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Uganda: Leader of Holy Spirit Rebels Dies

The woman who was the spiritual inspiration of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army dies in exile in Kenya.
By Fred Bridgland
The woman who began the current two decade-long insurgency in northern Uganda that has taken tens of thousands of lives and forced 1.5 million people from their homes has died in exile at the age of 51 from an undiagnosed illness.

Alice Lakwena, a self-declared prophetess and warrior who claimed magical powers, founded a sect, the Holy Spirit Movement, which in 1986-87 came near to overthrowing the then young regime of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.

Lakwena offered fellow-members of the northern Acholi ethnic group the chance of salvation as God’s chosen people after the rebel army of Museveni, a southerner overthrew the Ugandan military government led by General Tito Okello, an Acholi, in 1986.

Beginning with a following of about 150 soldiers who had deserted from the national army and joined one of the north’s many rebel groups, the charismatic Lakwena eventually raised a large army of her own which defeated government troops in several northern battles, before beginning a march from the northern town of Gulu 200 miles southwards towards the capital Kampala.

Lakwena persuaded her eventual following of some 7,000 to 10,000 believers that if they smeared their chests with shea nut butter-oil, the bullets of Museveni’s forces would turn into water.

The Holy Spirit forces had few modern weapons. Most were armed with sticks, stones and even fly-whisks. Lakwena convinced them that the sticks they carried could turn bees into bullets to strike the enemy and that the stones they threw would explode like grenades.

Lakwena’s forces advanced to within 60 miles of Kampala near Jinja on the Nile, where the prophetess told her followers that the waters of the world’s longest river would part to enable them to begin their final march on the capital. Instead, the fighters of the Holy Spirit Movement were trapped in a forest by government soldiers armed with machine-guns and artillery, and were mown down in large numbers.

Decisively defeated and destroyed, the group imploded as Alice fled with some of her followers into permanent exile in neighbouring Kenya.

Within months, Joseph Kony, variously described as a nephew or cousin of Lakwena, picked up his relative’s mantle, recruited some of her followers and formed the Acholi-based Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, which has waged war against the Museveni government ever since.

Like Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, the LRA combines traditional belief in the spirit world with aspects of Christian doctrine. Kony says the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments form the core of the LRA’s code – although this has not stopped his fighters from kidnapping some 20,000 Acholi children to serve as child fighters, porters and sex slaves.

Warrants for the arrest of Kony and his top commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity have been issued by the fledgling International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague. Kony recently entered peace talks with the Museveni government, but the talks have hit problems and he has said the LRA will not disarm until the ICC drops the charges against him.

Lakwena was born as Alice Auma on June 3, 1956 in the Acholi village of Pongdwo, near Gulu, the north’s biggest town. She was the second of the 15 children of Sabino Lukoya, a catechist in the Anglican Church, and his wife Eberina.

After attending primary school, she married twice while young and was divorced each time after failing to bear children.

She converted to Catholicism, but in May 1985 she ran amok, saying she could barely see nor hear. Her father took her to 11 different traditional healers or witchdoctors, but none could cure her.

Instead, according to legend, she retreated at the age of 30 into the Murchison Falls National Park where in the course of 40 days she was possessed by the spirits of several dead people, including that of an Italian engineer who had been much respected in northern Uganda. There she took the name Lakwena – “messenger” in Acholi – and emerged to begin a new life as a spiritual healer.

When her healing work achieved little success, she said the spirits who had possessed her had altered the mission and ordered her instead to lead a war against evil, in the shape of Museveni’s new southern-dominated government.

In a ritual she devised, her early recruits were made to remove their decorative charms and were then sprinkled with water as they sang Catholic hymns. They were made to spit into the mouth of a pig that she said would absorb all their evil into itself, just as New Testament accounts said Jesus Christ forced devils from humans into swine. The pig would then be burned and killed, at which point the recruits were considered Holy Spirit soldiers.

Before battle they underwent numerous other rites and undertook to execute “the orders and only the orders of Lakwena”. On the battlefield, they were required to demonstrate their lack of sin anew: injury or death meant they did not pass muster and were not yet holy.

According to German anthropologist Heike Behrend, who wrote a book on the Holy Spirit Movement called “Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits”, Lakwena’s incredible rise to popularity and mesmeric power stemmed from beliefs among the Acholi that as a people, they were beset by problems ranging from internal disputes to external military pressure. The spirits, through Lakwena, offered the troubled Acholi salvation as God’s chosen people. Her personal assistant was Professor Isaac Ojok, a former Ugandan education minister and lecturer at Kampala’s Makerere University.

In exile, she was still surrounded by hundreds of followers in refugee camps at Ifo in northeastern Kenya, where she claimed she had recovered her powers to heal a wide range of illnesses, including AIDS. She was still referred to as “Your Holiness” as she dispensed advice from a wooden throne on how to make the blind see, the deaf hear and the dumb speak.

She turned down Ugandan government inducements to return home, demanding that she first be given large sums of money, a large house and replacement of 3,000 cattle she said she had lost.

Lakwena fell sick for about a week before dying on January 17 of an undiagnosed illness.

Deputy LRA commander Vincent Otti, among those charged with war crimes by the ICC, mourned his “comrade-in-arms” and said the Ugandan government should allow her to be buried at her home village in the north.

Uganda’s information minister Kirunda Kivejinja responded, “We are a government of all Ugandans. Although Lakwena led to the deaths of thousands of Ugandans, we will assist her relatives to transport her body from Kenya to Gulu.”

Despite her reckless failed military expedition, Lakwena’s place in the annals of Ugandan history has been secured by the continuation of the LRA’s bizarre and sadistic war.

Uganda’s Sunday Vision newspaper commented, “The media called her insane, a witch, a voodoo prophetess and a high priestess of lunacy. Some people called her a former prostitute and a witchdoctor. But to her admirers she was a prophetess and the future Queen of Uganda.”

According to the newspaper, Professor Emillio Ovuga, a clinical psychiatrist who was part of a Uganda government delegation which visited Lakwena in 1999, “said she was sane, seemed intelligent, manipulative and responsible for her actions, but suffered delusions of grandeur and was obsessed with sex”.

Fred Bridgland is the Johannesburg-based editor of the IWPR Africa Report.