By Mark Michael

Musa Ecweru, Uganda’s cabinet minister of relief and disaster preparedness, allegedly pulled a gun on an Anglican priest and two lay readers and beat them with a metallic rod and canes on May 8 in the latest in a series of high-profile disputes over church land ownership.

Ecweru, 56, was in the company of his bodyguard Juma Odiope when he came upon the Rev. Simon Peter Olato, Benjamin Otasuro, and Simon Peter Eriku planting cassava stems in a field beside St. John’s Church in Wera, a small town in Eastern Uganda. The three clerics serve churches in the region, and Ecweru, who represents the district in Uganda’s parliament, lives nearby.

Olato, the parish priest at St. John’s, told The Daily Monitor that Ecweru called the three clerics “idiots,” and asked who authorized them to plant the field that he says belongs to Wera Seed School, a nearby government-controlled school he helped to establish. “As we looked on in awe, [Ecweru] pulled a gun and grabbed a metallic rod from the hands of his bodyguard [and] began to sporadically beat us,” he said. Olato says he went back to his car for canes and proceeded to attack the clerics for another ten minutes.

“I told the minister that I am the reverend for St. John’s Church, Wera planting cassava stems under the food security program which the diocese is implementing, but the minister didn’t heed. The minister caught me by the head, dragged me to the ground, hit me several times at the waist,” Olatu added.

When the clergy cried out for help, a confirmation class meeting in the church rushed out into the field,  Ecweru cocked his gun. “It is then that he told his bodyguard: ‘Let’s go, leave these idiots,’” said Rev. Otasuro, the lay reader for the church in the nearby village of Aten, who says he was left bleeding from the head after being struck by the cabinet minister.

The three clerics told The Daily Monitor that they tried to file a report about the assault at Wera’s police station, but the officer in charge denied them medical forms, and one of Ecweru’s brothers came to the station to try to persuade the clerics to seek mediation instead of pressing charges. “He approached me pretending that the diocese has sent him to pick us up, which wasn’t true,” Olato added.

After notifying their bishop, the Rt. Rev. Kosea Odongo, Bishop of Soroti, the three clerics received medical treatment in Soroti, a large town nearby.

Odongo held a press conference on May 11, and called on Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, to intervene in the matter. “What he did is barbaric, it’s unfortunate,” Odongo said of Ecweru, though he denied having any “ill feelings against my honorable minister,” who he noted is an Anglican and a member of diocesan synod.

In his letter to President Museveni, Odongo wrote, “As a bishop I call upon you not to appoint him again as a minster unless he repents publicly and promises not to do it again.’

The Rev. Canon William Ongeng, provincial secretary for the Church of Uganda, condemned the attack even more forcefully on May 11, calling Ecweru’s attack an act of “entitled terrorism.”

Ongeng added, “Such behavior is never called for and not befitting one who considers himself a public leader, let alone a child of God. The people elected their MP to represent all of them, not to beat them. If there is a legitimate matter of dispute, there are legitimate ways to resolve them. We call upon the aggressors to seek peaceful means of settling disputes, and the Government to ensure that all victims are allowed to file police reports regardless of who has victimized them.”

Bishop Odongo also affirmed that the diocese had received cassava cuttings and orange and mango seedlings through a government program called “Operation Wealth Creation.” The Rev. Abraham Eruku, the diocese’s estate manager noted that the diocese owns and cultivates tracts of agricultural land in several parts of the district and has never encountered such problems before.

Citing Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is it,” Bishop Odongo said the disputed land had recently been re-surveyed by the local government, and that there was no dispute about the boundary between the church and the school. The field in question clearly belonged to the church, Odongo said, and he warned that those who seize church land are stealing from God.

Basil Epedu, the senior lay leader at St. John’s Church, acknowledged that the land on which Wera Seed School sits had been given by the church to the local government several decades ago. But a land title delineating the boundary between the church and school was never processed. He claims that Ecweru pressured the Amunia District land board not to issue the title. “We managed to survey the land, we also managed to raise money for processing the title, but the minister has blocked the process,” Epedu said.

Meanwhile, Ecweru claimed in an interview on a local radio station that church leaders had inflated the issue “to suit their interests.” He didn’t deny beating the clerics, but said the real issue was that the land they were planting belongs to the school, and is intended for the construction of a new dormitory.

“Some wrong elements are using the church to do bad things, but we shall not allow this. No one is trying to grab church land. We know the boundaries of the church land and it is clearly demarcated,” he said.