Yusto Otunnu is the founder of the Chosen Evangelical Revival movement in northern Uganda.
Otunnu was born on March 22, 1922, in Namokora, Chua county, Kitgum district in northern Uganda. Otunnu’s father was called Yona Lucuba Olango of the Kadwong clan, one of the clans belonging to a larger Acholi ethnic group that occupies the current districts of Kitgum, Pader, Gulu, and Amuru. Otunnu’s mother was called Aol. The family was Christian but not wealthy.
In his formative years, Otunnu joined the catechumen class after which he was baptized and given the name Yusto. He then attended one of the bush schools but did not go far with his primary studies. But he grew up an energetic and enthusiastic person. He showed great skills and artistic abilities in Acholi traditional and cultural activities.
Yusto Otunnu was recruited into the King African Rifles (K.A.R) in 1940 and served in Ethiopia, India, and Sri-Lanka during the Second World War. That exposure enabled him to gain a good command of Swahili, in addition to Lwo, his ethnic language. He left the K.A.R in 1945.
Yusto Otunnu married Amato Josephine in 1948, and they had thirteen children. Their son Olara-Otunnu later became a prominent politician and the first Ugandan to serve in the United Nations Secretary for Children Affairs in the 1980s. Although Yusto Otunnu was not well educated, he labored hard to educate all his children.
Yusto Otunnu’s real Christian vocation began after hearing a sermon by a Muganda medical doctor and evangelist, Dr. Elia Lubulwa, on September 29, 1947. Lubulwa was one of the first converts of the East African Revival movement in the 1940s. Although Otunnu had been baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church of Uganda, he realized the cold spirituality in the Church of Uganda. He became a member of the new movement known by Luganda term balokole (“saved ones”). After his conversion, Otunnu was ever burning with the Holy Spirit to change the life of the church in his area because many people who claimed to be Christians were still rooted in their traditional religious practices, indulging in polygamous living, smoking, and drunkenness.
The zeal of evangelism filled Otunnu’s heart and the impact of his message was reinforced by his good command of Swahili and Lwo. On January 6, 1948, he preached a moving sermon that prompted Janani Luwum to convert to the balokole (East African Revival) movement. At that time, Janani Luwum was a trained primary school teacher.
Yusto Otunnu, Janani Luwum, and others became great charismatic preachers in northern Uganda and the country at large. Those early converts, filled with great passion to preach the gospel often faced arrest by both local leaders and church leaders whose traditions and practices were greatly challenged by the new and strange message. In 1949, Yusto Otunnu challenged Bishop Usher Wilson of the Upper Nile diocese during one of his pastoral visits to All Saints Church in Kitgum for the cold and dry spirituality in the Anglican Church of Uganda.
Otunnu’s companion, Janani Luwum, later joined a theological college in Buwalasi, in Mbale, in eastern Uganda and served as an ordained minister in the Anglican Church of Uganda. Meanwhile, Otunnu remained a charismatic lay evangelist and a great leader of the East African Revival movement in northern Uganda.
Otunnu’s preaching drew many Acholi to the new movement. Many of the clergy who served the Anglican Church of Uganda during the turbulent political periods of that time were mostly converts of Yusto Otunnu. The balokole movement provided the main thrust for evangelism and church planting among traditional believers in northern Uganda and southern Sudan.
By the 1950s the balokole movement had grown tremendously. As it grew a new organization called the Chosen Evangelical Revival (C.E.R) movement was formed on August 28, 1958 in Anaka. Yusto Otunnu (an Acholi) became the chairperson; other members were Obuku Yowaci (an Iteso), Owino Lajaro (a Mudama), and Dronyi Sosthenes (a Lugbara). However, within a decade, the Chosen Evangelical Revival movement split again. Another splinter group led by Lajaro Owino accused Yusto Otunnu of adultery because he had recuited many women into high positions in his group. He also frequently selected young ladies to serve him. Otunnu’s group was called Morokole abor, an Acholi term that means “adulterous saved ones.” Meanwhile, the opposing group, that refused to condone immorality in the church, was referred to as Morokole adelawang that means “the wide open-eyed saved ones.” The rift between the two groups started as early as 1960s but the actual split took place in the 1970s. Otunnu’s followers also gave him a new title, Baba, which means “father.” From the time of the split, new converts began to identify themselves with the leaders of the revival movement rather than with Christ, although the factions remained in the Anglican Church of Uganda.
In 1977, Yusto Otunnu fled to Kenya after Archbishop Janani Luwum was murdered by Idi Amin. In Kenya, Yusto Otunnu became an active evangelist and ardent critic of President Idi Amin’s military regime. During that time he became known as an international evangelist, much like Bishop Festo Kivengere.
Yusto Otunnu was also famous for the entrepreneurial skills. When he returned to northern Uganda after his exile he started a bus company known as “The Holy Spirit Bus Company,” an innovation that put his splinter group in a better economic position. At the same time, it enabled the group to break away from the Anglican Church of Uganda, unlike the members of the East African Revival movement. The separation of Otunnu’s group was gradual even though many attempts were made to reconcile them with the church.
On March 29, 1984, the bishop of Northern Uganda diocese, Benoni Ogwal-Abwang, made a last attempt to work with Otunnu’s group evangelizing the area but the endeavor failed. As a result, in September 1985, Yusto Otunnu registered his movement that was licensed by the military government of General Tito Okello, one of his kinsmen. In addition, his son Olara-Otunnu was one of the ministers in the government.
When General Tito Okello’s government was overthrown by Yoweri Museveni on January 26, 1986, Yusto Otunnu once again fled, this time taking refuge in Oxford in the United Kingdom. At the age of sixty-eight, he enrolled as a student of the English language. Later, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of theology by the University of Taiwan for being an eloquent evangelist and for his mission work.
Yusto Otunu died on April 12, 1998 at the age of seventy-six. He was buried in Oxford in the United Kingdom, using Acholi traditional burial rites, according to his will.
“A Centenary Pictorial Magazine: Gospel Centenary in Acholi 1904-2004,” page 16. Unpublished.
A report on CER separation from the Diocese of Northern Uganda in 1884.
A dissertation submitted by Rev. James Okoyo to Uganda Christian University for a diploma in theology in 2006. Unpublished.
This article, received in 2008, was written by Rev. Wilson Atine, DACB liaison coordinator at Archbishop Janani Luwum Theological College, Gulu, Uganda, a DACB participating institution. Rev. Atine attended the DACB Oral History Workshop held at Uganda Christian University in Mukono, October 27-31, 2008, and co-sponsored by Global South Institute.