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In memory of Jacob Oulanyah


THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | On Sunday March 20th, speaker of parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, succumbed to a terminal illness in a hospital in Seattle – three days shy of his 57th birthday. He had been fighting for his life for over nine months. Outside, a crowd of wannabe Ugandans in America were demonstrating against his hospitalization abroad, insisting that government was wasting money to save his life. What has become of us? Many Ugandans believe such advanced and specialized medical services should be available in the country and should be provided for free to all citizens by the government. This is a level of thoughtlessness that is difficult to fathom.

It is sad that Oulanyah died before he had served any substantial amount of time as speaker. This has robbed us of an opportunity to experience his leadership at the top. We had a good idea of his ability and style since he had been deputy speaker for the previous ten years. Nonetheless, a deputy is a deputy and we needed to see Oulanyah with full powers. I am sure he was going to leave an enduring legacy on the speakership. Oulanyah possessed the right qualities for the job – a rare combination of toughness when necessary, and a soft reconciliatory touch.

Uganda’s parliamentarians can be rowdy, as they demonstrated during the constitutional amendment to remove age limits. Oulanyah knew how to use the rules, his strength of character and maturity of judgment to avoid such situations. This is why he was a darling of many MPs – he could be tough on them and yet retain their friendship and loyalty. He did this because he never took things personally. In his private space, he could easily lose his cool, but never in the performance of his official duties as speaker.

I knew Oulanyah very well, having met him when I was a student at Makerere University, him an intellectual on the Uganda political scene. This was in the mid 1990s during the constitution making process. We immediately struck a friendship. An agricultural economist who later studied law and became one of the best lawyers in town, Oulanyah was an all-rounder. He was a man with a big heart – open, generous, affable and always ready to engage.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was a regular visit to his home in Muyenga-Kasanga, where I would meet his late wife Dorothy and their kids. Dorothy and Oulanyah were more than wife and husband. They were buddies as well. Around the house he took care of kids of his later sister, a young sibling and many people who had little means and sought his support. In my interactions with him, I realized that he was always focused on the future and a congenital optimist. He always looked back to the past of course, not as a museum of remembrance but as a source of lessons on how to navigate the present and pursue the future he sought.

Oulanyah’s political life was a rollercoaster right from his student days. He was not new to the job of speaker having served as speaker to the student’s Guild Representative Council at Makerere University in the late 1980s. It is there that he built his friendship with the indefatigable Nobert Mao, president of DP, who was Guild President. During a strike over “cost sharing” where he was one of the leaders at the university in 1989, two students were shot dead, Oulanyah was injured. It was his initiation into national politics and propelled him to what became a life-long career.

The former speaker’s political journey is a powerful story of triumph against the odds. It is also a story of Uganda’s politics of conflict and reconciliation. He came from Acholi although his father (now 92 years young) is Langi. The region was characterized by a long running and brutal insurgency for the first 20 years of President Yoweri Museveni’s administration. Oulanyah, his family and people were victims of this insurgency, caught between an exceptionally brutal rebel group, the LRA, and government troops that were often violent and inconsiderate. It pained him. Yet in spite of this, he never lost his optimism or sense of perspective and never allowed his personal and community suffering to embitter his soul.

He was both a man of principle and a pragmatist even though the two seem an oxymoron. He knew too well the thin lines between principle and pragmatism: that when principle is taken too far, it becomes dogmatism and rigidity while unchecked pragmatism tends to opportunism. So, he always sought to strike a creative balance between these contradictions – not to pursue a principle in a rigid manner as to defeat its purpose but also not to be too pragmatic as to sell his soul. It is a remains a singular triumph of his political career that he navigated this terrain with exceptional skill.

For instance, in the mid to late 1990s, Oulanyah used to tell me, and often even say it in public fora, that he was born UPC and will die UPC because that party’s plasma ran inside his blood. Yet when the right moment came, he quit UPC and joined the NRM, a political party he had long opposed. It is a mark of his political acumen and Museveni’s (and NRM’s) accommodating and reconciliatory approach to politics that this happened.

I know how this came about. Before he crossed to NRM, he sought my advice. I told Oulanyah that I saw little ideological and personnel differences between NRM and UPC. NRM was a child of UPC – most of its leaders having been UPC youths-wingers who disagreed with its founding president, Milton Obote, rather than the party’s ideological inclinations and policy preferences. In the policy sphere, NRM had come to power articulating UPC’s 1969 leftish policy ideas, and just like UPC in the early 1980s, had embraced free market policies. The two parties were therefore similar. I encouraged him to join NRM, even predicting that his career in NRM will go beyond anything UPC could ever offer him.

In 2004, he was what used to be called opposition MPs although there was no such thing in the constitution of the time. He had chaired the parliamentary legal committee that was tasked to handle the sensitive issue of removal of term limits. Everyone expected Oulanyah to use his position to create a stalemate. But he was politically smart enough to recognize that democracy is a game of numbers, and the NRM had these. Using his position to suppress the move would be tantamount to abuse of office. He managed the process with such political and leadership skill that the committee approved the amendments without causing the kind of fist fights that characterized the removal of age limits.



  1. Quite a bad structured and rumbling piece to the end. That a side, It pains to see the level of financial waste and expensive escort cars to so many government officials, when a good number of upcountry districts lack just basic facilities in hospitals. As the result, sadly so many Ugandans have died of basic diseases that could have been treated if the current ruling regime cared a little bit more e.g as noted in this link honour-oulanyah-by-addressing-why-he-died-in-a-distant-land-22228

  2. Its very sad that God chooses to take away very decent leaders and leaves us with thieves, liars n manuplators in our mideast.
    RIP Jacob. I know ur in heaven for sure!

  3. Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions. Randolph

  4. The strike in which two students from Northern Uganda perished was in 1990.
    But one thing Jacob chose a wrong time to die.
    I have been thinking of one bizarre event in the long troubled history of the Acholi region. It is what happened at the burial of a one Brig.Okoya who was murdered by Idi Amin.
    Some curse of sorts. I hope some journalist looks back and relates.

  5. Indeed, another useless rumbling from Cadre Mwenda.

    there are a number of issues he brings up in this article BUT I will comment on only one.

    In paragraph 1 he says that he does not understand why Ugandans are unhappy when the government sends the political elite and well connected abroad for treatment. To Cadre and Propagandist Mwenda this is ok and those expressing their displeasure on social media or physically demonstrating outside these hospitals should have their heads examined.
    Mwenda , those in Government and the like minded forget that (a) this is a government that has been in power for 36 years and counting that has destroyed , neglected and underinvested in educations system (which would produce good doctors and medical researchers ) and the health sector which is significant for every nation to grow and prosper. (b) The very people being flown out of the country are the super rich who have either literary looted or been complicit in seeing and allowing individuals to loot government coffers to build hotels ; tourist resorts ; private schools, build mansions etc…. (c) and most important, they are not going abroad on their own funds but financed by the tax payer . Yes the simple man living in Katwe ; Kisenyi ; Namuwongo and all such places paying for Jacob living in a mansion in Muyenga or Kololo to go and receive better treatment abroad while the simple tax payer is stuck in a stinking , fly- infested, no-drugs , bed-sharing and no qualified staff and neglected grade 1v health centre somewhere in the country.
    To Mwenda and newly -converted Norbert Mao , that is normal and a no-brainer. To them the Political class deserve this treatment . This shows the level of disdain and contempt Ugandans are held in. In societies where people are respected and the political class sees itself as servant of the people not Masters, investment are made in infrastructures and systems that benefit everyone and all are treated equally in receipt of services. For instance , in United Kingdom, where I happen to be a citizen, the Queen and Royal Family; the Prime Minister and his cabinet minister and all politicians are treated the same way when they access the National Health Service for treatment like the smelly homeless man/woman on the street. They both go to the same hospitals and receive the same treatment relating to their health condition. If the homeless guy is assessed as needing a hip replacement , he will get it in the same hospital as that used by the Prime Minister.
    These Societies value their people unlike Uganda.
    If these people paid for their own treatment abroad from their looted funds, nobody will grumble.

    Mwenda will not see anything thing wrong with the government spending ug 2.5 billion on funeral expenses of 1 person while many teachers and Doctors are underpaid.

    No wonder, this is the guy who is a strong advocate of corruption in society. I read one of his arguments about 4 years ago that it is better for someone to loot say 70 billion allocated to build or upgrade a hospital and the looters goes and builds a factory that will employ 60 people
    That is the calibre of leaders and influencers that Uganda has. One day, things will explode and these hotels; mansions etc… will be burnt down by the angry mob and maybe that is when Mwenda and the like will wake up from their comfortable slumber.

  6. 1.Mulago is still a good Hospital can you imagine they had to medically stable Oulanyah before he was flown out?
    2.Africans should learn to openly share their illnesses the 3 weeks Olunayah spent at home without medication took a toll on his health.
    3.Its normal for anyone working for a reputable institution to have his/her medical bills paid for.Those of you who have worked for World Bank or IOM know that Cigna Insurance based in Kenya ,Egypt or South Africa sorts out all their medical bills,
    4. The Baganda have found their match in the Acholi;all these two tribes have both illiterates and literates roaming on the streets of the first world thats how they ended up in Seattle.
    5.I once congratulated an African man upon having a bouncing baby boy what was his response who told you i had a son i dont want rumormongers.such mentality even makes them hide when they are sick.
    6.M7 is so caring if he had know that Olulanya was sick he would have flown him out for better medical care;actually Oulanya’s protocol team should be in prison for negligence of duty.
    7.How many medical facilities carry out born marrow transplants,Brain transplant?Cancer is a terrible disease that even the wealthiest like Steve Jobs scummed to it.

  7. @Winnie
    The best chance to beat most non-communicable diseases such diabetes, heart and vascular issues, vision degeneration, bone/joint disorders and the various cancer types is early detection and early intervention. In places where health care systems work, this early detection happens at the primary health care level where it is possible for even people who are not necessarily sick to be seen by their Primary Care Provider (PCP) is say annual physical check-ups. The problem is that in Uganda there is virtually no primary health care beyond the vaccinations for children. Because of costs and perceived costs most people in Uganda only visit a doctor when they are already sick. Very sick! Yet like vaccinations in children, these routine visits like annual physical check-up are very cost effective. And in some cases like cervical cancers, breast cancers, colon cancers, prostate cancers etc the best chance to beat them is if detected as early as possible. How many Ugandan women go for annual breast screening or for PAP smears for example? Both men and women are advised to undergo annual colonoscopies for colorectal cancer screening after age 45years. How many do this? Even people with the means and access only go to see a doctor when it is a little late. For example, we have now learnt that the late Jacob Oulanya’s cancer was at stage III when diagnosed . What Uganda needs to do is to expand and strengthen the Primary Health Care system beyond early childhood vaccinations, teaching hygiene and distribution of mosquito nets (all very commendable) to moving beyond sickness/curative model for many health issues, to a wellness model designed for early detection/intervention of the non-infectious/non-communicable diseases that are increasingly becoming major killers.

  8. @ Winnie

    I hope it is safe for me to assume that given this nice name you are a woman. And if so, and if I may ask, how many times have you had either breast or cervical cancer screening? Where can average women in any randomly chosen place in Uganda go? And if you are 45 years or over, do already get your annual colonoscopies? How many women you know go the same?

  9. @M!K:Its good to go for frequent medical checks especially if the family you belong to have hereditary diseases otherwise if you are healthy why frequent Medical facilities ? A medical facility is quite traumatizing.
    Ladies of 45 years and below are still enjoying sex.

    There are so many medical camps in Uganda.

    I am 100% a lady its just that my IQ is high.

    • @Winnie

      Family history of some diseases is one strong reason for early screening. But things like annual visits to your healthcare providers for a thorough check-up is very important even to those people who are healthy. It is important for tracking the growth, development or even changes that happen throughout the life span. This is especially important for children as they develop into adults (0 -18yrs) but also equally important once one gets to the other side of 45 years where profound changes in the body start to happen and with them the growth of the risk for many non-communicable diseases. Many people catching the latter may not feel sick or readily affected by them until the ailments have progressed to dangerous stages. Early diagnosis and quick intervention may be the only hope of beating them. That is why the idea that one who feels or thinks is healthy has no need to see the doctor is a bit problematic. It is true that some procedures like annual colonoscopies (for both men and women over 45yrs), annual cervical PAP smears and breast screening (for women) or even blood draws for other disease screening (for both sexes) can be traumatizing indeed. But they are necessary traumas whether one feels healthy or not. Make a point of annually doing what is appropriate for your age and gender, as all of us must do if it is possible. Of course your doctor’s advice is the one you should follow.

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