For the last fortnight, newscasts on major television and radio stations have featured Dr Ekwaro Obuku, the president of the Uganda Medical Association (UMA) of doctors, which declared a nation-wide strike on November 6, protesting poor working conditions and low pay.
His popularity on the talk show circuit is just as apparent. On the other hand, minister for Health Jane Ruth Aceng has blundered from one misstep to another; first threatening doctors with the sack, then attempting to drive a wedge between interns and senior doctors before making the questionable claim that UMA is illegal, yet seeking dialogue with the same entity.
Obuku and his deputy, Dr Pauline Byakiika-Kibiwika, are the face of the sit-down, staring state intimidation in the face.
Who is Ekwaro Obuku?
Ekwaro Obuku is the third born in a family of seven children born to the late Dr John Brian Obuku and Teo Kibirige Obuku, a nurse. His father is a Lang while his mum is a Mukiga. He was born in February 1978 at Victoria Hospital Kisumu, Kenya where his parents had taken refuge from the ravages of the Idi Amin dictatorship.
In Kenya, Obuku senior first worked as a chemistry teacher in Bungoma High School. The older Obuku later got a job as a doctor at Macino Hospital until 1996 when he returned to Uganda. The family hails from Loro, Oyam South, Oyam district.
Three of Obuku’s brothers are also medical officers: the eldest, Jimmy Okot, is a clinical officer in Amusha Health Centre III in Lira district while another has a Phd in molecular virology and works at the Uganda Virus Institute. The other brother works at Case hospital.
Obuku studied nursery in the early 1980s at Tabaka Nursery missionary school where his father was working and later Sosho primary school in Kirigoli, Narok district. After four years, he joined St Mary’s Mosokyo primary school in Kisii up to primary eight.
Being foreigners, the children were unable to gain admission to secondary school despite good marks. His parents sent him and his brother Robert Ekullo Obuku back to Uganda in 1992 where they were admitted at St Mary’s College Kisubi.
After completing Senior Six in 1997, Obuku’s brother left for Dar es Salaam University to pursue a course in medicine. A year later, Ekwaro joined Makerere University in 1998 on a National Council of Sports scholarship also to study medicine and surgery which he completed in 2003. Obuku says he was very good at basketball which he played for the Falcon Guards.
“The medicine course was very hard; so, I gave up playing basketball. But I continued to play non-professional basketball for Mitchell Hall [at Makerere],” Obuku says.
At Makerere, Obuku was secretary for health in Mitchell before he was elected hall chairman. He remembers interacting with such luminaries as Medard Lubega Sseggona, now MP for Busiro East; Asuman Basalirwa, president of the Justice Forum party; Otto Makmot, MP for Agago; Mukasa Mbidde, MP in the East African Legislative Assembly; Aruu MP Odonga Otto, and former presidential assistant Hussein Kashilingi
One thing Obuku looks back to with regret is that he lost, by just 22 votes, a bid to become president of Makerere University Medical Students Association.
In 2003, Obuku went to Arua Regional Referral hospital as an intern doctor. He was largely motivated by Dr Charles Olar, then the director of the hospital and now director for clinical services at the ministry of Health. His journey to Arua is still very fresh in his mind as it was the first time he boarded a plane.
“I spent the days before my journey picturing how it feels like being in a plane. I remember while going to the airport with my colleague that was the only talk; everybody in the taxi turned to look at us,” Obuku says with a beam on his face.
Obuku remembers working under the instruction of Dr Christine Ondoa who was later to become minister of Health and now senior presidential advisor.
“She gave us very good training and after our internship, we persuaded her to allow us continue working in the paediatrics department of the hospital,” Obuku says.
Obuku eventually got a job as medical officer in Adjumani and was posted to Mungula health centre IV. A few months into the job, he was forced out by the raging Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency.
“I was away from my young family; I was spending much of my money on airtime,” Obuku says.
Obuku is a private person and refuses to disclose the name of his wife, preferring, instead, to say that between them they have seven children aged between three and 13 years.
When he came back to Kampala, UMA was holding a conference at Hotel Africana. Curious, he attended and met three people who would have such an impact on his life.
The late Dr Margaret Mungherera, who was both the chairperson of UMA and the World Medical Association; Dr Kenya Mugisha (then director of Masaka regional referral hospital and later president of UMA) and Dr Dickson Opulu, who hired him as medical officer to work at the Uganda Workers’ Treatment Centre in Kampala and Jinja.
“I was one of the first Ugandan doctors to prescribe the antiretroviral therapy branded type. I was also very key in formulating HIV worker treatment policy not only in Uganda but globally,” Obuku says.
He rejoined Makerere to work on its various HIV programmes. It was during this return that he joined the Institute of Human Virology at the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine as a technical advisor on tuberculosis control.
Obuku says he had a lot of opportunity to remain in the US but came back because he is a “patriot”.
At Makerere, he received a scholarship from the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership to pursue a master’s degree in clinical trials at the London school of science and tropical medicine, London University, graduating in 2009.
This scholarship fit in well with Obuku’s desire to help build capacity in clinical research in Africa.
“I’m one of the first people to complete that course. Right now I teach this course at the University of London as well as at the clinical epidemiology unit at Makerere University,” Obukus says.
On his return to Uganda, he joined the Joint Clinical Research Centre as a research scholar. Obuku is presently in his final year as a Phd student at Makerere majoring in health policy under the supervision of Prof. Nelson Ssenwankambo and Prof John Levis from McMaster University, USA.
“I have got scholarships throughout my life; I have been fortunate, that’s why I’m devoting myself to offering leadership in health,” Obuku says.
Many people who have heard Obuku speak can’t help but see the politician in him. Other workers leaders before him, the likes of Dr Sam Lyomoki, Charles Bakkabulindi, and Margaret Rwabushaija have used that platform to join politics…
“I can categorically state that I’m not interested in politics. I’m merely interested in organising doctors to help themselves,” Obuku says.
He adds that MP for Oyam South, Betty Amongi, should rest easy knowing that if any challenge is to come her way, it won’t be from the direction of Obuku.
“I support her very much and I think her cause of advancing maternal and child health is a good one. We can be leaders wherever we are; it doesn’t mean we have to have political office.”
Obuku joined the leadership of UMA in 2013 as publicity and mobilisation secretary. He was later elected unopposed as secretary general and on September 9, 2017 at Hotel Africana, he was elected president up to 2019. Has he been threatened over the strike?
“I have taken precautions because wrong elements within or outside the state can take advantage but my greatest protection is God and the truth,” Obuku says.
“There is an African saying that goes that until the lion learns how to write, the best part of the story will be told by the hunters. For a very long time, the doctors were being haunted by the conditions of health facilities but they have learnt how to tell their story so loudly saying enough is enough.”