Two Murderers and a Martyr

on February 26, 2009


The following originally appeared in a recent IRD Weekly e-newsletter.  If you would like to receive our weekly e-newsletter, register as an IRD User today.


Two weeks ago, February 16, 2009, was the celebration of Presidents’ Day here in the United States. But in Uganda, February 16 was the anniversary of martyrdom. On February 16, 1977, the Most Rev. Janani Luwum, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, was murdered by Idi Amin.

Most Americans, if they think about Idi Amin, think of Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. But I first heard about Idi Amin and how he had devastated the country that Winston Churchill called “The Pearl of Africa,” not long after I began attending Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, Virginia. Ugandan Christian Kefa Sempangi, provided first-hand an account of deeds that should be relegated to the most hideous of nightmares, but never to reality in the twentieth century. In 2006, when I began writing Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children, I was once again forced to confront the scope of Amin’s crimes against humanity, and to see Uganda’s most vulnerable subject to the whims of another such evil monster, in the form of the Lord’s Resistance Army leader, Joseph Kony.

Kony has been responsible for the deaths and abductions of tens of thousands among northern Uganda’s Acholi, and in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, as well as for the internment of some 90 percent of the population of Acholi to displacement camps for the last two decades. And now even though in the last two years there have been attempts to pressure them into a peace agreement, the LRA has moved into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to continue its slaughter. This past Christmas, the LRA murdered some 900 people in the DRC. Many as they were emerging from church services on Christmas Day.

Idi Amin and Archbishop Luwum

Unlike Kony, though, who just sprang out of anonymity, Amin was a general and chief of staff in the actual Ugandan Army. He seized power on January 25, 1971, while President Milton Obote was outside the country. At first, Amin was welcomed by both Ugandans and the international community. He promised to rid the country of corruption and introduce economic reforms. Amin also promised to disband President Obote’s secret police, free all political prisoners, and hold elections immediately to return the country to civilian rule.

The true nature of Amin’s regime came to the surface as quickly as the bloated bodies of his victims rose to the surface of the Nile. Corruption could stay; Amin preferred to get rid of people. Elections never took place while he was in power. Amin established the State Research Bureau, a death squad commissioned to hunt down and murder the supporters of former President Obote and other enemies. Much of Amin’s interrogation of his enemies took place in the Nile Mansions Hotel, which became notorious as a torture chamber and site of mass killings. Those who died included ordinary citizens, former and serving cabinet ministers, national supreme court justices, diplomats, scholars and educators, and senior bureaucrats. Amin also killed doctors and other medical practitioners, bankers, business executives, journalists, hapless foreigners, and prominent clergymen, such as Archbishop Janani Luwum.

As the British and Israelis distanced themselves from Amin, he returned to Islam, receiving political and financial support from Libya and other Arab countries. Amin added “Al-Hajji” to his name because he had made a pilgrimage (hadj) to Mecca in 1970. Once he embraced Islam again, he had Koranic readings broadcast every evening on Ugandan television. If Uganda had remained under Idi Amin it may have become one of East Africa’s first radical Islamic states. In spite of Amin’s past relationship with Israel, where he had been trained as a parachutist, he developed an irrational hatred of the Jewish people, fostered in his close relationship with Yasser Arafat. The PLO conducted training camps in Uganda that schooled Amin’s security forces and other military to kill hundreds of thousands of Ugandan Christians.

Archbishop Luwum

Archbishop Janani Luwum maintained an official relationship to the government in spite of an increasing awareness of Amin’s abuses. He was often criticized because he seemed to give legitimacy to the murderous dictator. But Luwum attended government functions in the hope of maintaining leverage with the regime. To his critics, Luwum replied, “I face daily being picked up by the soldiers. While the opportunity is there I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present government which is utterly self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have the opportunity, I have told the President the things the churches disapprove of.”

Luwum used his relatively strong influence on behalf of those who were being wrongfully arrested, detained without trial and killed. He often went personally to the office of the State Research Bureau to intercede for prisoners. But accusations that Luwum had government sympathies were silenced for good in February 1977 when the archbishop’s courageous confrontation of Amin finally resulted in his death.

After Amin massacred thousands, including the entire population of the home village of former president Obote, the Church of Uganda spoke out against the Ugandan government’s horrific human rights violations before an audience that included many high government officials. In response, the government raided Archbishop Luwum’s house, supposedly looking for weapons, and attempted to depict the archbishop as an instigator of dissent and treason.

Luwum and the diocesan bishops met together on February 8, 1977 and wrote a letter of protest to President Amin. And on February 16, Amin summoned religious, government, and military leaders to Kampala to condemn Luwum for “subversive acts.” Six other bishops were publicly arraigned with Luwum in a sham trial for smuggling arms, but it was clear that it was Janani Luwum with whom Amin was concerned. As the leaders were ordered to leave, one at a time, Archbishop Luwum said to Bishop Kivengere, “They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.” He told the bishops not to be afraid, that he saw “God’s hand in this.”

The details of Archbishop Luwum’s death vary. The last that his friends saw of him, Luwum and two cabinet ministers were being taken away in a Land Rover. The next day, February 17, a government spokesperson claimed that Archbishop Luwum had died in a car accident. Later (to explain the bullet holes found in his body) the story was changed. This time Luwum had been shot while trying to escape from the soldiers taking him to detention.

It is believed, however, that the archbishop was taken to the Nile Mansions Hotel for interrogation. When he refused to sign a confession, he was beaten, whipped, and finally shot, possibly by Idi Amin himself, as he prayed for his tormentors. Then his body was driven over to give the appearance that he had been killed in a road accident. The body was placed in a sealed coffin and sent to his home village of Mucwini, in the Kitgum District of northern Uganda, for burial. It was then that the coffin was opened and the bullet holes found.

In June of that year, more than twenty-five thousand Ugandans gathered in Kampala to celebrate the centennial of the first preaching of the gospel in Uganda. During Amin’s rule, and persecution of the churches, the Christian community actually increased from 52 to 70 percent of the population. Many Christians who had fallen away, returned to faith after seeing the courage of Archbishop Luwum and other Christians in the face of persecution and death.

Luwum warned that “the Church should not conform to the powers of darkness.” According to the Janani Luwum Trust in the United Kingdom, Luwum “exercised exceptional and courageous leadership when he opposed Idi Amin’s regime of tyranny, gross human rights violations, and ‘islamisation’ agenda in Uganda.”

Today many Ugandan church leaders are following in the steps of Archbishop Luwum. They speak out, urging the Ugandan government and the world community to stop the LRA once and for all. In addition, just as they did in the days of Idi Amin, they call the Church to prayer and intercession against the satanic powers that today control Kony and his followers.

I believe that their prayer has been answered in part by God putting Africa and its children on the hearts of young people in the America. Across the country college, high school, and even elementary school students have been awakened to the need to act and end the war of Joseph Kony. But the Church in Uganda also asks God that American churches and church leaders would join them in advocacy and in prayer.  And what a witness it would be to these young American advocates, who see the greatest concern and compassion for the children of northern Uganda outside the walls of the churches, to see an American church community dedicated to praying and being advocates for peace in northern Uganda.

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