By Norbert Mao
Last weekend Museveni attended the memorial prayers for the late Mzee Olanya Lagony, a member of the royal household of Koch Clan in Acholi. Olanya Lagony was killed by the Lords Resistance Army(LRA) during an ill timed and ill fated peace mission. The occasion was important in its symbolism because it brought to the surface the guilt President Museveni must bear over the wasteful war that raged in Northern Uganda for over twenty years.
The story of how Olanya Lagony met his death is worth retelling because Uganda needs a national truth telling and reconciliation process. This story is also worth retelling because it shows the high price innocent civilians paid because of Museveni’s hardline counter-insurgency policy of all out war and halfhearted and double faced peace initiatives. This story is also about how irresponsible and sensational news reporting can undermine peace by sowing mistrust.
In February 1994 Museveni abruptly announced that he was giving the LRA seven days to surrender otherwise he would attack them. This sudden announcement came in the middle of a peace process spearheaded by Betty Bigombe. This declaration of war undermined a process that had raised a lot of hope in a war-torn community left the minister, the traditional leaders and elders disappointed and angry.
With the peace process in tatters, violence increased. The LRA intensified child abductions and attacks on civilian targets. But the traditional leaders and elders did not give up the quest for a peaceful end to the conflict. On March 10, 1996 Rwot Achana led a delegation of 20 Chiefs and 20 elders to Rwakitura to meet Museveni. Rwot Achana reportedly told Museveni, “Even if you don’t want to sit down with the children (LRA), you should allow us to continue our contacts with them for peace.” The president agreed but insisted that for him he would continue fighting the LRA as part of his duty to defend civilians.
It is in this second attempt at peace talks that Olanya Lagony and Okot Ogoni, both of the Koch royal clan volunteered as Peace envoys to the LRA. The LRA said the talks should wait until the presidential and parliamentary elections are over. Government then decided to fund the peace mission. The elders submitted a budget of 8 million ($8000-). But some people in government said this was too small a sum. The elders then increased the sum to 14 million shillings ($14,000-). Again the government people said that was too little. The president’s office assigned two officials from the NRM secretariat to help draw a new budget. The new budget was 153 million shillings ($153,000)!
A newspaper published a shouting headline “Elders demand shillings 153 million”. One Gulu politician waved this newspaper during a campaign rally in Awach and Paibona saying the elders want to sell the LRA to the government. During an interview with Caroline Lamwaka, Rwot Achana with the benefit of hindsight said “…the rebels in the bush became convinced that we wanted to sell them, so they called us with a plan to kill us. They wanted leaders of the elders to go to the bush and the. They would kill them. They also believed that the money was there”.
On the fateful day, Saturday 9 June, 1996 two elders, Olanya Lagony and Okot Ogoni travelled to Pagik. They met two rebel envoys who rescheduled the meeting to the next day, 10 June. That day, Ogoni’s daughter accompanied the two elders as they were being led to the meeting venue. As they went deeper into the bush, the rebels sent away Ogoni’s daughter. But she simply ducked in the bush. According to her account, three other rebels joined the two. They started asking for the money which they claimed the government gave to the elders. They started torturing the two elders asking them to disclose where the money was. Eventually they tied Olanya Lagony’s hands and he was shot. The rebels then stabbed Okot Ogoni in the eyes and chest.
It is not enough to organize elaborate memorials for the likes of Lagony and Ogoni. The best tribute is a national truth and reconciliation process.