By Solomon Olweny
- Thirty eight years ago, Lira’s Jamiya Mosque was on its way to a grand look. Today, it is a giant of broken hopes, yet still hopes.
Lira’s Jamiya Mosque was supposed to be Northern Uganda’s biggest and the country’s second biggest mosque after the Old Kampala mosque. However, following then president Idi Amin’s self-exile in 1979, the hope of completing its construction, which began 38 years ago, vapourised.
“Jamiya is an Arabic word which means people. The mosque was given this name because it was meant to bring all people together under one roof, regardless of tribe, age and sex,” explains Issa Mohammed Ajak, the sheikh of Jamiya Mosque. But how did this big mosque come to be established in Lira, which had a small Muslim population?
According to John Ntimba, a former education and sports permanent secretary in Amin’s regime: “Following Obote’s overthrow in 1972, Amin feared that the Langi and Acholi were the biggest threat to his reign.
“To ensure that he remained the only captain in Uganda’s ship, Amin set out to establish as many military barracks in the two sub-regions as possible, with the objective of crushing any rebel group that might sprout there.
For starters, since Lira was Obote’s stronghold, the biggest barracks was established right in the heart of its town. Although this initially worked, the eventual results were disastrous. Some soldiers began to abuse the guns entrusted to them, threatening to and sometimes killing many civilians in the district.
Before Amin knew it, the barracks had become a problem to his Government, as the international media spread the news about the massacres.
“Around 1973, he set out to establish mosques in the localities where there were military barracks. That way, he anticipated to control the movements of the soldiers, as some used to leave the barracks with the excuse of going for Juma prayers, only to go to social settings, where they terrorised locals.
“Above all, he hoped his soldiers would turn to Allah and shun their evil ways which was facilitating his unpopularity,” Ntimba says. The Lira mosque had to be big enough to accommodate the big numbers of soldiers in the barracks.
The mosque, whose construction commenced in 1975, ended up being the second biggest in the country after the Old Kampala mosque. Ajak witnessed the construction of the mosque’s first phase, and says Jamiya mosque was one of the few structures whose construction got the best of efforts.
“Unlike most projects that were suspended following the economic war in 1972, the infant Jamiya Mosque got whatever construction material it needed. If it were a human being, many would have mistaken it for Amin’s first born child,” Ajak says.
One morning in 1979, the fate of Jamiya Mosque was sealed with one great blow: The government of Idi Amin collapsed. Before long, construction materials worth millions were looted. As years passed by, the orphaned mosque was fostered in intervals by one president after another, each promising that things would change for the better, but only during campaigns.
In 2010, fallen Libyan president, Muammar Gadaffi officially expressed interest in picking up from where Amin had stopped. But as fate would have it, Gadaffi met his death weeks before the planned reconstruction of the mosque could kick off. So once again, hopes to complete Jamiya Mosque were shattered. For now, the once hopeful giant stands dilapidated with rusty iron bars, weary walls and a roofless top.