Catholic priest joins 4 others in race for Gulu East MP seat

L-R: Rev Fr Charles Onen, Mr Emmanuel Mwaka Lutukumoi, Ms Nancy Atimango and Mr Andrew Ogwetta Otto

What you need to know:

  • The Rev Fr Charles Onen, a vocal Catholic priest renown for criticising some politicians and fellow religious leaders during church sermons, has expressed interest to compete for Gulu East MP seat in 2021 General Election.

The former director of Radio Maria in Gulu Town, the Rev Fr Charles Onen, is among four other aspirants, who have expressed interest in the battle for Gulu East MP seat in the 2021 General Election.
A fortnight ago, the priest’s poster graced social media and has since sparked endless debate over what may have prompted the cleric to join politics.
Besides Fr Onen, who is reportedly running as an independent, are former Lira deputy Resident District Commissioner, Mr Emmanuel Mwaka Lutukumoi (DP), Ms Nancy Atimango (NRM), FDC’s Andrew Ogwetta, and Mr Francis Uhuru JB, an independent.

The priest is known for his utterances against some politicians and fellow religious leaders during church sermons aired live over the radio he directs.
In February 2018, during a Sunday homily broadcast on Radio Maria, the priest at Holy Rosary Parish, kicked up a storm when he accused Johnson Gakumba, the bishop of Northern Uganda Diocese (Anglican), of burning rosaries during a prayer crusade in Gulu Town.

The Aruu South MP, Mr Odonga Otto, and his Kilak South counterpart Gilbert Olanya, were not be spared by Fr Onen in May 2020, after they mobilised a demonstration that was later foiled by police.
Although the legislators were protesting the high number of Covid-19 patients in Acholi Sub-region, with demands that government shuts down Elegu border, Fr Onen in one of his sermons blasted the legislators, accusing them of being greedy and selfish.

He challenged the lawmakers to go to their respective constituencies and mobilise their relatives for the demonstration instead of risking the lives of people who were not their voters.
Both scenarios were saved by the intervention of Gulu Archdiocese bishop John Baptist Odama, who mediated between the man of God and the politicians.
Speaking to Daily Monitor on Monday, Fr Onen admitted he was aware of his campaign poster circulating on social media.

“I am not in Gulu for now. At the moment, I am for a retreat that will be closing at the end of this month, and I will speak to you when I return to the diocese. That is when I will also meet my superiors and see whether I need to respond,” he said.
If he makes up his mind, Fr Onen would become the third Catholic priest after Fr Simon Lokodo (Dodoth West County) and Fr Jacinto Ogwal (Otuke County) to seek parliamentary seats since 2006.
In 2011, Lira Catholic Diocese, suspended the Rev Fr Jacinto Ogwal from exercising his priestly ministry over allegedly defying formal canonical warnings after his intentions to contest for Otuke County parliamentary seat under Uganda Peoples Congress party.
But Fr Ogwal later won the 2011 race but lost in 2016 to the incumbent, Julius Achon Bua (NRM).

Church reacts
Msgr Mathew Odong, the Gulu Archdiocese Vicar General, said the church was equally surprised by the priest since it is against the principles of the church to participate in partisan politics.
“The position of the church is very clear. A priest cannot join partisan politics. It is prohibited and he remains a priest forever once ordained to serve the people. Much as he entered priesthood freely and voluntarily, the church does not accept that he leaves and join politics,” Msgr Odong said.
He said Fr Onen neither consulted nor informed his superiors about the move.
“To the best of my knowledge, he did not inform his archbishop. He did not inform me, not even fellow priests (at Holy Rosary Parish) where he works. However, if he intends to go for politics, that is entirely his personal decision and at his own risk,” Msgr Odong added.

The Roman Catholic canon law prohibits members of the Catholic clergy from doing things that are “unbecoming” or “foreign to the clerical state” and further prohibits diocesan priests and bishops from serving in “public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power”.
Because partisan politics is divisive, and churches and congregations risk being divided along political lines, the Catholic Church has maintained a healthy distance from partisan politics.

There has been a longstanding debate on whether the church should engage in politics. Church leaders say politics is intertwined with the communities and since they are the torch bearers, who preach against immoral acts in society, they should be allowed to comment on political statements.
President Museveni has consistently spoken against the church getting involved in politics, saying this would divide their flock.

Who is Fr Onen?
• He was ordained a priest Seven years ago (2013) and first posted to Anaka Catholic Parish in Nwoya District as a curate.
• He was then transferred to Holy Rosary Parish as curate and director of Catholic-owned Radio Mario-Gulu branch nearly three and a half years ago.
• At the beginning of July, Fr Onen reportedly requested a sabbatical leave and was granted by Archbishop Odama.

Other contestants
• Mr Andrew Ogwetta Otto
He is a lawyer by profession (Bachelor of Laws from Gulu University, 2011 – 2015) and former guild president of the same university.
He has also been a Human rights activist working with Action Aid, Gulu.

• Mr Emmanuel Mwaka Lutukumoi
He is a professional teacher and a post-graduate fellow in Conflict Management.
He has also served as deputy RDC of Lira and Kitgum districts before relocating to the U.S in 2017.

• Ms Nancy Atimango
A teacher by profession and a former media practitioner.

• Mr Francis Uhuru JB. He is a political activist, running on an independent ticket.