When Bishop Kivengere dared Idi Amin, Gaddafi

Bishop Kivengere, who died 33 years ago, was outspoken  on violation of human right. PHOTO / FILE

What you need to know:

  • Bishop Festo Kivengere served as a priest in Kigezi Diocese until 1972, when he was consecrated bishop. He fled to the United States of America in 1977 following the murder of Archbishop Janani Luwum. 

There is an adage that ‘ a good tree leaves a stamp for remembrance.’

It is from such a stamp that a similar or even stronger tree is expected to sprout. Had the late Bishop Festo Kivengere been a tree, he would have left behind an outstanding stamp that would still be standing strong 33 years after his death.

Besides being an international evangelists, a prolific writer and an orator, Bishop Kivengere is also remembered as one of few Ugandans who dared Idi Amin, and what’s more, former Libyan President Muamar Gaddafi.

Amin and Gaddafi were some of Africa’s feared presidents whom the world never wanted to provoke or annoy. Bishop Kivengere was often described as a man with unrivalled vigour and creativity in the field of evangelism. He was also widely travelled,  and preached in many parts of the world, including US, former USSR, China, Europe, and many African countries, including Tanzania.

Kivengere dares Amin

Kivengere was ordained bishop of Kigezi Diocese in November 1972, almost two years after Amin had become President of Uganda.

Soon he became outspoken on violation of human rights under the brutal military dictatorship while on the pulpit and at other functions wherever he went. At the time, reprimanding Amin’s government attracted death by any means.

But Bishop Kivengere did not relent as he risked his life and spoke for his flock and the voiceless. He even became more popular after the brutal death of Anglican Archbishop of Uganda Janani Luwum in February 1977.

Archbishop Luwum was murdered with two other former Cabinet ministers in the Amin junta. This shocked the world, perhaps even more, the Anglican Church in Uganda.

It is said that Bishop Kivengere was the architect of the protest letter the Church of Uganda House of Bishops penned to Amin; and it was him who led the clergies who made a procession from Namirembe Cathedral to the President’s office at the Parliament Building to deliver the letter of protest against the extrajudicial killing of Archbishop Luwum.

The letter infuriated Amin, and intelligence from the Catholic Church indicated that Bishop Kivengere was next in line to be killed for embarrassing Amin. His Catholic counterparts reportedly advised him to flee Uganda before he became another death statistic.

From Kabale in south-western Uganda, Bishop Kivengere escaped to Tanzania.

Kivengere, a freedom fighter

Besides evangelism, Bishop Kivengere was also a renowned human rights advocate and freedom fighter.

In exile, he soon got some financial assistance from Europe and together with other like-minded colleagues started the famous organization called Relief, Education and Training of Uganda Refugees Now (RETURN). The acronym cleverly concelead the vision and mission of the RETURN organisation.

While RETURN was known as an organisation that was assisting Ugandan refugees in getting scholarshipd from government and NGOs across the globe, the real reason was to educate and motivate Ugandans in exile about the revolutionary means to fight the Amin regime. RETURN was also to give hope to Ugandans that soon or later they would return home. In 1977, Bishop Kivengere was honoured with the International Freedom Award in Oslo, Norway, and in 1980, he was given the Edward Browning Achievement in Geneva, Switzerland.

Kivengere and his European friend Michael Cassidy founded the African Evangelistic Enterprise, a Christian organidation that had offices in several European and African countries.

Kivengere lectures Amin

Bishop Kivengere being a philosophical writer, attacked Amin and the military brutality of his government in both subtle and diplomatic ways. Kivengere wrote several books, which included I love Idi Amin, Love unlimited, When God moves, Revolutionary love, and The spirit is moving. But the books were not to be judged by their attractive covers or titles because  in them, Kivengere was discreetly telling Ugandans to keep hope alive no matter how dark the situation seemed.

Kivengere answers Gaddafi

In September 1986, late Libyan leader Col Muamar Gaddafi visited Uganda soon after Yoweri Museveni became President. On September 8, 1986, during the Juma prayers at the now Gaddafi mosque on Old Kampala Hill, Gaddafi was quoted by the Ugandan press as having said: “The Islamic Call Society will also be charged with propagating Islam around Uganda and beyond the borders.”

He also said: “Libya wants to liberate Palestine from the Jews, Jerusalem as well as others, including the five million Americans Muslims being suppressed in the United States.” But from Kigezi in southwestern Uganda, Bishop Kivengere responded to Gaddafi, challenging him not to come to Uganda and use it a springboard to propagate Islam in a Christian country or use Uganda to attack Christian countries.

For days, Kivengere’s response to Gaddafi was debated in the letters pages in the country’s newspapers in Kampala.

Remembering Kivengere

President Museveni was one of thousands of mourners who on May 28, 1988, thronged St Peters Church Rugarama Hill in Kabale for the funeral of Bishop Kivengere. In his eulogy, President Museveni described Bishop Kivengere as a freedom fighter and a nationalist who contributed a lot towards Christianity and humanity as a whole.

“Festo’s life has been very meaningful and has contributed much to the people of Uganda,” he said. “He accomplished his life as a pastor, evangelist and a Ugandan.”

Mr Museveni also told the congregation that the bishop used to give him impartial and balanced advice during the Nairobi peace talks in 1985.

 Writing in the Sunday Vision, September 17, 1995, President Museveni wrote: “During the 1979 liberation, I together with Grace Ibingira and Bishop Festo Kivengere suggested Yusuf Lule’s name to former Tanzania leader Julius Nyerere as the next president after Amin’s overthrow.”

“Bishop Kivengere played a very key role in the struggle against Idi Amin. I know him as a very courageous church man. He confronted Amin several times,” Museveni was quoted to have said by Sunday Vision, of June 7, 1998.

Monument that never was

For his evangelism, human rights crusade and bravery in the face of dictatorship, the government had proposed that Bishop Kivengere be buried at the National Heroes Cemetery, Kololo in Kampala.

On May 27, 1988, the government-owned newspaper, The New Vision, carried a story titled, ‘Kivengere placed on heroes list’. The paper reported events that unfolded at the funeral service for Kivengere at the seat of the Anglican faith, Namirembe Cathedral. On the day, Uganda’s then premier Dr Samson Kisekka, who represented President Museveni, told the congregation that “government will build a permanent monument at Kololo National Heroes Cemetery in memory of the late Bishop of Kigezi Dr Festo Kivengere.”

“But since the family has expressed total wish to have the bishop buried in Kabale, the government will put a monument for him at Kololo,” Dr Kisseka then said.

But it is now 33 years since Bishop Kivengere passed on and the monument is yet to be erected at the National Heroes Cemetery, Kololo in Kampala.

About Festo Kivengere

Kivengere was born in 1919 in Bujumbura County, North Kigezi and went to Kinyasano, Kigezi High school, Mbarara High School, and Bishop Tucker Theological College, Mukono, between 1938 and 1940.  He then proceeded to Dodoma, Tanzania, where he taught as a missionary for 12 years. He was later awarded an Honorary Doctorate.

 In 1959, he became the assistant supervisor of the Church of Uganda School in Kigezi region, rising to full supervisor in 1961. He later went to London University for a diploma in education.

 Kivengere was ordained a priest in 1965 and worked as an evangelist. He obtained a masters degree in Divinity from Pittsburg Seminary USA, and was installed the Bishop of Kigezi in November 1972.

 Kivengere died of leukaemia on May 18, 1988, at Nairobi hospital Kenya. He was 69 years old. He was buried on May 29, 1988, in Kabale District.

He was survived by a widow Merab Kivengere and four daughters Peace Kivengere, Joy Kivengere, Hope Kivengere and Charity Kivengere. Hope Kivengere, who passed on recently, was a senior press secretary to President Museveni for many years. Festo and Merab had been married for 42 years.


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