Jolly Joe Kiwanuka (pictured below) was one of Uganda’s wealthiest and most influential citizens, He was stubborn and strong-willed, and his utter disregard for public opinion had made him a legend even to his closest friends. He owned a large wholesale business and among his many investments, he was also owner of Uganda’s champion soccer team, Express Football Club.
He was a powerful man both politically and financially, founder of the Ugandan National Congress and a Member of Parliament. He was an atheist and humanist who had no time for religion and seemed impervious to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On more than one occasion, while watching his team compete, he had rushed out on the field – stopped the game – and forced the referee to reverse his decision.
Once while competing with a Catholic team he had slapped a priest across the face. Later when reporters asked why he had struck the man, Kiwanuka refused to answer. He only said, “There is no God”, and walked away.
It was November of 1969 and Kiwanuka had come to London to bury Mutesa II, the last Baganda king.The Baganda, the southern tribe of Uganda to which Kiwanuka and I belonged, were traditional enemies of President Milton Obote’s tribe, the northern Langi.
King Muteesa had been Obote’s most outspoken and bitter opponent and in 1966, after an attack on his palace in which many Baganda were killed, he was forced to flee to England. He spent his last years living in London, where he died in early winter of 1969.
King Mutesa’s memorial service, was full of spies from Obote’s extensive international network. The presence of these informers forced the speakers to choose their words carefully and, one by one, they made a point of dissociating themselves from the king’s politics. It was in this atmosphere of tension and diplomacy that Joseph “Jolly Joe” Kiwanuka stood up to speak.
As the founder of the Ugandan National Congress and a member of parliament, he commanded immediate respect. Dressed in a grey, tailored suit, he looked once around the room with a cool and confident gaze. Then, in a loud voice, he addressed himself to Obote’s agents.
You spies,” he said scornfully, “I know you are here. It is nothing to me. If there is something I say that you want Obote to hear, you come tell me first. I’ll take you the airport and pay for your plane ticket home.
The audience was completely silent. Kiwanuka stared sternly at each person he suspected of spying and he continued.
You spies are here,” he said, now speaking almost quietly, “because we black people have not learned to love ourselves. I have been all over the world. I have been to America, to Australia, to Europe and to Asia. Everywhere, black people live in the most miserable conditions. We live in the sewers of society. I tell you, we are alone. There is no man who cares for us. We will not be loved unless we learn to love ourselves.”
Several weeks later the news reached London from Uganda that Joseph Kwanuka had been arrested and imprisoned without a trial. On January 25, 1971 General Idi Amin led the Ugandan army in a successful “coup d’etat.” Political prisoners including Kiwanuka were set free and everyone expected a golden age of liberty and progress to ensue.
As bad and oppressive as Milton Obote may have been, he was an angel of mercy by comparison with Idi Amin. Kiwanuka would soon come into confrontation with Amin’s disregard for the rule of law.
In the last three months of 1972, while the western world dismissed stories of genocide as wild exaggerations by frightened refugees, Idi Amin and his assassins had killed over 90,000 Ugandans. Like other communist dictators his victims were primarily among the prominent citizens in the community.
Initially the victims were buried in mass graves. But as the killings continued, bloated bodies were to be found everywhere. Many of the executions were on public television; others were private occasions in the presence of family members.
The assassins seemed determined not to merely kill, but also to torture and humiliate. But always, as in communist terror, the primary victims are the prominent. On 21 September, 1971 armed soldiers broke into the chamber of the Chief Justice of Uganda and after humiliating him in front of the court, dragged him away at gunpoint. He was taken to Makindye Military Prison where his ears, nose, lips and private parts were cut from his body. After two hours of suffering he was disembowelled and the rest of his body was burned.
It was in this context that Jolly Joe Kiwanuka gave his life to Jesus Christ. One week after the death of the Chief Justice, Kiwanuka met Kefa Sempangi the leader of a 14000 member Redeemed Church who later became one of his best friends. Kiwanuka greeted him but Jolly Joe didn’t bother to shake his hands.
“Owanga,” he said abruptly, speaking in the language of our tribe, the Baganda. “You know what’s going on. What do you say about it…….How do you see it…Do you think God knows what’s going on….Do you think he is going to help us?” God is there, I said, forgetting my fears and suspicions. Have you considered that we ought to give ourselves entirely over to Him?”
I have considered it, Kiwanuka said in an urgent voice. What is to be done?” We walked together to a small house by the side of the compound and there we prayed, asking God to reveal Himself.
When we finished, Kiwanuka was weeping. I knew then some desperate tension had overtaken his life, and the depths of his anguish caused my own heart to mourn. Later I learned he had been an unwilling witness to the torturous death of the Chief Justice of Uganda, a man whom he had loved deeply.
In that moment when Kiwanuka had stood over the mutilated remains of his friend, the foundations of his life had been destroyed. The Chief Justice and he had worked together for more than twenty years. They had sacrificed themselves to make Uganda a strong, free country, and it seemed that both of their efforts had come to nothing.
When Kiwanuka finished weeping, he was silent for a moment. Then he turned to me with a grave but more settled face and said, So there really is a kingdom? …. Two weeks later at the end of the Sunday service worship, Kiwanuka stood before the congregation and spoke of the grace of God:
From the beginning…. I have been looking for a kingdom of freedom. I believed in the goodness of man and I believed that men and women could learn to love each other. Now I tell you, there is no good man. If God will leave us in our natural state, we will eat grass as the goats. But God has not left us!
He has made for us the kingdom that we cannot make for ourselves. He has rescued us from our own corruption and cruelty. The chains of our evil have been broken. It is I Joseph Kiwanuka, who am speaking and I know what I am saying! I have met the man of freedom, Jesus Christ. My sins have been forgiven. I stand before you as a new member of God’s kingdom.
In the midst of severe persecution, Sempangi, Kiwanuka and other elders of the church had a meeting that closed at 3:00 a.m. Sempangi says, the Redeemed Church as we had known it had come to an end. After one of the last raids it was unlikely that we could continue to hold public services. We would have to take the church underground.
We would have to develop a network of invisible leadership and begin meeting again in individual homes. The prospect of breaking up our 14,000 member church in this way seemed to us an overwhelming task and out of fatigue and perhaps even fear we all agreed that a discussion of a detailed plan should wait till the following evening.
But listen to what happened next, as recorded in Sempangi’s book, Reign of Terror, Rein of Love:
It is because of the resurrection we that we are free, Kiwanuka said, we are not slaves to this life or to our fear of death. We are slaves to Jesus Christ and He has risen from the grave.
Towards morning, one by one, the elders said goodbye. We embraced and tears ran down our cheeks as we said goodbye. The last to go was Kiwanuka. He grabbed both my arms in his large hands and seemed more confident and happy than ever.
You must know now, he said, whatever comes, we are ready to die. For we are no longer following Kefa, we are following Jesus Christ.
With these words he stepped out of the door. At the bottom of the steps he turned one last time before disappearing into the night. Goodbye Kefa, he said quietly. I will see you tomorrow. For once in his life, Joseph Kiwanuka was wrong. We would not see each other on earth again.
Kiwanuka had refused to believe his life was in danger and firmly resisted all efforts to persuade him to leave Uganda. His shop was surrounded one afternoon by Amin’s soldiers, but someone in the army had forewarned him of his danger. By the time the soldiers broke down the door, Kiwanuka was already on his way across the Uganda-Kenya border.
Sempangi who had now migrated to Holland wrote letters to Kiwanuka asking him to join him in training for the day when they would return to Uganda together, for the rebuilding of the country.
Unfortunately, Kiwanuka never received any of the letters. In utter frustration Sempangi wrote the last letter and prayed earnestly that the Kenyan postal authorities would finally deliver his message. Two days before Christmas, while Sempangi was still waiting for Kiwanuka’s reply, he received a letter from Leonidas Mukasa, an elder in Sempangi’s Redeemed Church. Mukasa who had recently escaped to London, wrote:
My Dear Kefa,
It is with deep regret that I inform you of the death of our beloved brother in Christ, Joseph Kiwanuka, who ten days ago was kidnapped from Kenya. He was taken by force back to Uganda, to Makindye Prison, and badly clubbed about the head by Malire who was one of Amin’s killers and Amin himself. These men of Satan tried again and again to force him to renounce his faith but our brother lifted his hands to heaven and called the name of Jesus until his body collapsed dead.
It was only later that Sempangi had learned the details of Kiwanuka’s death. He had been kidnapped from his hotel room in Nairobi by gang of Nubians and taken directly to Makindye Prison.
After being kept in a cell and tortured for several days, he was taken outside to the public yard, where both Amin and Malire were waiting with hammers. Kiwanuka greeted them in a friendly fashion and, as their blows began to fall upon his body, he prayed aloud for the forgiveness of their sins.
Amin went into an uncontrollable rage. Forgetting his desire to see his former friend die a slow and torturous death, he grabbed a nearby sledgehammer and slammed him over the head. Kiwanuka, with his last breath, called the name of Jesus and collapsed dead at Amin’s feet!
After more than 20 years of suffering and hardship he had dreams of happiness on earth in his country which had once been described by Winston Churchill as the “Pearl of Africa.” Idi Amin had dashed those dreams.
In utter desperation and despair Jolly Joe dared to turn his eyes from the storm clouds of earth to a land where moth and rust do not corrupt and where thieves do not break through and steal. He said,
From the beginning I have been looking for a kingdom. I have been looking for a kingdom of freedom. . . .” In Christ he found that freedom.
What Kiwanuka and other martyrs had sown in tears, they, and the church with them, would reap in joy. For the story of what God was doing in Uganda did not end with Idi Amin. What Pharaoah had meant for evil, God used for good. For every newspaper headline, for every story of atrocities and death, there was another story which went unreported and unnoticed.
It was the story of those who, by faith, had “escaped the edge of the sword”. It was the story of how God’s people, in the midst of great suffering, had come to understand the depths of love. And it was the story of how God in His providence, had led His children into the wilderness, to prepare a table before them.
Jolly Joe Kiwanuka and others did find the everlasting Kingdom!
Adapted from Kefa Sempangi’s autobiography, Reign of Terror, Reign of Love, A Firsthand account of Life and Death in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Copyright © 1979 Lion Publishing
Further Reading and Information:
A Distant Grief: The Real Story Behind the Martyrdom of Christians in Uganda, Publisher: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2006
From the Dust: A Sequel to A Distant Grief, Publisher: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2008