The nanga songs; Bedo akera and Amin nyer mono tunu, lament and express defiance as well as foretell the imminent fall of the brutal regime of Idi Amin. The two songs angered and forced the dictator to demand Ogwang Kilipa’s head.
AGAGO. Trouble for Kilipa started when President Idi Amin demanded the head of the nanga poet and truth-seeker. Kilipa had composed the two songs that did not sit well with the ruthless military ruler.
At the time, Kilipa was employed as guest entertainer at the Hilltop Hotel Kitgum – part of then Uganda Hotels chain. The hotel is perched atop a hill, only a short distance overlooking Kitgum town.
Previously, Kilipa had performed for Amin in good times at the hotel when the head of state visited Kitgum. Then, it was a song of praise, exalting Amin’s new regime for expelling Asians [Bangladesh] and empowering the African businessmen and women and gifting them the departed Asians properties and businesses and availing essential commodities such as sugar, salt, and soap, among other things.
“I first praised him in one song after he brought the necessities but later, I hit him hard with two songs after he stretched his claws on us and started killing many Acholi,” Kilipa said in a July 2017 interview, laughing hard as he reminisced his brush with the dictator.
One of the two songs that riled Amin was titled Bedo akera, an adaptation of a Bwola song, in which Kilipa grieved the cruel oppression under which Ugandans, especially the Acholi and Langi, lived under Amin’s murderous rule.
“It was so bad by 1977. I cried out to God; ‘when will you save us? Amin is going to finish us off’,” Kilipa recalled.
The second song foretold the looming fall of Amin’s brutal government. In one line, Kilipa mocked Amin and his collaborators and warned that their drunken chuckle with power would be short-lived because soon they would bolt and abandon Kampala for the oppressed.
At the time, 1977, talk was rife of an impending attack by Ugandan exiles in Tanzania, majorly Acholi and Langi youths, so the song enraged Amin.
“‘Why did he sing that song? Go and bring him. How did he know Kampala would fall to Acholi? That means he is connected to Dr Obote [former Uganda president then exiled in Tanzania]. You go and bring him to me’,” Kilipa recalled Amin as having ordered his brutal soldiers.
Soon, Amin’s dreaded State Research Bureau (SRB) intelligence service men were hot on the heels of Kilipa and tracked him and his supervisor to Hilltop Hotel Kitgum.
Kilipa had been employed as an entertainer at Kitgum Hilltop Hotel between 1971 to1979.
“They arrived at Hilltop at about 12.30pm. I welcomed and offered them seats at the lounge. The manager later joined us and we sat with them,” Kilipa recalled.
The soldiers quickly inquired what drinks the two hosts and would-be victims, preferred. Both opted for sodas, with Kilipa telling them he did not touch any spirits. The soldiers too placed orders with the waitress for mchomo or roast beef to accompany their drinks.
“Quickly, the soldiers headed off. First, they removed the number plates of their cars, tossed them into the booths and fitted new ones,” Kilipa noted.
“They sped off to different directions towards Namokora, Palabek, and Agoro to arrest some people. They’re normally given the names of those to abduct or kill. The manager’s name and mine were on that list from President Amin’s office, but they didn’t know us,” Kilipa said.
Upon return, the soldiers accosted the hotel receptionist, John Akaka from Mucwini in Kitgum, asking why they haven’t yet seen the manager at his duty station.
“You know what made it easy to spot a Uganda Hotels manager were their neatly pressed suits that they wore throughout working hours. They only removed it at bedtime,” Kilipa recalled.
Akaka, who was already nervous, lied that the manager had travelled to Apollo Hotel, now the Sheraton Kampala Hotel, which Amin had renamed as Kampala International Hotel, after he toppled Dr Obote.
Again, at about 6pm, the officers inquired about Kilipa and asked when he would report for duty that evening.
“Akaka again tactfully said “indeed, we’ve a staff by that name whose job is to entertain guests but he was taken ill and has been taken to Abim [hospital in Karamoja],” Kilipa recalled.
The soldiers then lamented missing the two-hotel staff they had come to meet.
Kilipa and the manager then went underground as a friend, Omoya, had already alerted them.
Omoya, who hailed from Paibona in Awach, Gulu, had returned home from Kampala from where he had got wind of the impending hunt for Kilipa and the manager.
“Omoya used a coded word in Luo, saying ‘Opipic is on the road, disappear from the hotel’,” he recalled the warning phone call.
The ‘Opipic’ code referred to an eagle locally known as Acur. They love to fly in pair and high up in the sky and prey on chicks. The first of the pair, after spotting a prey, swoops down at a terrific speed, kicks its prey hard while the second swings closely behind, pounces on the dazed prey, and off they fly.
Three days after their arrival, the intelligence officers embarked on an abduction spree and seized prominent persons who included. Jino Obonyo, then MP for Agago County.
“When I returned to the hotel after lunch at home, I found Jino held at gunpoint under a beyo tree [Africana Afrizela] on the compound. He was barefoot and his necktie was gone. I knew he was under arrest,” Kilipa reminisced.
The soldiers – still camped at Hilltop – asked Kilipa where he had come from. He told them as much. Then they asked what his job at the hotel was. He lied that he was a compound cleaner and doubled as a laundryman.
They collected a huge pile of their dirty clothes for him to wash.
“But it was easy because I had four laundry machines; one washed the clothes, another squeezed, the other dried and the last ironed the clothes,” Kilipa said.
The soldiers later thanked him for a job well done and tipped him handsomely.
“I quickly saw my chance to escape,” Kilipa mused.
But quickly, more tragedy fell and more people, including the hotel staff, were arrested that Friday. Kilipa knew his days were numbered. He fled, boarded a vehicle from Kitgum to Corner Kilak on the Kitgum-Lira road in Pader, and onto Patongo and finally to Gereregere, his village.
At home and still scared, Kilipa resorted to hiding in the bushes, hunting squirrels and harvesting wild honey.
Later, a government official with the Tsetse Fly Control Programme hired him as a helping hand and took him to Karamoja; first to Kaabong then later to Karenga. Kilipa lived there until Amin was kicked out of power in 1979.
Little wonder that the joy of the overthrow of Amin excited Kilipa to join the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).