How information gap over Oulanyah health left public guessing

Speaker Oulanyah’s sister-in-law Stella Ayo cleans his portrait as she pays tribute to him at a vigil at his home in Muyenga, Kampala, yesterday. PHOTOS / MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI. 

What you need to know:

  • Three days after President Museveni, in a tweet on Sunday, announced that the Speaker of the 11th Parliament had passed on in Seattle, Washington, there still is no information about the cause of death and when he died.

The ailing and eventual death overseas of Parliament Speaker Jacob Oulanyah amid an information black hole has raised questions about what officials knew but failed to communicate, about him to citizens, including his voters.

As head of the Legislature, one of the three arms of government, Oulanyah in life was the third-highest ranked citizen in the country under the national order of precedence.

Three days after President Museveni, in a tweet on Sunday, announced that the Speaker of the 11th Parliament had passed on in Seattle, Washington, there still is no information about the cause of death and when he died.

The announcement came to a couple of days after an emergency delegation that the government dispatched to Seattle returned, without saying anything publicly while there and upon return offering what turned out accounts with differing details.

By this time, an unknown person had already edited Oulanyah’s Wikipedia profile to reflect that he had died on March 14, something vehemently denied in Kampala. There is no evidence that anyone in Uganda spoke to him from that day on.

Upon return, Deputy Speaker Anita Among, who led the delegation, on March 18, tweeted that Oulanyah was “receiving and responding to treatment”.

On the team that flew to the US on March 14, moments after Ms Among abruptly adjourned Parliament sitting indefinitely, was Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo, Democratic Party President Norbert Mao, Health minister Ruth Aceng and Oulanyah’s brother Francis Emuna.

On the same day of Ms Among’s tweet, Mr Mao simply tweeted that he and others were at the facility where Oulanyah was admitted and “a man who is very ill deserves our prayers. Above all let’s respect his privacy”.

However, it is what officials who visited the US said upon Oulanyah’s death that has revealed what previously appeared covered up, leading them to contradict one another.

At a vigil at Oulanyah’s home in Muyenga, an upscale Kampala suburb, Minister Aceng said in the more than a month that he was in the US hospital, Oulanyah never received the “actual treatment” for his ailment because the doctors were trying to “stabilise” him.

This account contradicted the one by Ms Among that Oulanyah was “receiving and responding to treatment”.

These high-profile officials, alongside Oulanyah’s brother Emuna, have spoken but without disclosing the cause of his death, a silence made worse by claims on Sunday by the former Speaker’s father, Mr Nathan Okori, that his son did not die of a natural cause but was “poisoned”.

Information minister Chris Baryomunsi told this newspaper that Mr Okori’s allegation should be “ignored”, while Presidency minister Milly Babalanda, in a statement issued yesterday, noted that she had telephoned the deceased Speaker’s father, who “expressed willingness to work with the government in order to have this befitting send-off” for Oulanyah.

What, however, remains unclear is what exactly happened in Seattle during the visit of the Among-led delegation; when did they see Oulanyah, what was his condition, was he on life support as reported, what did the specialist doctors tell them about Oulanyah’s condition?

 If he was “responding to treatment”, why was Mr Mao, who is now expected to accompany Oulanyah’s body, remained in the United States as other members caught the return flight?

In initial accounts to confidants, some of the officials upon return had indicated that they spoke to the Speaker, but that claim has since been debunked by the narrative, including by his brother Emuna, that he was in comma.

What has been consistent in the update is that tears rolled down the Speaker’s cheeks, but it was unclear whether this was a result of pain that he was enduring or due to the sight of common faces by his bedside.

In the course of his admission, reports emerged that Oulanyah asked to see “my people” after his closest staff at work --- including welfare, spokesperson and security head --- were not allowed to travel with him.

It remains unclear whether his children, some of who live in the United States, visited him, although President Museveni in the Sunday tweet said he delayed to announce the Speaker’s death by more than two hours to allow his children to be notified first.

Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo, a childhood friend of Oulanyah, has not publicly spoken about the trip and our repeated efforts over the past three days to reach him have been unsuccessful.

The disparate information led to a passionate conversation between Ms Among and Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja during a meeting last Sunday afternoon to plan the funeral and burial arrangements.

Sources that attended the meeting at Parliament conference hall said Ms Among, the chairperson, appeared to relay ostensibly from Oulanyah, but others disputed the information.

She reportedly proposed that Oulanyah’s children be taken care of, but the premier is said to have reminded her that her past proposition that government gives then Bank of Uganda Governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile’s official residence to his family because they had nowhere to go “embarrassed” government.

Parliament spokesperson Chris Obore last night said the recollections of what transpired in that meeting had been laced with political intent, and that Ms Among simply said the Speaker had been a friend and his children cannot be abandoned --- sentiments also expressed by other leaders.

Butembe County MP David Zijjan, who is the dean of Independent lawmakers and attended the Sunday meeting, yesterday said there was no clash between Ms Among and Ms Nabbanja.

“Ms Among appealed to the government not to forget Jacob’s family. The Prime Minister only added that it should be categorically clear that they aren’t asking for favours from the government as was the case during the death of Governor Mutebile,” he said.

MP Zijjan said Ms Among’s statement to the MPs, in what he described as an informal meeting, was as a result of the emotional meltdown she experienced after returning from visiting Oulanyah in hospital.

The Deputy Speaker reportedly also proposed that Parliament leads the preparation for Oulanyah’s funeral and burial programmes, and the meetings be held at Parliament, but President Museveni tapped Presidency minister Babalanda to head the process.

Mr Obore told this newspaper by telephone last night that the failure to provide information or updates about Oulanyah and his health was intentional, and out of respect for his privacy.

“It was agreed that a communication protocol that respects [Oulanyah’s] privacy is observed; so, you could not talk about his illness. This was to avoid a breach of his rights and disinformation because one’s health is a confidential matter.”

The home of Speaker Oulanyah in Muyenga, Kampala, yesterday. 

The information black hole began last year when the Speaker fell ill barely a month after his election last May and disappeared from the public eye. Neither Parliament nor the government explained his whereabouts.

When the questions intensified amid reports that he was down with Covid, Mr Obore said the Speaker was in the United Kingdom to visit a son, Uganda Radio Network reported on June 24.

This, however, did not tamp down the public curiosity, prompting widely-circulated rumours that the Omoro County Member of Parliament and ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party national vice chairman for Northern Uganda, had died. 

Oulanyah returned and resumed work on July 29 and appeared visibly irritated about claims of his demise, questioning “what is wrong with us (Ugandans)”.

He looked leaner, frail and darker.

After chairing a handful of sessions, the whereabouts of the Speaker again became a matter of public speculation after he vanished.

It later emerged that he had been booked at Mulago National Referral Hospital, but there was again no official confirmation by Parliament or the government about a man in top echelons of government that his unexplained absence would be noticeable and spark curiosity. 

With the Christmas and New Year festivities’ distraction over, and Oulanyah still missing, information intensified that he was ill at home.

By this time, close associates said he had been forcibly taken to hospital from his home in Muyenga, a Kampala suburb, where by some accounts he had chosen to stay after giving up on life.

Highly-placed sources told this newspaper that following reports that the Speaker’s health was deteriorating, President Museveni ordered him to be taken for specialist care abroad.

No official or institution disclosed the illness, leading to speculation that he was suffering from cancer.

A decision was made to fly him to the University of Washington Medical Centre in the US Pacific city of Seattle and Health minister Ruth Aceng revealed after Oulanyah’s death, that the only other two countries in the world where his condition could have been handled were France and Germany.

However, all government communications did not indicate in which hospital the Speaker was admitted, which is a marked departure from previous cases where officials have disclosed the facilities to which prominent figures have been admitted to.

A minimum 17-hour direct flight to the United States, and in the case of the February 14 trip with the Speaker, in a commercial Uganda Airlines plane not retrofitted as an air ambulance meant the duration for accessing specialist care was significantly delayed, yet the intention of chartering a plane was to enable him to reach the best medical facility faster.

By contrast, the government would have saved up to 10 hours if Oulanyah, who was in a state that could not enable him to influence decisions, was for instance rushed to any of the two European countries.

Minister Aceng, speaking at a vigil at the former Speaker’s home in Muyenga, said they opted for the farthest location --- in Seattle Washington --- because the technology required for treating Oulanyah was discovered there.

Without disclosing the ailment, it remained difficult to ascertain the veracity of the minister’s claim.

However, the evacuation of the Parliament head was overshadowed by acrimonious debate, mostly on social media, about the cost of chartering the plan which reportedly grossed $500,000 (Shs1.8b).

Some argued that the money, if invested in a hospital in Uganda, or even in the Speaker’s home district, would enable installation of high-tech devices that Ugandan specialists require to handle complicated health conditions, including the one that prompted Oulanyah to be flown abroad.

The vile comments riled particularly MPs from Acholi sub-region, who threatened to refund the money, which they did not do.

Democratic Party president Norbert Mao, a close friend of the Speaker, came out with guns blazing and said the expenditure on Oulanyah could perhaps be a “drop in the ocean”, calling on the government to publish records of tax payers’ money spent on treating government officials and relatives overseas.

Again, neither Parliament nor the government issued any statement, allowing the unverified claims to gain traction.

Uganda Airlines spokesperson Shakirah Rahim, in an article published in this newspaper’s weekend last Sunday, stepped in to calm the turbulent waters by arguing that the purported expenses for the charter of the Airbus A330-800 neo had been exaggerated, but is declining to provide the actual cost left the allegation alive.