Mwanga, seeing his power was under threat, ordered the killing of Christians in 1885.
Since then, all subsequent leaderships have always taken keen interest in trying to control religion because of its power to drive people’s mindset or perception. For years, colonialists employed religious divisions to successfully govern Uganda with Anglicans at the top, followed by Catholics and Muslims in that order.
Over the years, these tensions between the church and state have been manifested mainly in the Anglican Church, whose offshoot, the Born-Agains [Balokole] have since emerged to become the biggest headache for the state.
Even when Uganda gained independence in 1962, religion remained at the forefront and it is widely held that the failure of Ben Kiwanuka to lead the post-independence government was partly down to his being a Catholic.
Historian Phares Mukasa Mutiibwa, in his book titled Uganda Since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes, decodes the political manoeuvring in religious leadership, noting that government intervention in religion tended to divide, rather than unite.
For instance, Abubaker Adoko Nekyon, the powerful Culture minister and cousin to President Obote, formed the National Association for the Advancement of Muslims (NAAM) in 1964 to challenge the Muslim titular leadership of Badru Kakungulu, a move that created divisions in the Islamic faith.
Meanwhile, excerpts from Bob Astles’s memoir, Forty Tribes: A Life in Uganda, recount how the Obote government stirred up conflicts within religions. This came to a head in 1965 when Leslie Brown, the Anglican archbishop, prepared to retire and whereas the general consensus was his deputy, Dunstan Nsubuga, takes over, cabinet had other ideas.
“Nekyon pointed out that the cabinet in general was for an archbishop from another tribe and that the Baganda must give up their dreams of being leaders in every field,” Astles says.
Indeed, government announced days later that the House of Bishops had selected Erica Sabiiti, much to the disappointment of Buganda kingdom. Incidentally, Sabiiti had served as Obote’s personal chaplain and according to the 1975 publication: Religion and Political Development in Uganda, researcher Kathleen Goodman Lockard notes that Obote propelled Sabiiti to the top and used him to stifle discontent in the Anglican Church leadership, especially in Buganda. In 1969 when the Anglican Church called for public prayers after the death of Kabaka Muteesa II, Obote persuaded Sabiiti to call off the prayers.
Astles goes ahead to recall his first meeting with Sabiiti.
“It was on a deplorable occasion when he had been coerced into attending a massive political rally of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party at Lugazi. Religious leaders had not previously involved themselves blatantly in politics and some of the great crowd were ardent Catholics and opposed to the government. Yet here was the archbishop, looking weak and forlorn, standing on the platform with one hand raised in the air joining in the acclaim for UPC,” he wrote.
At the broadest level, the Amin government sought to constrain religious activity by conferring recognition on only three major religions (Anglicans, Catholic and Islam). He banned a host of religious and quasi-spiritual groups and sects such as the emerging Pentecostals like Balokole, Full Gospel movement and Baha’i faith, among others.
Many leaders of these religious groups were either killed, fled the country or were imprisoned. Pastor Joseph Serwadda is one of those to endure Amin’s wrath when he was incarcerated in Luzira prison for preaching evangelism until he regained his freedom when Amin was overthrown.
Official regulations also stipulated tight government control over every aspect of religious existence, dictating acceptable. Official control extended even to the realm of beliefs by imposing boundaries for acceptable religious doctrines. Incidentally, the three major religions didn’t challenge Amin’s decision to ban other ‘smaller’ ones and in doing so helped breed the religious intolerance later on.
The authorities engineered the appointment of loyalists to leadership positions within the religious organizations. In 1973 when Sabiiti was about to retire, Sylvanus Wani, a senior bishop, was the frontrunner to succeed him but in a surprise, the House of Bishops went for a much-younger Janani Luwum, who had only spent three years as bishop.
Unsurprisingly, relations between the Anglican Church and the state became fraught with tensions between the Acholi, Luwum’s tribe which felt oppressed by Amin, and the Kakwa, the tribe of Amin and Wani, which felt betrayed by the vote.
It didn’t take long before Luwum’s bold criticism of the state’s human rights record incensed Amin. This tough stance would later cost Luwum his life in 1977 when he was murdered on Amin’s orders.
This further served to heighten the tension to the extent that some Anglican bishops such as Yona Okoth and Festo Kivengere fled into exile while those who stayed behind left Wani to take over as archbishop, partly to appease Amin.
This eighties era had many transitions and the most notable aspect is that religious leaders, fed up of government’s injustices, joined hands to support rebel forces to overthrow the state.
President Museveni often narrates how he convinced Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala and Bishop Misaeri Kawuma to support the guerrilla war in Luweero.
This, however, came with the promise of religious freedom of worship, something that was granted when Museveni took power in 1986. Religious denominations such as Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventists had remained somehow under the radar but now enjoyed a free lease of life. With this also came the revival of the Born-Agains [Balokole], who were disparagingly described by their crude houses of prayer known as Biwempe.
The biggest change here is that whereas the governments before limited religious freedom, NRM’s approach was to accommodate everyone, even if it meant splitting up a religion. This was most evidenced amongst Muslims and these divisions reached a critical point in 1993 when two warring factions led by Ahmed Mukasa and Saad Luwemba publicly fought for a microphone during the 1993 Independence day celebrations. To this day, they remain visible with two parallel muftis, both of which are separately supported by the state depending on the situation.
Government’s policy of favouring ‘patriotic’ religious personnel to break away and create new faiths also spread to the Catholic Church when Bishop Jacinto Kibuuka broke ranks with the establishment. He was provided state protection and even allowed to ordain his own bishops.
Although the dividing line may not be as clear for Anglicans or Born-Agains, congregants are keenly aware that some of their leaders’ loyalties to the regime trump their commitment to serving the faithful.
In recent years, however, the state has become uncomfortable with the growing influence of some religious leaders, especially those who criticise it. The same feeling has also crept into some leaders of ‘major’ religions seeing that their numbers are shrinking by the day. there are also those perceived to preach fake religious doctrines.
That’s why a few years ago, government, through the ministry of Ethics, came up with the Religious and Faith-Based Organisations (RFBO) policy. The policy enjoys overwhelming support from the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU), an umbrella uniting efforts of major religious institutions to jointly address issues of common concern.
Also known as the Lukodo policy [in reference to Ethics state minister Simon Lokodo], it calls for comprehensive control measures to streamline religion but critics say it is intended to prevent religion from emerging as an independent social force.
Incidentally, IRCU excludes the majority of Born-Again faiths and it is here that the proposed policy is facing its biggest opposition. Pastor Joseph Serwadda, the presiding Apostle of Born-Again Faith Federation (BAFFE), says the RFBO policy is needed to create assurance which has deluded Balokole for ages.
“Born-Again Church experienced great tribulation when Amin, by decree, abolished our churches. Many Christians were imprisoned. A repeat of the same ordeal is possible, unless pre-emptied by an actual legislation,” he says. “There needs to create a one-stop centre of registration and licensing.”
To this, Serwadda maintains that a statutory guarantee will be good for the self-regulatory status of Born-Again churches.
“The issue of self-regulation is of cardinal interest here. We have two great opportunities for our faith communities to show a seriously concerned public that all abuses will now be permanently ended. We have come, as a community, to point where we must self-regulate or government will do it for us,” he says.
“On serious scrutiny, and before we run to the president, in order to self-regulate, we must begin to exhibit the highest ethical standards ever in our nation. We need to quickly identify the core of the moral principles and values that we all share, and speak the same language.”
However, Joseph Kabuleta, a pastor and leader of the Watchdog ministries, opposes the policy because freedom of worship is a fundamental human right.
“Everyone has a right to worship as he wants without regulation as long as he/she doesn’t infringe on the laws of the nation. We need to learn from history…some of the pastors like Serwadda who were imprisoned by Amin using the law yet are now joining the oppressor. The biggest lesson from Janani Luwum is that it is the duty of religious leaders to stand up for civil liberties. He could have kept quiet like anybody else but he chose to speak out. That’s what it means to be a leader.”
Last year, Kabuleta was detained for some days after his stinging Facebook post about the first family. Also, his solidarity with other prominent pastors such as Robert Kayanja, Aloysious Bugingo, David Kiganda and others has offered powerful resistance against the policy.
“It is very unfortunate that the church which suffered most when Luwum was murdered is the same church that wants to be regulated,” he said in reference to IRCU. “The very church from which Luwum rose is the one siding with the state to sow the seeds of religious intolerance. Amin started by banning Balokole churches and the churches cheered. It is only when he came to sting them that they discovered he was dangerous.”
STALEMATE IN PARLIAMENT
Last year, MP John Baptist Nambeshe presented a proposal before parliament to introduce the RFBO bill to regulate religious organisations but he was forced to withdraw it after a stalemate that the proposed law would lead to an infringement of people’s rights and freedom of worship.
In support of the regulation, MP Okin Ojara said the country needs to be mindful of the misleading religious sects.
“We need to remind ourselves of the incident in Kanungu of how a man called Kibwetere burnt people to death in church; these are circumstances that need to be curbed,” he said.
However, most MPs noted that this interferes with the freedom to worship.
“We have diverse cultures and a strong base of traditional beliefs that vary. This would be difficult to regulate because of the unique beliefs of the various groups,” Jennifer Nantume said.
What is not doubtable is that the salience of the policy is in part a result of unanticipated rapid growth in religious activity. “It is important that a religious faith commands an allegiance that transcends political authority, whereas government’s enduring imperative is to eliminate social and ideological competition,” Ibrahim Semujju Nganda said.
In Uganda’s religious landscape, the most volatile terrain is where religious beliefs link with competing political agendas. Again, this is most visible in the born-again faith, which attracts mainly youthful congregations and where bold preaching about social injustice is loudest.
The state has long viewed the emerging breed of Pentecostal preachers as closely allied with forces of change in leadership. The same holds true for some Muslim sects, which are purportedly linked with terrorism.
To Kabuleta, this is a struggle for political control.
“The base of Museveni’s support has always been rural Uganda but it is shrinking while Balokole numbers are swelling at a terrific speed. Dictators always try to get passion from wherever they can get it and today, the born-again faith is tempting [to control] because it gives the impression that people who go there will listen to anything they are told,” he adds.
“You cannot control how someone should worship. How can we not talk about politics in church? Don’t we drive on the bad roads? Unfortunately, Museveni has the many stooges among the Balokole but they cannot get me as a pastor because they have no basis …but if a law like that is passed, they could close my ministry on grounds that I don’t have any training in theology.”
History suggests that Uganda is approaching a critical juncture in church-state relations, especially as the country moves into the 2021 general elections. Will the government go ahead and enact a law to regulate religion?
Put another way, would Archbishop Luwum endorse such regulation? It remains to be seen what will happen next.
- Catholics remain the most numerous, with about 36 per cent of the population followed by Anglicans.
- Born-Again rise within is particularly surprising. Until recently, they were limited to 11 million in the 2014 national census but over the past yet in the last decade, the faith’s population had swelled to an estimated 20 million, thereby surpassing Muslims, according to recent Ubos statistics.
- At the moment, there are more than 5,000 born-again ministries.
- Meanwhile, a host of religious sects have also sprouted up in virtually every corner of society. Dozens of colourfully-named religious sects have also emerged, often clinging around charismatic leaders who mainly preach doomsday messages and prosperity.
- Other movements such as traditional spiritual disciplines are openly gaining revival.