How fallen Speaker captured fancy of Seventh Parliament

What you need to know:

  • Before he was hospitalised, Oulanyah had promised a new dawn in the House. His vision—doubtless influenced by the vibrant Seventh Parliament—was one where legislators did not “gamble” but rather were amenable to an “evidence-based” approach. 

It was four days before Christmas in 2004.

Jacob Oulanyah was presenting the report of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee on the Government White Paper in the Seventh Parliament.

The first-time legislator—who put considerable effort into his appearance—had since February of that year found comfort in wearing “only bowties” to complement his suited and booted look.

As the chairperson of the sessional Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs considering the White Paper on the Constitutional Review and Political Transition, 2004, Oulanyah needed to look and act the part.

He had meticulously knotted his bowtie that morning and would continue to do so countless times later.

But if there was one thing he desperately wanted to look more neat and trim than his fashion calling card, it was Uganda’s brand of politics. Its regenerative capacity, he thought, faced an existential threat.

“The constitutional review process that we are embarking on is a major political landmark in the political history and economic development of our country,” he said, adding: “The outcome of this process will be judged on whether or not it promotes national stability, good governance, constitutionalism and economic prosperity for our country.”

Despite the political space having been opened up in March of 2003, the political paralysis that continued to be on display made the mental exercise of denial harder.

Oulanyah and his fellow committee members were—as a result—relentless in both their advice and criticism “in order to ensure smooth and orderly transition to multi-party political system.” The chair further revealed that “all of us, without exception, faced moments when we had to abandon strongly held positions when the bright light of reason and national interest was shone.”

He added: “Our work enabled us to learn more about each other. Prejudices were abandoned as we discovered how much we all cared about our people. Convictions were entrenched as we found new reasons for working together. None of us can claim not to have learnt something new in the course of our work.”

Winning over sceptics

If the work of parliamentary committees seems uneventful, it is because it is.

Oulanyah, however, provoked his committee members to raise their game safe in the knowledge that if “our people…delight in our handiwork…they will refer to us no longer as mere politicians but rather as true leaders and patriots.” But for this to happen, the mixture of tenacity and good fortune that had yielded 39 chapters of the White Paper needed to “have a direct bearing on the political transition.” And the chair thought this body of work did.

Oulanyah quoted Aristotle, Machiavelli, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Karl Marx, and even Julius Nyerere to justify his committee’s collective construct of sovereignty.

An impassioned plea that Article 1 of the Constitution be left as is drew a round of applause from the House. Great clarity was also offered on “circumstances under which a Vice President can lead a country” (silence on how to replace a seating Speaker would trigger an awkward race nearly two decades later), the direct move to political pluralism, citizenship, representation of the people, and creation of “ a constitutional position for leader of the opposition.”

Whereas the committee “found greater difficulty in…support[ing] the government position…on compulsory acquisition of land”, there was consensus on the description of an independent candidate.

One can only be an independent candidate, Oulanyah offered: “if you do not go as far as contesting and losing in the primaries of an election of a political party.” While this drew laughter from the House, these outliers would go on to outnumber leading Opposition parties on four different occasions and counting.

If there were backbench displays that alerted many to Oulanyah’s competencies, the handling of the Government White Paper certainly makes the cut.

By February of 2005, Francis Babu—a veteran politician who measures his every word—was offering broad support to the committee. He said: “At one time there were people who passed rumours around here that they were not up to the task. I am very pleased that they were up to the task and the report they produced is above average. They did a good job and we must thank them, and now we have another document that is going to be the basis and a lot of input has been put there for us to amend this Constitution accordingly.”

The fight in him

If a spleen lost following student riots at Makerere University in 1990 was testament to Oulanyah toughening up—as a leader—then he certainly had the bruises to show for it.

Much like that episode at the Ivory Tower, an altercation with Elly Tumwine in the Seventh Parliament—after spillover effects from the debate on the Political Parties and Organisations Bill were taken to the August House’s lobby—was revered and reviled in almost equal measure.

Oulanyah never seemed to lack energy for a fight—both literally and metaphorically. Yet before being medevacked for specialised cancer care in the United States, he had lost the stomach for fighting.

Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, who was bedside with the stricken Speaker of Parliament hours before he passed on, revealed that “for some reason, [Oulanyah] became secretive about his malaise.”

The Chief Justice added that the teary Speaker “was singing a funeral dirge in Acholi” before the former managed to convince the latter to seek specialised treatment.

Unfortunately, Oulanyah lost the  battle to cancer last weekend.

Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo recounted the final moments of a tough battle fought to mourners who kept vigil at the fallen Speaker’s home in Muyenga, Kampala.  In a televised one-on-one interview with NTV Uganda shortly before he beat Rebecca Kadaga to the speakership last year, Oulanyah spoke movingly about the house that squats on a vast swathe of land in suburban Kampala.

“I started practising law in 1997…but I’m just beginning to build a house in the village. I built a house in the trading centre in my village, the first thing ever…I have one house in Kampala, which I built and I built because my people told me that you’re going to finish all your money,” he said then, adding: “I had been saving before I joined Parliament in 2001. In 2002, I started building and I finished it in 2003. That’s where I live now.”

An unabashed critic of the corrupt order, Oulanyah wondered “how the people I went to school with are able to own half the town!”

He hastened to add that “these are the fundamentals we should be [focusing on]; instead of the petty scandals, promoting fights, and little things like that.” The irony in how the House stood foursquare in the vortex of Francis Zaake’s status as a commissioner while doctors in Seattle toiled—unsuccessfully, eventually—to stabilise Oulanyah is not lost on many.

Before he was hospitalised, Oulanyah had promised a new dawn in the House. His vision—doubtless influenced by the vibrant Seventh Parliament—was one where legislators did not “gamble” but rather were amenable to an “evidence-based” approach.

Oulanyah wanted the Hansard to be “an authoritative document that can be quoted.” And this, he told NTV Uganda, can only happen if “we have a frank discussion about the future.” The future need not, he added, have to be reduced to a distant abstract if anything because “today is yesterday’s tomorrow.”

Trend

If the work of parliamentary committees seems uneventful, it is because it is. Oulanyah, however, provoked his committee members to raise their game safe in the knowledge that if “our people…delight in our handiwork…they will refer to us no longer as mere politicians but rather as true leaders and patriots.” But for this to happen, the mixture of tenacity and good fortune that had yielded 39 chapters of the White Paper needed to “have a direct bearing on the political transition.” And the chair thought this body of work did.

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