Uganda: Patronage has left religious leaders bereft of voice of reason

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Thursday, 2 February 2023 13:59
Bishop of the Diocese of Kigezi, Rt Rev. Gaddie Akanjuna in 2022 (photo: twitter)

Religious leaders on the African continent are often the voice of reason, speaking out and pushing back against corrupt politicians, or playing a mediation role in conflict. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni maintains a firm grip on religious leaders, a key factor in his long reign. 

“Credit goes to his skills of capturing and maintaining patronage,” Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian, tells The Africa Report, in reference to Museveni. “He hasn’t arrested religious leaders, but he has coerced them into submission by patronising them.”

As the main benefactor of most religious leaders, Museveni regularly offers them a posh four-wheel-drive car. Newly-installed prelates expect a motorised vehicle from the head of state — and retirement is not seen as the end of the gift road either.

Two retired archbishops from the Church of Uganda received brand new Toyota Prados from Museveni emissaries in January.

The Africa Report recently highlighted such leaders in a series.

All donations not gratefully received

While vehicles are expected by men of the cloth, the Museveni administration occasionally falters in selecting the right car. Last year, the Anglican Bishop of Kigezi diocese in Western Uganda was given a Renault Koleos SUV on his enthronement day. His flock rejected the car, claiming it was unbefitting for a bishop who criss-crosses hilly terrains of the region while shepherding Christians on a daily basis.

Weeks later, officials from the president’s office returned with a 2023 Toyota Land Cruiser GR Sport estimated to cost more than $120,000 (USh440m) or three times the price of a Koleos.

“The president always wants people to be satisfied with his donations. We went back and bought a car, which was very fit,” State House Comptroller Jane Barekye told local media.

The position of religious leaders has become transactional when it comes to their dealings with politicians and that is why there is compromise

Bishop Gaddie Akanjuna beamed with happiness at “receiving a wonderful message from the president of the Republic of Uganda.”

As long as religious leaders place materialism as the goal in their relationship with politicians, they will never be a critical voice, says Paddy Musana, a religious scholar at Makerere University.

“The position of religious leaders has become transactional when it comes to their dealings with politicians and that is why there is compromise,” he says.

‘Transaction implies negotiation’

In the hierarchy of gifting of religious leaders, the Anglican church is seen as more pliant than the Roman Catholic Church, according to several analysts and a retired bishop who spoke with The Africa Report.  

Anglican prelates receive more goodies from Museveni than their Roman Catholic counterparts, indicating to some analysts that Museveni may leverage much more influence on the Anglican church than the other denominations.

“You never know, you may find that especially in the Anglican church, Museveni influences the appointments of some of those bishops and therefore he captures them at an early stage,” Ndebesa says.

Roman Catholics make up 39% of Ugandans, followed by Anglicans at 32%, Muslims at 14%, Pentecostal Christians at 11% while other religious affiliations comprise 5%, according to Uganda’s 2014 census.

A critical voice…but no more

On rare occasions, Museveni representatives show up with cars at consecrations for Catholic bishops. Catholic church bishops do speak out or issue statements against excesses of the Museveni regime from time to time, but neither do they follow up with concrete demands.

One prelate who never hesitated to speak out against Museveni was Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, a former Archbishop of Kampala. He was found dead in his residence in April 2021 and opposition politicians demanded a thorough investigation.

He had criticised the Museveni administration in the run up to the January 2021 presidential election, just as he had done a few years before.

On Easter Friday in 2018, Lwanga dropped a bombshell: he revealed that he received information that the state was recruiting priests to spy on other religious leaders. The informer had warned that he would likely become the “next Janani Luwum”, in reference to the Anglican archbishop who was murdered by Idi Amin in 1977 for speaking out against the regime.

Museveni responded by phoning Lwanga and meeting with him to discuss the revelations. Two weeks after the controversy, the president attended an event at the archbishop’s cooperative savings group, where he made a donation of USh500m ($135,000).

If there is to be any change, it has to start with change of the character[…] of people who become bishops

This fits in with the president’s open purse for contributing to church construction and financial support for the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda.  He personally contributes to Uganda’s Martyrs’ Day every 3 June, a day that commemorates the 45 Christian converts who were killed during a two-year period in the late 1800s.

Other denominations benefit from Museveni largesse, too. The Muslim community in Uganda is divided, but the main and largest faction pays allegiance to Museveni and also receives gifts.

Pentecostal church leaders gain less because they are few and too fragmented, while those who have caught the eye of the state also wine and dine with Museveni. Some have received army escorts and police chase cars.

While gifts from the president are nothing new in Uganda, as his predecessors Milton Obote and Idi Amin were keen to curry favour with religious leaders, Museveni has perfected the art of donation since gaining power in 1986.

With weak political parties and political actors, Uganda finds itself without the backbone of what would be the voice for democracy – a role that strong religious institutions could play.

“If there is to be any change, it has to start with change of “the character[…] of people who become bishops”, says Ndebesa, a political historian.

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