Saturday, December 30, 2006

Josephine Apira: Taking the Fight to Museveni

By John A. Akec

Never greet your enemy until you are reconciled to them. A lesson President Yoweri Museveni had ignored at his own peril. The place was Juba, South Sudan. The date was October 21, 2006. President Museveni of Uganda was paying a short visit to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where talks between the delegation of his government and that of the Lord Resistance Army has been going on since May 2006.

Meet JOSEPHINE APIRA - Acholi Woman Freedom Fighter

After meeting the President of Government of South Sudan (GOSS) Salva Kiir and members of his government, president Museveni had a brief meeting with the members of his negotiating team and that of LRA in presence of Dr Riek Machar, vice president of GOSS and chief peace mediator. According to information received by this author at the time, only president Museveni spoke in the meeting. Members of LRA sought to comment but they were denied the opportunity. At that time, Martin Ojul the head of the LRA 15-member team was away in Nairobi. Josephine Apira (the deputy team leader) was in charge of the LRA team. At the end of the brief meeting, Museveni rose to shake hands with the members of LRA negotiating team. When he first approached Josephine Apira (pictured) and extended his hand to her, Ms Apira refused to extend her hand. Instead, she told President Museveni: “You must first apologise for killing my people!” Seeing what Ms Apira has done, the other members of her delegation backed down and refused to shake hands with President Museveni. Journalists captured the extraordinary moment in the picture above.

Who is this Josephine Apira? We are bound to ask. Ms Apira (Acholi by birth and agriculturalist by training), as I found out, was running World Bank’s regional reconstruction programme in Northern Uganda in 1986 when President Museveni came to power. She fled to the town of Juba in Southern Sudan after witnessing many atrocities being committed in Northern Uganda by Museveni’s NRA (National Resistance Army). Some of the victims were Apira’s closed relatives.

After two and a half years in Sudan, Josephine Apira went to Nairobi, Kenya as civil war in Sudan intensified. In 1991 she was granted a visa to enter UK. In the UK, she kept in touch with home and continued to monitor the situation very closely. She campaigned and raised human rights violations issues with Red Cross and other human rights groups. She also worked to earn a living as as an advisor to unaccompanied children with British Refugee Council.

In 1999, and as recognition for her efforts in the UK to sound alarm bells about the on-going oppression in her homeland, Josephine Apira was invited by LRA leadership to attend a meeting in Sudan. After the meeting, she was appointed to be LRA spokesperson in the UK. However, it came at a price. Josephine Apira lost her job and saw all her papers and travel documents withdrawn by British Home Office. For three years between 2001 and 2003, she was not allowed to work nor leave UK. This was for making contacts with LRA which the UK authorities viewed as a terrorist organisation (especially after September 11 and declaration of war on terror). However, since 2003 all her documents and legal rights have been restored.

Josephine Apira is undoubtedly a determined freedom fighter and a valued member of LRA negotiating team in Juba. She does not regret snubbing president Museveni. However, she acknowledges that the time for a handshake with Museveni will come when the issues behind the war that devastated Acholiland are settled to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned. Especially when an agreement that would restore peace and justice to Northern Uganda is reached.

Josephine Apira is one of a plethora of powerful women freedom fighters to emerge out of chaotic political scene of Northern Uganda since the rise of Museveni and his National Resistance Movement some twenty years ago. Two other well known Acholi women freedom fighers are Alice Auma (Lakwena) and Betty Oyella Bigombe.

Betty Bigombe was appointed the Minister for Northern Uganda in the Office of the President with residence in Gulu between 1988 and 1996. She initiated two unsuccessful peace negotiations between government of Museveni and the LRA in 1993 and 2004 respectively. She managed to establish contacts with Joseph Kony (the LRA Chairman) for the first time in 1993. Both initiatives were manipulated by the government of Uganda and both collapsed. The Havard’s scholar, Bigombe, is currently a consultant with the World Bank. Current talks mediated by the government of South Sudan presents the third and most serious attempt as yet to end the war peacefully.

Alice Auma (Lakwena), on the other hand, was probably the Mahadi answer for Northern Uganda, a region which was facing great challenges from the invading armies of Southern Uganda. A former spiritual healer in vicinity of Gulu, Alice Auma founded Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) at the time when Museveni NRA (National Resistance Army) had defeated Uganda Peoples Democratic Army (UPDA) and was advancing northward to tighten its grips on Acholiland . Claiming inspiration by the Holy Spirit through Lakwena (a name of a dead Italian soldier that means ‘messenager), Alice Auma (came to call herself Alice Lakwena) wrote to missionaries to explain the reason for forming Holy Spirit Movement (HSM):

“The good Lord who had sent the Lakwena decided to change his work from that of a doctor to that of a military commander for one simple reason: it is useless to cure a man today only that he be killed the next. So it became an obligation on his part to stop the bloodshed before continuing his work as a doctor.”

Notice the implication of that letter: Lakwena is a spirit of a man inside a woman (Alice Auma). Holy Spirit Movement (initially made up of Acholi fighters) scored military victories in Northern Uganda against NRA. Her forces advanced towards Kampala where the Movement won the support of members of other tribes. Some of her military tactics included attacking and running towards the enemy while singing hymns. The tactic was very effective at first. However, when HSM was about to capture Kampala, many of fighters were mercilessly slain by a raining shells of artillery of NRA. HSM suffered devastating military losses and defeat. Alice Auma fled to Kenya claiming that the spirit of Lakwena had left her. To this day she lived as a refugee in Kenya. But her’s is an extraordinary tale of heroism, nationalism, and spiritualism all blended toegther. Alice Auma Lakwena was and is an extraordinary woman by any standard!

And as we all know, Holy Spirit Movement (HMS) did not end with the flight of Alice Auma Lakwena to Kenya. Joseph Kony (a nephew of Alice Auma), have picked up the mantle and re-branded it as Lord Resistance Army.

And as we speak, the people of Northern Uganda have come a long way. A Cessation of Hostilities signed in August has been extended for a third time. There are still many thorny issues to be resolved in peace talks currently mediated by the government of Southern Sudan. The issues of contention include power devolution arrangement for Northern Uganda, new national army with representation of Northern Uganda, and appointment of a body to supervise reconstruction of Northern Uganda. There is also the explosive issue of attempt to sell the land in Northern Uganda to private investors.

The spirit of Alice Auma Lakwena is still here - fighting and soldiering on. The exploits of Acholi women (Alice Auma, Betty Bigombe, and Josephine Apira) will be an inspiration to African women and all over the world.

It is to be our prayer and hope that the sun of freedom will soon rise for 2 millions of Acholi men, women, and children now entrapped in poverty and disease in 200 death camps dotted all over Northern Uganda. The homes they did not choose by free will.

This brief tale of extraordinary acts of heroism and sacrifice by extraordinary Acholi women is dedicated to these: the most oppressed of the oppressed in Northern Uganda.

May next Christmas sees the forcefully displaced people of Acholiland back on their land that they once owned, tilled, and enjoyed.