A number of millenarian religions (promising a "golden age," or millennium) existed in Uganda in the 1980s. They have often arisen in response to rapid culture change or other calamities and have sought to overthrow the political order that allowed the crisis to arise. Many millenarian religions, sometimes called cults, are led by a charismatic prophet who promises followers relief from sufferings. The strength of people's faith sometimes allows a prophet to make extraordinary demands on believers, and a successful prophet can win new converts when political upheaval is compounded by natural disaster, such as epidemics (possibly to include the spread of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s).
One of the most successful millenarian religions in Uganda was the Yakan cult, which arose in Sudan in the late nineteenth century. Leaders from Kakwa society (whose territory extends across the Uganda-Sudan border) traveled south in search of protection against epidemics, Arab slave caravans, and European military forces, all of which were sweeping Kakwa society in the 1890s. They returned home from the neighboring Lugbara territory with spring water they called "the water of Yakan." To those who drank it, they promised restored health, eternal life, and the return of the ancestors and dead cattle. In Kakwa society, Yakan leaders promised protection from bullets, and many Yakan leaders predicted the arrival of wagonloads of rifles to drive out all Europeans.
When sleeping sickness ravaged Lugbara society in 1911, Lugbara leaders sought out the Yakan prophets. One of them-- Rembe--traveled to Uganda and dispensed the water of Yakan. He was subsequently deported to Sudan and executed in 1917. With its new martyr, the cult flourished. When the British administration declared the sect illegal, people built shrines inside the walls of their homesteads, and believers used Yakan water to provide what they believed was spiritual protection against British patrols. The ban on the Yakan religion was impossible to enforce, and when it was lifted, Yakan believers felt their faith was vindicated.
As the religion developed, people began to use trance and speaking in tongues to strengthen and demonstrate their faith. In some areas, Yakan leaders appointed their followers to positions of prestige, and, as their power increased, a gradual reorganization of villages began to take place. Religious notables exercised political authority, and eventually they became so oppressive that their followers revolted. Colonial troops came in to restore peace, and the Yakan religion declined in influence but did not disappear. Promises of a millennium continued to arise in similar form in the 1980s.
Holy Spirit Movement
In the 1980s, the Holy Spirit Movement arose in Acholi territory of northern Uganda, where warfare and political killings had ravaged society for nearly two decades. Alice Lakwena, an Acholi prophet, claimed to bring messages from the spiritual world advising people, even though unarmed, to oppose government intervention in Acholi territory. Lakwena, known locally as "Alice," also advised her followers to protect themselves against bullets by smearing cooking oil on their skin and declared that stones or bottles thrown at government troops would turn into hand grenades. Many of Alice's followers were killed in these confrontations, and many others acquired guns to reinforce their supposed spiritual armor. In 1987, however, Alice fled to Kenya, where she was jailed. A self-proclaimed mystic, Joseph Kony, and Odong Latek succeeded her as leaders of the Holy Spirit Movement.
The appeal of the Holy Spirit Movement continued, and in early 1989, it disrupted the establishment of the grass-roots resistance councils (RCs), which were intended to serve as the base for a people's democracy under the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Government officials proclaimed periods of amnesty and sought to weaken the Holy Spirit Movement's appeal by cutting off supplies of weapons (and cooking oil) to the region. As of 1989, the NRM was unable to quell this popular rebellion that clothed itself in religious dogma.
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