Omoro’s finest export goes to rest

Speaker Jacob Oulanyah with daughter at the swearing-in ceremony at Parliament in May last year. Photo/David Lubowa

What you need to know:

  • Gifted with a unique sense of humour and wit, Oulanyah melted his peers with his persona that morphed from a critic to a government darling.

Mr Jacob Oulanyah fought two key battles in the past 10 months; one against his boss, then-Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, over stewardship of the 11th Parliament. Running as the ruling NRM party candidate, he won with a margin of 113 votes.
 The election followed an acrimonious campaign in which President Museveni, also the party leader, had taken sides and confessed to telephoning several party MPs and asked them to vote for Mr Oulanyah. The new Speaker was magnanimous in victory. 

 “This particular election has been challenging. As a result, expectations are high, fears and uncertainties exist but together we should build friendship, mend the bridges and work together,” he promised.
 Oulanyah also pledged to provide a leadership that would ensure accommodation and tolerance. 
“We should agree that no view shall be suppressed and work with tolerance. We should act in a harmonious way. We have collective responsibility. I promise to provide leadership through this and walk the talk,”  the speaker said.

 But inside him, a second battle was looming. It wasn’t clear then, but his health was failing and Oulanyah was about to enter what would-be a fight for his life.
 After presiding over Budget Day on June 10, 2021, the new Speaker fell out of public view. This triggered widespread speculation and debate about his health, fuelled in part by the coronavirus pandemic raging at the time.
 Mr Chris Obore, Parliament’s director for communications, confirmed that Oulanyah had flown to the United Kingdom but set out to allay public fears. 
“The Speaker is well and having time with his children after going through a long campaign,” he said.

 Mr Oulanyah subsequently returned to Parliament on July 29 and was on hand to preside over, among others, the debate on the National Social Security Fund (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which allows qualified early access to pensions.
 “Today, I will breathe,” Speaker Oulanyah said in November after the Bill passed. “I have been getting phone calls from the workers of this country. Parliament has delivered on the Bill and the workers can now have mid-term access of 20 percent of their savings.”

Storms in Parliament
As deputy Speaker, Oulanyah had not always breathed easily. He presided over some controversial Bills and had several run-ins with Ms Kadaga and some MPs. 
The uneasy relationship with Ms Kadaga came to the fore late in 2013 when he accused her of always setting him up to preside over controversial debates.
 The accusation, delivered during a talk show on Kfm radio, followed the passing in August 2013 of the Public Order Management Bill (POMB) and before it, the Petroleum (Exploration, Development and Production) Bill, in November 2012.

 The deputy Speaker suspended MPs Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, Samuel Odonga Otto, Theodore Ssekikubo, and Angeline Osegge, for three consecutive sittings during debate on the Public Order Management Bill . 
He said the suspensions would only be lifted if they apologised.
 On October 2, 2013, during a debate on the Public Order Management Bill, he suspended proceedings for 10 minutes because a suspended member, Mr Nganda, was in attendance. When the MP refused to leave the House, Mr Oulanyah ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms to have him removed.

 The suspended MPs refused to apologise and the deputy Speaker apologised on their behalf and lifted the suspensions. 
 More disagreements with his boss were to follow. On December 19, 2014, he ruled that Parliament would not consider any matters related to Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) unless its leadership problems had been resolved, but on April 8, 2015, Ms Kadaga, presiding, allowed the presentation of the KCCA ministerial policy statement.

 By June 2020 relations between the two top House officials had sunk even lower. A month earlier, Parliament, presided over by Ms Kadaga had passed a motion expressing displeasure in Mr Oulanyah for returning Shs20 million given to MPs to fight Covid-19, but which had raised a public uproar.
Oulanyah, who had last chaired Parliament on February 4, appeared during a plenary session and sought to defend himself on the floor as any MP would be entitled to, but Ms Kadaga declined to let him speak. It was not the first time his mouth was bringing him to the spotlight.
 READ: Speaker Oulanyah burial programme expected on Tuesday


A history of activism
Oulanyah’s power of oratory first came to the fore in the early 1980s during debates as a student at Dr Obote College Boroboro and St Joseph’s College Layibi. He would later become president of the National Union of Students of Uganda (NUSU).

 In 1990 he was elected Speaker of the Students’ Guild at Makerere University where  Norbert Mao, later to become an MP, presidential candidate and leader of the Democratic Party, was elected guild president.
 The election came shortly after government, basing on the recommendations of the Prof Ssenteza Kajubi’s 1987 Education Review Commission, scrapped ‘boom’, a stipend paid to university students.

 The initial demand to reinstate the stipend had earlier been led by Mr Wilbrod Owor, but it was taken over by the new student leadership. 
Police responded to the protest organised at the university and two students, Thomas Okema and Tom Onyango, were shot dead. Oulanyah was left with a ruptured spleen.
 “I was shot on December 10, 1990. I still have a bullet lodged in my body. My journey has been a tough one,” he told his Law Development Centre class of 1998/1999.

 That injury is believed to have been the cause of the virulence with which he along with other politicians of his generation from northern Uganda criticised the NRA/M, which was at the time battling the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group.
 A card-carrying member of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), his successful run in 2001 for the Omoro County parliamentary seat was as an Independent since political parties were still under a legal ban. 
When he ran for re-election in 2006 on the UPC ticket after the return of multiparty politics, he lost.
 
Pivot to NRM
UPC, which ruled the country twice under Milton Obote was the party of his father-in-law, Abner Nangwale, who was the minister of Works during the Obote II regime. His daughter, Dorothy, was Oulanyah’s first wife.
 By the time he announced his decision to quit UPC in July 2006, many believed that Mr Oulanyah was already close to the NRM. 

As chairperson of the Seventh Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs, he played a key role in removing the two-term limit on the presidency from the Constitution.
 In 2011 he ran – on an NRM ticket – and recaptured his Omoro seat. He was rewarded with the post of deputy Speaker. The Forum for Democratic Change’s Simon Toolit, who had beaten him in 2006, unsuccessfully petitioned court alleging fraud in Oulanyah’s victories in 2011 and 2016.
 Secure within the NRM ranks, Oulanyah went from virulent critic to praise singer. 

“President Museveni is like Jesus Christ who left his comfort zone of heaven and opted to come down to earth to die for sinners,” he gushed in August 2015 during a public event in Kabale.  “There was a time in Uganda where people had no right of worship. Thanks to President Museveni and the NRM government that ushered in peace and security and promoting right of worship.” 
 On January 30, 2019, during a fundraising at a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Kampala, he equated Mr Museveni to a magician. “From that time [1986] to today, we have had one president; we haven’t had any military coup. Is this man a magician? How has he been able to pull it together? All this confusion, and restructuring of our country called Uganda, make it peaceful... Strange things happened when Museveni became president... strange things are happening in this country.” 

 Sometimes his words left many uncomfortable. On December 4, 2019, when President Museveni led an anti-corruption walk in Kampala, Mr Oulanyah declared that everyone in government was corrupt, but some only pretended not to be.
When he spoke, Mr Museveni felt compelled to set the record straight. “I have never stolen, but I am rich,” he said. “I have never stolen anything from anybody, but I am also not a poor man.”
 In August 2021 during the funeral of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, Lt Gen Paul Lokech, Oulanyah inadvertently fuelled speculation around the circumstances of his passing. 


 “I have heard some people here saying the cause of death should not be disclosed, but the doctors are here and they know well how it came about,” he said. “They must tell the people now how a small injury in the leg down the body there can all of a sudden kill someone. They must tell us, and they must explain very well how a small injury can later kill [Lokech], a giant. You swallowed fire in Mogadishu, rockets and grenades would explode around you, but you survived all of them and then an unbelievably small thing brings you down!” 
 If things were dramatic on the political front, it wasn’t all quiet on the home front either. After the sudden death of Dorothy in August 2009, Mr Oulanyah remarried Ms Winnie Amoo Okot in January 2013.
 
 However, three years in, he filed for divorce, accusing her of ‘abandoning’ their marital home and denying him conjugal rights. 
The marriage was dissolved after both parties agreed that it was irredeemable. 
Oulanyah, who won many political battles, lost the fight for his life in an American hospital yesterday. 
 


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