By Richard Drasimaku
FOUND in West Nile and parts of eastern DR Congo, the Lugbara never had a monarchy. As an egalitarian society, their traditional and cultural organisations never surpassed the clan level.
They had two prominent persons in the clan – one who performed rituals and the other who handled administration such as chairing clan meetings and dowry negotiations.
According to 77-year-old Ayivu elder, John Godo, the Lugbara were introduced to centralised cultural organisation by the British. Its head became known as the “Agofe”, which means the pillar.
The cultural institution
According to Haruna Ndema, a prime minister in the setup, the Agofe institution was first created as a replica of the Buganda kingdom structure.
In 1922, Jalwere Jalasiga, an Alur prince, was appointed as the first head. He was given the title “Agofe Obim” and his dominion extended over the Alur, Lugbara, Madi, Aringa and Kakwa.
After independence, the Prime Minister, Milton Obote, said in regions where cultural institutions were created by the British, the leaders must be elected by the district council.
Mariko Boroa from Terego was elected. Jalasiga handed over the official residence at Arua Hill.
However, the Alur decided to revert and continue their monarchical system where leadership was based on lineage.
The Luo word Obim was removed from Boroa’s title to remain as Agofe and the government moved his residence from Arua Hill to Giligili.
Godo, who is the minister for culture, says the Agofe institution was dismantled together with other cultural institutions in 1966.
Arua elders formed an association to co-operate and advise the Government, but it was weak and dormant till 1986 when it sprung to life after then Vice-President Brig. Wilson Toko met the elders. Jason Avutia (now the Agofe) was the vice-chairman of the association.
Avutia says Toko wanted permission from the elders to wage war against the advancing National Resistance Army (NRA) that had just driven the Tito Okello Lutwa government out of Kampala. He also wanted the elders to spearhead reconciliation with the Acholi, who, because of earlier revenge killings during the Idi Amin and Obote II regimes, distrusted the West Nile people.
“Toko jetted in a helicopter with our other soldier sons to meet us at White Rhino Hotel on Wednesday, January 29, 1986. Our answer was; we are for love, peace and development,” Avutia said.
The elders gave the soldiers tough conditions in case they wanted to face the NRA.
“The late Augusto Agali (former chief of Ayivu county) delivered our conditions as follows: Any war they wage must be fought with the army only. Civilians must not be killed, women must not be sexually abused and people’s property must not be looted. Should any soldier violate any of these conditions, he must not come back to be blessed,” Avutia recalls.
It was then agreed that a ritual to remove the mistrust between the Acholi and the Lugbara, Kakwa and Madi be performed.
“Semei Dranimva led our group of five elders. I was his vice and the late Drapari was secretary. We had Sila Mua and Martin Adrama as members,” Avutia said.
The West Nile and Acholi elders met on February 8, 1986 at Labworomo Teachers Training School.
Among the Acholi elders Avutia remembers was the late Tiberius Okeny, who was a politician.
Apologies were exchanged and both sides took oath never to fight each other.
Each side contributed an ewe (female sheep). While the elders were to eat the mutton together and spend a night in Gulu, word arrived that the NRA were approaching Karuma Bridge. The West Nile elders hurried back with the mutton in their bags.
Peaceful entry of NRA
On March 17, 1986, Toko flew in a chopper to inform the elders gathered at the White Rhino Hotel that Gulu had fallen to the NRA.
The elders, through Lt. Col. Ernest Obitre-Gama, got the support of the World Lutheran Federation, the UNHCR and the Verona fathers to convey a message of peace to NRA.
On March 28, 1986, the NRA arrived in Arua town peacefully amidst cheers from the members of the public. For the about three years, Arua observed March, 28 as peace day.
Return of Agofe
The efforts to reinstate the Agofe and the Lugbara chiefdom, says Ja’afar Alekua, the executive secretary, was prompted by the desire to foster a strong bond of unity.
There are 11 ministers in the current setup appointed by the Agofe. There are also county chiefs composed of eminent elders, sub-county elders chairperson and village chairmen comprising clan leaders.
The authority of a village chairman extents to any place where his clansmen live.
Avutia has also appointed two ambassadors – one in the Democratic Republic of Congo to handle the affairs related to the nine Lugbara clans in Congo and the other to Bunyoro- Kitara whose responsibilities extend to Lugazi and Kakira where a big population of the Lugbara are found.
Formalising the agofe
The ministers’ main task is to complete the process of securing formal recognition from the Government.
Ndema says the Solicitor General and the Attorney General’s office have already given their node to the constitution of “the Lugbara Kari” (Lugbara chiefdom).It provides a two-term limit of five-year terms for any Lugbara who is 55 years and above to be elected as the Agofe, a position that shall rotate among the Lugbara clans within Uganda.