Tribute: Farewell, a thinker with a sense of originality and a level headed gentleman – Jacob Oulanyah!
By Odrek Rwabwogo
It was early October 1990 and we had just picked our brown envelopes having
checked our names on the notice boards at the main building where they were printed with a stencil and type writer. For some of us from rural schools with limited educational facilities, we had finally made it to Makerere University. The crowding and craning around the notice boards was intense; many of us strangers trying to see if there was anyone from one’s area or former school and if they were residents or non residents. The milling around the hall filled us with a measure of excitement as well as curiosity for we wanted to know what portended for us in this ‘wider world’
given it had been our first step out of our villages. The air was filled with a taste of
bitter rivalry between two-contending university factions in previously concluded guild elections that pitted two candidates, Nobert Mao who had emerged winner and the late Noble Mayombo, who had lost by a narrow margin.
The aftermath of the race
seemed to signify a dying era of UPC symbolisms and an incoming, not yet well
understood NRM. In many ways, the race was a sign of the times, bringing up
underlying but unmistakable fears, largely stereotypical, that divided the country at
One of these was that for the first time an army officer hailing from Kabarole district and a refractory student leader from Gulu had locked horns over leadership.
The language alone was divisive. For many of us, one camp represented the new order of ‘no party politics’ and the other a temporarily dying one, of ‘multiparty politics’.
Mao had allied with another candidate called Charles Vvuba in what Mayombo termed an alliance only comparable in terms and proportion to the 1962 UPC/KY alliance, to defeat Benedict Kiwanuka.
It is a strange irony that Mao would some twenty years later, lead the Democratic Party (DP).
In a few days of my joining university, curiosity and the love of debates got the better part of me. I went to the main hall one evening and watched a Guild Representative Council (GRC) in session for the first time.
And there, even I who was warming up to the villain camp of Mayombo, was struck by this young, tall, dark orator who when he took to the floor, spoke as if his nose was a little pressed for air and he had a rhythmic flow of words that one would simply want to listen more. It was Jacob Oulanyah.
He had a developed command of oratory for his age and even though as speaker of GRC, he needed to show impartiality, he would mercilessly cut the other side to size to make a point. It is partly this grandiloquence that drove students into the strike of December 10, 1990 over the scrapping of student allowances. Police shot at us and killed the two Thomases Okema and Onyango.
In opposition to this strike, our side mobilized students to sing and match in the night through freedom square protesting the strike and denouncing strike leaders and asking students to go back to class.
Police fired at us again in the night and near the old social science building, I fell headlong into a large ditch left off an unfinished construction site and broke my back. I would lie in bed for days.
Fate really has a sense of irony. Both Noble and Jacob on two extreme sides of student politics would end up on one side of the political spectrum some sixteen years later.
Jacob joined the Movement after his loss in the 2006 Omoro constituency MP race in which he had held the banner of a now severely reduced UPC while, sadly, Noble died in May 2007 without seeing how this had turned out that in May 2011, one of his protagonists in the 1989 race, Jacob would be the deputy speaker of parliament on an NRM ticket and ten years later, speaker of Uganda’s 11th parliament.
I suppose in death, these two men have met not as protagonists but rather as rekindled souls of smart, insightful, discerning and consensus builders of their generation on earth. I
suppose too they have embraced, giving us a strong signal to always work and govern from the middle in order to accommodate each other.
No extremes are sustainable in life and in public matters. Extremists never build anything.
I got to know Jacob better when he married a fiery friend of mine, a colleague minister in the guild government, the late Dorothy Nangwale, herself of the UPC stock (her father, Eng. Abner Nangwale had been minister of works in Obote II Government).
Dorothy was a keen slash and burn, no holds-barred debater too, a human rights
activist and a leader in the National student Movement. We were both elected in Mbale in September 1993 to lead the student organization and to work on setting up the Uganda National Youth Councils. I wasn’t surprised Jacob ended up with Dorothy as a couple.
They both had an independent streak, they were often decidedly anti authority and rebellious, challenging status quo; they were intellectually excellent to
spar on any issue and they were firmly confident in their views. They were a couple destined for greatness in every way in their country. Dorothy once came to church one Sunday morning a few years before her death. Holding her baby in arms, she took
to the microphone and asked the preacher of the day, whether it was right to “obey government rulers as written in Romans chapter 13 especially if that government was undermining the rights of its citizens”. Dorothy was confident we would take no offense and that we would challenge her position both spiritually and intellectually given we had background with the couple as my friends for a long time.
Two things the country will miss about Jacob, things that will stand out as probably his legacy for the young people. In the 2016 speakership race in which he calmly ceded ground for his opponent before the elders of the party, I came to see him. He was deeply troubled by the talk that he was ‘less NRM simply because he had had a UPC background’. He told me, “When I make a decision, I have very well considered all aspects of an issue, calmly and maturely. When I left UPC, I didn’t leave any part of me. I left wholeheartedly and completely and I had no intention of going into any other party. I had seen the internal UPC fights decimate a party that had built a record
and I noticed how so fundamental it was to rally behind a strong, smart, firm,
intellectually superior African leader, Yoweri Museveni, whose devotion to Uganda and Africa is unmatchable”. The lesson here is two fold – that those who claim to be the best NRM pedigree simply because of the accident of history or position, are really often the demobilizers for the Movement whether they know it or not. If we had missed Jacob even for the short time we had him, simply because he came into the party late, would Uganda not have missed the contribution of this illustrious son? The other embedded lesson is that it doesn’t matter when people come. It only matters that they come anyway and come with no preconditions.
When they do, they are replenishing the ranks of our leadership if they are good. They bring fresh experience that the party might not have. We must always welcome them with open arms and try their skills and not hold them against their past.
The second thing we will miss is his fight to level on ideas not pettiness. In the 2021 race, he worried much about the shallow campaign that had more talk ‘about money and less enriching’ on what candidates wanted to do. In a country where politics has been monetized, it is always refreshing to hear someone begin their race with what they want to change not how much they plan to spend. We will miss this original thinker and level headed gentleman of our generation.
God keep his soul in eternal peace