Uganda: Death of Speaker of Parliament Oulanyah has country on edge over his succession

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 25 March 2022 11:43

Uganda's Speaker of Parliament Rt. Hon. Jacob Oulanya addresses participants from the Federal government of Somalia in Kampala, Uganda, on 16 November 2018. AMISOM Photo
Uganda's Speaker of Parliament Rt. Hon. Jacob Oulanya addresses participants from the Federal government of Somalia in Kampala, Uganda, on 16 November 2018. AMISOM Photo

The death of Uganda's speaker of parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, has provoked a dilemma, given the law dictates it is the sitting speaker who must elect his/her successor. Who will replace him and how?

Jacob Oulanyah, the speaker of parliament of Uganda who died of cancer in Seattle, US on 20 March 2022 has been described as a man of impeccable character who articulated his views with passion and worked with a sense of determination.

In public, Oulanyah, who occupied the third top ranking office in Uganda, was distinguished by his punctuality and love for bow-ties.

However, there has been little time to eulogise Oulanyah’s good deeds because of the inevitable politics of replacing him. The constitution never envisaged a speaker dying in office. Thus, in his or her absence, the law stipulates that parliament must elect the Speakers’ successor in its first sitting.

Though Oulanyah is said to have loathed tribalism – never surrounding himself with tribesmen and women – the discussions about his sickness and demise have been overshadowed by tribal sentiments.

With Oulayah’s body still in the US, members of parliament are today (Friday 25 March) convening in Kampala to elect a new speaker and deputy speaker. The ruling party National Resistance Movement (NRM) top brass, led by President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, chose the deputy speaker, Anita Among, to be the party’s speakership candidate and Thomas Tayebwa, chief whip of the ruling party in parliament, a senior ministerial position, to be the deputy speaker.

NRM candidates will have no difficulty in winning because more than 70% of legislators are party members or independents aligned to it.

Tribalism takes centre stage

Oulanyah’s Northern Uganda tribe-mate in parliament demanded that the speakership position be ring fenced for them, but their demand fell on deaf ears. Consequently, many of them started threatening not to turn up and vote for a new speaker. Museveni is said to have privately engaged NRM legislators in the past two days, urging them to drop tribal sentiments.

[…] your ethnic leader was transported in a presidential jet to Germany using public funds he was not entitled to…

Tribal sentiments became intense, dominating social media discussions on Wednesday and Thursday after Chief Justice of Uganda Alfonse Owinyi Dollo – who comes from Northern Uganda, and is a close friend of the deceased – castigated the Baganda living in the US for demonstrating against treatment of Oulanyah, yet their ethnic leader, the king of Buganda had also been flown to Germany using taxpayers money.

“Your ethnic leader, you who were demonstrating, your ethnic leader was transported in a presidential jet to Germany using public funds he was not entitled to. You did not demonstrate,” he said Tuesday evening in Uganda. “Only a wicked person can fight a person who is fighting for his life.”

Other friends of the deceased speaker, such as Norbert Mao, a former presidential candidate who also comes from northern Uganda, are wondering why people demonstrated against treatment of a man who had spent “a lot of his money on his personal treatment and never wanted to bother anyone”.

Before Oulanyah was flown to the US for treatment, he had resigned to his fate. His friends have revealed that they had difficulties in convincing him to accept to be taken out of his house for treatment. Oulanyah was flown to the US in early February aboard a Uganda Airline chartered plane that is reported to have cost taxpayers $500,000. It’s this information that has infuriated some Ugandans in the US, who went to Seattle to demonstrate outside the hospital where Oulanyah had been admitted.

After the protest, everyone was accusing the National Unity Platform (NUP) – the political party led by Robert Kyagulanyi – of engineering the protest. The party has a strong base of supporters in the US who have organised several protests against the Museveni regime. In Uganda, the party’s staunchest supporters are in Buganda. All except two of the party’s 57 legislators come from Buganda region.

Moses Khisa, a political scientist at North Carolina State University tells The Africa Report that the tribal talk, which has overshadowed the Oulanyah’s legacy, is senseless. “I don’t think Oulanyah would have been party to it, and whoever is doing it in his name is insulting the departed man. Oulanyah stood for the national project.”

We are dishonest in trying to deny the importance of ethnicity while behaving in a way that shows it is important.

For a fragile country like Uganda that is sitting at a dangerous political precipice, Khisa says “someone as fairly principled and passionate as Oulanyah would make a difference at a critical moment”.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, another political scientist, tells The Africa Report that Ugandan elites spend a lot of time trying to dismiss the importance of ethnicity, yet all Ugandans are still stuck to their tribal origins. “We are dishonest in trying to deny the importance of ethnicity while behaving in a way that shows it is important.”

From students’ speaker to parliament speaker

Oulayah’s leadership journey to Uganda’s third top ranking office began in the early 1990s when he served as a speaker of the Makerere University students’ leadership. He was first elected to parliament in 2001. He lost in 2006, but bounced back to parliament in 2011. From then on till May 2021, he served as deputy speaker of parliament when he was elected speaker, a position he held for less than a year.

Oulanyah was one of the Ugandan politicians who participated in 2006-2008 peace talks with the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony. Norbert Mao, who also participated in the peace talks, says Oulanyah was one of the lawyers accepted by Joseph Kony “to be in Juba (South Sudan) to work on details of the peace agreement”.

On the downside, Oulanyah’s political rivals remember him as a legislator who chaired a parliamentary legal affairs committee in 2005 that recommended removal of term limits from the constitution, giving Museveni a leeway to extend his stay in office. Museveni has been Uganda’s president since 1986 and is Africa’s fourth longest serving president.

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