Did grandmothers kill a government minister, nonviolently?

Minister of internal affairs, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, at the 2012 African Land Forces Summit. (Flickr / US Army Africa)

Minister of internal affairs, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, at the 2012 African Land Forces Summit. (Flickr / US Army Africa)

In virtually all subjects of study — mathematics, history, science, arts, religion — the African continent takes a back seat in the priorities of academia. Unfortunately, the majority-black nations of Africa have also been sidelined in news and research on nonviolence.

I’m regularly scoping out the social change terrain in hopes of finding something definitive and innovative that the people in my environment are contributing to the global development of nonviolent strategy or the understanding of peace and justice. What I think I’ve found is a new understanding of metaphysics – the understanding of what reality is and how it works.

In April, Uganda witnessed a very successful nonviolent demonstration led by elderly women in Amuru District, who stripped naked in protest of an attempted land grab by the Ministry of Lands and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The ministers of both of these branches of government turned their convoys around upon witnessing this “abomination,” as some residents called it. The military occupation in the area was called off shortly thereafter, and leaders across various sectors convened to discuss how to move forward, with several pro-people resolutions passed. Within a few weeks, similar actions took place in other parts of the country.

Despite the action’s success, something irked me about the land grabbers’ response. Allies of the land grabbers accused the Amuru women of behaving violently rather than settling the dispute through dialogue. (Nevermind the fact that the land grabbers had regularly refused calls to dialogue directly with residents of the community.) Violence? None was apparent to me, certainly not in a physical sense. Maybe they were just sore losers, I thought. Then, something interesting happened.

On September 11, the 56-year-old minister of internal affairs, General Aronda Nyakairima, died mysteriously on a flight from South Korea to Dubai. There were rumors that he — like others who might not have carried out President Museveni’s biddings with complete perfection — was poisoned. (Museveni did himself no favors to delegitimize this notion by behaving dubiously at the funeral.) But that wasn’t the only theory. Another one soon arose and gained significant traction: He had been killed by the Amuru women — fragile old ladies who never laid a finger on him and hadn’t even seen him for half a year.

Keromela Anek sits with some of her neighbors in Apaa. (WNV / Phil Wilmot)

Keromela Anek was one of the women who stripped naked in protest of the land grab. (WNV / Phil Wilmot)

While I’m certainly someone who believes in psychological power — after all, it must be the reason why placebos sometimes work — the idea of a cultural omen or curse killing someone was hard to conceive. But then, something else happened to further add to this seemingly unbelievable theory: the minister of lands, Daudi Migereko, lost his parliamentary seat in the ruling party primaries.

At the time, I was attending a workshop at a hotel that he owns, and I watched him staring petrified at the evening news leading up to the vote. I also remembered that back when he was confronted with the sight of the naked women, Migereko burst into tears (one anonymous contact from the minis office even informed me that the incident had had a long-term impact on the minister).

After Migereko lost the primary, many voices spoke out to congratulate the Amuru women for their victory in blocking his political advancements with their disrobing.

Still, a primary election loss is nothing compared to death. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Did the women commit violence against General Aronda? Did they actually kill him?”

In November, I was participating in a training of activists in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. One young man was present who had organized these Amuru women and their community on that April day. Our group dialogue deviated from its intended path, and we found ourselves discussing the incident and its alleged relationship to Aronda’s death.

“How many of you believe that Aronda died because he was poisoned by the government?” I asked. A few hands rose.

“How many of you believe that Aronda died because the women of Amuru stripped naked?”

“Phil, we are Africans. Of course we believe that’s why he died,” interjected activist Hamidah Nassimbwa, speaking on behalf of the mostly well-educated group. The majority of the room raised their hands to concur that Aronda’s fatality originated in Amuru in April.

“Actually, it was not the stripping itself that initialized the curse,” said Leonard Okello, a cooperative organizer more conversant with traditional practices in northern Uganda. “It was the deliberate pointing of the women’s breasts at the ministers.”

“Alright,” I said. “Then how many believe the women committed an act of violence?”

All of the hands in the room dropped.

“So, if he died because of the curse,” I asked, “why was the disrobing itself not an act of violence?”

The activists explained exactly what I thought their response would be: Aronda’s death was his own fault because he refused to return to Amuru for the cleansing ceremony that was demanded by Amuru residents upon cursing him. The disrobing merely initialized a curse. It was a poison, yes, but it was delivered alongside a ready antidote contingent upon an admission of wrongdoing by the offender.

According to this belief, if you are able to own up to your mistakes and repent, you deserve to live and be reconciled with the community you have so long oppressed. Realistically speaking, the deal sounds rather forgiving coming from a community that has suffered years of random attacks, arsons, arbitrary arrests, a public execution, killing and theft of livestock, and unremitting intimidation.

I logged the interesting topic away in my memory as a mere intellectual musing, but a month later, I was training another group of mostly poorer, semi-literate male activists, and the concept of metaphysics and the role of the scientifically incomprehensible again resurfaced. The group, consisting largely of workers in the transportation sector, was constructing a strategy to address the dilapidated state of the roads. After determining the objectives of their campaign, they began planning actions that could help them build a critical mass among their sympathizers.

“Let’s find a pothole that has been around for too long,” said one participant. “I’ll stall someone’s car in it to cause some outrage as a traffic jam accumulates.”

Another participant chimed in. “When the car fails to start again, we can deem it a sign from the gods about the evil nature of those who have neglected our roads.”

While the scene they were preparing was more of an act of overly-dramatic invisible theater than anything else, I was still intrigued enough to ask whether they believed enough people would buy into this claim to gain popular support.

“Definitely,” one man said. “People just say they are Christians or Muslims for business purposes. Most people in the capital city still run to their traditional healers whenever they are having marital problems.”

Understandings of metaphysics can run deeper than even the beliefs generated from most violent systems of dogmatic religion, capitalism or colonialism. The metaphysical aspects of our worldviews usually take more than a generation or two to change significantly, even as science rapidly evolves. This is the reason, after all, that physicalism — the notion that reality consists merely in the physical world —  arguably informs the day-to-day practice of western religion more than belief in the transcendent (the basic pillar upon which such religions usually claim to rest).

Perhaps the western understanding of nonviolence, with its strategic tools, planning worksheets and quantitative evaluations does not adequately encompass a worldview conducive to social movements achieving their goals in the global south. (The preference of various African societies for long-term reconciliation and restorative justice would support this assertion, as does the fact that the African words for “peace” tend to be more all-encompassing and nuanced in their native languages.)

It may also be possible that I am overemphasizing the value of metaphysics — whether real or perceived. Perhaps my observations should fall into the already obvious principle in effective nonviolent strategizing known as “understand your cultural assets.” While I don’t want to romanticize the African continent as some enchanted land where the western laws of physics never apply, I think it would be equally inappropriate to disregard the indigenous knowledge of metaphysics — which often explains what modern science cannot — as laughable. This article is much less a hypothesis and much more a call to further study by academics more qualified than me.

Whatever the true reality and nature of curses, omens, metaphysics and nonviolence may be, I wonder to what extent we activists should consider it violent to bait opponents into becoming agents of their own demise. I have sympathy for Aronda inasmuch as he was a human being — and on top of that, one who sometimes made the right decisions for the common good. In the instance of grabbing land on behalf of his superiors (especially in a country where attempted land grabs are not really prosecuted), I have trouble feeling bad for him if he did indeed succumb to the weight of refusing a cleansing ceremony — something he had the complete capacity to control.

As practitioners of celebrated organizer Saul Alinsky’s principles can attest, “the threat of the thing is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Everyone I consulted who believes in the power of the Amuru women’s omen said it was the women who dug Aronda’s grave, but Aronda – through his deliberate inaction – who put himself in it.

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