Janani Luwum – A Ugandan Martyr

Janani Luwum – A Ugandan Martyr

In 1977, the assassination of Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum shocked the world. Since his military coup in 1971, the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had been sowing terror around the country. A Muslim, he allowed Christianity in his country only in three forms: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican, and only as long as he could keep them under his control. Dissenting voices were quickly and violently silenced. Luwum had been one of the dissenters.

A Quick Rise to an Influential Position

Luwum was born in 1922 in a village in northern Uganda. Although his parents were committed Christians, he didn’t come to faith until 1948, after speaking to a couple who had been affected by the East African Revival of the 20’s and 30’s. In fact, their witness caused such a conviction of sin that his neighbors came to see him, alarmed by his weeping.

            Convinced that the Lord was calling him to preach the gospel, in 1949 he went to Buwalasi Theological College to train for the ministry. He was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1953 and a priest in 1956, visiting (by bicycle) 24 congregations in a district with a 40-mile radius.

            In 1958, he spent a year at Saint Augustine’s College in Cambridge, England. After that, he served as principle at a training school in Uganda. He returned to England in 1965 to spend another year at the London College of Divinity. Back in his country, he was appointed provincial secretary of the Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire.

            At that time, many countries in Africa were undergoing great changes as it moved from colonial rule to independence. The African churches were also learning to work independently from foreign help. In Uganda, tribal rivalries made some of these changes difficult. As provincial secretary, Luwum had to find solutions to many of these problems.

            In 1969, Luwum was appointed bishop of a newly formed province in northern Uganda. Two years later, Idi Amin seized power from Milton Obote. He immediately started a reign of terror against anyone he considered an enemy.

Opposing a Dictator

            It was during this reign that, in 1974, Luwum was elected archbishop. As such, he had frequent interactions with Idi Amin, and tried to mitigate his policies. He openly opposed some of the worst abuses, such as when Amin authorized the cruel beatings of a group of students who had dared protest the assassination of one of their school administrators. Many of these students became crippled for life. He also started a warfare relief program for those families and individuals who were affected by the regime.

            For Christmas 1976, Luwum gave a message of peace on Radio Uganda. But when the message began to mentioned some elements that contributed to the destruction of peace, the government-sponsored radio cut him off and switched to a different sermon. That evening on radio, Amin complained that “some preachers are preaching for bloodshed” and accused them of treason.

            Amin was growing increasingly nervous. An attempted coup had been put down almost on the anniversary of his own coup. Suspicions of treason mounted in his mind, and several men were tortured for days in order to collect information. In desperation, one man gave the name of Luwum among the members of the Acholi tribe that had been rising against Amin.

            Immediately, Amin ordered the sacking of Luwum’s home, alleging that he was harboring weapons. The raid happened at 1:30 at night, when the family was sleeping. Luwum explained that he was not working as a representative of his tribe. He was the archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire, and of such, he was doing God’s work.

            “Our house is God’s house,” he said. “We pray for the president. We pray for the security officers, whatever they do. We preach the gospel and pray for others. This is our work, not keeping arms!”[1] The officers left at 3am, after a 90-minute search that produced no evidence.

            Soon after, Luwum called a meeting of Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim leaders to compose a formal letter of protest against the government’s abuses. The letter explained that the people of Uganda lived in fear of the security officers who often exceeding the boundaries of their charge, beating and kidnapping people and looting houses. As religious leaders, the signatories had to face the effects of these tragedies on a daily basis. The paper also asked that any necessary searches be done during the day.

Ready to Die

            After this letter, Luwum knew his days were numbered. “I do not know for how long I shall be occupying this chair,” he told a critic. “I live as though there will be no tomorrow. I face daily being picked up by the soldiers. While the opportunity is there, I preach the gospel with all my might and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present government, which is utterly self-seeking.”[2]

            His wife Mary Lawinyo was concerned for his life, but Luwum refused to flee the country, choosing to stay with his flock. “He said he would not flee until there were no more Ugandans left,”[3] she explained in a 2015 interview.

            On February 13, 1977, after midnight, Luwum received an angry call from Amin, who ranted and raved for a while. The next day, the minister of cabinet affairs called Luwum to a personal meeting with the president. This time, Amin was all smiles, and had a photographer take pictures of him with Luwum.

            In the interview that followed, however, Amin suggested that, since some weapons had been found near Luwum’s home, they had sufficient proof that the archbishop was plotting with Obote to take back the country. All over Uganda, the state-controlled media broadcasted the charge.

            The next day, Amin called a meeting of government officials and church leaders to present a letter that confirmed the allegations against Luwum. After the meeting, Amin asked all church leaders to leave, except Luwum. The archbishop turned to Bishop Festo Kivengere and said, “They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.”

            In the evening, Radio Uganda announced Luwum’s arrest. The following day, it announced that he and two other suspects (both cabinet ministers) had been found dead in a wrecked car. But the car the papers showed in the news was different than the one shown on television.

            No one was allowed to examine the bodies. Only much later, it was found that Luwum’s body was full of bullets. When questioned, Amin said he had nothing to do with Luwum’s death and any contrasting evidence was a result of a conspiracy against him.

            In spite of the government’s threats, 45,000 Ugandans attended Luwum’s funeral. Soon after that, other churches around the world held memorial services, including Westminster Abbey in London. As Luwum had spent his whole life and possessions to help the church, the Ugandan churches now cared for Luwum’s widow and their seven children, transporting them from safety in Kenya. When the family returned, Mary made ends meet by farming cassava, cotton, and sweet potatoes.

A Message of Forgiveness

            But Ugandan Christians knew that a new wave of persecution was on the horizon. Some wondered if fleeing the country was an option. Among those who opted for flight was Bishop Kivengere, who drove by night with his family as far as their car could take them, then walked to Rwanda. There, he heard of the suffering of Christians who had stayed in Uganda. But he also heard of the encouragement of a church convinced that, as Tertullian of old said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And he heard of countless, touching stories of forgiveness and prayers for the murderers.

            “In the midst of suffering, God is being glorified,” he explained. “Many have died praying for their murderers, as did Janani Luwum, with compassion for those who were trapped in the confusion of killing. They reached out for heaven, and saw the glory of the angels’ welcome, and let others see it too.”[4]

            Kivengere, author of the book I Love Idi Amin, explained that “peace is not automatic. It is a gift of the grace of God. It always comes when hearts are exposed to the love of Crist. But it always costs something. For the love of Christ was demonstrated through suffering, and those who experience that love can never put it to practice without some cost.”[5]

            Amin was deposed in 1979, as a result of an attack by invading Tanzanian forces. He fled and found permanent refuge in Saudi Arabia. When, at the end of his life, one of his wives asked the Ugandan government to let him die in his country, the government replied that he would have to account for his sins. He died in Saudi Arabia.

            Luwum’s statue appears on the façade above the Great West Door of Westminster Cathedral in London, together with statues of nine other 20th-century martyrs. 

[1] Festo Kivengere and Dorothy Smoker, I Love Idi Amin, Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1973, 47.

[2] Margaret Ford, Janani, the Making of a Martyr, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1978, p. 75

[3] NTV Uganda, “The family of Archbishop Luwum speaks out,” 2015, 2:48 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFrU_RRlArI

[4] Kivengere and Smoker, I Love Idi Amin, 62.

[5] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr