Recently, Reagan Okumu, chairman Acholi parliamentary group, justified the stripping naked by Acholi women of Apaa village as a valid protest against a government that wants to grab their land (Daily Monitor, April 24).
He reportedly said that “whoever is criticizing the women for stripping should put themselves in the shoes of the individuals who were on the verge of losing the only valuable asset they own in the hands of uncaring government agents”.
The article also reported that the Acholi paramount chief, David Onen Acana II, who condemned the undressing as an embarrassment, was “challenged” for doing so because what happened was part of Acholi “culture”.
When news of the stripping broke, I too appeared on NTV television and equally condemned its shamefulness in this 21st century, and castigated leaders who push our people to humiliation in retrogressive ways.
In social media, I and the paramount chief received all manner of bashing, with some calling Rwot Acana a “mere head prefect” and me a “Karimojong”.
Other people, bewildered by the strangeness of this “Acholi culture” and behavior, and shocked by the vitriol, have asked: What kind of culture is this? What is wrong with these people? What is actually the problem?
First is this culture thing. In Acholi, mothers are the most revered persons. Acholi men will, in gross anger or profound resolve, swear by their mothers- “Atari kimaa” i.e. “I swear by my mother”- and serious fights and even deaths ensue from simple insults or slighting of mothers.
In Acholi history and culture, mothers never bared their breasts nor undressed in protest against alien elements or challenges. If ever they undressed, as happened in Apaa, it was only as acts of profound repudiation of their own.
When a wayward son angered a mother beyond forgiveness, the mother could raise her breasts or even bear her nakedness at him and declare that “since you did not suckle these breasts or come out of this me, from today you are not my son”.
In the collective parenthood of Acholi culture, a wayward member of a community whose actions harmed the entire people or was beyond counsel and check could similarly be collectively repudiated by mothers of that community.
Undressing in anguish was an extreme reprimand, severe curse and tragic abomination that usually led to the cursed person dying, and was exercised only in truly exceptional circumstances. It was never used against mere emissaries or agents, such as ministers Migereko and Gen Aronda were, or to resist external threats as witnessed in Apaa, no matter what.
In Acholi culture too, women never address land disputes on their own it is the men that do. Even in disputes among cowife widows, women remain witnesses and never frontline actors. In a worst-case scenario of an external threat, such as the Apaa one supposedly is, rather than women undressing, it is their husbands and sons to take up spears, bows and arrows and face death in defense of their land and their mothers.
It is, therefore a great falsehood for Hon Okumu to claim that the Apaa women had only “two options to protect their land:, either to commit suicide or walk naked”.
Since when have we Acholi men abdicated the responsibility of defending Acholi land to our mothers and children? Why didn’t the MPs stand up to the ministers in parliament or court before it became necessary for our mothers to undress? In any case, what is the truth about Apaa land anyway?
In early 2012, I attended an Acholi workshop on land in Gulu where people emotionally condemned the High court for ruling against Hon Nyeko Ocula and others in the Amuru sugar land saga. That day, the LC-III chairman of Pabbo, Mr Ojera, an ardent NRM supporter, emotionally castigated government for seeking to take away Acholi land in Apaa.
A video of the goingson in Amuru, including an arrow-branding drunk declaring how they would kill Madhvani should he step in Lakang, was also shown. Taken aback by the vitriol of our people and their emotive reaction, I drew attention of the meeting to the video and asked if people noticed that all the men shown were drunk how the women and their children were dressed in tatters and the squalidness of their homes.
I then asked what those who opposed the Amuru sugar project planned to do to alleviate the conditions of these people and bring them to the level of other Ugandans. I also told the meeting that if those blocking development in the name of defending Acholi land thought they were heroes, they instead were false heroes seeking to condemn Acholi people to perpetual backwardness, and I emphatically declared that I will never be part of that leadership.
On the Apaa land issue, I refused to comment without facts and requested an independent study to objectively bring out facts for leaders to discuss in a rational and non-emotive manner. At tea break, I asked Mr Ojera what he knew about Apaa and whether he had ever examined a map of the area to establish the truth.
Some months later, I met Mr Ojera at another workshop in Gulu. He then told me how he went to Entebbe and obtained a map of the area only to find that the disputed Apaa land, including his own farm, was actually in Adjumani district, and not Acholi.
He was devastated by his misjudgment, given that, earlier on, when they were on Radio Mega with Gen Moses Ali, Gilbert Olanya and Reagan Okumu, the latter two had brandished a map they claimed showed Apaa to be in Acholi. In desperation, the LC-III chairman asked me to help link him with president Museveni to find a way forward for the innocent people in Apaa.
On March 12, 2012, I emailed the minister for the Presidency, Frank Tumwebaze, to bring the matter to the attention of the President but got no response. In the latest episode, Hon Olanya sent out invitations for a meeting in Apaa around Easter.
It was at that meeting, a week before the women undressed, that Yusuf Adek, a long-standing confidant and negotiator of Joseph Kony, reportedly told Apaa people how Kony had told him that his LRA war was in defense of Acholi land and how, if he left, Acholi land would be grabbed. To stir emotion, he said: “and they are now grabbing your land just as Kony told me”!
No wonder, incredulous as it may be, on the day the ministers went to Apaa, school children carried placards reading “Kony come save us”!
It must be noted that, in this mayhem, the leadership of Amuru district has stayed aloof because they know the boundary truth. Also, neither Hon Okumu, when addressing the press, nor Hon Olanya and Hon Lucy Akello (sheepishly led in innocence), in their statement, said categorically that the disputed Apaa land is in Acholi.
Yet they all want Apaa issue to be seen as some conspiracy against Acholi people. The truth is that when Aswa-Lolim-Kilak controlled hunting areas in Acholi were degazetted
in 1973, East Madi Game Reserve was not. Acholi people moved to Apaa believing that the land was equally free. It is also true that, because of its isolatedness and unclear status, Apaa was for long administered by Gulu district, including elections, and people who live there genuinely know it as their only home and in Acholi.
In this quagmire, the best way forward can never be reckless incitement against government, Moses Ali or the Madi, or assault on Acholi voices of reason, nor must it be injudicious and traumatizing application of the authority of the state. What we need is sober leadership. We all must hold back and seek honest, collective answers to move people forward.
For the Acholi, time has also come when we must collectively decide whether we continue to allow our people to be recklessly incited by misleaders who use our raw hatred of President Museveni, the postwar trauma and psychosocial instability of our people, and Acholi attachment to land as their only vehicles to false heroism and political survival.
The author is former leader of opposition in the 8th Parliament.
Source : The Observer