In 1974 Janani Luwum became Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire (Eastern DR Congo). It was during a time of widespread terror after Idi Amin had overthrown President Milton Obote three years earlier in 1971. Amin had enacted a policy of repression, arresting anyone suspected of not supporting him. Hundreds of soldiers from the Lango and Acholi tribes were shot down in their barracks. Over the next few years, many Christians were killed for various offenses. A preacher who read over the radio a Psalm which mentioned Israel was shot for this in 1972. As such Archbishop, Janani Luwum often went personally to the office of the dreaded State Research Bureau to help secure the release of prisoners.
Tension between the Church and state worsened in 1976. Religious leaders, including Archbishop Luwum, jointly approached Idi Amin to share their concern. They were rebuffed. Nevertheless, Archbishop Luwum continued to attend Government functions.
Early in 1977, there was a small army rebellion that was put down with only seven men dead. Amin, however, determined to stamp out all traces of dissent. His men killed thousands. On Sunday, 30th January, Bishop Festo Kivengere preached on “The Preciousness of Life” to an audience including many high government officials. He denounced the arbitrary bloodletting, and accused the government of abusing the authority that God had entrusted to it. The government responded on the following Saturday (5th February) by an early morning (1:30am) raid on the home of the Archbishop, Janani Luwum, ostensibly to search for hidden stores of weapons.
The Archbishop called on President Amin to deliver a note of protest, signed by nearly all the bishops of Uganda, against the policies of arbitrary killings and the unexplained disappearances of many persons. Amin accused the Archbishop of treason, produced a document supposedly by former President Obote attesting his guilt, and had the Archbishop and two Cabinet members (both committed Christians) arrested and held for military trial.
On 16th February, the Archbishop and six bishops were tried on a charge of smuggling arms. Archbishop Luwum was not allowed to reply, but shook his head in denial. The President concluded by asking the crowd: “What shall we do with these traitors?” The soldiers replied “Kill him now.” The Archbishop was separated from his bishops. As he was taken away Archbishop Luwum turned to his brother bishops and said: “Do not be afraid. I see God’s hand in this.”
The three (the Archbishop and the two Cabinet members) met briefly with four other prisoners who were awaiting execution, and were permitted to pray with them briefly. Then the three were placed in a Land Rover and not seen alive again by their friends.
The government story is that one of the prisoners tried to seize control of the vehicle and that it was wrecked and the passengers killed.
Luwumi’s body was placed in a sealed coffin and soldiers secretly transported his desecrated body to Mucwini (his ancestral home and birthplace), and dumped it in a hurriedly-dug grave at the church yard at Wii Gweng on 19th February 1977. The villagers, however, were not satisfied with a sealed coffin. When they opened it, they discovered the bullet holes in his body.
The assassination of Archbishop Janani Luwum is considered a turning point in Uganda’s history. For the international community, a line had been crossed and they were jolted into an awareness that Amin and his regime had to go. It set the stage for the Tanzanian-led campaign that removed Amin from power two years later.