Slyvester Onzivua, a man of many talents

Friday January 18 2013

Slyvester Onzivua, a man of many talents

Dr Sylvester Onzivua explaining his predicament to worshippers at Christ the King Church in Arua on January 6. File Photo. 

By Tabu Butagira

He did not at first sight strike as an embodiment of controversy or humour.

But at this point, interdicted Mulago Hospital pathologist Sylvester Onzivua looked meek, his sharp high pitched voice contrasting his stout physique. The grey short-sleeved Kaunda suit that he wore showed an orderly man of a generation past.

He sat put on a wooden office chair, leaning his back to the wall, and rested his right elbow on the edge of a paper-littered top of a police commander’s office desk.

It was on December 19, and inside the offices of the deputy Commandant of the Kireka-headquartered Special Investigations Unit (SIU), when I first met the scientist. He had abruptly been cast into the limelight over the polarising death, on December 15, 2012, of youthful Butaleja Woman legislator Cerinah Nebanda.

Dr Onzivua unknowingly swallowed a poisoned chalice when he accepted Parliament’s assignment for him to fly out samples extracted from Nebanda’s body for toxicological analysis in South Africa to establish the exact cause of death of the 24-year-old. The government took exception, protesting that the pathologist had not followed the right procedure, and Police captured him as he was trying to catch a plane at Entebbe airport, returned him to Kampala and detained him overnight at its crack unit’s Kireka facility.

That dramatic action triggered an avalanche of unprecedented publicity about the pathologist, whose mundane job of opening up and examining dead bodies, was hardly media fodder.

All that changed on an eventful December 19. At SIU’s heavily-guarded gate, a battery of journalists marooned in a drizzle by uncompromising riot police, jerked to life when a group of Members of Parliament led by Chris Baryomunsi and Kassiano Wadri, showed up to address them.

The lawmakers, fresh from seeing Dr Onzivua in police cells, sauntered through the fortified gate boisterously; the wind scattered their oversize jackets on the sides and swayed the long ties in one direction, casting a pattern of command and seemingly choreographed walk of rotund men.

When attention focused on the media briefing, I somehow sneaked in and accessed Dr Onzivua, whom I found chit-chatting about his predicament with State Local Government Minister Alex Onzima, also MP representing Maracha.

The pathologist appeared resigned to fate. His ambivalent apology, upon discharge, following President Museveni’s outburst did not surprise.

Once incarcerated, Dr Onzivua’s enviable qualifications did not matter. Power or authority did. Detectives at Kireka ordered the haggard doctor around, the fact that he trained most of them in forensic (medical) investigations notwithstanding.

There somehow was manifest unease.One detective told me on condition of anonymity that keeping Onzivua in custody “complicated” their work and another volunteered that they were like an electric wire – conveying current it never originates! In Ugandan political parlance, they were executing “orders from above”.

In some ways, the suspect’s handling was more respectful, even privileged. There was a feeling of “our teacher” among officers responsible for his confinement.

Who is this pathologist?
But who is Dr Onzivua, thrust in the public eye in the stormy aftermath of Nebanda’s demise?

The forensic pathologist was born in Arua District’s Terego County some 49 years ago - on December 15, 1963. He was actually taken into police custody shortly after observing his 49th birthday.

His father passed on when he was a child, and he was reportedly raised by their aunt Christine Kania, who later perished in a Kampala head-on car collision with former Vice President Gad Wilson Toko.

If fate took away the shine from baby Onzivua, nature bestowed upon him an invisible and immeasurable treasure.

“He was an extremely gifted guy, very brilliant,” said journalist Charles Opolot, who was in a room neighbouring Onzivua’s Room A215 in Lumumba Hall at Makerere University in the late 1980s. Both men in 1988 lived in the Hall’s Block B before relocating to Block A.

“His way of doing things was unique and funny,” Mr Opolot said of a medical student who could hardly revise without loud music pounding his ears. “He had two things for his pastime: Drama and music. Whenever students headed to the library, he would study in his room while playing loud music and I wondered what type of medical student this was.”

Mr Opolot is now the director for communications and public relations at the Najjanankumbi-based Uganda Local Government Association (ULGA) and had not crossed paths with former hall-mate until he saw the medic’s pictures on local TV stations.

A very bright student
Many at the university had thought Onzivua would fail his demanding course like many of his colleagues. He didn’t and instead graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree in June 1992.

The man had his brilliance cut out from childhood. In 1976, he emerged the best Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) candidate in Arua town, earning a scholarship to for his Ordinary-level studies. The liberation war punctuated his studies at St. Charles Lwanga SS Koboko, and a determined Onzivua shifted to Busoga College Mwiri (1982/83), emerging the best O-level student in Jinja District. He would enroll at King’s College Budo in 1984 from where he passed to crack the under-graduate medicine course.

If his rather eccentric behaviour on campus perplexed, that he turned out and practiced journalism blows calming freshness into his multi-talented nature. While an intern at Nsambya Hospital in early 1990s, the budding medical officer moonlighted as a columnist for then The Monitor newspaper (now Daily Monitor), authoring the humourous “Rib Cracker” column under a pseudo-byline.

Friends say it is hard to hold conversation, however short, with him without bursting into laughter. But Onzivua also is a resolute man. Perhaps the pious way in which he explained his predicament over Nebanda’s death at a Sunday prayer in account to worshippers at Christ the King Church in Arua, tells of his grit.

“I’m glad that I was arrested on a journey in the quest to find out the truth [about the MP’s sudden demise],” he said, “Despite all the tribulations I am going through, I find peace in Christ; I have confidence in the Lord and that is what has given me strength and confidence to-date.” Not easy words from a professional interdicted after being charged in court.

President Museveni appointed Dr Onzivua, who holds a Master’s degree in Medicine (Pathology) from Makerere University and a Diploma in Forensic Pathology of the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa, a Consultant Pathologist at Mulago Hospital on November 17, 2010.

Since then, he has executed his job with distinction, often consulting for the World Health Organisation and United Nations Population Fund Activities on sexual and gender-based violence besides being honourary lecturer in the Department of Pathology at Makerere’s College of Health Sciences.

Those who know the doctor say he has sometimes a boiling spirit of activism, even a stubborn character. A harsh environment can breed a determined, even successful, soul.

Dr Onzivua became such a poster-child. He has emerged from the ruins of a deprived childhood to excel in a profession short on local and regional experts.

Before the politically-charged controversies surrounding Nebanda’s demise led to a pause in his practice, and stretched to sully his reputation, Dr Onzivua was a stellar name in medical and forensic autopsies, clinical forensic examinations, histological diagnosis, mentoring junior pathologists, and extending support supervision to other doctors in the field. He has been the Ministry of Health lead pathologist on finding the cause of nodding disease and was due to fly to Centres for Disease Control laboratories at Atlanta, on January 5, to make conclusive tests to establish the cause of the disease. Because of his interdiction, work on that has been halted. Previously, he was also the Ministry of Health lead pathologist on yellow fever.

His credits
Onzivua has been credited for revising the Uganda Police Form for recording evidence regarding sexual and gender-based violence cases; establishing Mulago’s Forensic Clinic for free services to rape survivors and victims of child abuse as well as providing expert evidence in the Courts of Law; training of lawyers, judicial officers and police officers in investigation and prosecution of medico-legal cases.

At the time police incarcerated him during the Christmas week, they required his expertise and testimony in dozens of ongoing murder and defilement cases, positioning the Force in a catch-22 situation.

It is like the drama Dr Onzivua loved to act on stage resurrected to replay in his adult and professional life in a snide and regrettable episode.

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