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.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

South Sudan has changed and is changing-Can We Tame it?

By John A. Akec

THEY’VE builded wooden timber tracks,
And a trolly with screaming brakes
Noses into the secret bush,
Into the birdless brooding bush,
And the tall old gums it takes.
And down in the sunny valley,
The snorting saw screams slow;
O bush that nursed my people,
O bush that cursed my people,
That flayed and made my people,
I weep to watch you go

Wrote Frank Wilmot in his poem entitled Progress. Frank Wilmot was an Australian poet who lived between 1881 and 1942. This poem most probably bemoaned the disappearance of Australian wilderness in order to pave way for railroads and motorways - the necessary evils of modernity that marked 19 and 20 century. And if you recall the high temperature surrounding issue of land for development around Juba (South Sudan), you will identify with Wilmot. Progress and change are bedfellows. And there is a sense in which we too can bemoan the disappearance of our cultures and our most treasured values in our watch!

In the world of change, nothing is more certain than change itself. Change, and more change wait in the store for all of us. We must learn to live with it, adapt to it, and dare I say, enjoy it. However, the change that concerns me most is how South Sudan has already been transformed beyond recognition by the two decades of war and oppression, for better, and for worst: socially, culturally, politically, and economically.

Certain type of change is good and must be welcomed. Others less so, if not down right scary. That it is now perfectly acceptable in many towns in South Sudan for a “respectful” housewife to ride a bicycle, and does her daily shopping. Hearing that news first time did leave me with my mouth wide open (specially for a man living in Europe and who still believes girls must not be taught to ride a bike, let a lone own one!). But I can safely say I was delightfully shocked by the news because I quite like cycling as one of most environmentally friendly means of transport. It also helps housewives stay fit. I can live with it. What’s more, to travel to my village during the rainy season from Wau, these days the capital of Western Bhar El Ghazal state, you can hire a donkey. Very interesting, and should I say creative. When I was there, some twenty odd years ago, a donkey was a rare sight.

More scary though is the invasion of consumerism (and love of material) that came riding at the back of the dollar pumped into Southern Sudan partly from Diaspora and most recently from within - from the autonomous government of South Sudan. Few people are very rich. Great majority have nothing. For a woman to work as a house housemaid so that she can feed her family was uncommon. No longer. Drinking and alcoholism have invaded once a virgin countryside. Its victims range from men to housewives, to young boys and girls. And as to morality that once governed relationships in a community, it is in free-fall. The results are seen in the weakening of the family relations and threat with its disintegration. This is reflected in the rise of children running away from home and the rise of divorce rate.

The news of those who escaped the country for a life in exile is not rosy either. As seen from the eyes of those who remained behind, Professor Mosses Machar, a former vice-president of Sudan and a distinguished academic once told an astounded audience in London last summer about what they (back home) hear about those living in Diaspora:"In a family it is wife first, then children, then dog, and finally husband." You may call it stereotypical, but it is not far from truth. Divorce and homicide, you name it, have rocketed amongst the South Sudanese Diaspora in the West at an alarming rate. Unlike Jews who have survived centuries of exile since Babylonian captvity, many South Sudanese communities seem to have lost everything that kept them surviving over centuries in just two decades.

To be blunt, as a result of war and forced displacement of South Sudanese from their homelands, many once proud and isolated communities currently face a great crisis of identity. Like the mythical creature that is portrayed as half-human and half-fish, South Sudan as a unique Sudanese entity that was once defined as made up of African tribes that embraced either Christian religion or traditional African religions. No more can such a simplistic and straightforward definition of “Southern-ness” be sufficient. Millions have been displaced to the North and some found their way into Egypt and the Middle East where they have been exposed to intense acculturation. Others went to East and Southern Africa are likely to have picked the worst that is in those communities (corruption, for example). A sizable number spread in the West and also seems to have not done any better but also picked the worst of Western world - individualism.

I can delve into what has become of our communities. Probably this time is not the right time to be bombarding us with our deformed mirror image and telling of bad news. What I have done is simply scratch the issue at the surface. In ideal world, a government should be concerned about bringing into focus the changes that can impact family and community relationships andwell-being- the building blocks without which n nnations can exist and to help citizens make informed choices in the face of unavoidable social, political, and economic changes. Here the church and faith leaders can play an important role. And so do social and economic planners and scientists.

Change as I noted earlier, is inevitable. Certain type of change is good and can take care of itself. Yet we must know and be aware of change that is not so good in order to avoid being crushed under its mighty feet.

And as we celebrate Christmas, let us remember how God changed into man in order to redeem the world from clutch of sin, selfishness, and materialism. We must ask ourselves whether or not God has another purpose us. And if so, what purpose is there for you and me? We need ought to be asking: What can we do in order to save our community from perils of undesirable social changes?

I want to leave you with another poem by Delma Luben, a contemporary American writer and journalist who presents a kinder (less scary) face to progress, the bed fellow of change:


I see people in another country
at the touch of a button,
hear them instantly.
I fly at the speed of sound;
electronic marvels work for me.
I am educated, entertained,
and rebuilt by technology ...

Science is flying.

I see the bold power of authority
crushig old truth--and the
new flower of creativity,
individual candle flames doused,
pure energy hamstrung,
and ancient games, called
tradition, twisted into piety ...

Humanity is plodding.

- Delma Luben

I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.