Evidence of charms in armed conflicts: Is culture compromising security?

todayDecember 17, 2021

By Ronald Orachwun
Mustafa Ismail watched from his window in the wee hours of 6th March 2020 how a group of men armed with traditional weapons including machetes, bows, arrows and guns razed down a Uganda People’s Defense Forces UPDF detach in Oduk village, Zombo town council Zombo district.
The attack, comprehensively covered by both local and International media and seemingly well planned by the assailants resulted in the demise of five UPDF soldiers, nine huts torched, three AK47 rifles looted while close to 30 of the attackers were put out of action.
“I saw everything. I had just returned home close to midnight when I saw strange people advancing towards the detach. They were all wearing black facemasks carrying machetes, bows and arrows in three groups of about 30 men. I could not move out because I got so scared and decided to inform the detach intelligence officer after the third batch of these strangers, some with guns crossed to the detach not far from my home. But as soon as I finished talking to him, almost the whole place was engulfed in gunfire with some grass thatched houses already set ablaze. Shortly the gun exchange ceased and in my mind I thought all the five soldiers at the detach at that time had been killed. At around 2am or so, one of the soldiers who was badly injured ran to my house for help but there was nothing much I could do that night. The following morning when I rushed to the detach I found three soldiers dead in a pool of blood”, the visibly frustrated Mustafa narrates.
Security sources said the attackers reportedly under the auspices of a new rebel outfit Uganda Homeland Liberation Forces UHLF led by one Howard Openjuru, with recruits comprising of the indigenous Alur and the Lendu speaking people of Congolese origin from Ituri province in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, with the main aim of toppling the Ugandan government led by President Yoweri Museveni. Some of them were apprehended as they attempted to run back to their bases in DR Congo.
Given Ituri’s history of bloodshed, it is not a surprising conclusion. The last two decades have seen civil war, mass killings, systematic gang rape and a despicable scramble for loot.
One such attack was in June 2019 when Ituri’s cattle herding Hema and the predominantly Lendu group rose up against each other, making it the worst violence since late 2017 and early 2018.
During the attack, armed men emptied villages, burnt down houses, hacked bits off their occupants and ripped the fetus out of at least one woman.
Reports from the Economist Newspaper say a mass grave discovered in the village of Tehe contained 161 bodies, with human rights activists estimating that at least 276 people were killed in Bunia, the capital of Ituri province.
Charms in wars
The use of cultural elements including charms, magic, traditional beliefs and values in armed rebellions dates way back to the 1905-1907 war during the colonial era when the Maji Maji fighters of the then Tanganyika, now present day Tanzania rose up against the German colonialists, in a war that was triggered by a repressive policy designed to compel the indigenous population to forcefully grow cotton for exports.
The insurgents resorted to charms and magic to drive out the Germans and used it as a unifying factor to gain comparative advantage over the German fighters.
A spirit medium named Kinjikitile Ngwale claimed to be possessed by a snake spirit. History has it that he (Kinjikitile Ngwale) fortified and gave his followers medicine that would turn the bullets into water. This war medicine was actually water mixed with castor oil and millet seeds.
The fighters, armed with spears and arrows significantly believed that the German bullets would not harm them as they were protected by the charms, but analysts say this was just a mere traditional or like any other cultural belief which cannot protect anyone from such weapons as ammunitions.
Charms used in attacks on Zombo army detaches
In the aftermath of the attack on Oduk army detach in Zombo town council, UPDF and other sister security agencies arrested a witchdoctor accused of spearheading the bloody attack.                   
One Doctor Charles Ovoya, as he is commonly known, was apprehended in Wadelai Sub County, Pakwach district as he attempted to cross River Nile to Amuru district.
Several of the attackers who were grilled by detectives said they were encouraged by the witchdoctor to engage in combat after being given charms that would make them bullet proof. They were however astonished that the charms did not work.
Also, close to seven rebels of Congolese origin of the famous Lendu agricultural establishment, the Cooperation for the Development of Congo CODECO were killed in an attack on an army detach in Zeu Sub County Zombo district, at the peripheries of Uganda and DR Congo.
The attackers, numbering about 20, disguised as forest workers attacked the detach via Zeu forest on 16 July 2021, killing one UPDF soldier, with one SMG rifle, 11 rounds of ammunition, 12 bows and three machetes recovered.
In all the two armed attacks, there were traces of a component of culture that was used.
Several fingers pointed to the strong and “revered” charm among the Lendu speaking people, which the fighters used, with a strong belief that the bullets would not harm them during the raids.
Despite a section of non-believers in the traditional customs who dismissed reports of use of charms in the attacks, a number of people who participated in the raids confessed that charms were actually used to aid the execution of the attacks.
“I didn’t have any military skills by the time we engaged in the attack in March last year. I only joined because first of all I thought it was a lucrative business. But I was later taken through an initiation process after being lured unknowingly to join the other rebels in a camp in Congo. I was forced to drink water mixed with some bitter fruit by doctor Ovoya (as he was fondly called). But after realizing that there is nothing serious and that I would not go far with what I was seeing, I had to abandon the idea and returned home because life was really hard in the bush. I didn’t see any future in the bush. But to talk of charms, those things are there. I personally used it thinking that nothing would happen”, said Patrick Oryema, a resident of Ndhew Sub County Nebbi district who joined UHLM in 2020.
Another bloody clash transpired in 2003 when close to 12 people were killed while 3,000 displaced in Nebbi district following an attack by Uganda’s Alur people on the Lendu tribe in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over 1,000 grass-thatched grasses were burnt and several gardens destroyed in the tribal clashes.
The New Vision newspaper at the time reported that the clashes in Zeu Sub County, in present day Zombo district were sparked off by the theft of 25 pieces of timber belonging to Charles Akembu, an Alur, by one Charles Combe, a convict of Lendu origin from DR Congo.
“What we must know is that the Lendu are a very primitive society with little education, and fetishism is everywhere. The Lendu and the Alur people use herbs and charms in all that they do including all the armed conflicts that they have been engaging in of recent much as charms are a cross cutting practice in all tribes. But the one of Lendu people works in a way that if you do not have the Lendu blood, the charms will not work for you even if you use it several times. For instance I personally witnessed the 2003 clashes between the Alur and Lendu people in Zeu Sub County. Just like the attacks on Oduk army detach in Zombo town council and the one in Zeu Sub County, the fighters of the 2003 attack also used charms. Some of the fighters were shot with guns and others were even cut with knives and pangas by a local witchdoctor in my presence but they were not harmed. We all thought they would sustain serious injuries and eventually die but even the guns had no effect”, said Dan Rwothomio, the spokesperson of the Lendu tribe in Uganda.
Adding: “It is just belief and having the Lendu blood in you. That’s why all those who used the charms in all the three attacks but were not of Lendu origin did not succeed. It is just like our religions of now days. There is a very strong attachment and belief in the charms that it only works if you are of the same tribe. So I can easily say that the 2003 attack, the one of last year in Zombo town council including the most recent one where some attackers disguised as forest workers in Zeu Sub County, charms were used and a number of people are currently rushing for these charms”.
Private investigators of the attack on the UPDF army detach in Zeu Sub County in July 2021 discovered that some of the survivors were smeared with palm oil, others with body jelly while others confessed that they chewed some local herbs comprising of black jack, believed to give them immunity against bullets.
“We launched some mini probe soon after the attack especially the one in Zeu Sub County. Some of the fighters were still carrying traces of palm oil and this usual petroleum jelly called joly smeared on them. Also we discovered a white bottle similar to those used for storing paracetamol and we suspected that it contained the charms. To our dismay we found palm oil mixed with this ordinary petroleum jelly called joly. There were also black jack and “Ukwiyu”, a common local herb believed to condense tense situations. You see this herb is so powerful that when you put it under your arm pit or under your tongue or tie it round your waist or hold it in your palm without anybody noticing, it is believed that it cools down a situation no matter the magnitude of the situation. I believe that is why the attackers had a very strong belief that they would not be harmed if they used any of these herbs”, said Dan Rwothomio who led the investigations.
Other cases.
On a low key though, Opio Bob, a resident of Zale trading center in Zeu Sub County Zombo district did confess to using charms and recounts how he on one occasion killed his elder brother in a bloody confrontation under the influence of charms over land.
We met him at his grass thatched hut at dusk as he feared confrontations from members of the area. The sight of a corrugated tin with dried plants and powders greeted us. His front door made of skins seems like any other traditional medicine shop. As we entered his hut, the display of charms was vivid.
“I got all these from a traditional herbalist in Agiermach in Warr Sub County way back. This powdered one has the power to protect you from any weapons like bullets. You have to take it either in tea or mix it with any liquid food or any other food”. This one can protect you from being seen by your enemies just in case you want to go for an attack”. I used this one (points to the first charm) to kill my elder brother when I was still young. I had a little misunderstanding with my father but this conflict escalated as I grew up because my father refused to give me a piece of his land but chose my elder brother to have the land. I also have “Lenga”, a revered herb among the Alur people traditionally believed to give you courage to do anything including the belief that a person who receives it can kill a lion alone. So many people like the ones you heard had a hand in those attacks in Zombo came here but I could not do much for them because I know nothing about issuing charms to other people. I get them for my personal use”, he said.
Adding: “Each of these charms is filled with local medicine or papers with prayers scribbled on them of what they are used for. Herbs like this “Ukwiyu”, “Lenga, “Black jack and red pepper mixed with palm oil and water”.
According to the abstract of, “armed-groups-ihl-and-the-invisible-world-how-spiritual-beliefs-shape-warfare”, secret societies”, “charms” and “mystical weapons” are recurrent terms when analyzing some of the present armed conflicts in the Sub-Saharan region.
However, though spiritual beliefs shape armed groups’ behaviour, and such beliefs are integrated into the modus operandi of some armed groups, the role of these beliefs in warfare is largely overlooked.
Also according to, https://www.ssbfnet.com/ojs/index.php/ijrbs/article/view/1410, modern weapons can be overpowered as evidenced in the Kamwina Nsapu conflict in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The insurgency of Kamwina Nsapu militia in the Kasai Central Province sought to bring accountability to the modern political leadership and address bad governance practices.
The case of the Kamwina Nsapu revealed the use of charms or fetishes (manga) to address the problem that had emerged in the Luba community. Different types of indigenous charms (manga) were used: trees and sticks were used as guns; slippers as telephones; and fruits as grenades.
Militia were able to cut off heads of enemies from a distance with their bare hands and they teleported from one place to another at will. These activities were made possible by the use of charms (manga), such as the tshiota fire and nkwembe.
What experts say
Kasungwa David a former lecturer of political science at Kitara Institute of Commerce Hoima says, “The phenomenon regarding the use of charms is not new”. Just take a look at our different settings in our society. Today you will find a small child of five years threatening to bewitch you and you wonder where the child got this from. So this child is going to grow with the notion that witchcraft, charms, sorcery is just a normal thing. I do believe this is the reason why a number armed conflicts are being staged across Sub Saharan Africa. The Boko Haram insurgency is also not a new story. Several people are using charms, especially community who believe the rebels may attack anytime. This is just in preparation just in case the rebels attack. So you will not rule out completely the use of charms in conflicts. “So if you are asking me if culture is compromising security, I will tell you it’s a yes”.
Adding: “Culture is meant to bring people together but some of its elements are being used the wrong way”.
COVER PHOTO: The recent attack on an army detach in Zombo masterminded by people who used charms left at least 5 UPDF soldiers dead. Courtesy photo. By Ronald Orachwun

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