Okoler Opio April 13, 2022

By Norbert Mao

In his work Twelfth Night, famous English playwright and wordsmith William Shakespeare tells us that “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” Jacob Oulanyah L’okori, the late Speaker of Uganda’s National Assembly, achieved greatness.

I joined Makerere University in 1988 where I was admitted to study Law. I was assigned to Mitchell Hall. It was in Mitchell Hall that I met Jacob. What first drew me to him was his ability to express himself with clarity and confidence.

This first came to my notice during one of the public lectures I attended. Every Tuesday there was something called the Tuesday Discussion hosted at the Department of Political Science. The organizers were those known then as Cadres among the student body. Among the most outspoken of these cadres were Noble Mayombo, Felix Kulayigye, Chris Turyatunga, Ngabo, Ofwono Opondo, Robert Masolo and Richard Karemire. Every week a guest speaker came from the military or government circles to speak on a topical issue. The purpose of the discussions were to enable students engage with those in charge of decision making in the country. The discussions were often heated and Jacob always spoke out strongly on the topical issues.

As one who had been among the best performing A-Level students in the country I was entitled to an annual cash allowance of Shs.16,000/-. I decided to use the money to buy a radio cassette player, some cups, plates and clothes. But I didn’t know Kampala well and feared getting lost. I asked Jacob to show me around as I went shopping. This he did graciously. Years later, Jacob told me that at that time he also didn’t know Kampala well. I was stunned by Jacob’s confidence!

It was the tradition of the Halls of residence to elect a Chief Fresher every year from among the newly admitted students. I registered my intentions and started canvassing for support. And one of my most fervent supporters was Jacob. The title of Chief Fresher sounds big but in reality the main work was that of a Cheer Leader for our sports teams. Other assignments included petitioning the powers that be in the Hall for redress of minor problems. The office attracted no privileges apart from being recognized in the Dining Hall by the kitchen staff.

The second political office I sought was on the Mitchell Hall Village Resistance Council Executive Committee. In the year 1989 there were countrywide elections of Resistance Council Executive Committees. Uganda was then under the Movement System. Parties existed only in name. Their activities were banned. The National Resistance Movement, the political wing of the National Resistance Army which had ousted the military government of Gen. Tito Okello, was in reality a State Party. Again I sought out Jacob for support. I was elected to the position of Secretary for Information and Mass Mobilization.

As a student leaderJacob was a great advocate for the independence of student organizations. He developed early a strong love of reading. We exchanged many ideas based on our readings of history and political philosophy. His passion for human rights shone through his speeches. Jacob believed that everybody is entitled to the protection of the law, including those who despise the law.

Jacob initiated a discussion group known as the Ideological College. This entity raised serious questions about the democratic credentials of the NRM and its militaristic policies. This attracted the adverse attention of the security circles in Uganda. Based on the following he had, Jacob toyed with the idea of contesting for the position of President of the Makerere Students Guild. After he declared his intentions, some security operatives confronted him with severe threats. When he returned from what must have been a stormy encounter with the security operatives, Jacob told me that he would no longer run for Guild President. He declared his support for me and even some of his would be financial backers decided to contribute to my campaigns.

The Guild race attracted many candidates. I had to face the late Noble Mayombo as my main opponent. There were others like Amon Reeves Muzoora, Vuba Charles Londa from the populous Lumumba and Mary Stuart alliance and Sam Lyomoki from Northcotte Hall. When news reached us that Mayombo had launched his campaign in a colorful event in Nkrumah Hall where the over 300 participants each had at least three beers, I went to Jacob’s room to consult on how we would deal with a polished, eloquent and financially loaded opponent. Jacob’s advice was that we should not fear Mayombo but we should try to ensure that we project Mayombo as an apologist for the unpopular Structural Adjustment Program which the government has swallowed lock, stock and barrel. The Structural Adjustment Program which we christened “Stomach Adjustment Program” imposed austerity measures on the government leading to budgetary cuts on social services like education, health and security. Mayombo was a soldier holding the rank of Lieutenant. On his campaign poster his message was “Tilting the Balance of Forces in Favour of Makerere”! He was basically saying that he would be a positive influence on the government and the university would benefit. My campaign poster had the message “Solidarity, Guild Autonomy and Greater Student Power”. I wanted the students to assert their power.

Jacob was in the inner circle of my campaigns alongside other key players. One day we decided to plant a question which we thought would trip Mayombo. We deployed someone to put it to Mayombo that as a serving soldier he was a State agent. Mayombo’s being a soldier was largely a whisper because he was never seen in uniform. When the question was put, Mayombo did not deny that he was a soldier. Looking straight at the person who had asked the question, he went down on one knee, struck the table on which he was standing repeatedly saying “It is an insult to call me a State agent. I am the State!” Our secret weapon intended to turn our nemesis into a villain fell flat.

In the meantime, the campaign turned into a two horse race between Mayombo and myself. I was leading but Mayombo with his well oiled campaign machinery, was capable of overtaking me. That is when I was approached by Bruce Kwarisiima, a final year law student proposing a meeting with Mayombo and some people from government. I turned to Jacob. I told him I expected them to ask me to step down for Mayombo because I was the only person in the race capable of defeating Mayombo’s strong and well financed campaign. I consulted Jacob and he said “What do these people think we are!” We then agreed that I should attend the meeting but under no circumstances should I agree to step down for Mayombo. We met at Campus Close Hotel in Wandegeya. The team from government told me that even though I was running a strong campaign, I could not defeat Mayombo because he was a flagbearer for the historical Movement. They promised to reimburse my expenses and to have Mayombo appoint me Vice President. I declined the offers and insisted that I would be in the race till the end. “If I lose, I lose”, I told them.

When I convened the meeting of the core campaign team members we agreed on a strategy of forming an alliance with one of the other key candidates. With Mayombo surging forward, we needed to do something that would demoralize his campaign. Jacob then proposed that while he agreed with the idea of the alliance, the timing would be critical. If we announced an alliance too soon Mayombo’s campaign would recover. He then suggested that we should form a last minute alliance and spread panic in Mayombo’s camp. Henry Mayega, then a residence of Complex Hall brokered the discussion which led to the Mao-Vuba Alliance. The alliance was announced on the eve of elections. The rest is history. We achieved a convincing win.

After my win, our team agreed that Jacob should get elected to the student parliament known as the Guild Representative Council (GRC). Indeed Jacob was elected to the GRC and we nominated him for the position of Speaker. His rival, unsurprisingly, from Mayombo’s camp was Adolf Mwesige, former Minister and currently the Clerk to Parliament.

I then held a meeting of the cabinet and proposed that we should present a motion to the GRC proposing that we should declare a lecture boycott given that our petition to the Education Minister Amanya Mushega had been ignored. The GRC adopted our proposal and recommended that we should table it before the General Assembly. But there was a problem. Holding a general assembly required the permission of the Vice Chancellor.

Within a few weeks we agreed that we should defy the Reguations requiring that before the Student’s Guild can hold a general assembly they must get the permission of the Vice Chancellor. Jacob and his deputy Kenneth Wanyoto, committed to presiding over the assembly. Despite the threats issued by the Vice Chancellor through Radio Uganda. Jacob joked that the assembly would surely be a success because of the Vice Chancellor’s announcements on radio. “The man has mobilized for us”, Jacob joked.

The General Assembly adopted the resolution that we go on strike. The strike went on for several weeks and there was a virtual stalemate as the government presented us in the media as spoilt and ungrateful children demanding for privileges. I’m glad that the government has now admitted that the Structural Adjustment Program was largely a disaster that handed over the rudder of our economy to foreign interests.

The prolonged strike polarized the student body and we considered and adopted a plan to call off the strike to give way for negotiations. We decided to call a general assembly on 10th December, 1990 – International Human Rights Day. Early that morning before I reached the Freedom Square, the venue of the Assembly, I heard gunshots. On my way there I met Jacob. He was looking frail and appeared to have been beaten badly. He simply told me “the situation is impossible, let’s go back!” I insisted on going where the bullets were still flying.

Later I learnt that Jacob had collapsed on reaching the Hall and had to be taken to Mulago hospital where he had to undergo an emergency surgery during which his spleen was removed. I also learnt that Jacob being dressed in the Speaker’s red gown was descended upon by security forces that had been deployed all over campus. They beat him, they kicked him, they punched him and hit him with gun butts. The effect of this beating was great trauma to his internal organs. This was confirmed by Jacob’s lead physician in Seattle.

As I went to Gulu to vie for the Constituent Assembly seat of Gulu Municipality, Jacob was studying for his degree in law. I lost to Mzee Andrew Adimora. In 1996 I went back to contest the parliamentary elections to represent the same constituency. This time I faced the powerful Minister Betty Bigombe. I was cash strapped in that campaign. My nomination fee was a contribution from my boss Charles Kabugo of Kabugo and Company Advocates. I had a car but no cash to even fuel it. After nominations I took a bus to Kampala to seek out friends who could contribute. Most friends discouraged me when I told them who my main opponent was. They counseled me to wait because winning against Betty Bigombe looked impossible. Not so Oulanyah. As I wandered in Kampala, with zero contributions from friends, I met Jacob. I poured out my agony and the dire situation I was in. I had missed four days of campaigning and Betty Bigombe’s supporters were singing and dancing about my political demise. “Where is that boy with a big mouth? Where is he hiding? Is he hiding behind his mother’s gomesi?” Jacob was sympathetic. He put his hand inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of banknotes. He counted some notes and as he was about to hand it over to me he decided to give me the whole bundle. That day he had received his salary and decided to give me the whole amount.

The next day I went to Gulu to continue my campaigns. The faith Jacob showed in me kept me going. After winning the elections I organized a first anniversary celebrations and asked Jacob to be the emcee. In 1998, I supported Jacob’s bid to become LCV Chairperson of Gulu. I sent my car to support his campaign and endorsed him emphatically. This race pitted him against Col. Walter Ochora. Gulu then comprised the current Gulu City and the four districts of Gulu, Omoro, Amuru and Nwoya. That was the campaign that introduced Jacob to Acholiland as a formidable leader of great potential. I believe he won that election but was simply rigged out.

In 2001, I again endorsed Jacob for the parliamentary seat of Omoro – the constituency he died representing. Against all odds and opposition by powerful leaders who claimed he was not a real Acholi, he won. In parliament Jacob found a platform where he excelled . He was elected Chair of the Legal Committee where I also served. We dealt with intellectual property laws like the Copyrights Act which he tabled as a private members and the Patents Act.

Jacob was a sticker for rules and procedure when our committee considered the Bill which proposed the constitutional amendment to remove presidential term limits. Those of us opposed to the amendment encouraged him to use technicalities such as quorum to delay or frustrate the Bill. Jacob insisted that the committee was a servant of parliament and it would be up to the parliament to make the final decision based on the findings of the committee. Indeed he processed the bill and even voted yes to get the Bill to the final stage. In the final vote he abstained! We disagreed on this matter and in the next elections I decampaigned my best friend. Jacob lost the election.

In the next five years Jacob encountered various tragedies. He lost his wife Dorothy. He lost his mother. He lost a big daughter. He also lost a baby. Despite our political differences, I stood with my friend. One time his daughter who was diagnosed with a heart condition needed surgery in India. Jacob needed money. In Pakwach I met President Museveni and I asked for a private audience in a public space. We stepped aside and I whispered into the President’s ears the situation Jacob was in. That is the famous picture where I’m pictured speaking into the president’s ear. That night, the president called Jacob and offered assistance. Unfortunately the young lady died before the surgery. In 2011 and since then I never decampaigned Jacob.

Years later in 2014 it was Jacob’s turn to rescue me from the jaws of death when I fell seriously ill and was admitted to Lacor Hospital. With life ebbing away from me, Jacob called Gen. Charles Otema and everybody else he could get in the UPDF, demanding that I be airlifted to Entebbe so that I could take a commercial flight to Nairobi. My father, who was a very good friend to Jacob, was always grateful that he saved my life. Without Jacob’s intervention, I would have certainly died on the road to the airport.

Finally, friends are relatives we choose. As friends we mourn Jacob because we are overwhelmed by the shocking end to a life of friendship and love. As a community recovering from the effects of a two decade long war, we are grieving for our dimming hopes caused by the death of a man so gifted and whose true potential this country will never know. When Jacob’s grave is closed, it will close over a man who has gone too soon and whose best years of public service were still ahead. Another fruit fallen unripe! A man such as Jacob could not die without leaving an immense void in our National political life. He has been, closely and for a long time, part and parcel of the history of our country and the events that have defined its journey. To that extent, Jacob’s death has strummed the chords of public sympathy.

As a human being, Jacob is no more. He is no more as the representative of the people of Omoro County in the parliament. No more as the man who lit up any social gathering with his heartfelt laughter, animated conversations, social graces and dancing strokes. No more as a dependable friend to his social circles. No more as as a father to his children and a pillar of his family and community. No more as the Speaker tirelessly defending the decorum, rules and traditions of parliament. He is no more. He is dead.

But methinks something good cannot die. I disagree with Mark Anthony when he says that that the evil that men do lives after them and the good is buried with them. Good deeds live and live forever. Good deeds live in the memory of those that have benefitted from the great actions of a deceased person. The records of deceased person’s intellectual endeavor live on. Above all, good deeds live on in the appreciation and respect that the public accords a dead man. Good deeds live on in the power of example that will continue to influence the lives and efforts of others.

As Daniel Webster wrote “A superior and commanding human intellect, a truly great man, when Heaven vouchsafes so rare a gift, is not a temporary flame, burning brightly for a while, and then giving place to returning darkness. It is rather a spark of fervent heat, as well as radiant light, with power to enkindle the common mass of human mind; so that when it glimmers in its own decay, and finally goes out in death, no night follows; but it leaves the world all light, all on fire, from the potent contact of its own spirit.”