In Oulanyah’s death, tribalism rears its ugly head

Speaker of Parliament Anita Among pays tribute to her fallen boss Jacob Oulanyah at Parliament this week. PHOTO | DAVID LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • What should have been a week of mourning and reflection turned into a regrettable display of political self-seeking and the return of some old ghosts of tribalism and ethnic sentiment, Timothy Kalyegira writes.

The death last Sunday, March 20, of the Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, after several months of deteriorating health, dominated the national discussion and mood all week.

A physically big man, given to riding a monstrous BMW motorcycle, a keen debater with a love of flair and somewhat naive in his political idealism, he was from his student days at Makerere University in the late 1980s in his element in political discourse, campaigning and legislation.

What should have been a week of mourning and reflection turned into a regrettable display of political self-seeking and the return of some old ghosts of tribalism and ethnic sentiment.

The first ugly part was an unfortunate oversight in the Constitution that requires the physical presence of a Speaker in the National Assembly building for a parliamentary plenary session to carry the force of law.

It did not occur to the makers of the Constitution to wonder what happens in the event that the parliamentary sitting is to eulogise one of its own members, the Speaker.

Since Parliament could not sit formally without a Speaker in place, it forced a politically and culturally awkward situation on the country, with some of Oulanyah’s colleagues simultaneously mourning his death and engaging in an unseemly heated contest to succeed him.

Many Acholi political voices, including some Members of Parliament, publicly called for the position of Speaker to be “ring-fenced” for Acholi.

When the governor of Bank of Uganda, the country’s central bank, died earlier this year, there were also calls for that position to be set aside for his fellow Bakiga tribesmen.

For many years, after all, goes the reasoning, it was an unstated political rule that the vice president under President Museveni should be a Muganda or a Roman Catholic, preferably both, therefore why not apply the same rule to positions held by other tribes?

As ridiculous as this sounds, it reflected a powerful strand in Ugandan and African politics: Identify matters more than anything else.

Just to know that somebody from one’s tribe, religion or region holds a high office in the government is enough for most who share that person’s identity to feel fully represented in national life.

And when that person is criticised or ridiculed, a large section of the person’s religious or ethnic community feels deeply offended.

This we saw in remarks by Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo caught on video during a vigil in memory of Oulanyah.

Some activists of the National Unity Platform (NUP) in the US city of Seattle had gathered outside the hospital where Oulanyah was admitted and protested this misuse of public funds.

Their point was not that they felt no sympathy for Oulanyah the individual, but why instead of building a healthcare system in Uganda accessible to all and affordable for at least most the NRM government has made it a new normal to fly prominent government and military officials abroad for treatment at the taxpayers’ expense.

The problem is that by the circumstances of NUP’s founding and history, most NUP members and supporters happen to be Baganda, the same way the pioneering NRA officers in the early 1980s just happened to be Banyankore, Banyarwanda and Bakiga from western Uganda.

This, however, is not the way Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo saw it.

To him, here were Baganda chauvinists insensitively heckling the critically ill Oulanyah just because he was an Acholi and “does not speak your language”.

In those comments could be felt the pent-up anger and disgust not only rooted in tensions between Baganda and Acholi dating back to the May 1966 clashes between the central government and the Mengo government.

It also stemmed from the first 20 years of the NRM government from 1986 to 2006 when Acholi felt Baganda either were indifferent to the Acholi plight at the hands of an avenging NRA/UPDF army or privately felt the Acholi deserved the fate that had befallen them because of their actual or perceived brutality meted out on Baganda between 1966 and 1971 and 1979 and 1986.

The Chief Justice, understandably, missed the point being raised by the NUP activists in Seattle; but this, for its part, showed the image problem that NUP still struggles with and that’s why it urgently needs to make a priority of expanding beyond Buganda into the other regions for it to shake off the perception that it is a Ganda nationalist political party and little more.

As former Aruu County MP Odonga Otto stated in a post on the social media site Twitter on Thursday, March 24, “I can say with utmost political certainty that after [the] USA Seattle [demonstration] that was misunderstood and the subsequent death of Speaker Oulanyah, the one man war of Nobert Mao and the later remarks of the CJ [Chief Justice], NUPs political fate in the North is just awaiting political burial.”

A secondary stream in this perceived Acholi-Baganda tiff had been flowing during the previous seven or so years.

L-R: Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo, Information minister Chris Baryomunsi and newly elected Deputy Speaker of Parliament Thomas Tayebwa at Speaker Emeritus Jacob Oulanyah’s Kampala home this week.

Norbert Mao, president of the Democratic Party and like Owiny-Dollo, an Acholi, had been facing growing dissent in the DP by party Members of Parliament and other officials questioning both his competence and his loyalty to the party.

Of the latter, there were persistent rumours within DP circles that Mao was secretly on the payroll of the NRM state.

In his defence, Mao claimed that his rise to the presidency of DP had been opposed from the start by DP stalwarts from Buganda who resented the idea of the DP -- Uganda’s oldest political party and founded in the heartland of Buganda, Masaka Town in Buddu County -- being led by a non-Muganda, let alone an Acholi.

Matters came to a head when People Power pressure group was founded in 2018, followed by the founding of NUP in 2020.

DP MPs defected to NUP, leaving behind a hollowed-out DP and an embittered Mao.

Against this acrimonious background, Mao since late last year has taken to criticising NUP, leading to counter-criticism by NUP, and it has now turned into an all-out war of words between NUP and Mao.

For reasons already explained in the incident of the Chief Justice, some Acholi view this tension between Mao and NUP as a Baganda resentment of northerners and Acholi.

The lesson here is that it is going to be a long while before Ugandan society gets to the place where jobs in government and the public sector generally are awarded on technical merit and the public accepts this as it is.

Only in the selection of Uganda’s Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games teams and, to a degree, the national football team, the Cranes, is there a broad acceptance in Uganda that this all came down to merit and there is no bickering and bitterness over it.

The Acholi, more than any other Ugandans, take this matter of attacks on their prominent kinsfolk really seriously. They endured the longest-running civil war in Ugandan history, lasting from 1986 to 2006.

Their rural population was huddled into grass thatch huts in internally displaced people’s camps.

Raids on these camps by the Acholi-led Lord’s Resistance Army rebels and in many recorded instances by elements of the Ugandan army, left scars and trauma beyond description.

Acholi as a region was metaphorically left for dead over those 20 years, pushed to the margins of Uganda’s political life.

And so, to the Acholi all this matters in a very personal way.

The Acholi, it should be borne in mind, were the tribe who through the coup led by Lt Gen Bazillio Okello in July 1985 toppled the government of President Milton Obote and installed the army commander, Gen Tito Okello, as head of State until his six-month tenure in power was cut short by Yoweri Museveni’s NRA forces in January 1986.

To see some of their fellow Acholi rise from this trauma into positions of prominence in Kampala, from Mao to Oulanyah, Owiny-Dollo, the former Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Morris Ogenga-Latigo and Betty Aol Ocan, the former president of the Uganda Peoples Congress party Olara Otunnu, the late Maj Gen Paul Lokech, former commander of Uganda’s peacekeeping troops in Somalia and the current secretary general of the ruling NRM party Richard Todwong -- all this means so much to them, more than similar prominence means to any other ethnic group.

For the Acholi to once again become a focus of controversy in national politics after coming close for 20 years to being wiped off the face of Uganda’s political map is, in itself, not only one of the major themes of the past week but one of the great political comeback stories in recent East African history.

Hence Owiny-Dollo’s lashing out at NUP activists in America; Mao’s social media fight with NUP; and more.

This leads us to another theme of the past week: The circumstances of the death of Oulanyah. The Acholi paramount chief, Oulanyah’s own father, and many more voices came out to demand an independent and credible report into the cause of death.

Oulanyah’s father stated last year that his son had intimated foul play, specifically an act of poisoning or chemical agent.

Ever since the death in May 2007 of the Permanent Secretary for Defence, Brig Noble Mayombo, and the rumours that he was poisoned, it has become mainstream belief and assumption in Uganda that prominent government officials and high-ranking military officers seen as a threat to the powers that be either die of poisoning or under other dark circumstances.

That people can genuinely die of illness or in car accidents is now dismissed at first reporting; to the Ugandan public, the default explanation of all deaths of prominent politicians is assassination unless otherwise independently investigated, preferably by any agency not connected with the NRM government.

Government, then, has a lot of work to do over the next few days and months to convince the Acholi in particular that Oulanyah died of a long-standing health complication.

It has been nearly impossible, already, for many to believe that the “Lion of Mogadishu”, Lt Gen Lokech, in the prime of his life like Oulanyah, just somehow developed a mild health condition and died last year.

Likewise, it will also be a hurdle for NUP to heal the damage caused by its war of words with Mao as they seek to break out from their Buganda region power base to seek broader national support from northern Uganda.

This was the week that was, a week that served to remind the country of the many ethnic fault lines along which its sits.