Deaths by suicide always prompt anguished questions from family and friends of the deceased about what they could have done to save him or what they did wrong to push him or her to the edge.
These unanswered questions, and many others, still linger in the minds of two friends of the late Richard Olaja, the former pharmacist at Kiruddu hospital, who committed suicide on June 20, 2019 in Jinja. Paradox is that victims like Olaja who are intent on committing suicide tend to keep such plans to themselves.
Twenty-six-year-old Olaja committed suicide on June 20, two days after NBS TV broadcast a BBC investigative documentary dubbed “Stealing from the sick” which featured the deceased in the illicit sale of government drugs. One of his friends who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the case told The Observer that Olaja showed no suicidal tendencies before he took his life.
The three friends met one and a half years ago at a bar in Makindye, a Kampala suburb. This bar or “sitting room” offered them ample time to unwind in the evenings, discuss life, watch news and soccer.
With this bonding, they became brothers of sorts. They describe Olaja as a young, bright, calm and soft-spoken man who took great care not to speak much about his private life. Nonetheless, they enjoyed his company though he was not a “hard drinker” like them.
“He used to prescribe drugs for us whenever we fell sick and we also recommended patients to him in case they needed any medicines. He was a good man,” says one of his friends. When the BBC first released a promo of the investigation on June 17, Olaja saw it and contacted one of the friends.
“On that day, Richard didn’t come to the bar but called me and said there were some people who tried to scam him about selling drugs and they were releasing their findings on NBS and BBC,” the friend says.
“He was not aware that these were journalists and had filmed him because the first promo didn’t have his face,” the friend says.
On the same day on NBS, the full documentary was aired featuring his face while at Eco Pharmacy in Makindye and outside Kiruddu hospital gate where he had planned to meet the journalists then disguised as foreign businessmen. At the time of his death, Olaja had resigned from Eco Pharmacy and had started his own pharmacy in Kireka but continued to work at Kiruddu.
Concerned about the revelations, this friend contacted Olaja the following day, Tuesday. “I called him to ask if this [story] was true but he said he was a bit stressed. He told me; sooka ondekemu [let me be] and hang up. I called again but he didn’t respond to my calls. He also didn’t show up at the bar that evening.
That is the last time I communicated with him,” the grief-stricken friend recalls. Olaja’s other friend believes that he could have known at some point that he was being filmed after journalists were arrested in the course of their investigation. “When you try to connect the dots now, Richard had become more silent and not frequent at the bar. When we met before the story aired, I think he expected to be exposed. He was sipping his beer but was not so much into our usual banter. Could it be that he was stressed then when we didn’t know?” he wonders.
According to the documentary, Olaja spoke with confidence and painted a picture of someone good at the game of obtaining free of charge government drugs. He claimed, according to the documentary, that he gets most of his stolen drugs from National Medical Stores (NMS). The Observer has learnt that from the onset, Olaja remained protective of himself and only allowed to meet the disguised journalists through their fixer.
This followed months of interactions before the deal was sealed. He was meant to deliver about 10 cartons of Lumaterm, an antimalarial drug at $1,000 (about Shs 3.7m). The buyers opted to transact in dollars with Olaja. To aid his plan, Olaja requested for a deposit of $100 (about Shs 370,000), which he received in cash.
All through, an unsuspecting Olaja was captured on secret body cameras worn by the journalists, which explains why he spoke with ease.
They agreed that the balance of $900 (about Shs 3.3m) would be cleared when he delivers the drugs. On February 7, 2019 luck was not on the side of the journalists. They were arrested by plain-clothes security personnel at Calendar hotel in Makindye where they had agreed to meet with Olaja.
It remains unclear how security managed to foil the plan. The appointment had been scheduled for 3pm but dragged on for almost two hours. Olaja didn’t show up but followed every bit of their arrest through social media. Then, the public was awash with reports of NBS journalist Solomon Serwanjja and BBC journalists; Kassim Muhammed and Godfrey Badebye being found with government medicines until they were released on police bond from CPS, Kampala.
It is at this point that Olaja got to know that he was working with journalists who were on a mission to expose the illegal sale of medicines. For almost three months, he didn’t share anything with his friends until BBC released a promo.
COMMITS SUICIDE IN JINJA
Olaja’s friends continued to communicate on phone but were not aware that he had travelled to Jinja on June 20. According to the police spokesperson of Kiira region, Diana Nandawula, the deceased was found unconscious in his room at Lucky guesthouse located in Lubaga village, Mpumudde division in Jinja.
She says when the hotel management realised that he didn’t come out of his room by 10am on June 21, they got concerned and notified police.
“By the time we picked him, he was still alive but unconscious and we took him to Jinja regional referral hospital. His family later transferred him to Nile International hospital in Jinja where he breathed his last on the same day,” Nandawula says.
On the table inside his room, police found four suicide notes he had written to his mother, father, a one Brenda and Wamito that are now fixed on his file as investigations into his death continue.
“There was also a white solution that was found in a mineral water bottle with water and tablets that have all been sent to the government chemist for investigations,” she adds.
By press time, Nandawula had not yet received the postmortem report. In a suicide note to his mother, Olaja said he was set up by his friend who approached him with journalists.
“Mummy, this I will swear to you with tears in my eyes that I have never sold any medicines or drugs to anyone at one point in my profession. Mummy, I tried hard to avoid them but they insisted. Mummy, I caused all this to me,” reads the note. “Am sorry for the pain am going to make you go through…Thanks, your beloved Richard.”
To his friend who received the news on social media, this suicide note was gut-wrenching. He wonders how Olaja travelled from Kampala to Jinja without a second thought about his life.
“He wouldn’t have killed himself! We’ve all done wrong things but did not decide to take our lives. He left the family and us more damaged. He would have met us and we talked about it or maybe, asked his mother to talk to him.”
PHARMACIST OR NOT
Last week, Olaja, who is survived by one child, was laid to rest in Olok village, Pallisa district. However, on June 26, the Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda (PSU) released a statement disowning him and two other people – Alex and Patrick – that were captured in the documentary.
PSU said the trio are “NOT and have NEVER been pharmacists in this country neither are they pharmacy students.”
“The documentary has caused great distress, torment, injury and defamed pharmacists within the country and globally and put the profession in total disrepute,” reads the statement signed by PSU president, Dr Patrick Ogwang, and Dr Samuel Opio, the PSU secretary. In an interview with The Observer, Olaja’s father dismissed PSU’s allegations as “false”.
“I am the real father of Richard and he was my first born. If those people [PSU] say he wasn’t a pharmacist, how was he employed in Kiruddu hospital? How did he get a job in such a government institution? How really?” asks his father Joseph Tulya, the police human resource officer, Katonga region and current acting spokesman.
He adds: “I didn’t see their statement but they should find time and check with records of where he studied from. They are lying. The young man studied and graduated. On his graduation, I was away in Somalia on official duty but his mother attended the ceremony.”
Tulya explained that his son studied from many schools in primary but completed primary seven at Army Day PS in Masindi. He joined Pallisa High School where he completed senior four before joining Kyambogo High School in Kampala to complete A-levels. He joined Mulago Paramedical School where he was awarded a Diploma in Pharmacy. Olaja’s friends reiterated that their friendship was birthed from Eco Pharmacy where the PSU ought to start its investigation.
“If he worked at this reputable pharmacy for that long, does it make him a dog seller or drug seller?”
As Olaja’s soul continues to rest in eternal peace, his two friends are yet to sit and agree on how to proceed with their saving scheme that had solidified their friendship. Starting January 2, 2019, the trio opened an account and started saving Shs 30,000 per week per person but currently on hold due to financial constraints.