In Apac and with few exceptions, male surnames begin with O and those of females begin with A. The names are Luo. The word, Lwo, has entered the vocabulary of many non-Africans in 2008. The year began with ‘ethnic riots’ between the Luo and the Kikuyu of Kenya, and ended with a certain Barack Obama, partly of Lwo lineage, winning the US elections.
In the immigrant country of the USA, it is virtually impossible to judging a person based on her surname. Is a Rice white or black, poor or rich? But in Uganda, the ethnic make-up of somebody is instantly determined on the basis of his surname: Anyone with an O-name is from a northern tribe, those with K-names are likely to be Baganda, and those with M, N, T-names are probably from western Uganda. The political history of colonial and post-colonial Uganda has contributed to the charged nature of surnames beginning with O, Luo names.
The British recruited Luos and other northern tribes into the army, and favoured the southern tribes with the education system and the civil service. The country’s first president (1966-70), Milton Obote, was a Langi from Apac, whose politics alienated many non-Luo people, particularly the Baganda. When Idi Amin took control of the state (1971-79), he eliminated many Luos in the army, to prevent a come-back for Obote. Obote did come back (1980-85), but was toppled by Tito Okello, who lost (or ceded, depending on your persuasion) power to Yoweri Museveni who remains president to this day. His rule has been challenged twice in insurgencies by Luo militants, led by Alice ‘Lakwena’ Auma and Joseph Kony. The willingness of Luos of different tribes to mobilise behind Obote, Okello, Auma and Kony has given rise to the perception that these tribes are inherently militaristic, easy to mobilise, fearless, strong and – dangerous…
The New Vision newspaper reported today that Ugandan MPs had celebrated the election of Obama: “Conspicuously, names of most MPs in attendance, started with the letter O. From opposition leader Ogenga Latigo, [to] Odonga Otto, Okupa Alijah, Otafiire Kahinda, they were all there. Others adopted the letter O, to suit the occasion. Deputy speaker Rebecca Kadaga became ‘O’daga, Igeme Nabeeta became ‘O’beta.”
It appears that there is such thing as the ‘Lwo factor’ in Ugandan politics; and in the political sphere, perceptions matter. Here in Apac, many feel that the national army could have eliminated the Lords’ Resistance Army if it had wanted to; and furthermore that it served the government to keep the Luo in check by its ‘own’ insurgency. (The counter-claim is that the LRA received financial support from Luo abroad.) Exiled Lwo Olara Otunno claimed in 2006 that the IDP camps in northern Uganda were so badly protected and serviced, that they aimed to eliminate the 1.5 million camp dwellers. President Museveni was among the first three heads of state to congratulate Mwai Kibaki upon winning the (disputed) Kenyan elections, defeating the Lwo opponent, Raila Odinga. And when the media earlier this year focused on the regional distribution of high-level state jobs, it emerged that ‘northerners’ occupy seven per cent of positions of power in the state despite constituting 19 per cent of the population of Uganda.
This narrative of deliberate marginalisation or silent persecution is alive today, in the north. Such feelings are often felt most strongly, and articulated most frequently, by those in the diaspora. Yesterday, a letter from Canada to the editor of New Vision, thus argued that “Over the years if you were of Luo background in Uganda and Kenya you were likely to face this silent hatred, cynicism and even ridicule because of your Luoness. After the overthrow of Obote I, some people had to change their Luo names to make them look non-Luo. For example from Okobel the name was changed to Kobel to remove the ‘O’ to protect such a person from easy identification… In East Africa, the election of Barack Obama brings home a revolution to not only all citizens, but particularly to those who are Luo who had felt despised for no apparent reason, except that they are Luo. Barack Obama’s election should be significant and therapeutic to all, especially the Luo in Uganda and Kenya who had been suffering from the trauma of being invisible and isolated.”
Obama’s ascendancy brings hope, to some, of a Luo revival. While the election of Obama was made possible by a sense of nationhood in the US, in East Africa the event is interpreted through the lens of ethnic or tribal differences.