Forget or remember him, Omukama Kabalega’s colonial resistance story will never be complete without pointing out the military contribution of Owiny Akullu, a warrior from Lango who fought tooth and nail to defend the former Bunyoro king up to his eventual capture in 1899.
Unlike Kabalega and Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda who found their way to history books, Owiny Akullu might have had little written about his contribution, but it is worth remembering.
Owiny lived between 1845 and 1947 when he died, aged 102. He was born to Ogwang Akota and his wife Akullu in Acutanana, Kamdini sub-county, Oyam District.
According to Fr Angello Tarantino’s book, Lango Ikare Acon (Lango in the Olden Days), Owiny grew up to be a man of military might.
Fr Tarantino says Owiny was able to win more than 150 troops into his private battalion with whom he conquered the whole of Lango. He was so skilful in javelin and it is said he would throw a spear at a thin line of rope from a distance and would hardly miss.
He defeated the Acholi in the battle of Minakulu and captured the land between Kamdini and Bobi in present-day Gulu District in a single battle in late the 1880s.
As the defeated Acholi fled the battle, Owiny is said to have shouted after them, “Pe dok utem tuku keda tyen me aryo, mina Akullu” (Do not joke with me again, for my mother is Akullu). Henceforth, his fighters started calling the area Minakulu, a name that is used to date.
According to Herbert Dirberg’s book, The Lango: A Nilotic tribe in Uganda, Kabalega knew of Owiny’s resentment towards the colonialists even before the British decided to use military force against Bunyoro in 1895.
When British commanders and Baganda opportunists such as Semei Kakungulu and Apollo Kaggwa unleashed their forces against the Omukama in Hoima, Kabalega was defeated and forced out of his palace and chased up to Budongo Forest where he put a stronghold.
It was from Budongo Forest that Kabalega sought the military intervention of Owiny Akullu who responded quickly. He gathered his troops and they headed to Bunyoro.
Owiny and his men crossed the Nile at a risky rapid point in Nora. That point was full of rocks and he lost some of his fighters. Because of the death, the point came to be called “Adag Lango” (Lango hater) to date.
Owiny eventually linked up with Kabalega in Budongo from where they planned their military tactics. Akullu soon led the combined forces and made several strikes against the British at a place called Kijunjuba in Masindi District, inflicting a series of defeats against the British and their allies, forcing them to withdraw towards Buganda. For the next three years, the British halted their attacks on Bunyoro until 1898.
Fr Tarantino records that because of the triumph, Kabalega generously rewarded Owiny and his fighters. He was given 30 slaves, three beautiful Banyoro women, an unspecified number of guns, 100 pigs and a sack of potato vines which made him to be remembered as the one who introduced the potato crop in Lango.
Kabalega also pledged to fund the building of a six-roomed palace for his friend using modern materials of the time.
All building materials were ferried from Bunyoro, including timber, bricks (red rocks dug from around Mparo in Hoima), cement and iron sheets. The construction was completed in 1935. The house, though appears dilapidated, still stands in Kamdini to date.
Kabalega’s admiration of Owiny was so great that he named one of his sons after the Lango chief. The prince, Tito Owiny, would later ascend the Bunyoro-Kitara throne.
Dirberg records that Bunyoro’s relief as a result of the British withdrawal in 1895 was short-lived. Three years later, in 1898, the British renewed their campaign against Bunyoro, this time with a much larger force and better preparation.
After several battles Kabalega saw that he was losing, he personally approached Owiny to appeal for his help for the second time.
Owiny readily accepted and the two leaders crossed the Nile at Namasale to Lwampanga where they linked up with Kabaka Mwanga who had also himself fled to escape colonial persecution.
The three joined forces and put up an entrenched base in Masindi from where they resorted to guerrilla tactics. The British this time, however, were in a better position to win the war with more powerful weapons. The three engaged the British in several unsuccessful battles on their side and as a result, they lost many of their fighters.
After realising that their efforts were yielding no results, Owiny led his friends out of Bunyoro and crossed into Lango where he left them hidden at the bank of River Abalang in Kangai, Dokolo, as he continued northward. The British forces later followed Kabalega and Mwanga and captured the two.
Even after the two were captured, Owiny remained militarily active and gave the colonialists a bloody nose.
Mr Driberg notes that Lango under Owiny, fought the British and their collaborators vehemently to defend their guests.
During those two years, the armed parties of Baganda and Banyoro crossed the Nile at many places, ostensibly in search of Kabalega and Mwanga, but actually inspired by the expectation of plunder and pillage.
They undoubtedly did considerable damage to isolated villages and captured many cattle, but in most cases Lango and their warlike reputation inflicted severe damage to the invaders.
Dirberg further notes that in late 1899, the British tried to follow and arrest Owiny several times, only to meet a series of defeats, mostly in Oyam. He won notable victories against the Baganda. In one battle near Aber in Oyam, he defeated a large Baganda force, killing 70 and chasing the remainder across the Nile as far as Fowerra, at that time a government station.
This particular defeat forced the British to abandon their military pursuit against the invincible chief and adopted a new strategy: gift, persuasion and diplomacy which eventually worked out.
After all, the colonialists needed him on their side to extend their rule into Lango. The British offered him a car and he became the first Langi to own one. He was later appointed the colonial chief of Atura sub-county and his administrative unit was at Loro.
He then helped the British colonise the whole of Lango within a short time, a move that prompted the British to attempt to make him the king of Lango. However, the idea was rejected by other chiefs on grounds that Lango had never had a king.