By Okot Nyormoi, Editor, retired cancer biologist and author of the novel Burden of Failure 

Okot NyormoiA couple of months ago, there was much fury about the demise of the late Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament, Jacob Oulanyah. It began when it was discovered that he was flown to Seattle, Washington, USA, for treatment. Some people demonstrated against him for wasting government money instead of spending it on improving the national health services. And when he died, some people celebrated his demise because they accused him of being one of the enablers of the autocratic rule. They attribute the regular violation of human rights: extrajudicial killings, disappearance of government critics, torture, etc. in Uganda when he presided over the amendment that removed the age limit which allows President Museveni to rule indefinitely. Some of the most vulgar poems ever written were penned in celebration of the Speaker’s demise.

To counter such views, other people accused the demonstrators of being hypocritical since they did not demonstrate when other leaders were flown overseas for treatment. Even worse, they were called evil people for demonstrating against a sick person. Poems and songs praising the deceased Speaker were written to counter those of the celebrants.

Yet others argued that, though they agree with the criticism of the deceased, they thought it was callous of the critics to castigate the man while he was sick or before he was buried or when he could no longer speak to defend himself. To them, such behavior was disrespectful of other people’s cultures.

Later, the reaction escalated even further as to the cause of death. None other than the father of the deceased and the President alleged that the Speaker was poisoned. Some people intimated that it was the NRM government who did it to eliminate a popular politician from challenging the President’s son for the presidency.

To counter that, the president issued a threat to investigate those who were alleging that the Speaker was poisoned despite he himself having alleged the same. Of course, this was seen as a threat to cover up the truth. In any case, most people do not take the ordered investigation seriously since they do not believe in the credibility of the police.

When it was revealed that the deceased left a huge unfinished conference center he was building in his village, and the president promised to complete it, accusations of corruption sprang up. Some people questioned how the speaker could have accumulated so much property based on his salary. Perhaps he borrowed the money. Fair enough, but why would the president step in to finish it, allegedly using public funds, they asked?

These were not all, the appeal to have the government take care of Oulanyah’s children also raised eyebrows. Why should that be when other citizen’s struggle on their own to care for their children without government help. Some people found the idea even more galling when the deceased seemed to have lived a rather careless family life. If anything, the government should improve the quality of the education for all children.

During the burial, a  gust of wind blew down a tent over the coffin of the deceased. This, too, generated all kinds of interpretations, one of which was that the spirit of the ancestors came and took away the body because they were not burying him according to tradition or that his spirit was whisked away almost like the story of  Jesus rising from the dead and ascending to heaven.

The Late OulanyahPolitically, some people praised the deceased as an astute politician based on his accomplishment from his student days at Makerere University and his rise to the Speaker of Parliament. In contrast, other people think that he was just an opportunist because  when he failed to be re-elected to Parliament as a member of Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), he crossed to the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). They say that he crossed because he saw no opportunity to advance his political ambition being in the opposition when the political space for the opposition is highly restricted. His rise in the NRM is also questioned because his re-election to Parliament was due to alleged rigging by the ruling party.

Although it was appropriate for the government to organize his funeral, it was argued that it should have been handled according to tradition. The size and state control of the budget and the funding of MPs coming to the funeral were seen by some people as nothing but an occasion for the well connected to make money.

When all is said and done, the story reminds me of an Indian parable, BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT, which we read in Primary School. Briefly, the story goes like this. Six men who have been blind all their lives wanted to feel the elephant since they could not see. They were then asked to describe what the elephant is. They proceeded to describe the elephant according to which part they touched: the ear was like a large fan, the tail was like a rope, the leg was like a huge tree, the trunk was like a wriggling snake, the flank was like a tall wall, and the tusk was sharp like a spear. They disagreed and argued the whole day about who was right. Some versions of the story says that the men came to blows. Meanwhile the elephant walked away to mind its own business.

While each description is not wrong, each one by itself is not the elephant. However, all of them together pretty much described what an elephant is. The moral of the story is that sometimes we fail to see situations wholistically because we are so blinded by our own limited experiences.  

So, what is the moral story of the Speaker’s demise? Neither the supporters nor the detractors of the Speaker are apriori right or wrong. Even if individual groups are right, it is not helpful to be so blinded by their own opinions while ignoring other equally compelling opinions. In any case, where there is no compelling evidence, honest efforts must be made to discover  the truth; and when the truth is found, it must be honestly revealed to the citizens. Otherwise, national institutions charged with the responsibility of governance will have no credibility  and cannot be trusted by the citizens.