Oulanyah provided the gold standard as a backbencher

Fallen Speaker Jacob Oulanyah (centre) chats with Justice Remmy Kasule (2nd left) during the launch of the probono project of Uganda Law Society in Kampala on June 28, 2019. PHOTO / ABUBAKER LUBOWA  

What you need to know:

  • As the country mourns, the Omoro County MP’s legacy should be defined beyond his short-lived position as Speaker or deputy Speaker of Parliament where he played a fringe-role for a decade under the shadow of then Speaker Rebecca Kadaga.

Jacob Oulanyah is among the notable people who graced the corridors of Parliament as a lawmaker.

A great orator, he used colourful metaphors to glean the struggles of the downtrodden and to soothe the pain of suffering communities huddled in internally displaced people’s camps (IDPs) across northern Uganda, escaping roaming Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel bands.

A student leader at Makerere University, in the early 1990s, Oulanyah took part in student uprisings and embodied the spirit of defiance shaped by violent police repressions.

Bruised and battered during pitched battles with police, he felt a sense of a searing flame of withering injustice towards those on the margins of society in his early days of legal practice.

Among his clients were Candida Lakony, a woman who accused Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers of sexually abusing her inside Gulu Barracks.

He also represented James Fred Okello, who was charged with forgery of a UPDF identity card.

Okello had earlier on been sacked from the Forestry Department after allegedly impounding timber belonging to then Lands, Water and Environment minister Kahinda Otafiire, who denied the accusations.

Later on, President Museveni’s then legal assistant, Fox Odoi, revealed that he deployed “Captain” Okello to work in the forestry department because he had useful information on senior government officials involved in illegal timber trade.

As the country mourns, the Omoro County MP’s legacy should be defined beyond his short-lived position as Speaker or deputy Speaker of Parliament where he played a fringe-role for a decade under the shadow of then Speaker Rebecca Kadaga.

Sieving the records of the Hansard, Oulanyah stood out as a lawmaker during the Seventh Parliament, where he provided the gold standard of a backbencher.

Then a member of the UPC party, Mr Oulanyah was elected as an MP in 2001. He represented a war-weary constituency in the Acholi sub-region, the epicentre of the Joseph-Kony-led LRA insurgency.

Alongside his colleagues from the war-affected areas, he was among the strident voices that demanded answers from the government on the unending suffering of his electorate and the war that had brought misery and mayhem in the north.

“Mr Speaker, what has happened in northern Uganda should not be allowed to happen in any other part of this country, even—Rwakitura. It should be recorded in history that when the time was bad and the threats were clear, this Parliament of Uganda stood up to change it,” argued Oulanyah during a plenary in the Seventh Parliament.

Oulanyah advocated for a return to multi-party politics, which had been shackled under the Movement system.

UPC diehard

A surrogate of UPC leaders Cecilia Ogwal and Badru Wegulo, he traversed the grassroots of northern Uganda to preach the gospel of pluralism.

During debate in the House on a motion seeking to introduce multi-party politics in 2004, Oulanyah argued: “Mr Speaker, I stand here with a double obligation of both being a lawyer, whose master is the law, and by oath, a solemnly declaration I made before God. The Constitution is what we must defend. From the Constitution emanate bodies of law that govern every aspect of our lives in this society, and any law that is inconsistent with it cannot stand even for a second, whether it is an Act of Parliament, a provision passed by the local government or even our Rules of Procedure as Parliament; if they are inconsistent with the Constitution, they are invalid to the extent of inconsistency.”

The Hansard further quotes Oulanyah: “Mr Speaker, it brings me to the question of the matter we are examining now. The motion that has been proposed, does it threaten, violate any provisions of the laws that govern this country? I say no! The motion that has been brought does not violate any law.  Why do I say so? The motion that has been brought is based on rules that have been found to be consistent with the Constitution. I have a double obligation to defend this Constitution.”

He also spoke about the systemic violence that had stained the 2001 General Election, where Opposition doyen Kizza Besigye and his supporters had been subjected to severe episodes of violence.

Parliament was then undecided on whether to sanction a House Select Committee or a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to probe election violence.

“We are a House of representatives, and we represent people who have grave concerns about the way elections are conducted in this country. We represent people who have been beaten, had their hands broken, some have been killed, others up to today have not voted and they have not been elected,” he argued, adding: “We have grave concerns. The resistance that the Executive is meeting in this House must be a wake-up call to the Executive that there is a problem. The laxity with which the Executive responds to the concerns of this country is what is brewing this problem.”

The House later appointed then MP Augustine Nshimye to chair a select committee. However, upon completion of the task, the report—which constituted incontrovertible evidence on election violence—was shelved and Mr Nshimye was appointed to a ministerial position and today, he serves as a Justice of the Supreme Court.

Human rights defender

Oulanyah also spoke about egregious human rights abuses.

“Mr Speaker, Uganda has developed a dependable system of criminal justice.  As a moral obligation not to abandon this system for political expediency, investigations, arrests, charge, prosecution, speed trial are the cornerstones which will restore confidence in the people. The systems, which we have established, have the capacity to resolve conflicts peacefully and lawfully.

“Once we lose this confidence, Mr Speaker, we shall resort to resolving our conflicts through unlawful and mostly violent methods.  No nation committed to the rule of law undertakes extra judicial measures or detentions, which are illegal- they are rampant in this country- of denying habeas corpus. We had submissions of honourable colleagues on the cases in their constituencies failing to notify suspects of the charges for which they are held.  Mr Speaker, these are the problems.”

Eulogising former South Sudan president John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash on July 30, 2005, Oulanyah compared the late South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SPLA) charismatic leader to Sir William Wilberforce, who fought for the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“It is our hope that in Dr Garang’s death, the final bullet has been shot and nobody else should die and suffer in Southern Sudan. He has paid the ultimate price. His walking stick has all along been his gun, steadily pointed at the aggressors against the Southern Sudanese. His own people occasionally rioted against him just as his own enemies had guns pointed at him. However, he maintained his steady and justified cause, a cause that would finally see his people through.”

On May 9, 2002, Oulanyah and former Security Minister Elly Tumwine had an altercation at the House lobby during debate in the plenary on the Political Parties and Organisation Bill.

The decorated General suspected him of trying to conceal and enter Parliament with a pistol.

Referred to the House Committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline, the two leaders later reconciled.

As a lawmaker, Oulanyah developed the knack of interpreting intricate legal matters whenever there was a deadlock in the House. This earned him respect across the political aisle.

He was among some of the most outstanding MPs in the Seventh Parliament alongside Aggrey Awori, Nobert Mao, Ben Wacha, Okullo Epak, Winnie Byanyima, Beatrice Kiraso, Salaamu Musumba, John Kazoora, John Kawanga, Martin Wandera and Prof Morris Ogenga-Latigo.

However, eyebrows were raised when he chaired the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee that endorsed the lifting of the presidential term limits in 2005. During the vote on the floor of the House, Oulanyah chose to abstain.

Oulanyah had his imperfections but friends and foes agree that he was grounded in the law, was articulate and tried to fit into shifting sands of politics.

Joining NRM

In 2006, he was defeated by a run-of-the mill politician Simon Toolit Akecha. Upon his loss, he joined the NRM party. His friends proffer that Oulanyah was prompted to cross to the ruling party on the premise of having a legitimate chance of contesting the Speakership.

In 2011, he was elected deputy Speaker of Parliament on the NRM ticket. Oulanyah endured five years of a tumultuous spell with his superior, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga. He was re-elected as deputy Speaker in 2016.

In May 2021, the Central Executive Committee (CEC), the NRM party second-highest organ, endorsed Oulanyah as its torchbearer in the Speakership race. He was eventually elected with 310 votes against Kadaga’s 197 votes.

Some of Oulanyah’s critics accuse him of pandering towards sycophancy. But there are times when he spoke about pressing issues with brutal candour.

Barely after the President led a march against corruption in 2019, Oulanyah took to the rostrum at the manicured lawn of Kololo Independence Grounds to deliver a diatribe against the corrupt that shook the establishment.

“Unless we take this from our own frontline and extend the frontier to cover other areas, it’s a waste of time,” Oulanyah said.

“Mr President, we are all corrupt. It’s a public show for nothing. I come because it’s a public show, but deep down I know, we are going right back to practice the same damn corruption that we claim to fight.”