By Richard Todwong
It’s a story that requires some deeper level of empathy to understand. It is quite unique for one to write away yet very intense like a horror movie.
My late father, Mr Savio Ojok Awany, May His Soul Continue To Rest In Peace, encouraged us as a family to be strong and committed in supporting the NRM. His strong guidance helped us to build the love and interest in President Museveni, whom he knew way back in the 1970s. Our father was the genesis of our story with the NRM and President Museveni.
When President Museveni and his colleagues took over power in 1986, we were deep in our village of Purongo in Nwoya District. As always, whenever there are political instabilities, Ugandans retreat to their village for “safety”. So we left Anaka town for the village. Even then, we were not settled because the 1985/6 war had cut off our elder brother Charles Otema in Kampala (he is now a three star General of the UPDF).
This was traumatic because of the bad history that our father experienced in the hands of Amin’s soldiers. our father survived many attempts against his life in the mid 70s as an Acholi prison officer and he knew how dangerous it was for our brother to be locked up in Kampala at the dawn of a regime change. Luckily though, we got information through a family friend that our brother was alive and busy working with the new forces (NRA).
We jubilated although the celebration was short-lived because our father being a senior civil servant then, knew the danger of our brother joining the liberation forces when we were all in the middle of hostilities from the remnants of the UNLA fleeing soldiers.
I remember our home was attacked many times by these groups (UNLA) as a demonstration to the other families in Acholi not to think of working with President Museveni and the NRM. We started living in the jungles in fear of the constant attacks and intimidation from this group. One evening when our father was listening to the BBC Focus on Africa programme from one of our hide outs by a river, he heard that the NRA group had crossed Karuma and was moving to Acholi. We were excited about the news but yet not sure of our fate as a family.
We kept a low profile in the jungle not sure of our next move because as a family. We were being hunted like wild game by the “cilil” rebel group that was formed by the fleeing UNLA soldiers. It was at this moment that our father put us dawn and openly told us to find a way of supporting the new forces (the Museveni’s group) because he confirmed from another source that our elder brother was truly alive and now working with the Museveni’s group. Something which was very strange because we thought he had been in killed in Kampala! It’s in order for one to conclude that we fully joined NRM because they did not kill our brother.
From that moment, our father started lecturing us about the challenges of the previous governments that he knew so well and how they were tribalistic and could not spare anyone’s life if such a person did not support them. That in Museveni’s group, he had a lot of hope since those officers who were in UNLA are now busy working with them. He equally predicted that the Acholi’s will reject Museveni and it would be dangerous for us as a family in Acholi to openly support Museveni because we would all be killed. Indeed a lot of attempts were made by the then rebels to properly clear our family but God protected us.
We managed to escape from the jungles and came to Gulu town when Gulu was already taken over by the NRA. We re-United with our elder brother who was among the NRA/M team that entered Gulu and he was among the other Acholi soldiers in NRA who started the struggle to fully pacify Acholi and Northern Uganda.
Some of us went back to school after being out of school for close to four years. The good thing was that we already were convinced about the goodness of Museveni’s team on the account that our brother was alive and working with them.
There were some mistakes that were made by the team of the NRA that first entered Acholi. They came with a lot of force and revange attitudes that caused the bitterness in the population. Even then as a family we remained committed and I remember way back in my secondary school life I started talking good about the NRA and Museveni. Indeed as expected, I appeared strange among my fellow students because I was a lonely voice among a sea of voices against the NRM regime. But I persisted until I joined Makerere University in 1996.
Mobilising against LRA
While at Makerere, the situation back home was worrying because the war had intensified and the whole population was put in internally displaced people's camps, (IDPs). Mzee Odokwod pa Acheng was the RDC of Gulu. I remember one afternoon when at Makerere University MDD ground where we used to hold our Acholi Makerere Students Association ( AMSA) meetings some of our members were moving that we ask the University to allow us stay in the University during holidays since we could not return home due to the insecurity. That we should ask Ref Cross and other Humanitarian agencies to support us while at the campus in the event that the University grants our request.
I was the speaker of our association and I politely disagreed with my colleagues and insisted that our people who were in the IDP camps would feel comforted if we their children can reach out and talk to them. At that time a lot of misinformation was all over and the war was intensifying. Many of my colleagues disagreed with me but I managed to convinced three students with whom I approached the then RDC who welcomed us to join his team of Mobilisation.
The RDC was happy but equally scared because he never wanted us to be exposed to danger since the situation was bad and the rebels were all over Acholi. We insisted and I remember one afternoon he asked us to inform our Parents that if anything happens to us, him as the RDC and the entire Government would not be held responsible. The following day we lied to him that our parents had accepted us to be moving with him and the security team to the IDP camps. To my other friends it was a real risky venture because all our Parents did not know that we were secretly moving with the security teams in dangerous places. Good enough for me, I was already hardened by my “jungle” experience and I knew how to take care of myself in case of danger.
The mixture of pain and emotions of seeing the conditions under which our people lived in the camps strengthened our resolve even more. We were taken for Carder training together with many other civil servants/Headteachers as a means to prepare and equipped us for the task we had under taken.
At that time, there were quite some many NGOs in Acholi and some of these NGOs were involved in keeping the children rescued from LRA. It’s worth noting that the emergence of Kony (LRA) as a rebel group dismantled all other rebel groups and so the security dynamics changed. We were in the middle of this as young university students volunteering to help. We could not help but cry every time we saw the innocent children rescued by UPDF. We became stronger and started being more vocal in talking about the war and challenging our leaders who were full time lamenting and blaming Government. This did not go well with many people and many of our friends whom we had gotten in touch with to join the Mobilisation were either killed or got scared of the mass hostility against the NRM Government. That was the time when many LCs and local leaders were killed quietly for supporting the Government.
NRM faces hostility in Acholi
Later when serious politics started, many leaders were elected from Acholi and most of these were highly educated people yet did not support the NRA/UPDF. They were a serious group of opposition. I still recall some of them such as; Hon Okello Okello Livingston, Hon Owor of Aswa county who died in a car accident in Kenya and was replaced by Hon Amb Abola Marino(NRM), Hon Okumu Regean, Hon Norbert Mao, Hon Adimola, Hon Okeny Atwoma Tiberio, Hon Abednego Ongom, Hon Olum jachary and Hon Oulanyah Jacob among others. This team scared off some of my University friends and the many civil servants that had joined the struggle. we felt very thin and small on the ground to match this group in mobilization. I remember how they would start their joint rallies with funeral songs and cursing NRA/Museveni for hating the Acholi people.
Hon Okello Okello Livingston even wrote in his book entitled “bites and pieces” that any body or family that supported Museveni and his Government should be wiped off from Acholi! That our names should be written in black polythen papers ("kavera”) and be buried in the soil because we didn’t deserve to be called Acholi’s. That we are traitors against the Acholi people. It was a very hard moment for us and this even scared off most of my colleagues.
I remained strong because of my father and my brother who kept encouraging me. I also remember by that time Hon Charles Ali, Hon Betty Bigombe, His Lordship the Chief Justice Owinyi Dollo, and many in the military ranks were actively supporting the Government and helping the population to understand the danger of not working with Government to end the war.
When my team got scattered because of fear, I remained with other volunteer carders who had not finished their University studies yet. We were continuously abused as political novices, people with no experience or known track records. Others referred to us as people from useless families, etc etc. At the time, I had already completed my degree and I embarked on recruiting more young people to join the mobilization. Those without degrees were taken back to school to study as we worked and it even became better when Gulu University opened. We got involved with the new team plus our elders as mentioned above who encouraged us all the way.
NRM wins Acholi/Northern support
We started offering a different narrative to the population about the war and slowly people started changing. We even got some positive people being elected to Parliament in 2001 General Elections. Hon Minister Onek Hillary and Hon Betty Bigombe were elected among others. We continued and in 2006, some of us offered ourselves to contest but because the LRA remnants were still around, we could not do much. Later on in 2011 General elections, I relocated to Nwoya County when Nwoya became a District and rescued the constituency from the opposition for NRM for the first time in history. Many of the NRM carders were elected in 2011 because by that time the IDPs were already no more and people had returned to their homes.
In 2016 we improved our performances, and in the last General Elections 2021, we performed so well as reported.
This was mainly because of the following;
a) The population got fed up of insecurity and yet the opposition were promising insecurity during their campaigns. This worked for NRM in the long-run.
b) Because of the apparent peace in the region, government has been able to work on a number of social and physical infrastructural projects like schools, hospitals, roads and extension of electricity to many rural areas that had hitherto longed for them. The government also constructed a number of water supply points in the north, greatly liberating the women from moving for long distances in search of water. These worked for us.
c) The Presidents message of house hold income was well received and the emphasis of farming with (cura) calculations has been emphasized.
The above were some of the major key factors that turned the North to massively support NRM. The people openly appreciated President Museveni politics of no revenge and they never wanted anything that would take them back to war.
I sincerely would like to thank my friends with whom we worked so well during this period. Some of them are members of Parliament now, others are Resident District Commissioners and many are doing developmental projects in the community. I also salute those committed cadres whose lives were taken during this period.
Long live President Museveni, long live the NRM.
This article was first published in the LEGACY Publication, a publication of the NRM Party Secretariat, May-September 2021