Jacob Oulanyah’s funeral and northern Uganda’s ‘walking dead’

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • The people in the church were the lucky ones. Tens of thousands of others had been brutally murdered, tortured, raped, and abducted. But they were the walking dead.

I go to the cinema, and also watch movies on DSTV, Netflix, and other platforms a lot. I mostly go to movies alone, a fact that after so many years, has never ceased to puzzle the ticketing staff at my favourite Nairobi theatres. That is because I study movies, and it’s the special moments and the subtexts that fascinate and stick with me. In Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Volume 2” David Carradine’s monologue about what makes Superman different from all other superheroes remains so vivid.

In Gandhi, in one of the several memorable moments, when a withered Ben Kingsley who portrayed Mahatma Gandhi declares that: “They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me, then they will have my dead body.

Not my obedience.”  And I am intrigued by movies about funerals. There’s something about funerals that brings out nations’, societies’, and families’ hidden pain, bottled anger, tormented soul, hypocrisies, visions of the future, fears, stupidities, and the horrors of loneliness. My favourite two have to be “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, and “Death at a Funeral.”

The death of Parliament Speaker Jacob Oulanyah and his funeral has combined most of the above. They have given us probably Uganda’s most divisive death and funeral.  There is a lot of noise and drama around Oulanyah’s death. We will stay away from them and focus on the signal. There is a lot of anger from northern Ugandan politicians over Oulanyah, and what they see as the slightest disrespect is met with fiery vitriol and threats.

 The galvanisation of the north around Oulanyah is striking because while he was alive, he was not a “northern Uganda” leader. This had nothing to do with Oulanyah, but with the north. Historically it has been hard for leaders to establish a personality cult there, however powerful they are. Even Milton Obote, both in his first and second reigns, couldn’t achieve the status in the broad north that Yusuf Lule did in Buganda, or President Yoweri Museveni in his western Uganda backyard and Buganda before 2001.

In Obote’s case, he had to endure dissent and opposition, either intellectually or politically, from his own outspoken and sharp-witted cousins Akena Adoko and Adoko Nekyon. And all post-Museveni northern figures, from the more respectable Otema Allimadi to Alice Lakwena of the Holy Spirit Movement and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) failed to galvanise their backyards behind them. In Kony’s case, it forced him to unleash the most unimaginable violence out of a sense of betrayal, against the people.  

The elevation of Oulanyah becomes understandable against this background. He’s been promoted to iconic status and an embodiment of a great northern Ugandan essence because, in death, the leaders don’t have to offer him any direct obedience.

Most importantly, though, he has become a vessel for the north’s collective cry of pain for decades of torment beginning from Idi Amin’s coup of 1971, to the murderous years of war where it suffered at the hands of the LRA and the government troops (NRA and later UPDF) in equal measure.  When Norbert Mao was MP for Gulu Municipality in the difficult years of the war, I visited Gulu. That was the time when thousands of people would trek from the terror in the villages with their few belongings in the evening, and take refuge in and around Gulu town.

In the morning, they would carry their belongings in long queues back to the villages, to work their gardens and live there during the day, and return in the evening. It was perhaps the only, and greatest, to-and-fro such trek in the world. Mao arranged one evening to take me to see places where the temporary internally displaced persons took refuge.

We passed places where they were sleeping on the streets and verandas. Finally, he took me to a big church at the edge of Gulu, and we entered. Every inch of it, including the altar area, was covered with people; men, women, and children. They slept early because they were weary from the walk to safety, and had to get up at dawn to trek back. There was an eerie silence. The air in the church was rancid.

We didn’t speak much and drove back to my hotel mostly in silence. The people in the church were the lucky ones. Tens of thousands of others had been brutally murdered, tortured, raped, and abducted. But they were the walking dead.

The form of expression northern politicians have chosen in ventilating demands and grievances around Oulanyah is ethnic and nativist, but in it is still something profound and rooted in historical injustice. One hears a demand for restitution and national acknowledgement for the northern Uganda tragedy. It’s something Uganda has not even began to confront. The walking dead, now in suits in Parliament, behind keyboards - and not the most subtle or sophisticated interlocutors - won’t let Uganda forget.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3