Peter Nyombi: The lawyer, the politician, the man

Thursday August 1 2013

Peter Nyombi in his office  on Parliament Avenue.

Peter Nyombi in his office on Parliament Avenue. The Attorney General makes no apologies for the comments and opinions he has given recently. PHOTO BY ABU BAKER LUBOWA 


His office is a spacious affair, measuring to at least some five by 10 metres. Maroon bookshelves stocked with volumes and files and folders line one side, while a black, 32-inch, flat-panel Samsung TV screen hangs off the wall, looking straight down at his desk. The office stands five floors off the ground, along Parliament Avenue.
It is here that a middle-aged man has sat and gone about his business, as the chief legal adviser of the government reigning over this land. It is a task that has in the past few months cast him in the increasing luminance of the public’s spotlight, drawing him out as a subject of public debate, ire and controversy.
Peter Nyombi, a lawyer and serving Member of Parliament for Nakasongola County, could have easily been one of the most publicly discussed individuals in this country in the recent past. His legal opinions – backing the appointment of Gen Aronda Nyakairima as a Cabinet minister, while still a serving army officer, and, the apparent support for re-instalment of Benjamin Odoki as Chief Justice – have earned him mockery and ridicule. He has been written off as so bad a lawyer, only good enough to represent chicken thieves.
Nyombi instead chooses to sit back in his swivel chair, and while wearing a grin on his dark, round face that reveals a dimple on the left, and laugh out loud at his nemeses. “I despise them,” he says. “I don’t take them seriously.”
The public angst against the Attorney General, especially by opposition politicians and lawyers, was caused by a perceived misinterpretation of the law, intended to suit the machinations of the NRM government. Nyombi, many argued, is an intelligent lawyer who knew what was right but chose to apply the law in a way that suited what his boss, the President, wished.
“They do it brilliantly, to the extent that if you do not deliver that for trial and interpretation, you may think they have done something lawful,” says Mukasa Mbidde, an MP with the East African Legislative Assembly. Nyombi’s defence is that he makes his opinions based on the law, and, that his nemeses do not address the legal concerns he raises. “When you analyse what they have said when I have written a legal opinion, none of those characters has attempted to get my legal opinion and shown me where I have gone wrong. When I express an opinion, and I have done research, you will not change my mind.”
Resultantly, MPs like Gerald Karuganga, Joseph Ssewungu and Mathias Mpuuga write him off as incompetent and not worthy of the position. His opposite number, the shadow Attorney General, Abdu Katuntu, even refuses to talk about him.
Nyombi writes them off too. About the Hon Katuntu, he says, “I used to have a lot of respect for that man. But I do not know whether I still have the same respect, somebody who goes on radio and makes me a subject every other Saturday. He is a lawyer who should have got my legal opinion on Gen Aronda and he tears it to pieces. I would appreciate that. But for someone to go on radio and make all sorts of abuses, I really despise him. I am not at that level.”
About Karuhanga, Nyombi says, “Aaah! You look at Karuhanga. He is going to court challenging the appointment of Odoki as Chief Justice. Nobody has appointed Odoki. And he is going to court. What sort of lawyer is that one?”
Asked about Ssewungu, he says, “I led a team to the UK where we won a landmark oil case, where we managed to save over $400m (about Shs1 trillion) and then you have these funny characters like Hon Ssewungu and Katuntu. Now who are these who are saying this? But, … I would not listen to somebody like Ssewungu. I had a reasonably successful practice, and I was earning a lot of money. I cannot represent characters like those ones. I really despise them.”
With subjects of as much controversy as he has recently deliberated on, Nyombi finds himself in a position of critical significance, making decisions that affect this country now, and for years to come. For a man who has spent the largest share of his career working for government law departments, his time as Attorney General, may yet turn out to be the most definitive of his public life.

Raised as an upright Christian
And yet there is more to the politician and lawyer who graces our TV screens on prime time news channels, looking important, files underarms, quoting one chapter of the law after another. Behind this public persona is a man who values his relationship with God and family, a man with unshaken resolve keen to show that he is not easily shaken.
He points to a Christian upbringing and good parenting as bearing the most influence on nurturing him.
“These were very simple parents,” he says. “My father was a headmaster of a mission school and our nearest neighbour was a reverend, the Rev Canon Waalu. He was a man of God whose life influenced me later. My father (Eriakimu Kajja) was a choirmaster, in the church. Most of us – we are supposed to be 13 children but three died – have managed to attain education, but basically because our parents gave us security, despite the fact that they did not have money.
“They brought us up as Christians. You know, quite often, children do not feel like children before their parents. For example, a father coming home and the children flee. They know terror has come back. Our father was really our father. We felt secure. The one who follows me is the vice chancellor of Uganda Christian University [Rev Canon Dr John Senyonyi]. Henry Mayega [special mobiliser for the NRM] is my young brother. But it was because our parents gave us security. We really had a happy childhood.
“My father never beat me,” he continues. “It is not that he did not rebuke us; he rebuked us. But he was a father to whom you run without fear. Our mother also rebuked us. But we had so much faith in her; we thought she was the best cook in the whole world. That is how secure we felt.”
When he left his parents’ care at the end of primary school, for a boarding school experience through teenage and puberty, Nyombi says his Christian upbringing kept him in line. “We grew up on the school campus where my father was headmaster. Secondary school was a bit strange because I was leaving my parents for the first time. But eventually, I managed to get used to school life. The background at home influenced my life. This was a strongly Christian family. I will tell you that I have never got drunk. I have tasted liquor but I have never got drunk. So the Christian background that our parents gave us was inculcated in us until I made a personal commitment.”
It is at Kings College Budo that his desire to pursue law was ignited. “When I was a child, I had a number of dreams, to either be a doctor, or an engineer or a lawyer. During my HSC, teachers gave us career guidance, and because I had taken Arts, I felt that the best option for me was law. I remember, particularly one teacher who told us that if he had the opportunity to enrol, the course he would have taken would have been law. So, I ended up going for law.”
And he does not regret his choice. “Yes, I think I am happy. It is a noble profession. It is quite rewarding. I have been in private practise and I know how rewarding it can be. It can be rewarding provided you can be honest with your clients. You need to be hardworking. Nobody will want to work with a lawyer who is lazy. You need to be honest and hardworking.”

Family man
Nyombi, married with four children, identifies himself as a family man. “I rarely take on commitments on Sunday because I want to be with my family.

I like taking them out and, having time with them, because throughout the week, I get back home a bit late,” he says. A family member, indeed, describes him as a responsible man, a determined man, a provider, a family man who cares for and protects his family. As a public figure, it was only natural that at a certain point, watching daddy in fiery exchanges with even more enraged people on the telly would start to have a toll on a family.

“My daughter came to me and said she was worried because of the things she is reading about me in the papers. Even when there was a petition that I be suspended from the law society, my daughter was worried,” Nyombi says.

How it has affected his family
Family members say that some public attacks, like the one by Ssewungu saying that the attorney general was only good enough to defend chicken thieves, were below the belt and very personal.

They, however, say that the attorney general has taught his family to develop a thick skin and to not easily be swayed by what is reported in the press. And that at times, when they have a query about a media report about him, they ask for answers and he provides them.

Nyombi strikes you as an affable character. He easily smiles and lightens the mood. He speaks slowly, in a low deep voice, which he raises to stress a point. He speaks with hand gestures, a pointed finger here, a raised arm there. And to achieve even more emphasis, he raises his eyebrows, holding your gaze with his eyes over his glasses’ rims.

Nyombi does not listen to much music or go to the theatres or watch many movies. In fact, he went to a cinema for the first time since the 1970s in May, while he was abroad. “A friend of mine decided to take me to a movie; it is called Life of Pi. It is in 3-D. In order for you to watch it, you had to put on an extra pair of glasses. That is 3-D.” Instead, he spends his leisure time reading non-fiction, especially biographical accounts. He just completed a book on President Bush.
He says the one lesson he would leave for his children is to be Christian. “I know that the best way of living life and avoiding scars that you can incur in life is by being a Christian.”

Nyombi has a rare firmness about the views he holds and the positions he takes. Often, he wanders off to assert his unwaveringness in the face of wide-ranging opposition. Phrases like “when I come out with an opinion, I will defend it irrespective of what you say” are a common utterance from him. It is something he holds dear, for it is the way he wants history to write about him.

“I want to be remembered as somebody who took bold decisions, whether the public agrees with the decisions or not.”

Peter Nyombi’s life line
I was born on April 23, 1954, to a Mr and Mrs Kajja. My father was a teacher and my mother was a full-time housewife. I attended Nakasongola Primary School. I passed quite well and went to Kings College Budo for O - Level and A - Level.
In 1973, I joined Makerere University for Law. I joined Law Development Centre and I did my diploma in Law Practice. In 1997, I joined the Ministry of Justice as a State Attorney, then, Senior State Attorney, then, Principal State Attorney, until I went to work with the Commission of Inquiry set up by the NRM government in the Prime Minister’s office.
After that, I was appointed Counsel to the Inspectorate of Government, when that office was set up. I was promoted to the Director, Legal Affairs, in the IGG’s office. This is when I retired from the IGG. Eventually, I went into private practice, until I was elected MP for Nakasongola Constituency, which I normally refer to as Palestine; because there is milk and honey.
I am married with one wife. She is a teacher and works as Director of Training at TASO. We have four children, two girls and two boys.