UGANDA: Brave priest says ‘I’ll die rather than stay silent'

by - 20th February 2013

Prophetic courage: Bishop Zac Niringiye. Photo: New Vision

‘A bullet to the head: if it must come to that, then let it be.’

The answer comes very readily when he is asked about what the consequences could be of his very public challenge against official corruption in Uganda.

He cuts the physical look of Kofi Annan, the ultimate pacifist, and the steely but quiet authority of Desmond Tutu, the pulpit’s quintessential combative clergyman.

David Zac Niringiye, 58, immediate past assistant bishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda’s Kampala Diocese, is arguably the most recognised clergyman in Uganda today, and society’s most eloquent voice on justice and governance in a country that has seen more than its fair share of political and social turmoil.

For his resolve Bishop Zac, as he is popularly known, was arrested on 4 February while distributing an anti-corruption newsletter at Makerere University where he is a visiting fellow at the Human Rights & Peace Centre of the School of Law.

‘It is just intimidation, to stop him championing the anti-corruption cause; there is no (credible) charge they can press against him,’ says Imam Idi Kasozi, a respected Muslim scholar who was in Niringiye’s company during the arrest.

The Anglican theologian whose doctorate is from Edinburgh University, was released on police bond later that day, but only after nine hours of interrogation.

He is accused of participating in ‘an activity that could incite violence’.

Humiliation: Bishop Zac at the police station. Photo: Daily Monitor

He was subjected to other small humiliations such as the removal of his shoes. The bond was extended to March 11 as the Director of Public Prosecution studies his file.

Uganda scores poorly in corruption perception regionally and worldwide; it ranked 130th out of 174 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Index 2012. The country is presently grappling with $300m in aid cuts, following donor concerns about corruption and embezzlement of massive development funds destined mostly for Northern Uganda which is slowly rebuilding after 20 years of insurgency.

Niringiye played a part in the North’s pacification, as Africa Director of the then London-based Church Mission Society (CMS) before taking up the assistant bishopric in Kampala.

In 2003 CMS launched the ‘Break the Silence’ campaign to focus world attention on the then 17-year insurgency in which rebel leader Joseph Kony’s vicious Lord’s Resistance Army had abducted tens of thousands of children. The campaign electrified a worldwide response to the horrors of the largely ignored insurgency, mobilising Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, and the UN – who tripled their aid budget. 

The insurgency effectively ended in 2005 and hundreds of thousands of refugees – there were 1.2million in Internal Displacement Camps at the height of the war – have since returned to their shattered villages.

Niringiye retired last year as bishop, and has since turned his energies to governance and justice that he says are letting down Uganda.

‘”Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…”expresses a cry,’ he says. ‘My work at CMS, at the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and as a bishop, has exposed me to evil in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Sudan, Liberia, and Somalia. God had better be in these things because without Him I cannot make sense of the world, the abuse of human dignity.’

Organised religion in Uganda – with the notable exception of Northern Uganda - has been relatively quiet as an institution in openly championing justice since the 1970s. Individuals take the strain. Anglican Archbishop Janaan Luwum, also from the north, was murdered after speaking out against Idi Amin’s excesses. Bishop Festo Kivengere was another, forced into exile shortly after Luwum’s murder in 1977. Luwum is commemorated in a statue on the West face of Westminster Abbey.

 In the 1980s, the Catholic Church’s Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga was the most powerful voice in holding the Milton Obote government to account for human rights abuses. And in the 1990s it was Bishop Okello in Kitgum and Bishop Nelson in Gulu who galvanised the world over child abductions and murder.

But Niringiye’s on a roll. ‘Church leaders do not practice proactive leadership. We are reactive. We wait until things go wrong and then cry. Time has come for us to act. There is an “I don’t care” attitude. We in the Church especially are the biggest problem. We shall preach sermons about corruption, but when Bishop Zac does something about it, we criticize him! We quietly condemn him and say "why is he getting involved in politics?"’

‘I think enough is enough. We all have to join this social movement and bring about a change in the attitudes of people and stop this theft in the country,’ says Dr Stephen Mungoma, a church leader who himself was exiled by Amin in 1977.

Revd. Father Lawrence Kanyike, the Roman Catholic chaplain of Makerere University, agrees. ‘Who will speak for the voiceless? Bishop Zac is an ardent defender of human rights, and a fighter against corruption. It is a bad sign (for Uganda) if a churchman is handled roughly, but I am surprised the Anglican Church did not come out strongly to defend their own.’

Dr Joel Obetia, the Anglican bishop of Madi West Nile Diocese, and a noted thinker, says the House of Bishops was divided on how to respond to Niringiye’s arrest, before appointing a five-bishop committee that will report back on March 4.

Niringiye attributes the apparent apathy to a history of the Church in Uganda that does not stand up to injustice; it is more prominent in compassionate work.

‘We respond to war without understanding its causes. Institutionally the Anglican Church has to rediscover its prophetic voice.’