By Michael Mubangizi
Twenty-nine years ago tomorrow, the murder of the Archbishop of
Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga Zaire Janani Luwum shocked
Together with two cabinet ministers and hundreds of thousands others,
the Archbishop fell victim to the late former dictator Idi Amin’s
His murder was seen as part of Amin`s hostility towards the church
that stemmed from its opposition to his attempts to turn Uganda
into an Islamic state.
On Christmas in 1976, Amin in a radio broadcast accused the church
of preaching bloodshed and hatred instead of love in their sermons.
He had earlier banned fundraising functions in church, dubbing
the practice “magendo (smuggling) in God’s temple.”
Earlier in 1975, probably to spite the church, Amin had appeared
dressed in the robes of an Arab sheikh during the opening of the
Catholic Martyrs’ shrine at Namugongo.
Gunmen raid archbishop
Then on February 5, 1977, armed men raided the archbishop’s
official residence at Namirembe at around 1:30 a.m., reportedly
in search of arms. They used a man they had arrested and tortured
as a decoy to entice the prelate into opening to help a man ostensibly
in distress. The man, Ben Ongom, was later to “implicate”
the Archbishop in arms trade. The archbishop later wrote in a report
to the Bishops about the incident:
“So I opened the door and immediately these armed men who
had been hiding sprung on me, corking their rifles and shouting,
‘Archbishop, Archbishop, show us the arms’. I replied,
‘what arms’? They replied: ‘There are arms in
this house’. I said ‘No’.
‘At this point their leader put his rifle in my stomach on
the right hand side whilst another man searched me from head to
foot. He pushed me with his rifle, shouting walk, run, show us the
In the same account, the archbishop quotes Ongom as having alleged:
“Archbishop, you see some time back we brought some ammunition
and divided it up with Mr. Olobo who works in the Ministry of Labour
in Kampala…. I have suggested to the security men that Mr.
Olobo might have transferred the ammunition to your house…please
After searching the archbishop’s bedroom where his wife Mary
was asleep, the men searched all the other rooms, food stores, toilets,
bathrooms, cars in the compound and the chapel where they even looked
underneath the holy table.
No gun was found by 4:30 a.m. when they left.
Fearing that the soldiers might come back for him, Mary Lawinyo
Luwum, the widow, said in an interview that the following day, the
archbishop slept at Namirembe Guest House. She advised him to flee
the country but the archbishop declined.
Mary further says that not long after the nocturnal search, Amin
invited the archbishop to State House Entebbe. She accompanied him,
something that did not go down well with Amin.
“He wanted to see him alone,” she says.
During the meeting, Mary recounts, Amin tried to justify the search
“We wanted arms you got from Obote,” she quotes Amin
as having told Luwum in his face.
“I can’t keep guns because guns kill people, I am not
a murderer,” was Luwum’s humble response to Amin. But
Amin insisted the prelate had transported the arms to Kitgum, Luwum’s
Amin then insisted on taking photos with the archbishop. He said
rumours had circulated worldwide that the archbishop had been jailed
so he wanted the photos to prove the contrary.
Meanwhile, a day after the search of the archbishop’s house,
a similar raid was conducted at Bukedi Diocese’s Bishop Yona
Okoth’s his residence. Now deceased, Okoth was later to become
archbishop in 1984.
Bishops issue missive
Church of Uganda leaders met on February 8, 1977 to discuss the
incidents and on February 10 issued a strongly worded memorandum
signed by the archbishop and 17 bishops to Amin. Only Bishop Brian
Herd of Karamoja who was on leave at the time did not sign.
This memo, condemning the raids in no uncertain terms, rubbed Amin
the wrong way and probably became the last nail in the archbishop’s
Copies were also sent to leaders of the Catholic, Orthodox and
Muslim religious groups, cabinet ministers, and foreign missions.
“We feel that if it was necessary to search the archbishop’s
house, he should have been approached in broad [day] light by responsible
senior officers, fully identified in conformity with his position
in society, but to search him and his house at gun-point deep in
the night leaves us without words,” the document read in part.
“The gun whose muzzle has been pressed against the archbishop’s
stomach, the gun which has been used to search the Bishop of Bukedi’s
house, is the gun being pointed at every Christian in the church,”
the bishops continued.
| The late Archbishop (R) with Amin
The clergy also condemned the killings and general insecurity in
the country. They further slammed Amin’s attempt to turn Uganda
into an Islamic state, citing some Muslim leaders who they said
were coercing Christians to become Muslims.
Col. Bernard Rwehururu wrote in his book Cross to the Gun that
the statement was a true reflection of Uganda at the time.
“It was depressing but an accurate account of the conditions
of the majority of the people of Uganda,” said the author
who also served in Amin’s army.
As the bishops had requested for a meeting in their memo, Amin
invited them to Nile Hotel Kampala on February 17. Also invited
were cabinet ministers, diplomats and members of the Economic Crimes
Tribunal that had been set up to prosecute persons involved in illicit
economic activities such as smuggling, hoarding, overcharging and
embezzlement, which had become rampant after the 1972 expulsion
The hotel compound was flooded with soldiers sitting on the ground
in a large semi-circle. In the middle of the semi-circle were heaps
of weapons reportedly captured from dissident groups. The guests
took their positions in front of the hotel, facing the seated soldiers.
The assembly waited in the hot sun for the president to arrive
in vain. Little did they know that he was watching the proceedings
from his office at Nile Hotel, striding back and fourth between
the balcony and the television inside.
Malyamungu addresses assembly
At 11:00 a.m., Col. Isaac Malyamungu opened the proceedings. He
was one of Amin’s toadies and most feared officers in the
army. He is said to have headed the execution gangs after the 1971
coup with unlimited powers to execute anyone in the army, even officers
senior to him. Before joining the army, he had been a gatekeeper
at Nyanza textile industry in Jinja but had quickly risen through
the ranks to become a colonel.
As expected, Malyamungu told the gathering that the subversion
the government was talking about was real.
“Here now is proof of it,” he said, pointing at the
cache of arms.
Then followed the reading of written statements by ‘conspirators’
who reportedly confessed to attempting to overthrow the government.
Their testimonies implicated Obote and the archbishop in rebellious
Abdulla Anyur, a former chairman of the Public Service Commission,
read the first statement allegedly from Obote directed to his henchmen.
It claimed that many people were unhappy; that Amin had mismanaged
the country, and that people were being tortured and killed. The
archbishop was alleged to have received some arms from Tanzania
to distribute to insubordinate groups in Uganda. Henry Kyemba, Amin’s
Minister of Health at the time, later wrote in his book, The state
of blood, that the archbishop shook his head in denial the moment
that allegation was read.
Ben Ongom and Lt. Ogwang, an intelligence officer, ‘admitted’
in their statements to receiving from Obote instructions and the
arms that were on display.
Interestingly, nothing in those accounts implicated ministers Erinayo
Oryema and Oboth Ofumbi who were killed together with the archbishop.
Oryema was the minister of Lands and Water Resources. He had been
in the army with Amin for years and had previously been the Inspector
General of Police.
Ofumbi was minister of Internal Affairs.
After the statements had been read out, Malyamungu asked for those
who wanted the “conspirators” to die to show their hands.
All the soldiers raised their hands, shouting “kinja yeye,
kinja yeye,” Kiswahili for “kill them, kill them.”
At about 3:00 p.m., the gathering was told to move into the nearby
International Conference Centre to hear an address by Amin. After
they had all settled in the new venue, Malyamungu asked the religious
leaders to return to the hotel. He also ordered ministers Oryema
and Ofumbi to join them.
Along the way, the soldiers stopped the bishops. They were told
the President wanted to meet the archbishop alone. He was immediately
bundled into a car and driven towards State Research Bureau headquarters
in Nakasero. Back at the conference centre, security men arrested
the two ministers, shoved them into cars that drove in the direction
the archbishop had been taken.
Kyemba, who witnessed the drama, further wrote in his book that
Amin who was watching the drama from the balcony of his office at
Nile Hotel, at one point shouted instructions to his soldiers to
the effect that the arrested people shouldn’t be man-handed
until they have been driven away from the dozens of drivers and
bodyguards waiting to pick their bosses.
Between the International Conference Centre and State Research
Bureau on Ternan Avenue, an accident was faked in which the bishops
and the two ministers died between 3:00 –4:30 p.m.
Col. Rwehururu, who attended the meeting at Nile Hotel as a member
of the Economic Crimes Tribunal, writes in his book that Maj. Okello
Moses pulled the trigger. Kyemba only describes Okello as the one
who drove the archbishop from Nile Hotel but is non-committal about
his role in the shooting.
At the conference centre, Amin addressed the jamboree gathering
and reiterated his criticism of the church. He also invited his
ministers for a party that evening, but only soldiers attended.
Commenting on this, Kyemba wrote:
“Having spent the whole day listening in horror to patent
fabrications and knowing that the whole event was stage-managed,
no minister was inclined to celebrate.”
News of the deaths was suppressed until it was relayed simultaneously
in the official newspaper, Voice of Uganda, and on Radio Uganda.
“God has given them their punishment,” was Amin’s
response when told that the trio had perished in an “accident”.
The accident theory was merely a cover up and there are numerous
grounds to disprove it. Despite the fact that the ‘scene’
was just a stone’s throw from Mulago Hospital, the bodies
were not taken to the mortuary until 4:30 a.m., nearly 12 hours
When the bodies did arrive, it was not in an ambulance but an army
truck. The deceased were all dressed as they had been the previous
day. Kyemba, who received the bodies as minister for Health, further
wrote in his book:
“The bodies were bullet-riddled. The archbishop had been
shot through the mouth and at least three bullets in the chest.
The ministers had been shot in a similar way but one only in the
chest and not through the mouth. Oryema had a bullet wound through
At the ‘accident scene’, two Range Rovers that had
previously been involved in an accident, UVW 082 and UVS 299, were
paraded in positions that suggested an accident. The Mulago Hospital
postmortem report read that the three “`had died of injuries
to the ribs and internal organs”.
As had been the case with most murders committed under Amin’s
watch, the bereaved families and the church were denied the chance
to retrieve the bodies lest they found out the real cause of death.
Instead, they were driven to Mbuya army headquarters where they
were kept for a week.
Without consulting the concerned families, Amin ordered the army
to make arrangements for the funeral. Subsequently, the bodies of
Luwum, Oryema and Ofumbi were buried in Kitgum, Gulu and Tororo
respectively, in the presence of military personnel and a few relatives.
According to Ben Okello Luwum, the archbishop’s son, only
their elder sister, Emima Lakang and their uncle attended the burial.
The rest of the family had fled to Kisumu, Kenya, for safety. Here,
they were housed by then Bishop Henry Okullo of Kisumu Diocese.
The family returned to Uganda shortly after Amin was overthrown
in 1979 and have since lived at Namirembe hill in a house provided
by the church. The Provincial Secretary, Church of Uganda, Rev.
Aaron Mwesigye, says this was intended to bring them closer to the
church and comfort them during the trying moments.
The archbishop’s murder had profound effects. It made many
realise that no one was safe before Amin. This was augmented by
Amin’s declaration that he feared no one but Allah. After
the deaths, several of Amin’s ministers defected or fled to
exile. Kyemba left the country two months later.
Col. Rwehururu writes in his book that Amin`s Attorney General
and Minister of Justice, Mathew Matovu, broke down and wept the
moment the archbishop’s murder was announced, saying Amin
had brought a curse upon Uganda.
The Executive Secretary of the Uganda Joint Christian Council,
Rev. Canon Grace Kaiso was ordained into priesthood by the late
Luwum on January 2, 1977, barely a month before he was killed. He
“The archbishop’s murder should be a reminder to church
leaders that discipleship and priesthood are costly and exact a
price that they must be prepared to pay.”
He disagrees with critics who say that in criticising the regime,
Luwum was overstepping his mandate when he criticised the political
“Whatever affects the wellbeing of humanity is a concern
of the church; be it political, economical, social or otherwise,”
Rev. Aaron Mwesigye, concurs.
“The church is a custodian of human values and all that is
just in society,” he says. Ben Okello Luwum says his dad was
a kind and loving father who was concerned about his children’s
“Despite the busy schedule, he always spared time to see
what we had done at school and help us with the homework,”
“I had never seen him beat anybody. In case of wrongdoing,
he would just talk to you and advise you on how to behave,”
Like it happens in many families after the demise of the breadwinner,
Okello says life after his father’s departure was tough. His
mother who was a cotton farmer could not afford paying their school
fees. Good enough, Okello was already working with the East African
harbour’s port in Dar es Salaam, so he was there to help.
But he admits that had it not been the support of the church, his
meager earnings would not have sustained them.
Okello currently heads an accountancy firm, BVL and CO. Certified
Public Accountants on Nkrumah Road, Kampala. He was once a minister
for Lands and Survey in President Museveni’s government.
Janani Luwum was survived by a widow, Mary Lawinyo Luwum and nine
children. Mary is still alive and strong. Two of their children
are however deceased.
“We used to call ourselves baba, mama as an expression of
intimacy,” she says of her late husband. Unlike many households,
the two had never fought all the time they were married.
Janani Luwum was born in 1922. Before becoming archbishop, he had
been Bishop of Northern Uganda province. He became archbishop in
1974, replacing Eric Sabiiti. After his death, Salvanus Wani replaced
him. Luwum was made saint of the church in 2001.
Among his famously quoted statements is:
“While the opportunity is there, I preach the gospel with
all my might. My conscience is clear before God that I have not
sided with the present government (Amin’s), which is utterly
self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have
the opportunity, I have told the president the things the church
disapproves of. God is my witness.”
The author is a final year student at UMCAT School of Journalism
and Mass Communication, Kampala.
Archbishops of Church of Uganda
Brown Leslie — 1961 ——- 1966
Eric Sabiti — 1966 ——- 1974
Janani Luwum — 1974 ——- 1977
Salvanus Wani — 1977 ——- 1984
Yona Okoth — 1984 ——- 1995
Livingston M. Nkoyoyo — 1995 ——- 2004
Henry Luke Orombi — 2004 todate.