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Mathias Nalyanya walked out of Kampala Club holding a mobile phone to his ear with the right hand and a black suitcase often used by advocates to carry court documents with the other.
In Part V of Project Success, we trace former top performer Mathias Nalyanya, the second best UACE arts student of 1986, to tell his story to Benon Herbert Oluka. Mathias Nalyanya walked out of Kampala Club holding a mobile phone to his ear with the right hand and a black suitcase often used by advocates to carry court documents with the other.
For a journalist accustomed to waiting for interviewees for hours on end, Mr Nalyanya’s punctuality earned him good grades on my mental score sheet. Not that I told him because it counted for nought compared to the reason for our meeting; the grades that earned him second position among the best A-Level arts students of 1986.
After we sit at the balcony overlooking the Sheraton Hotel, Mr Nalyanya reminisces; he was in his village in Mbale District and, as was the custom while they waited for supper, the family listened to the 7pm news bulletin. Then they heard his name. “There was pandemonium,” he said, flashing a broad smile. “Everybody was extremely happy.”
It was an achievement that came under difficult circumstances. Two weeks to exam day, parts of western Uganda fell to the National Resistance Army rebels.
So the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) postponed the exams by two months since they could not be administered throughout the country – giving them even more time to prepare. “When I sat for my exams, judging from the questions, I could answer almost all of them. So I actually decided to do the difficult questions that would be done by few students,” said the former Namilyango College student.
Mr Nalyanya had studied his O-Level at St. Pius X Seminary in Tororo District, where he emerged the joint best student in the school. Mr Nalyanya had got admission to Namilyango College but he ignored it, partly because his family expected him to return to the seminary so he could join his two elder brothers in priesthood. However, two terms into S.5 at St. Pius, he made an unexpected decision.
“I formed the view that the seminary did not have good teachers for A-Level. I thought I was going to fail A-Level and I could not accept that,” he said. “So at the end of the second term holidays, I told my parents I was not going back to the seminary; that I was not running away from priesthood but I thought I was going to fail my A-Level.”
Mr Nalyanya’s parents reluctantly accepted his decision, and he sat out the third term at home. During that term, however, he went to Namilyango College. “I went to the headmaster’s office and said, ‘I am here but I got my admission late. I have come to request you to admit me.’ The headmaster, Alfred Mugoda, was quite surprised and asked me, ‘are you sure?’” “Yes,” replied Mr Nalyanya. “But who is going to pay your school fees?” “My parents and my brother.” Impressed by the young man’s audacity, Mr Mugoda wrote another admission letter.
Mr Nalyanya also faced the dilemma of deciding his destiny after completing his degree at Makerere University in June 1989. Because he still desired to become a priest, he contemplated returning to pursue priesthood. On their final day at Makerere, where he graduated with an upper second class degree in law, Mr Nalyanya linked up with a friend, Francis Mangeni, a classmate since S.1 at St. Pius. “We went to the Guild Canteen and had serious soul searching,” he revealed. “We argued whether to go back and pursue priesthood.”
The decision was made more difficult by the fact that the two had been taught at university by a Canadian Jesuit Priest, Fr. Joseph Doust, who had made a sufficient impression to make them consider joining their order. “He was a very inspiring fellow so we had taken an interest in becoming Jesuit Priests because their vocation is different and they are very scholarly. We had an argument until at last I told my colleague that I had lost interest in priesthood,’’ he said. Mr Nalyanya went to the Law Development Centre. Mr Mangeni left for Zambia to train as a Jesuit Priest.
Although they agreed to take different paths, Mr Nalyanya says his friend’s move created moments of self-doubt. But subsequent events vindicated him. As he finished his bar course, Mr Mangeni was enrolling at LDC after also abandoning priestly ambitions. Mr Mangeni, now a law doctorate holder, is the Director of Trade, Customs and Monetary Affairs at the Common Market for East and Southern African Market (Comesa) headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
Mr Nalyanya’s search for a job was not straight-forward either. “At that time,” he explained, “I had an ambition to do a masters’ degree so my job search was biased by that. I wanted to get a job where I stood a chance of getting an opportunity so I tried to get an appointment as a teaching assistant at Makerere but I was unsuccessful.”
Mr Nalyanya was not successful with interviews for a job as a State attorney either, but was eventually recruited in February 1991 as assistant lecturer at the Institute of Public Administration, now called the Uganda Management Institute. He lectured mostly post-graduate students pursuing diplomas in business management, public administration.
Within two years, in which he had secured a second job with Katende & Ssempebwa Advocates, Mr Nalyanya took another leap of faith. He applied for and got a teaching job with Uganda Martyrs’ University, Nkozi. “I realised my ambition to go for further education while I was there. I was offered funding to go and study as part of a staff development programme. I got admitted to the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I pursued a masters’ degree in commercial and corporate law,” said Mr Nalyanya, the first staff member to receive such a scholarship.
When he returned in 1996 aged 32, Mr Nalyanya was appointed Dean of the Department of Business Law – a position he held until 2004 when he started to scale down his work at the university. Mr Nalyanya says his decision was shaped by the fact that he needed to concentrate on legal work at Lex Uganda Advocates and Solicitors where he is a partner.
Lex Uganda, which was formed by four partners from Mr Nalyanya’s law class, including his friend Dr Mangeni, has grown since its formation in 1996 to become one of the leading law firms.
Mr Nalyanya, who reveals that he turned down an opportunity to go for a PhD programme while at Nkozi, says his life now revolves around Lex Uganda. “I don’t think I will be able to pursue it,” he says of his PhD prospects. “I think I am too busy that I will not be able to do it.”