Omukama Kabalega of Bunyoro is given a full recognition as a single most significant leader in Uganda who put a fierce resistance against the British colonial expansion from 1872 to 1899.
However, another chief who deserves equal remembrance was Rwot Awich, the chief of Payira chiefdom in Acholi land.
Payira chiefdom can be traced in the present day Pader District. However, Lamogi hills where the actual battles and rebellion between Payira and the British took place are several miles westwards in Amuru District.
Although the war was between Payira fighters and the British, it was purely black-on-black war.
The British used mainly Nubian and Baganda mercenaries to fight Awich and the war claimed hundreds of lives on both sides. However, one British commander, Capt Harman perished in one of the battle. His remains were returned to the UK by President Yoweri Museveni in 1995.
In late 1880s, the British were streamlining their colonial rule to northern Uganda. Their expedition did not meet any resistance in Omiroland (Lango) as they had expected.
Apparently, the British had taken time to study military strength of each and every tribe in Uganda. They knew that now that they had got Kabalega out of the way, the next troublesome area would be northern Uganda.
The British were aware that much as the Acholi were bow and arrow masters, the Langi were also perfect spear masters and had little fear for guns. For instance, the Langi had previously killed about 300 Khartoumers and Arab traders who had tried to cross their land and these people had guns.
However, it turned out to be different, the Langi chiefs easily cooperated. They were tricked with petty gifts like mirror, glassware, clothes, spectacles mola wang and within a short time, the whole of Lango was under Colonial rule.
By 1888, almost all the Acholi chiefdoms like Padibe, Paibona, Pajule, Patiko, Pabo,and Puranga were under colonial rule.
However, one chief, Rwot Awich of Payira made it clear he would not submit to the British demand.
The British colonialists had used different strategies including, treaty signing, gifts, collaboration, threats and intimidation, treachery, plus divide and rule and if the above failed, they employed direct military confrontation.
Payira before Awich
Payira was militarily the most powerful chiefdom. Awich’s father Rwot Camo-wod-pa-Lawino had been a successful fighter against his neighbours and they feared him.
In 1886, the army of Padibe chiefdom allied with the Arabs and Nubian against Payira but the allied force suffered a humiliating defeat. As a result, Rwot Ogwok of Padibe petitioned the Arabs the following year to join Padibe and wage another war against Payira.
The Arabs were eager to avenge their defeat. The allied force under Arab commander Awash Muhammad Salim launched a surprise attack against Payira warriors forcing them to flee in disarray.
Payira was defeated and a Padibe man named Cakai Lukiromoi is said to have speared Rwot Camo to death. The Arabs then went ahead to behead Camo’s body and took the head to Emin Pasha at Ladu in South Sudan. Pasha was the last governor of Equatorial Province (1886-78)
It is not clear when Rwot Awich was born, but according to Fr. JP Crazzolara’s book Luo Clan, Awich was one of many sons of Rwot Camo-wod Pa-Lawino of Payira chiefdom, who ascended to the throne following the brutal murder of his father by the Padibe chief Rwot Ogwok and his Arab allies in 1887.
At this time, the British had just arrived in Acholi land.
Fr. Crazzolara specifically notes his venality, brutal raiding activities, endless savage ferocity, boiling temper and unstoppable war mongering behaviours, Awich antagonised all his neighbours and they hated him.
By the start of his reign, Awich attacked and raided his neighbouring chiefdoms, especially Padibe who had killed his father Rwot Camo. However, Paibona, Pajule, Puranga, and Pabo also suffered a similar fate of defeat
Because of his ruthlessness, Maj Dalme Radcliffe (nicknamed Langalanga by the Acholi, because he was restless), a British commissioner at Nimule pleaded with Awich to stop his activities but the pleas landed on deaf ears.
In 1889, Dalme threatened to arrest Awich, but again the threat did nothing to deter the defiant chief. Instead, he intensifies his terror against his neighbours.
Awich had moreover offered asylum to Kabalega’s fugitive soldiers and relatives whom he was using to terrorise his neighbours. By 1892, due to Payira’s constant raids, most of the chiefdoms in Acholi accepted the British rule immediately in order to seek protection against Awich’s brutality.
The British then ordered Awich to expel all the Banyoro refugees whose presence was considered as a setback to their colonial expedition.
However, Awich as usual, defied the orders. His objection was based on the traditional belief of the people of northern Uganda about the sanctity of human life. Their tradition holds that if you send away a refugee and he faces death then his blood will haunt you and your offspring forever.
The first Anglo-Payira battle
After failing to initiate diplomacy with Payira, in 1898, Maj Herman, a British commander set out with his army, comprising mainly Nubian and a few Baganda mercenaries to force Awich to stop raiding activities and to bring Payira under British rule.
Awich mobilised his fighters and with a few guns as well as bows and arrows, resorted to guerrilla tactics and made several surprise attacks against the British.
Awich’s subsequent military strategies enabled him to elude capture up to 1902 when he was defeated, arrested and taken to Nimule for trial and imprisonment.
While in prison, Payira people revolted and vigorously demanded for his return because according to them, the British had failed to establish effective administration in Payira. In March 1902, the pressure by the people of Payira was too much that the British were forced to release and reinstate him once again as Payira chief.
Shortly after his return, Awich resumed his raids and this time crossed the border from Joka clan into northern Lango which was already effectively under colonial rule. By doing this, he was calling for war. In 1910, Awich started amassing guns from Arab traders which irritated the British.
The British reacted by ordering everyone in Acholi to register his gun(s) but this move was directed toward Awich. Awich not only refused to obey the order but moved door to door mobilising his people to resist the white man’s firearm registration policy.
The Lamogi Rebellion
Col McDonald commanded his forces to fight Awich and after a brief fight in Payira, Awich withdrew several miles westward to Lamogi hills where he put his military base. His choice of Lamogi was probably due to presence of hills and possible caves which could provide hiding places.
As part of his strategy, Awich dug several underground tunnels as a cover against the enemies. In fierce battles that followed, Awich made several strikes against Col. McDanald’s soldiers and withdrew into tunnels, bushes and hills and by mid October 1911, the British had lost several mercenaries.
However, following the death of Capt Turner, a British commander in November 1911, the British started taking the war seriously, and they came up with a different strategy
It is alleged that they pumped poisonous gas in caves and tunnels where the Payira fighters were hiding which eventually forced them out and they surrendered and most of them were massacred. Awich was weakened and eventually captured and taken once again to Nimule to face charges.
Fr. Crazzolara, in his book says during the trial, while at Nimule, Awich’s own chief Jago Aluca of Patira betrayed him. He testified against him saying he had seen guns inside Awich’s court. Awich was relieved of his duty as Payira chief and given an eight year sentence in Kampala.
However, when colonial prosecutor Sullivaen read his sentence, Awich lost his temper, leaped from his seat, made loud incantation, jumped over the table before punching the prosecutor to the ground.
He was given additional fine of two cows, a goat and ivory for his contempt for the court.
Awich was taken to Kampala and imprisoned on top of a lonely hill called Kololo which was by then a wilderness.
Kololo and Naguru hills get their names
According to Dr Martin Aliker, Chief Awich was imprisoned on top of Kololo hill which was a lonely place at the time. Overwhelmed with anguish and anger, Awich is alleged to have cried out in Luo with a loud voice: An atye kany ni kololo” (I am here completely alone).
He lamented that he had been deserted alone in a strange place hundreds of miles away from home. His captors and the Baganda guards heard him and started calling that hill “Kololo” which has so remained to date.
It is also alleged that while Awich was imprisoned at Kololo hill, he was allowed some bits of freedom to move around under guard.
According to Joseph Openy, an employee at the Ministry of Finance and also from the chiefdom of Payira, one day, he went to a nearby hill and found it conducive. He then requested his captors to allow him build a hut where he and his guards would sometimes spend nights.
On several occasions, his subjects would trek their way for days from Payira to visit him and in most cases they would arrive late in the evening. Awich would say, “ You have arrived late when we have eaten all the food, now nang gulu, or nang agulu (lick the remains from the bottom of the pot).
Again his captors and guards did not know how to pronounce the words properly and started calling the hill “Naguru”.