By Jimmy Odoki Acellam
Four years ago, today on 22nd February, a bright light in our family was extinguished. I remember vividly arriving at Lacor hospital at 1.30pm to visit my father, Lapwony Micheal Ocan who had been admitted for a few days for what was suspected to be a heart condition. His state didn’t look worrying in the days I visited him. My conversation with dad on the days I visited him centered on politics, current affairs and the St. Janani Luwum Memorial where he was Chairperson for the Local Organizing Committee.
Together with some of my siblings, dad had taken us to the 2015 St. Janani Luwum Memorial which had the then Archbishop of York as a guest preacher. It was at this event that President Yoweri Museveni declared 16th February from 2016 onwards as St. Janani Luwum Day and therefore a public holiday. It was such a colorful event.
Dad wasn’t able to attend this time because of his poor health but he was still interested in getting information about the St. Janani Luwum Memorial that had just been celebrated. I brought booklets and order of service for the just concluded celebration as well as newspapers for him to read and be informed.
Dad read the bible most of the time and asked to meditate on particular verses. It appeared like he had a premonition that his time on earth was up. That day the brief chat I had with Dr. Daniel at the entrance of the Medicine ward made me miss an opportunity to talk to my father for the last time.
Everything happened so quickly. There were many medical workers trying to attend to what appeared like a dire situation as I got closer to his room. A very close friend of my father, Dr. Davidson Ocen was called immediately from the nearby theater. He rushed to provide back up to his colleagues who were attending to a critical situation that appeared overwhelming.
Relatives and friends in the room were asked to step out as attempts at resuscitating him were being made. At 2.15pm, I heard my mother wail and people started gathering in front of the room. Nobody got close to me to break the bad news. It was evident by merely observing the activities in the corridors of the ward.
Later my mother narrated what happened while dad was having lunch. One of his closest friends, Mr. John Muto had come to check on him. Suddenly he choked, lost his breath and within minutes passed away. It happened in the least expected way.
Breaking the bad news to my siblings was a tall order. They took very hard the passing away of our father who didn’t look very sick. Coming to terms with it is still a struggle but we continue to learn to live with the knowledge that life on earth is a journey. A post mortem report revealed that our father died from heart failure.
Celebrating the life of Lapwony Micheal Ocan is something we do to acknowledge, applaud and rejoice the contributions he made to his family and the world to make it a better place. It is also an opportunity for other people to know what he stood for and his values.
Through an annual Memorial lecture in his honor, his legacy is not forgotten. Anyone interested in finding more about the late Lapwony Micheal Ocan can read the following books; The Life and Legacy of Lapwony Micheal Ocan(Dennis Muhumuza & Jimmy Odoki), Alice Lakwena & the Holy Spirits by Heike Behrend.
Our father was born on 2nd January 1954 from Namasagali where his father Batimayo Langoya(RIP) worked with the East African Railways. He went to Layibi Primary School in Gulu, Comboni College in Lira, King’s College Budo, and Makerere University where he studied Education( Physics, Mathematics). He taught at St. Joseph’s College Layibi, Awere SSS, Sir Samuel Baker School and finally Kitgum High School from where he retired. He was a father, husband, family man, leader, public servant with a big heart and versatile like his schoolmate and fellow teacher, Mr. George William Semivule used to emphasize to us at school. He was a humble man and never got tired of reminding his children and students to be humble and above all to be disciplined in order to have a good future.
The spirit of voluntarism is something dad took seriously. He would offer to chair wedding meetings including the traditional “nyom”, church activities especially the St. Janani Luwum Memorial where he was Chairperson of the Local Organizing Committee. While in retirement he continued to help UNEB with supervision of the National Exams. UNEB Secretary, Mr. Dan Odongo and the Board commended him for his dedication and service. His vocation was in education.
Due to his concern about the standards of education in Northern Uganda, Lapwony Ocan also volunteered with the Acholi Education Initiative (AEI) as its secretary. Its mission was to help brilliant students with financial hardships to access scholarships and bursaries. He also taught on part time basis at Gulu University, Education Department. In addition he was Chairperson of Gulu Regional Referral Hospital Board.
Although Lapwony Ocan never participated directly in politics because he was in public service at the time, he provided political strategy to many people who consulted him. My mother (Mrs. Betty Aol Ocan) benefitted the most from his experience in tactics and strategies.
She says our father was a strong pillar in her political journey and that without his support and influence, she would have no political career. Many people credit Lapwony Micheal Ocan with coming up with the strategy that helped our mother upset the then powerful Minister of Education Hon. Betty Aketch Okullo in their political contestation in Gulu.
Dad had very good connections and related very well with people from all walks of life. Majority of these people have been very helpful during political campaigns.
This year’s campaign was the toughest for our mother because some of her opponents exploited the demise of her chief political strategist and thought she was done for. Some politicians who had been friendly in the past elections turned their guns against her. To their shock and embarrassment, mum beat all her opponents who underestimated her strength. The tutelage paid off. Lapwony Ocan worked with or interfaced with most of the politicians from Acholiland. It was evident by their attendance at his funeral in Potika, Lamwo district. Hon. Absolom Ongom Abednego, The Deputy Speaker, Rt. Hon. Jacob Oulanyah were closest to him through their political connections as well following up on payment due to damages to Awere SSS property during the war.
Reading Professor Heike Behrend’s book gives context to Lapwony Ocan’s involvement with the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) and Alice Lakwena. It is a complicated part of his life but it was in response to the violence and massacre by the NRA soldiers when they took over government but faced resistance in Northern Uganda. The atrocities are well documented in Professor Ogenga Otunnu’s book; Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda. People who don’t know the history have a tendency to undermine rebel movements such as that of Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) as bunch of backward people guided by spirits. Some go as far as stigmatizing relatives of people who have been part of the struggle to rid Uganda of the junta. It is only after reading the various literature on the HSM, LRA that an informed opinion and not just prejudices can be arrived at.
Lapwony Ocan was a member of the Civilian Wing of The Frontline Coordination Team of the HSM up to the point when he was taken as prisoner of war in October 1987 from Maga maga, Jinja. As the eldest child of my parents, my mother took me along to visit my father in Luzira prison. It is one of those memories that don’t fade away. Visiting Dr. Stella Nyanzi in prison recently was a stark reminder of what my father went through as a political prisoner.
Injustice in Uganda just seems to get worse despite the periodical elections. The phenomenon of safe houses and the current “drone vans” are the regime’s attempts at being more creative in their acts of violence while keeping the public totally in the dark. Lapwony Ocan Micheal’s concern for the Acoli civilization given what the region went through was as result of the war a driving force for most of his actions. Indeed together with Mr. John Muto and other friends,they developed the Acoli Agenda document which will hopefully make a difference if implemented. As a family we cherish our father’s memories. His legacy by will be carried on by promoting what he stood for.
(May the soul of Lapwony Micheal Ocan rest in eternal peace)
Jimmy Odoki Acellam is the eldest son of Lapwony Micheal Ocan(RIP) and Mrs. Aol Betty Ocan. He is the Coordinator of Heartsounds Uganda