Is Amuru land fight also an attempt to reconfigure leadership in Acholi?

Moses Odokonyero

The day lands Minister Betty Amongi stormed Amuru bristling with state power in her second attempt to forcefully survey land for sugarcane growing after a botched first assault, a journalist covering the affair told me cowed locals on seeing boots bolted for the bushes or hid in their huts, popping out to ask the journalist, ‘‘what can we do? What’s going on?’’

It should have been the journalists asking the locals: What’s going on here? But not in Amuru where unmasking the different forces that have converged around the ‘‘Amuru- Madhavani’’ conflict is too complex for many a local eye.

The Amuru- Madhavani conflict is part an intellectual difference among Acholi elite on what and how to use land as a means of production, part a fight by the poor against vested interests, part a development issue in a post-conflict setting distrustful of the government, part a scramble for fertile and well-watered land by fortune hunters and crooks, and part an attempt to reconfigure the structure of Acholi leadership.

I will focus on the reconfiguration of leadership since it has sparsely been mentioned in the myriad commentary on the Amuru- Madhavani land debacle.

About 1996 a new group of young and smart Acholi leaders emerged. At their helm was a young lawyer with a gift of the garb and immense explanatory power.  That young man today is 50-year old Norbert Mao, president of the Democratic Party.  In the group was also Reagan Okumu, the Aswa County Member of Parliament and Senior Forum for Democratic Party official. In also was Jacob Oulanyah, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, previously of the Uganda Peoples Congress, now firmly in the NRM yellow bus (his former party has also since followed him in the bus).

The Mao’s emerged during war, at a time when stereotypes against the ‘‘militaristic Acholi’’ in some parts of Uganda was still up there in the sky.  Mao’s silver-tongue has been the single biggest public relations asset the Acholi have had in the last 20 years. His smooth tongue started its swiping work from his days as panelist on the Capital Gang and has since continued swiping, helping to reverse an entrenched stereotype about the military tribe.

While the Acholi leaders who emerged in the mid-90 valiantly soldiered on, bringing peace to their war- wrecked community, they eventually took on national roles which came at the cost of community leadership. Also, along the way, cracks emerged in this core group, cracks that got widened by ideological differences, Museveni’s money, jostling for the kingmaker slot in Acholi, egos, and now land.

It is in this context that we are seeing what appears like an outline of a new emerging Acholi leadership in the horizons. This group is brash and young but appears to lack or hasn’t yet demonstrated the sleekness, depth and intellect of their 1996 counterparts. The defacto leader of the group appears to be Kilak South Member of Parliament, Gilbert Olanya.

In between the Mao group and the cantankerous Olanya group is a unique character called Odonga- Otto of Aruu County. He can shove his leg anywhere on his own terms. He is a bomb thrower informed by his seminary and political science background, pragmatism and anarchy. He has intellect but also has no qualms kicking butt to sort out a difference.

The most recent outbreak of fresh schism over land in Amuru which led to yet another round of old women undressing was the handiwork of Odonga and Olanya, two men at the centre of the attempt to reconfigure leadership in Acholi. They are riding on land like the Mao’s rode on war.