The Omoro County Member of Parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, cruised to victory last Thursday when he was re-elected as the Deputy Speaker for the 10th parliament.
He polled 300 votes against 115 for lightweight Kampala Central MP Mohammed Nsereko.
But the bare-knuckled political clash preceding the election was harsher than the defeat margin.
It not only pitted Oulanyah against Nsereko, but also re-ignited the legendary altercation between ‘rebel’ MPs and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party Caucus and NEC as well as its chairman, President Museveni.
The defiance led by Iganga Municipality MP Peter Mugema aka Panadol was a kick in the teeth for Mr Museveni whose anointed choice, Oulanyah, they opposed.
Unexpectedly, the President camped at Parliament on voting day, prompting a legislator to raise a point of order about his presence. Mr Museveni spirited Shs5m sweetener he gave to MPs elected on the ticket of, and Independents allied to, the ruling NRM and warned them to stop antagonising on the floor of House “legitimate” positions taken by NRM.
But will Oulanyah’s rebound as Deputy Speaker unstrap him from a bossy Executive, a closeness that has rattled some parliamentarians and analysts?
That’s quite unlikely. Mr Museveni’s repeated warnings against internal party schism or antagonisms provided the cue for NRM legislators, including for Oulanya. The Deputy Speaker shoulders an additional burden to reciprocate the President’s gesture of securing his win.
Critics mock Oulanyah as good a puppet. Mr Museveni disagrees; mollycoddling Oulanyah as a loyal cadre.
But just how did a flamboyant Oulanyah with an impressive intelligence, a Johnny-come-lately to the ruling party fold, become a darling of the Executive?
Oulanyah, son of Okori, has since Dr Obote College, Boroboro, climbed higher and inched closer to the corridors of power. His only misstep came when he dared challenge his boss, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga.
Then, Oulanyah had edged too close to the hot seat; and like wax-winged Greek fairy Icarus, son of Daedalus, Oulanyah’s false wings melted.
He was only saved from a catastrophic fall by clutching onto the open hand of President Museveni.
But what renders such a brilliant and self-assured fellow as Oulanyah so vulnerable?
Oulanyah’s vulnerabilities are also his admirable traits: the burst of energy, arrogant brilliance, and blind loyalty to power. These flaws bring down Oulanyah to a court jester; what the Acholi call rwot ineka – a courtier who lets out a burst of deep loud hearty laughter at every joke the king cracks. But this, surely, is not the old affable, lovable, and proud ‘citizen king’ -Jacob Olanya Okori – of Boroboro.
Until after Boroboro College, the Deputy Speaker was called Olanya, which he later changed to Oulanyah.
A spirited and brilliant youth, Oulanyah was nicknamed the ‘Citizen King’. He had a special knack for debating and soon distinguished himself as an enviable orator.
Oulanyah soon became the poster boy for Boroboro squad in the round robin Northern Uganda Debating League. He always opened the floor debate by setting the tone after the first two principal speakers.
It was also common that Oulanyah summed up the floor debate to give it a powerful finish for Boroboro, the same way did his predecessors Justice David Kutosi Wangutusi, Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Charles Elem Ogwal and UPC spokesperson Okello Lucima.
Oulanyah’s reputation preceded him; he narrowly lost the National Union of Students of Uganda president slot to late Jude Otim but gained the position when the latter was ejected.
His fans felt he was chosen by the grace of God and the will of the people and named ‘citizen king’ after the tradition of French king Louis-Philippe. It was unsurprising, therefore, that the deputy Speaker likened President Museveni to Jesus.
There were echoes of divination in Oulanyah’s acceptance speech upon re-election last week.
Luck did not abandon him. He was in 1990 elected Speaker of Makerere University Student’s Guild Speaker. Teaming up with Guild President Norbert Mao, they became the doyen of student opposition to hardline NRM government’s cut back of student benefits, known then by the moniker boom.
Oulanyah then stared death in the face as he was battered and his spleen raptured by the police as they repressed students’ strike. Two university students, Tom Okema and Tom Onyango, were shot dead.
Oulanyah’s bravado had ushered him into the limelight, reinforced by his return to Makerere for a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree and later Bar course after his BSC in Agricultural Economics. And before long, Oulanyah found his true love -politics.
When UPDF’s Col Walter Ochora, who died a couple of years ago, defeated him in 1996 for the Gulu District chair position, Oulanyah in 2001 contested for Omoro County MP on UPC ticket and won.
Mao was Gulu Municipality MP. The two teamed up and built a reputation of brilliance and flawless articulation in Parliament. One such superior argument on Acholi land rights was to draw the wrath of an army MP, a General, who reportedly attacked Oulanyah in the corridors of Parliament.
Soon whispers were also adrift that Oulanyah was in bed with NRM, which often poached gifted opponents. After repeated denial, Mr Oulanyah fell for the allure and openly began hobnobbing with NRM ideologues.
Now the man from Omoro is an unapologetic NRM cadre, with a sticky job to execute ill-chosen tasks for NRM. Put another way, he is the President’s fall guy. For this, his admirers and critics alike label him a confusing agent – lanywen.
Lanywen was his proposed magic formula to root out corruption in Gulu as he wrestled for the district council chair in 1996. But today, lanywen perfectly describes Oulanyah’s frequent swing around.
He has acknowledged publicly doing the dirty political work for NRM such as engineering, while chair of the 7th Parliament’s Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee, the removal of the presidential term limit.
That decision, aided with Shs5m offer to MPs, opened the way for Museveni to stand as many times for President – something opponents blame for Uganda’s current woes.
Still, Oulanya remains proud and unapologetic. He has had no brakes in presiding over enactment of more impugned laws, the latest being the Public Order Management Act, 2013.
His public praise of the President, whom he likens to a saviour, too has gained more currency.
But Oulanyah delights in such eccentrics and for good measure. The First Family graced his 2013 wedding, which, unfortunately, is a matter before court for dissolution.
Mr Museveni has called Oulanyah a nationalist, visionary and one of few “progressive” Acholi leaders.
Strangely, lawmakers from his Acholi and Lango sideline Oulanyah.
He belongs to both communities yet has no foothold in either. As a consequence, former Agago County parliamentary candidate Charles Komakech believes the polarity of identity and opportunism are Oulanyah’s mortal weakness.
This dual identity has been exploited by the latter’s rivals, including former Gulu chairman Ochora and Aruu County MP Odonga Otto.
Only UPC party Chief Olara Otunnu and his DP opposite Mao and a few Opposition MPs from Acholi and his sub-region graced his wedding.
Fewer-than-expected legislators from Acholi and Lango backed Oulanyah’s re-election bid. Most felt nervous Oulanyah’s blind loyalty to NRM would expose northern Uganda to ridicule.
Sensing trouble, Oulanyah made a last-minute peace with some Acholi and Lango MPs. In the dead of the night before MPs swore-in, he capitulated to counsel by Opposition Chief Whip and Dokolo Woman MP, Ms Cecelia Ogwal, not to disturb Ms Kadaga for the Speaker job.
At the Lango community MPs swearing-in party, Oulanyah made a well-received pitch for his suitability as Deputy Speaker. Little wonder, on D-day, Oulanyah roped in UPC’s and Oyam South MP Betty Amongi to second his nomination.
Despite his apparent exclusion, Oulanyah stands tall as his own man. He hasn’t lost his intellectual sparks and poise. Such is the measure of the man that even when badmouthed as ambitious, greedy, undependable, and easily bendable by rivals; Kadaga and Nsereko, Oulanyah has kept and clean of dirty politicking – at least publicly.
Oulanyah also retains his regal bearing with a signature moustache and trademark bow-tie and sometimes collarless socialist garb. He remains a par-excellence debater, formidable orator and authoritative on legislative procedure.
What then explains Oulanyah’s blind loyalty to the power?
His trading of honour for realpolitik offers one possible explanation. Oulanyah, some commentators say, has chosen to wrestle his conscience to win superior ground.
Omoro County voters punished his swing from UPC to NRM in 2006 by picking FDC’s Simon Toolit. Come 2011, and 2016, Oulanyah has been in and out of the High Court to fend off charges of vote-fiddling.
For these and his perceived arrogance and meekness to authority, Oulanyah has few cheering fans.
Political pundits and many Ugandan have the same pinhole view of him. They see him as a diligent executioner of unpleasant NRM works and other Museveni assignments. But some critics won’t judge Oulanyah that harshly.
UPC spokesperson Okello Lucima and others believe Oulanyah’s is a case of “give a dog a bad name and hang it!” They disagree Oulanyah deserves the adverse criticisms. To the contrary, they blame the NRM majority in the 10th Parliament and President Museveni iron hold on the NRM Caucus.
To them, whoever is at the helm, be it Oulanyah, Nsereko or Kadaga; the stewardship of Parliament would suffer.
But can Oulanyah reclaim his old college, university, and parliamentary honour to redeem his soul in the 10th Parliament and give the House its independence and legitimacy?
Only time will be the neutral arbiter. At least up to the close of his acceptance speech, Oulanyah seemed focused on recovering his honour, that of Parliament and country.
Oulanyah, in his own solemn pledge, now seeks a “supreme guiding star, unchanging like the True North of a Magnet”, steered by upholding the interest of the people of Uganda, above self and party.
Source: The Monitor