Acholi after Jacob Oulanyah

What you need to know:

  • Just when the Acholi were starting to bask in the limelight of the former commander of Uganda’s peacekeeping contingent in Somalia, Maj Gen Paul Lokech, he died suddenly in 2021 of a relatively short and minor illness that puzzled many.

The later Speaker of parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, was laid to rest on Friday at his ancestral home in Omoro District.

It ended two months in which from the time he was flown to a hospital in the US city of Seattle in early February to the state funeral in early April, much was discussed, argued over, eulogised, asserted and contested in the public sphere.

Speaking at the state funeral at Kololo in Kampala on Thursday, President Museveni chided those who portrayed Oulanyah as an Acholi politician when he was a national leader.

To respond to President Museveni, it’s true that Oulanyah was the Speaker of the national assembly. However, in public life interest and focus of discussion tend to move on quite fast to the next topic and personality.

Only within one’s immediate and extended family and sometimes among one’s clan, circle of close friends and tribe do the memories and the pain linger on much longer.

What next for Acholi

Long after Oulanyah has left the front pages of national newspapers, he will still be reflected upon and memorialised in his home area of Acholi.

There has been mourning both for the loss of Oulanyah as an individual and collectively for Acholi as a political and cultural entity.

Most journalists and political analysts view most offices in the NRM government as largely symbolic without any real powers, but that’s not how the holders of these offices are viewed in Acholi.

Acholi culture places great emphasis on public service and the visibility of public office.

Just to be a former permanent secretary in a government ministry is enough to have a road named after one in Gulu.

Therefore, it can only be imagined what position Oulanyah will retain in the cultural and historical memory of Acholi for years to come.

The Acholi as a people right now are returning to a feeling of isolation from the national power centre.

The Acholi find themselves in a strikingly similar position as their Luo cousins in western Kenya.

Since independence in 1963, the Luo have felt increasingly short-changed in national politics. Kenya’s Luo feel that they are the victims of a bias against their ethnicity and a determination to see to it that Kenya never gets a Luo president.

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a Luo from the Nyanza province, agreed to make way for Jomo Kenyatta to lead the country to independence, only for Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe to take advantage of this and dominate Kenyan public life for the next decade and a half.

At some point, Odinga was even jailed by the Kenyatta government.

The second most prominent Luo in Kenya and a rising star on the African stage, foreign minister Tom Mboya, was shot dead in 1969 under mysterious circumstances.

Nearly 21 years later in 1990, another prominent Luo and also foreign minister Robert Ouko also died under suspicious circumstances.

This left Jaramogi Odinga’s son, Raila Odinga, as the most prominent Luo figure for the next 30 years, but who each time he took a shot at the presidency, a new tribal coalition between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin denied Odinga victory.

Like Uganda’s Acholi, many roads in Kisumu, Kenya’s Luo-dominated city along the shores of Lake Victoria are named after Luo who held mid-ranking public offices.

Every Luo of some prominence is viewed as important, a historical figure.

This is what it has felt like to the Acholi since the late 1960s.

Then highest ranking Acholi military officer, Brig Perino Okoya, was gunned down at his home outside Gulu in 1970.

When Idi Amin seized power in a military coup in 1971, toppling then president Milton Obote, the Acholi bore the brunt of purges by Amin’s regime and a large number fled into exile.

In 1985, the two most prominent Acholi military leaders, army commander Lt Gen Tito Okello and Maj Gen Bazillio Okello came to power in a military coup that ousted Obote.

Barely had the Acholi began to enjoy state power than the Okellos were toppled six months later by Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army.

For the next 20 years, Acholi was the scene of a bitter and traumatic civil war involving various remnants of the defunct national army, the UNLA.

From scorched earth operations by Museveni’s army to displacement in camps and brutal attacks on civilians by both Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and the national army, Acholi endured two decades of an existential threat to its very being.

Just when the Acholi were starting to bask in the limelight of the former commander of Uganda’s peacekeeping contingent in Somalia, Maj Gen Paul Lokech, he died suddenly in 2021 of a relatively short and minor illness that puzzled many.

Like Gen Lokech in the prime of his life, just months into his role as Speaker of Uganda’s national assembly, Oulanyah also dies.

At best, it feels like too much bad luck trailing them a bit too coincidentally for 36 years, hence all the conspiracy theories around the deaths of Lokech and Oulanyah.

As explained in Sunday Monitor of March 27, this is why every Acholi who rises to any public office of prominence is looked up to by the Acholi.

In being Speaker, Oulanyah had risen to the third-highest office of state in the land, at least nominally.

After the mourning dies down and the public and media focus on Oulanyah’s death shifts to other matters, some of the grand pledges of support for projects began by Oulanyah will inevitably go unfulfilled.

It will be hard for many of them to put in the commitment and resources into projects in Omoro that are now unlikely to come into national view.

It will be a long while before Acholi produces a politician, in the ruling party, who finds himself or herself in the right position at the right moment and under the right circumstances to become Speaker or, even, vice president.

Acholi as a region for the next decade or so will have to look elsewhere for the symbolic prominence it derived from the fact of the Speaker originating from its region.

The role of most prominent Acholi public figure will now fall, by default, to Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo, even though officially he is a holder of a national public office and not a cultural leader.

Owiny-Dollo is very much mindful of this and unlike previous chief justices, he has not hesitated to step out of the formal neutrality and mild manner that his Judiciary office requires.

In a realistic way, he is cognisant of the facts of Ugandan political and public life and is not afraid to speak out as a human being from a certain ethnic region with certain political interests.

He definitely doesn’t see himself as just another faceless bureaucrat dutifully carrying out his work according to the civil service terms of service.

It can be expected that Owiny-Dollo will now bear the torch of Acholi political leader in his visits to schools in Acholi, meetings with prominent Acholi political and business leaders, and in his appearances on the national stage.

Cementing hold on offices

Oulanyah’s death also might make politicians like Norbert Mao more determined to cement their hold on the offices they currently hold, in Mao’s case the presidency of Uganda’s oldest political party, the Democratic Party.

There is certain to be a greater effort by young Acholi today to seek political office, starting at the bottom rung of the ladder in elections for guild president at the country’s various universities.

More guild presidents at Uganda’s oldest and most prestigious university, Makerere, have come from Acholi than from any other region in the country.

One outcome of Oulanyah’s death has been for northern Uganda to think about itself as one political geographical region in a way not seen since the 1960s.

There were sub-committees planning the burial that included MPs from Acholi, Lango, and West Nile.

Perhaps in future, northern Uganda MPs could start to vote as a bloc in Bills or policies that affect the region as a whole. This would include fronting a single candidate for certain offices.

In all likelihood, there will be moves by Acholi MPs and other figures of influence to ride on Oulanyah’s death to remind government of projects in Acholi that it has neglected in recent years, or to propose new interventions for government to finance.

In this sense, the Acholi are much like Baganda -- cultural tradition is revered, there’s a certain officiousness about the culture, significant events take on the aura of legend, collective pain is forgiven but not forgotten, and political life is lived as an ongoing epic.


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