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Marking 40 years of the martyrdom of Janani Luwum

A century after Kabaka Mwanga slayed what came to be popularly known as the Uganda Martyrs, a man like no other, armed not with a gun or a dagger but with the Bible and the cross, was assassinated at the hands of the ruthless Idi Amin Dada, the then Ugandan president. Forty years later, the world celebrates Janani Luwum.



On 16 February 1977, the Most Rev Janani Luwum, the then Archbishop of the Anglican church in Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Boga Zaire, was murdered. He had become a sharp critic of the gross atrocities, including murder, perpetrated and orchestrated by Idi Amin’s regime.

Luwum had been tried in a kangaroo court earlier that day. The accusations levelled against him included the smuggling of arms, high treason and other “subversive acts”.

Although, in a BBC documentary, Amin had promised a fair and just trial, Luwum and two government ministers, Erinayo Wilson Oryema and Charles Oboth Ofumbi, who had been driven away in a Land Rover, were founded dead the following morning.

The national broadcaster, Radio Uganda, announced that Luwum had died in a car accident. They claimed that the trio attempted to escape by trying to wrestle the steering wheel from the driver. The resultant crash supposedly killed Luwum. This theory would later be refuted when his body was found riddled with bullets. It had clearly been planted in a fake car crash, on the orders of Amin.


The planned funeral service was forbidden by the government, and Luwum’s body was not released. Nevertheless, according to records that TIA has seen, about 4 500 people gathered at St Paul’s Cathedral on Namirembe Hill, and a service was held, albeit without his body. It is at this exact venue where activities to mark the 40th anniversary of the slaying of this martyr will take place.

According to a statement by the Church of Uganda, the activities are a precursor to the main event, which will be held at Mucwini in the Kitgum district on 16 February. This is the birthplace of the deceased, 14 miles north of Kitgum in northern Uganda.

It should be noted that the sitting government of Uganda has declared Janani Luwum a national hero and 16 February is a public holiday in his honour.

In his 2015 declaration, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni argued that just as the world celebrated the Uganda Martyrs on 3 June, it should celebrate Luwum in equal measure on a day earmarked for him. “Since the Uganda Martyrs was declared a public holiday, February 16 should also be a public holiday so that people can find time to celebrate Luwum’s life. He was a man of rare courage,” he said.



“He is remembered as a man who did not fear; a man who stood for what is right; a man who united the people.” Julie Luwum Adriko, daughter.


Road to martyrdom

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

Canterbury Cathedral was therefore the first ecclesiastical authority in the whole of the Anglican Communion to proclaim Archbishop Luwum a 20th Century African Martyr. His statue was erected at the great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London and a commercial street in Uganda’s Capital, Kampala, is named after him.

According to Rev Jasper Tumuhimbise of All Saints Cathedral, Kampala, martyrdom gained a bad name for its association with violence and links to cruelty, manipulation and death. “But when we consider Christian martyrs like Luwum, we see something else. Even when he (Luwum) went through so much suffering and pain and agony, he sought peace, reconciliation and dignity above all. This is the ultimate martyrdom,” he said.



Life and Ministry

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

Before his conversion to Christianity in 1948, Luwum had been a teacher but he soon quit teaching for evangelism. In 1949, he joined Bishop Usher Theological College, Buwalasi, to study theology.

According to Rev Canon Alfred Olwa, the Dean of the School of Divinity and Theology at Uganda Christian University (UCU), Amin and other Christian persecutors got it wrong when they thought that by killing prominent Christians, they would kill the voice of Christ. “When the first Uganda Martyrs were murdered between 1880 and 1887, their executioners thought that by doing so, they would silence the voice of Christ and the spread of Christianity and its values would die immediately thereafter. Instead, the opposite occurred,” Olwa says.


After a period as a lay preacher, Luwum was ordained as a priest in 1956 and appointed parish priest of the Upper Nile Diocese St Phillips Church, Gulu district.

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, before being appointed to the Anglican Consultative Council, where he served on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

In May 1974, Bishop Luwum succeeded Erica Sabiti as the second African Archbishop of the Province of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire and Bishop of Kampala Diocese.

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

“Janani was very committed to his prophetic mission as a spiritual and religious leader – to defend the people, to expose evil, to call for justice and human rights. In those most trying times, he chose the path of speaking the truth to power.” Ambassador Olara Otunnu, UPC president

Recollection of Luwum’s last moments  


Julie Luwum Adriko was 22 years old when her father’s home was raided by the State Research Bureau, Amin’s intelligence organisation, on 5 February 1977. In a BBC documentary, she tells of how a man with a familiar voice knocked on Luwum’s door in need of help. When the archbishop opened, he found the man severely wounded by the soldiers who now forced their way into the house and turned it upside down. They were looking for the weapons that he was allegedly hiding. They didn’t find any.

Luwum and his bishops wrote to President Amin, complaining about the soldiers’ actions and intrusion. Amin responded by summoning the archbishop to a meeting in the centre of Kampala – a meeting that turned out to be a public trial.

“It is said that soldiers were asked what should be done to Luwum and they chorused, kill him, kill him,” his daughter said. This public trial is the last place where Luwum was seen alive.

According to a local daily archive of 10 August 1988, Amin’s vice-president, Major General Mustafa Adrisi, testified that it was Major Moses Okello (aka ‘Safi’) and Brigadier Isaac Malyamungu who killed the Archbishop. This was Adrisi’s testimony when he appeared before the Commission of Inquiry into the violation of human rights in Uganda between 9 October 1962 and 25 January 1986, instituted by the National Resistance Movement government.



Luwum’s legacy

In his book Archbishop Janani Luwum: the life and witness of a 20th century martyr, former UN Under-Secretary General and the president of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), Dr Olara Otunnu, writes: “St Janani was very committed to his prophetic mission as a spiritual and religious leader – to defend the people, to expose evil, to call for justice and human rights. In those most trying times, he chose the path of speaking truth to power.”

To Julie Luwum, her father is remembered as a unifying personality who made the rest of the world realise that action needed to be taken in Uganda. Soon thereafter, Idi Amin was forced into exile by a joint Ugandan and Tanzanian force.

“He is remembered as a man who did not fear; a man who stood for what is right; a man who united the people,” Julie said.