By Mark Michael

As Ugandans observed the 44th anniversary of the assassination of an Anglican archbishop by then-President Idi Amin, tensions emerged between the current president and the current leaders of the Church of Uganda.

The body of Archbishop Janai Luwum, an outspoken critic of Amin, was found riddled with bullets on February 17, 1977, after Luwum had been arrested by the government. A national holiday commemorates the cleric, who boldly denounced the extra-judicial killings and widespread corruption of the military dictator, Amin.

President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, touted his own part in the movement that toppled Amin from power in 1979. Museveni’s remarks were at an Anglican service honoring Luwum at State House, the presidential residence in Entebbe, near Kampala, on February 16.

“Idi Amin killed Janai Luwum. He killed other people, including Benedict Kiwanuka, the former chief justice, but we the freedom fighters avenged. We fought Idi Amin. Our generation was able to avenge the death of these people,” Museveni said.

“Amin was insecure and coward. Killing people who are not armed is laziness… It means the killer doesn’t have enough confidence that they will win an argument. That is why they want to silence them,” said Museveni.

But some religious and political leaders suggest that the complicity of Museveni’s government in a campaign of violent oppression surrounding the January 14 national election shows him following in the footsteps of his former nemesis.

“Missing people, the arresting of people, is part of a bad train that our country is sinking back to,” said the Rt. Rev. Reuben Kisembo, Bishop of Rwenzori. “We appeal to our commander in chief of the armed forces to ask his security agencies not to disturb Ugandans by arresting them and torturing them.”

Joel Senyoni, spokesperson for the opposition National Unity Platform, said on Facebook “Today, we remember Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was murdered by Amin in 1977 for pointing out his evil deeds. Years later, Amin tendencies are back.” Those who oppose Museveni, Senyoni added, “are killed, abducted and others tried in a military court on trumped up charges.”

In a report published a week after the election, Human Rights Watch declared that “The weeks leading up to Uganda’s recently concluded elections were characterized by widespread violence and human rights abuses.” Government security forces detained two opposition candidates, including the National Unity Platform’s Robert Kyagulanyi, a former pop singer popularly known as Bobi Wine. Museveni reportedly won with more than 58 percent of the vote, while Kyangulanyi alleged fraud.

Police also used tear gas and, reportedly, live ammunition to disperse several opposition rallies in November and January, alleging that they violated COVID-19 gathering restrictions. At least 54 people were killed when police fired into crowds that gathered to protest Kyagulanyi’s detainment in November. Afterwards, Museveni’s security minister, Elly Tumwine warned protestors that police “have the right to shoot and kill you.”

Government authorities also limited media coverage of opposition candidates by beating journalists and shooting at them with rubber bullets, Human Rights Watch says. Two days before the election, the Uganda Communications Commission shut down the internet across the country for five full days, and they blocked the non-partisan National Elections Watch Uganda from monitoring the polls.

Museveni had repeatedly denied that the nation’s security forces have been involved in the kidnapping of opposition leaders, but admitted on February 14 that 318 “terrorists and lawbreakers” had been seized by military police and commando squads imported from Somalia. He claimed these people had been arrested for destroying property and threatening his own political supporters. Nodding to accusations of widespread disappearances, Museveni also pledged “every Ugandan will be accounted for.”

Museveni’s internal affairs minister, Jeje Odongo, also said that police are still attempting to locate 31 missing persons. The National Unity Party estimates the number still missing at over 3,000, and said that those recently released had been tortured and interrogated about party matters while under police custody.

During his remarks at the State House service, Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba, primate of the Church of Uganda, thanked Museveni for admitting the role played by security forces in the election-related kidnappings.

“Janani Luwum would plead that people arrested be released. He was a good shepherd. Life was not cheap… We remember stories of boda boda [riders] being killed using iron bars… Even last November, we heard a report from Jeje Odongo that people were missing. I am grateful, Your Excellence, that you have come out… Let the wrong doers be brought to courts of law so that justice can be pursued,” Kaziimba said.

Kaziimba chose his words about the election-related violence carefully, as did Bishop Alfred Olwa, of the Diocese of Lango, the service’s preacher. In his sermon, Olwa alluded to the fact that many Ugandans are “carrying deep wounds” about the country’s “political divisions.”

Museveni shot back with criticism of clerical meddling, saying “When you are a religious person who is tribal or sectarian, I think he might not go to the kingdom of heaven. He might go to the other side.”

“Some church leaders are speaking unfairly these days. Why do you always talk about the government wrong doings and not those who are attacking the government?” Museveni asked.

Citing a November 20 incident in which pro-NUP protestors pressured several women to remove T-Shirts emblazoned with the logo of his party, Museveni added,  “Please be objective. The army may have their problems, but I’ve not heard church leaders for example talk about those who undressed women in Kampala. People were attacked for wearing NRM shirts, but I have not heard any church leaders talking about it.”

Kyagulanyi, meanwhile, suggested that the country’s clerics were far too timid in calling the president to account, tweeting, “Religious leaders seem to have turned into business dealers. They fear Museveni more than God. I want religious leaders to reflect on the life that [Janai] Luwum lived.”

The Church of Uganda is the third-largest province in the Anglican Communion, with an estimated 8 million members, behind the Church of England and the Church of Nigeria.