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An archbishop with a political message

By Bob Roberts Katende  

The King’s Bishop

Sitting among the congregation and listening to the Easter summon by Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda, was quite an event this April. During his sermons, Lwanga’s voice is so soft that he sounds almost meek. It is clear he weighs and thinks through whatever he says.

During the Easter day mass celebration, he talked about the tensions that exist between the Buganda Kingdom and the central government. ‘There is need to work out an agreement between the Kabaka’s government and the central government on issues affecting Buganda and Uganda if we want to foster peace and stability in the country.

‘We cannot continue with this deadlock and that is why I am bringing my proposal for a concordant between the Kabaka’s government and the government of Uganda,’ he said.

Then he dived smoothly into his favourite topic: the need for the central government to rethink its position on the federal question and grant Buganda a special status. ‘Uganda is a nation made out of so many nations or countries which the Europeans undermined and called them tribes,’ he said, ‘We too, today still remain in this falsehood.

‘Why did the British grant Buganda independence on October 8, 1962 before granting it to the rest of Uganda on October 9, 1962?’

Uttered by others, such claims usually sound sophist. But Archbishop Lwanga somehow always imbues them with an unmistakable sincerity. As part of a sermon, they cause the congregation at Rubaga Cathedral to cheer and clap. At such moments, his stocky frame appears to convulse mirthfully under his priestly vestments and his chubby cheeks glisten in what appears like an inconclusive smile. He obviously relishes his unofficial role as the ‘king’s bishop’.

Many are surprised by his boldness. But Monsignor John Wynand Katende, the Episcopal Vicar of Kampala Archdiocese, who works closely with Lwanga says he is not. He attributes Lwanga’s boldness to his early nurturing.

 

‘I think the late Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga influenced him so much more than any other factor,’ says Monsignor Katende. He explains how Lwanga was nurtured by the late Cardinal, who took him on as his private secretary during the regime of the late former President Idi Amin Dada. The late cardinal proved to be fearless and bold during the 1970s which were dark days for the Christian church in Uganda.

‘Once you are under an influential person and you move with him you learn a lot from him. He must have studied him, admired him so that he emulates his example,’ says Katende.

Reverend Father Kanyike, the influential Chaplain of St Augustine Chapel, Makerere University, who was two years ahead of the archbishop at Nyenga Seminary says Lwanga never minces a word. ‘If he has something to say, he will say it.’

It is no secret that Archbishop Lwanga enjoys warm relations with the Buganda monarchy. He has come out boldly in the past to support the kingdom on various matters. He was strongly against the passing of the Land Amendment Bill that widened the gulf between the kingdom and the central government. Recently, during the ecumenical mass at the Kasubi Tombs, whose centerpiece, the giant Muzibu Azaala Mpanga hut was gutted by fire, he donned a stole sewn out the traditional lubugo, bark cloth as a symbol of mourning as he led the other religious leaders. The service marked the end of a week of mourning that was declared by Buganda kingdom. Buganda Kingdom spokesman Charles Mayiga downplays Lwanga’s place in Buganda. ‘Other religious leaders have been appointed in the past to lead ceremonies,’ he says.

But Katende once again traces the Buganda nationalism in Lwanga to Cardinal Nsubuga. ‘By coincidence both are from the Mamba Clan. Cardinal Nsubuga liked his totem so much; he liked Buganda and Uganda so much and above all his religion. Archbishop Lwanga possesses all that.’

It is his passion for Buganda’s controversial demands that has placed the cleric on a collision course with the government. Even as Lwanga’s congregants at Rubaga clap in appreciation, the prelate’s sermons receive rebuttals from government officials.

Following the Easter sermon, the Minister of Ethics and Integrity Nsaba Buturo appeared on local television and urged the cleric to ‘concentrate on religious matters because government was preoccupied with the more pressing issues.’ The President’s Press Secretary Tamale Mirundi told the Bishop to ‘concentrate on problems in the church’ and Trade Minister Kahinda Otafiire asked, in reference to the Bishop’s comments on federalism, how he could ‘start discussing federalism when we are talking of a united East African nation?’

‘The Archbishop is justified; it’s part of our service and if we keep quiet it will be a disservice to society,’ says Rev. Dr. Medard Rugyendo, a lecturer of Religious Studies at Makerere University.

Kanyike adds that Uganda is not the only country where the church speaks out. ‘The Episcopal Church in the US spoke boldly against Obama’s stand on abortion. We must be civil. You must accept debate on an intellectual level,’ he adds, ‘Unless we are working in an uncivilised society.’

Kanyike says the church’s role in any society is to be a critic of the state’s excesses. ‘These include greed, hunger for power and corruption among others.’ Kanyike says the church acts as the conscience of society and ‘must play its prophetic role of speaking about everything.’ ‘If the state feels threatened and acts, then its saying; why are you pointing at our mistakes? If you are not a criminal why are you afraid of the police?’ Kanyike asks.

Up to 85 per cent of Ugandans professes to being Christians, and the majority are Catholic. Governments in Uganda, therefore, fear the influence of the church and clergy.

‘When the clergy speak, people listen. Those words are very well respected. And that’s why when the Catholics speak the government reacts immediately,’ Kanyike says.

In the past the confrontation between politics and religion has led to dire consequences.

The perceived interference of priests in politics led to the murder of the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Janan Luwum by Amin. Nothing dramatic has happened to Archbishop Lwanga so far but political temperatures are rising and Monsignor Katende is philosophical about the future. ‘God gives us leaders according to the time they are needed.’

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