None of the violent deaths which have disfigured Uganda’s recent history have shocked the world as savagely as that of Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum.
Since President Amin came to power, the Church had walked the tight rope between maintaining a good relationship with Amin, and at the same time defending its human flock.
On February 17, 1977, Archbishop Luwum and two senior cabinet ministers were arrested for their alleged complicity in a coup plot. Their arrest came after 3,000 soldiers had chanted at a rally: “Kill them, kill them” when they heard charges supposedly implicating the three in the plot.
Amin stopped the soldiers and told them that there would be no summary executions. The alleged plotters would be given a proper trial before any sentences would be passed, he told the troops.
Then, according to the official Uganda government version of the incident, Archbishop Luwum, the interior minister, Charles Oboth-Ofumbi and the land minister, Lt. Col. Erinayo Oryema were killed in an accident as they tried to overpower their driver in an un-escorted security forces’ Range Rover.
However, there have been many conflicting reports as to what actually happened to the archbishop. The Tanzanian Daily News gave a graphic account of the archbishop’s murder. According to the paper, the archbishop had, during interrogation by Amin and a number of his officers, refused to sign a confession and was ordered to lie on the floor.
“His cassock was pulled up. He was then undressed. Two soldiers in turn whipped the archbishop. The archbishop started to pray. But the prayers seemed to incense Amin for he shouted wildly and started to use obscene language and then he struck the archbishop.” The report went on: “The archbishop’s ordeal was halted for 30 minutes – while Amin broke off to hear the BBC’s “World News” and “Focus on Africa” programmes. Finally a furious Amin pulled out his pistol and fired twice into the archbishop’s chest.”
According to another account – related exclusively to DRUM by a businessman, Ben Ongom, held at the State Research Bureau headquarters at Nakasero at the time of the archbishop’s murder – it was Maj. Moses Okello-Safi who actually fired the fatal shots. “The three were thrown roughly into the cell,” he told DRUM.
At about 7.30 p.m., according to Ongom, several unusual things began to happen at Nakasero. First a large motorcade arrived, which could only be Amin. Then the usual noise of beating and shouting upstairs totally ceased.
At this point the archbishop and ministers were taken out of the cell upstairs. Ongom’s group heard several shots from inside the room just above the cell. This was the first and last time people were killed by shooting at Nakasero. It was almost unusual.
The next morning one of the guards told Ongom that Maj. Okello-Safi had shot all three men with Amin in the room watching. President Amin has vehemently asserted his innocence and had denied the report that he personally shot the archbishop. The archbishop, he said, had plotted with others to overthrow his government and had died in a car accident “as a punishment of God”.
The official version of the deaths has been flatly dismissed as a pack of lies and sparked a wave of international protest by church leaders in Africa and Europe.
What was the personal relationship between the archbishop and Amin? According to Mrs Rice-Oxley there was a mutual respect. “They each had their respective roles. Socially they were friends and they never openly clashed,” Mrs Rice-Oxley said.
Events leading up to his death indicated that a clash between the archbishop and the president was imminent. Last Christmas he spoke of true Christian victory which he described as “suffering love”. His sermon was unceremoniously taken off the air because he was “making political comment”.
A week before his death the archbishop and the 18 other Ugandan bishops addressed an open letter to President Amin protesting the deaths of many Ugandans. This letter may have been his death warrant.
While the arguments rage as to whether he has killed 100,000 or 300,000, one thing is certain: Amin is responsible for the death of the archbishop. A man of whom he once said: “I love.”
From the DRUM magazine: July 1977