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Oulanyah: man of different shades

The author (L) and colleagues with Jacob Oulanyah during a dinner

The author (L) and colleagues with Jacob Oulanyah during a dinner

"Charles, I hope you are enjoying your work! Go back and put your best foot forward. Enjoy yourself in this parliament.”

As we mark one year since the former Speaker, Jacob Oulanyah, died, those words still ring in my mind. He made that statement when I went to see him in his office after he had chaired what was to be his last sitting of the House on December 21, 2021.

We shall come back to how I ended up going there on that day. I have vivid and special memories of the man we came to commonly refer to as O.J. When I was posted to parliament as a news reporter for Dembe FM in 2004, Oulanyah was chairperson of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee.

The way he spoke and directed the meeting made for good sound bites, and that attracted me to the committee. When I joined the parliamentary service as an Assistant Editor of the Hansard in 2009, the late Oulanyah had lost his seat in 2006.

In 2011, he was elected to represent Omoro county and, subsequently, elected deputy speaker. In 2013, I joined the department of Communication and Public Affairs. Due to low staffing levels, I doubled as an information and protocol officer. It was in the course of these two roles that I got close to Oulanyah.

It was while on these duties that he got to know me and started referring to me as mukwasi (brother-in-law) because, like his late wife, I hail from Bugisu. That is how the friendship began. The protocol duties continued on foreign trips as he represented Uganda at the African-Caribbean-Pacific- European Union (ACP-EU) joint parliamentary meetings. It is on these foreign travels that he truly opened up.

As soon as we got onto any airplane, he temporarily ‘took off’ the title of deputy speaker, and we travelled as friends until arrival at our final destination. He detested being treated differently, especially in transit through airports.

We went through the normal security checks, where he asked us not to seek preferential treatment. He removed his shoes and belt where we had to and adhered to all the other conditions. It was only at the final destination that he would go through the VIP lounges with host protocol officers to receive us.

The highlight of the trips was he inviting you to the lounges, which he was entitled to due to his frequent flyer miles.

“I know you would like to indulge a bit. Feel free. You have a life to live after your duties. Have a few pints, but control yourself,” he would advise.

As soon as we arrived, the coat was back on, and it was time for work. There was a clear separation between your role and who was boss. Protocol duties had to be meticulously handled.

After he joined Twitter, he wanted to ensure we captured his contributions at these meetings correctly. He constantly checked what one had posted, and if there was any error or misquotation, he would not hesitate to ask you to always pay attention.

One time he told me off for taking a bad picture. Reason: the seats around him were empty. The ACP-EU assembly in Malta stands out. After a long day, he invited my colleague, Kenneth Omoding, and me to his residence.

When we got there, he asked us to escort him to the supermarket around the corner. If one spotted us walking on the street, they would never have known that we were with a VIP. He engaged us in banter, and we were laughing loudly on the street.
We entered the store, and when he picked up his basket, he asked us to pick one too.

“Get anything of your choice.” “However, it will have to be consumed at my residence on the day we shall not have an afternoon session,” he said.

We picked up some drinks and snacks as he went about his shopping. We took a step back and asked ourselves how much we were to pick.

Not to “irritate” the boss, we did not even fill our basket. He had his fill of raw food (meat, vegetables and condiments). I wondered what was going on but stopped short of asking. On the agreed-upon day after the meetings, he was quick to remind us to keep time and make sure we didn’t have a heavy lunch as he had plans.

Later that afternoon, we walked to the residence, and he ushered us in. He served us drinks, and the ‘party’ kicked off. That is when it struck us why he had bought the meat. It was already defrosted, marinated, and on the grill. We were both in shock.

He told us he was treating us to one of his favorite roasts, which we would not regret. My mind raced. ‘Our boss, the deputy speaker, is cooking for us. What is going on here?’

We asked if we could help with the salad. He declined and said he was ready for us. Wow, what a man!

At the next ACP-EU meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, we had to exact revenge. I had told the other staff on the delegation what he had done to us in Malta. One evening, we asked him out for a meal at a popular restaurant. The ambiance was amazing, and his favourite rhumba played through the speakers.

At the end of the evening, when the bill was presented, OJ pulled out his wallet to take it. We politely told him it was our turn to do so. He could not believe it and, in his usual banter, quipped, “Will you guys have money to buy presents for your

families after this?”
On the legislative front, Oulanyah took pride in being the custodian of the rules of procedure in parliament. He often told MPs in a candid and polite way to quote the rules whenever they stood up on procedural and other incidental matters. He took time to guide the House on matters that were tending toward controversy.

In one of the many interviews we carried for our in-house magazine, he was asked what his most difficult sitting of the House was, and he picked it out without much thought.

“The most difficult decision I ever took in that chair was when I had to put a question on whether a body to which we were paying tribute would not be taken for burial but be returned to the House the next day for debate to continue”.

This was in reference to the debate to pay tribute to the former Butaleja district Woman MP, Cerinah Nebanda, who had died in alleged mysterious circumstances.

FITNESS FREAK

He was fit and always out of his home in Muyenga by 5 am to go jogging. On his return, he at times engaged in boxing sessions with kickboxer Moses Golola. At one of the events in the members’ lounge on non-communicable diseases, he spoke passionately about exercising.

He called for a balanced life. By that time, I had started using the parliament gym, but on a low level. From that day on, I intensified my workouts and started jogging too. A month or so into this routine, I shed over 7kg. When he next saw me, he was in shock and wondered what had happened.

I referred him to his words at that event. He was very impressed and walked away smiling. There is so much to write about Jacob Oulanyah, the man, but let me go back to the statement at the beginning of this piece. When he was elected speaker in 2021, so many people wanted to meet him and congratulate him.

I decided against doing the same at the time. On three different occasions, whenever we met as he came in or left the building, he asked why I had not gone to see him. On the fourth time of asking, we met at the South Wing reception, and he added: “If you don’t come to see me, I will have you fired.”

‘Why should the speaker beg you to go see him?” a colleague asked me.

So, one day, after he had chaired a sitting of the House, I went to see him. As usual, there was a queue of people waiting to see him. When the assistant went into his office to inform him of who was present, he asked her to usher me in. As soon as I walked in, he burst out into laughter, which left me confused.

“Charles, you must have been wondering what was going on! I was joking, and there is nothing much. I don’t like creating the gap. Please sit down,” he said.

He then said those words. That was the last time I saw him. I keep wondering and at the same time thanking God that I went to see him. I would have been haunted if he had passed on without my seeing him. It would have been hard for me to imagine what he wanted to tell me.

When the news of his passing on came through, I was driving from Mbale. That journey turned out to be the longest. That was the slowest I had been on a highway. Jacob L’Okori Oulanyah, the speaker, the mentor, mukwasi, and friend, continue to rest in power.

The author is the principal information officer, parliament of Uganda.

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