Book Review: Michael Ocan looks back at the Lakwena rebellion and his life

Education

By Philip Matogo

Heroes belong to a bygone rage, not this one. For this is the age that has risen to low expectations. And so lacks the expression of an elevated spirit.

Such a spirit is associated with courage and integrity as well as the courage to embrace integrity. This embrace implies the dismissal of everyday compromises by which the unheroic majority manage their “hustles”.

So this is an age which stands in peril of its own soul. It is a time when danger looks us in the eye, and all we can do is blink. However, it is in times of emergency that heroes are looked for, and found.

In 1986, the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF) of priestess Alice Auma Lakwena abducted the late Lapwony Michael Ocan from Aware SSS where he was headmaster.

According to lore, ‘His Holiness the Lakwena, a holy spirit, was sent to the north of Uganda on January 2nd 1985.’

This was the time of the civil war which left burned-out villages, ruined crops and skulls upon skulls as ghastly reminders of it devastation in the so called Luwero Triangle.

Many Acholi soldiers, who formed the main part of the government’s army, were killed in this civil war against the National Resistance Army (NRA) of Yoweri Museveni.

Then, like an isolated piece in a twisted game of chess, the Holy Spirit Lakwena took possession of different spirit-mediums in Acholi.

On 25 May 1985, he took partial possession of the 27 year old Alice Auma. She was from Gulu, which is in Acholiland, and she had recently converted to Catholicism. The spirit, it is believed, took possession of her with an enveloping force that left her deaf and dumb.

In unquiet desperation, her father asked more than 11 traditional healers to cure her. But they all failed. Then, with the same strangeness by which she was possessed, she vanished!

Like a bat out of hell, she eventually returned and told of how she had stayed 40 days in the waters of the Nile.

It was in this watery abyss that the Lakwena completed its possession of her. The Lakwena is said to be the spirit of an Italian who had died during the First World War, aged 95, near the Source of the Nile.

His mission was “to help as a doctor. He cured a number of people suffering of different diseases at that time, because of the prevailing situation in Uganda: of bloodshed, of national disunity, and immorality”.

This is where Micheal Ocan comes in.

As the book “The Life and Legacy of Lapwony Micheal Ocan” states in chapter 2, written by Ocan’s wife Hon. Betty Aol Ocan, he was abducted because he was virtuous.

He only had one wife in a community given to polygamy. So the Lakwena made Ocan its “prime target” because he was exceedingly pious, religious and monogamous.

The Lakwena disdained polygamy as impure and unable to ensure protection from the spirits. So the polygamous would be sitting ducks on the frontline. It is only the good that the Lakwena sought, they would be invulnerable on the battlefield courtesy of their goodness.

Poet Bertolt Brecht wrote, famously, that it is an unhappy land that looks for heroes. In this particular twist, the Lakwena were happy to land on Micheal Ocan as a man of heroic emotion and enlist him in the Civil Wing of the Frontline Coordination Team of the HSMF.

In an egalitarian tribe like the Acholi, the notion of a hero is something which contradicts a sense of proportion and societal equilibrium.

The notion of the hero—that some people are born special—is radically inegalitarian. It implies the superiority of some over others. This is un-Acholi in character and practice.

However this was a time of moral depredation in Acholi, according to the Lakwena. So the egalitarian worldview of the Acholi had to be sidestepped.

This is probably why the Lakwena planned to have a hero like Micheal Ocan to lead the country, instead of Alice, in the event that she defeated the NRA. Thereby stilling the icy breath of its dictatorship.

All told, trouble started with the NRA when the Okello junta was overthrown by Museveni on 25 January 1986.

A great number of Acholi soldiers, known as the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), retreated to the north to demobilize, disarm and to take up the lives of simple peasants again.

However many of them soon went rogue and began looting and raping their neighbours.  This sowed rustic discord and unrest, naturally.

To put a match to an already incendiary situation, these ex-UNLA soldiers were ridiculed by their fellow villagers because they were defeated by the NRA.

On 8 March 1986, Gulu was quickly conquered by the NRA. Soon afterwards, the 35th Battalion of the NRA was sent to Kitgum.

This battalion became the scourge of Kitgum.

It perpetrated many evils against innocents through pillage, rape and even murder. To escape this, the ex-UNLA soldiers took up their weapons again.

On 6 August 1986, the Lakwena became the commander of the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces and told Alice, his spirit-medium, to fight.

In early November, Alice approached another rebel group called the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) near Kitgum and was given weapons and soldiers to build up the HSMF.

A few weeks later the HSMF fought a major battle against the government troops at Corner Kilak and won. After this victory many more soldiers of the UPDA joined the HSMF because “Alice had power”.

A non-Homeric legend tells of how the great warrior Achilles (of the epic poem The Iliad) had a divine mother who sought to make him invulnerable by dipping him in the waters of the Styx, the river over which the souls of the dead were ferried to the underworld.

Similarly, the soldiers of Alice’s HSMF had to undergo an initiation ceremony in which they were anointed with Shea-butter oil and made holy. Sadly, both Achilles and Alice had the proverbial Achilles’ heel.

The HSMF marched to Lira and in October they reached Tororo and Busoga. At the end of October, they were defeated near Jinja.

According to lore, the NRA beat the HSMF because Museveni had asked a powerful witchdoctor from Ghana (or Tanzania) to give medicine to his soldiers!

Another version has it that Alice lost her power because she didn’t listen to the Holy Spirit. Although he had forbidden her to talk to strangers, she had given an interview to BBC reporters. To punish her, the Lakwena made her lose the battle.

This was in 1987 and Micheal Ocan was captured and imprisoned thereafter.

His ordeal in the inhospitable conditions of a Makindye military jail cell and later Luzira Maximum Prison are well chronicled here. After he was released, he went back to teaching. Thereupon, he headed several schools in Northern Uganda.

Micheal Ocan’s life is truly a testament to heroism. He used his experience with the HSMF to write about it and help us cut through the clutter of government propaganda and not-so-urban legend related thereto.

He also became an ethnographer, translating what would make accessible his trails and travails with the HSMF to a local and global audience.

According to one reviewer of his writings, “he wrote a brilliant text that became the essential foundation of the book ‘Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits. War in Northern Uganda 1986-97’ by Prof. Heike Behrend”.

His wife Hon. Betty Aol Ocan, who is The Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, describes him as a king maker who made her queen of topflight politics.

In this book, Olara Otunnu and other luminaries shed light on the life and times of this great man in a singularly companionable and highly readable fashion.

Get yourself a copy.

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