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Museveni, Otunnu and the failed handshake

By Vision Reporter

Added 30th December 2009 03:00 AM

The date was December 20, 2009. President Museveni and ambassador Olara Otunnu were in the same place for the first time since December 17, 1985. This was in Gulu at the consecration of Bishop Johnson Gakumba of the Diocese of Northern Uganda. The two me

The date was December 20, 2009. President Museveni and ambassador Olara Otunnu were in the same place for the first time since December 17, 1985. This was in Gulu at the consecration of Bishop Johnson Gakumba of the Diocese of Northern Uganda. The two me

By Norbert Mao
The date was December 20, 2009. President Museveni and ambassador Olara Otunnu were in the same place for the first time since December 17, 1985. This was in Gulu at the consecration of Bishop Johnson Gakumba of the Diocese of Northern Uganda. The two men did not acknowledge each other.

At one point, the two were about three metres apart, but contrary to what the congregation expected, they did not make much eye contact and neither did they shake hands. This handshake that never was has now become the subject of several inches of newsprint.

Otunnu arrived early and we all greeted him. In the same tent was Rwot David Onen Achana II, ministers Hillary Onek, Henry Okello Oryem and Chua MP Okello Okello.

While the service was going on, we heard the Presidential helicopter overhead and in 30 minutes, the President arrived.

Then the time for short speeches came. None of the speakers acknowledged Otunnu’s presence. This fact, in itself was historic. Here was a prominent Ugandan who studied in Gulu High School, a stone’s throw away from the venue of the consecration. But Otunnu’s presence was a high voltage live wire that no one wanted to touch.

There were two prominent people who were visiting St. Philip’s Cathedral after over two decades of exile. Besides Olara Otunnu, there was Bishop Ben Ogwal Abwang, who also served as bishop of the Diocese of Northern Uganda. It was gratifying to see Bishop Ogwal and Museveni shaking hands.

The old cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Northern Uganda, is modest, but its achievements have been glorious. This is the diocese which has produced three archbishops of the Church of the Province of Uganda. This diocese produced Archbishop Janani Luwuum. It produced Archbishop Silvanus Wani. It also produced current Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi. The latter first made his mark as a diocesan youth worker and lived in a house neighbouring the cathedral to the south.

Now on Sunday December 20, 2009, almost 24 years to the day since the Nairobi Peace Agreement was signed, Museveni and Otunnu were in the same place. The bishops of the Church of Uganda were in full force. The Catholic Archbishop of Gulu, Archbishop John Baptist Odama and his auxiliary Bishop Sabino Odoki, were there too. But it seemed not many people among the congregation knew that Otunnu was among them.

The majority of those in the VIP tents must have seen Otunnu but then his was a highly inflammable presence.

Thus Otunnu became like the proverbial elephant in the room – ‘an important and obvious topic, which everyone is aware of, but which is not discussed, since such discussion is considered to be uncomfortable’.

Since I was lined up on the programme to make a few remarks, I decided that I would mention the historic significance of Museveni and Otunnus’s encounter on the holy grounds of the cathedral and the need for reconciliation. The first reading had said: “Out of darkness, let light shine”.

I picked up from there, suggesting that out of the darkness of acrimony and conflict, let there be reconciliation. I then acknowledged Otunnu’s historic presence, adding that he and Museveni were in the same place for the first time since the failed Nairobi peace talks, whose collapse plunged the country into war.
Judging by the applause that followed my statement, I realised that this was the one thing the congregation wanted to hear but which no one had mentioned.

Museveni’s response to my call for reconciliation was terse. “It is possible for reconciliation to take place but first, trouble makers must repent,” he said.

It was clear that President Museveni did not count himself among those who have ever wronged anybody. If anything, he is the one who has been wronged.

Nevertheless, given the nature of the occasion, we thought Museveni and Otunnu would at least shake hands. This almost happened when, after posing for a photograph with the new bishop, the President made a bee line for the tent where Otunnu was seated. The President greeted Rwot Achana and a few dignitaries.

I noticed that everybody in that tent got up, but Otunnu remained seated. The President moved slightly in his direction then turned and walked to his car before departing.

My heart wept. It was as if Museveni and Otunnu were each in the centre of a magnetic field, each repelling the other. Like poles vying for dominance. How else could they have been so near, yet so far?

A handshake would not have meant that the two are fully reconciled, but it would have been a giant step on the road to reconciliation. A handshake is a common gesture of peace and it demonstrates that the hand holds no weapon. It is simple but highly symbolic.

Going by what happened, the two thought that a handshake in public would be perceived as a sign of weakness. Otunnu said later that he was eagerly waiting for the Presidential handshake.

Maybe his diplomatic instincts would have taken over had the President moved towards him, prompting him to rise and greet the President, but remaining seated was no sign of eagerness.

State House has said Otunnu had positioned a cameraman to take a photo of the President bowing to greet a seated Otunnu. This is an unnecessary exaggeration. Besides, there were many news reporters who would not have missed that historic photo.

So what might have been? What if the President had called out Otunnu’s name? What if at the time I spoke of reconciliation Otunnu had walked to the President and offered his hand? At that moment, I would have offered him the microphone.

In a way, the Museveni-Otunnu story may bear some similarity to the Jacob-Esau story. Genesis 33:1-20. Despite the fraud and stolen inheritance, the two brothers overcame their fears and bitterness and embraced. Maybe the next encounter will be better for Uganda.

Museveni, Otunnu and the failed handshake

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