As 2016 elections near, northern leaders warn president
KITGUM — Over the last six months, the Acholi sub-region in northern Uganda has witnessed arguably more state burials and memorials of its illustrious and controversial sons than at any other time during President Museveni’s 29-year reign.
With those funerals, the Museveni government seeks to kill two birds with one stone: stretch out a reconciliatory hand to a region ravaged by war in two thirds of Museveni’s reign, and to score political points ahead of the 2016 general elections. However, local leaders have warned that using such events for political purposes could end up driving a further wedge between Museveni and the people of Acholi.
“Burying the dead in our culture is when, even if you are from different camps, it should reconcile us. It shouldn’t be used as a political tool. The Acholi people are not stupid. We can keep quiet but we are not stupid,” said Beatrice Anywar, the Kitgum district Woman MP and a member of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
The flurry of burial and memorial activities picked pace late last year with the September 18, 2014 reburial in Nwoya district of the remains of Erinayo Oryema, a former Inspector General of Police (IGP), who was murdered in February 1977 on the alleged orders of President Idi Amin.
President Museveni personally attended the reburial, at which Oryema was honoured with a three-gun salute, and a mausoleum at his grave site. There were also respective promises by Museveni and the police to rehabilitate Oryema’s farm and rebuild his family house, as well as to construct a museum and an institute in Oryema’s memory.
Two years earlier, at the burial of former Democratic Party (DP) politician Tiberio Okeny in Kitgum, Museveni had taken the unprecedented step of apologising for the atrocities carried out by the National Resistance Army (NRA) and, later, Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers under his command during the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
The recent activities seemed to hit a climax in the last five days, with the formal reburial of former Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) senior officer Lt Gen Bazilio Olara Okello, a former Museveni adversary who died in 1990 in Sudan, and the memorial service for the former Archbishop Janani Luwum who died in 1977 at the hands of Idi Amin.
While Museveni was not present at Gen Olara-Okello’s reburial in Lamwo district, several top Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) officers were in attendance at the February 14 event in which one of Acholi’s most well-known military sons received a state funeral complete with a 15-gun salute.
On the other hand, Museveni attended the centenary celebrations of Kitgum diocese on February 15 and the St Janani Luwum memorial the next day. He donated a total of Shs 60 million to the two church parishes. At Luwum’s funeral, Museveni went as far as declaring February 16, when Luwum was killed, a public holiday in response to a request by the archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Stanley Ntagali.
Museveni also promised to build a museum and construct a secondary and/or technical school in Mucwini, Kitgum in honour of Luwum, as well as erect a statue in Kampala.
At the centenary celebrations in Kitgum, the acting foreign Affairs minister Henry Okello Oryem revealed that President Museveni had given him an assignment to speak to other politicians from northern Uganda who are still in exile and convince them to return home.
During his own speech, Museveni said his government was indebted to northern Uganda, with the region lagging behind in the provision of basic public services such as electricity, paved roads, and education facilities.
“We have been having some debts in this part of Uganda. One of them is electricity. That one we have been paying in Kitgum, Lamwo and Namukora. There has been a debt of yoo (roads); that one, we are going to pay,” he said.
Currently, road construction is ongoing on the Kampala-Gulu road, as well as the Gulu-Atiak-Nimule road, on the gateway to South Sudan. Museveni said he is also negotiating with the African Development Bank (ADB) for money to construct the Rwenkunyu-Masindi Port-Apac-Lira-Kitgum road.
On February 19, Museveni returned to Lira to open a multi-billion shilling market and is expected to proceed to Kitgum this weekend to launch the construction of the 233km Olwiyo-Gulu-Kitgum-Musingo road, which opens another route to South Sudan. Museveni said his next task is to ensure that more people in northern Uganda become active players in the national economy rather than mere spectators.
“In the economy, we cannot afford loneno (spectators). Everybody must be lotuku (players),” he said, spicing his speech with Acholi words. “Anybody who is a spectator in food security and money must become a player.”
In spite of Museveni’s best efforts, local leaders in Acholi are not completely sold on his intentions. To some, such as Aswa MP Reagan Okumu (FDC), Museveni is putting the horse before the cart due to lack of humility.
“We cannot afford to go forward without reconciliation, whatever pride we have,” he told The Observer in Kitgum. “This president must swallow his pride and accept to reconcile. If not, history will judge him harshly. He is so proud and thinks that he is a clean man, he has not done anything bad; that’s not fair.”
Okumu argued that the fact that Museveni is offering token reconciliation to particular families and parts of the Acholi sub-region means he is merely “desperate” for political support but not keen on full reconciliation.
“Museveni wants to take advantage of any small issues to get sympathy and support. But that support will not just come through burials. That support will not come through giving envelopes to families of the departed. That support can only come if Museveni accepts and admits that he also murdered people in northern Uganda; that he killed people here, and that sitting in reconciliation would be real reconciliation where people are equal in that process, not reconciliation like in the Catholic Church where you go for confession then the sinner confesses the sins to God,” he explained.
Anywar complained that the political undertones of Museveni’s visits were evident in the fact that even during a religious function such as the one in Kitgum, NRM politicians were draped in yellow and openly bragged about their “secret mobilisation teams,” which were fused with the function’s organisation committee and were introduced to Museveni to recognise them for, among other things, the work they were doing for the NRM.
“Today, the [deliberate] alignment was that it was only the NRM to speak. But my elders in the Church told me, keep peace. The question here is not yet solved [but] what is being projected in the face to make Museveni think all is good,” she said, promising to go on radio later that evening to counter the mobilisation efforts by the NRM.
For Okumu, Museveni and the Acholi sub-region can only bury the hatchet if the president leads the way by developing a much more structured reconciliation effort, which can be put on record for posterity.
“If Museveni wants national reconciliation, it must be truly national; it must go through a formal process. Parliament must sanction a national truth and reconciliation commission to investigate. Everybody knows that this vicious cycle of revenge will not help, but at the end of the day we must do something substantial, something real, not just any ordinary thing,” he said.
Another senior politician from Acholi, DP President General Norbert Mao, shares Okumu’s view. During DP’s weekly press conference in Kampala yesterday, Mao echoed Okumu’s sentiments on a reconciliation commission, but in more forceful terms. He said, “I challenge President Museveni to table the national reconciliation bill.”
MEETING HALF WAY
The former leader of opposition in parliament, Prof Ogenga Latigo, however, believes that polarised positions will only prolong the pain and suffering of the Acholi.
“In his own way, he is saying sorry, and it is up to us to recognise that as a genuine commitment on his part and a genuine sentiment on his part,” he said, arguing that taking such a step does not necessarily mean that one has compromised their political beliefs.
Latigo, who commends Museveni for his persistent efforts to reach out to the people of Acholi, says local leaders must now reciprocate and meet the president halfway.
“The symbolism of what he does, the reaching out, is what matters. The scale is not important,” he said. “The national reconciliation process would be a good outcome, but this is a good sign that we should build on.”