Janani Luwum: a lion in human skin

On February 16, 1977, a man like no other armed not with a gun or a dagger but the Bible and the cross was assassinated at the then Ugandan ruthless president Idi Amin Dada.

According to historical accounts, the Most Rev Janani Jakaliya Luwum, Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Rwanda Burundi, and Boga Zaire had become a sharp critic of the gross atrocities including murders orchestrated by Idi Amin.

On the day of his demise, it is said that Luwum met with President Idi Amin who accused him of smuggling arms and other “subversive acts” before being driven away with two government ministers, Erinayo Wilson Oryema and Charles Oboth Ofumbi in a Land Rover. On the morning of February 17, 1977, Radio Uganda announced that the archbishop had died in a car accident as he attempted to escape and in his flight was involved in a car accident that resulted in his death.

This theory would be later refuted after his body was found riddled with bullets only planted in a fake car crash allegedly on the orders of the president.

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Rt. Rev. Janan Luwum(L) with the Inspector General of Police, Oryema standing by the car which was presented to the Bishop on February 25, 1969. Credit: The New Vision/Files

A planned funeral service for the following Sunday was forbidden by the government, and the Archbishop’s body was not released. Nevertheless, according to records The Standard has seen, about 4,500 people gathered at St Paul’s Cathedral on Namirembe Hill, and a funeral service was held albeit his body missing.

It is at this exact venue (St Paul’s Cathedral) that activities to mark the 40th anniversary of the commemoration of slain martyr will be launched on February 5, 2017. According to a Church of Uganda statement, the activities will be a precursor for the main event that will be held at Mucwini, Kitgum District, the burial ground for deceased, 22km north of Kitgum in northern Uganda.

The purpose of the Kampala event is to create public awareness about the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum as we plan for the main event but also to enable and allow those who cannot make it to Mucwini to celebrate it in Kampala,” the statement, largely attributed to the Archbishop Stanley Ntagali partly reads.

The activities, which will include a walk from five different centres in and around Kampala, will be followed by a service at St Paul’s Cathedral Namirembe where the body of Janani Luwum was meant to have been buried.

The guest of honour for the Kampala celebrations is the Rt. Hon Ruhakana Rugunda, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Uganda, while the main celebrations in Kitgum are expected to be graced by the President of the Republic of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

Road to martyrdom

Archbishop Janani Luwum was the first sitting archbishop in the entire Anglican Communion to be martyred in office since Archbishops of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and William Laud who were martyred in AD 1556 and AD 1645, respectively.
Luwum’s death inspired the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral to establish a chapel to commemorate “Modern Martyrs.”

Canterbury Cathedral was hence the first ecclesiastical authority in the whole of the Anglican Communion to proclaim Archbishop Janani Luwum a 20th Century African Martyr.

According to Rev Jasper Tumuhimbise of All Saints Cathedral, Kampala, one of the starting points for this year’s walk to Namirembe, martyrdom gained a bad name for its association with violence and linkage to cruelty, manipulation and death.

But when we consider Christian martyrs like Luwum, we see something else. Instead of violence, there is peace and a seeking of reconciliation.

Instead of cruelty there is dignity and mercy. Instead of manipulation there is integrity. This is the ultimate martyrdom,” he said.  During similar 2015 celebrations, President Museveni declared February 16 an annual public holiday arguing that people should celebrate his life in the same manner as other Uganda Martyrs.

Life and ministry

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Rt. Rev. Janan Luwum installed Bishop on June 16, 1974. Credit: The New Vision/Files

Janani Luwum was born in 1922 in the Acholi district that time and spent his youth as a goat herder. Although he didn’t have a formal early education, he was given a belated opportunity to begin at school and quickly showed his resourcefulness and ability to learn.

His conversion to Christianity happened in 1948 while he was a teacher but would later quit teaching for evangelism. In 1949, he joined Bishop Usher Wilson Theological College, Buwalasi, to study theology. After a period as a lay preacher, he was ordained priest in 1956 of the then Upper Nile Diocese in St Phillips Church, Gulu and thereafter served as parish priest and chaplain in a number of parishes and church schools in Northern Uganda.

As Uganda gained independence from Britain, Luwum was noted as a rising indigenous leader in the church. He became bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Northern Uganda in 1969. Following his consecration, Janani was appointed to the Anglican Consultative Council and served on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

In May 1974, Bishop Janani Luwum succeeded his mentor Archbishop Erica Sabiti, who had been the first Bishop of Kampala Diocese between 1972-1973. Thus, Bishop Janani Luwum became the second African Archbishop of the Province of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire and the second Bishop of Kampala Diocese.

After his assassination, his body was taken to the Churchyard at Wii Gweng, Mucwini, on February 19, 1977 where he was later buried. He is survived by his widow, Mary Luwum, seven children, four sisters, two brothers and several grandchildren.