Otunnu's Leadership Skills Dwarfs Those Of Many Married Politicos

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[Global Commentary: Uganda]

Few who criticize Uganda People's Congress (UPC) presidential hopeful Olara Otunnu for being single, could walk a mile in his shoes.

If they took time to examine Mr. Otunnu’s life story, they would find him a humble, compassionate, caring and selfless man.

As he revealed in Kabale during a rally last week, the ambassador is a single parent to a horde of nieces, nephews, younger brothers and sisters, and cousins he has educated and brought up as his own in New York and London.

It is doubtful Ambassador Otunnu could have accomplished such noble task, had he been married, considering the socio-economic context of New York, and the Western nuclear family system, which is diametrically at odds with the expectations and obligations of the African extended family structures. How many of us would ungrudgingly put the interests of our nieces and nephews, or the needs of another human being ahead of our own, as Mr. Otunnu has commendably done?

Ambassador Otunnu could have easily given up his nephews and nieces for adoption or neglected them, when the children lost their parents to Uganda’s political violence and or to natural causes. I understand and identify with Mr. Otunnu’s experiences.

As a young graduate student in 1995, my elder brother, who was a single parent, died, leaving three young boys, all under age ten. The choice was for me to give them up for adoption, send them to my elderly parents in Uganda, or raise them by myself in Toronto, Canada. As an Acholi man, my obligation, like that of Ambassador Otunnu, was very clear; I would raise them as my own children.

Those who do not know Mr. Otunnu, fail to understand the degree of selflessness and almost monastic lifestyle he leads, including denying himself material pleasures in order that the needs of others are met. As a spiritual and moral person, Ambassador Otunnu postponed the personal pleasures and privileges of marriage in order that he could devote his time and resources to raising the children thrown onto his laps by misfortunes in his family. Even more importantly, the ambassador felt it would be both immoral and unfair to any woman that he would have brought into a situation where he had a full house of young nephews, nieces, brothers and sisters who needed to be taken care of.

As many stepmothers and stepchildren know, one or the other has to give.  In Mr. Otunnu’s case, the welfare, education, parental love and guidance and shaping the future of the children could not wait. Clearly, marriage could wait, both because the children needed his undivided attention, and he also did not want to bring somebody’s daughter in a situation where she would be unfairly saddled with immediate responsibility of raising these children.

While his extended family obligations could impose such responsibility on him, he could not consciously foist it onto someone else, when it could be avoided. Mr. Otunnu is not one of those men or women who take marriage lightly; and he is particularly not one of those men who do not see women as autonomous moral beings.

Again, I identify with Mr. Otunnu. I experienced broken relationships because of the demands of dividing my attention among the needs of my nephews, my academic work and social and personal expectation of a girlfriend. I had naively hoped that my then girlfriend who was also a graduate student would appreciate my situation and tailor our relationship around my familial responsibilities. Unfortunately, she and one or two others after her thought it was irrational for me to put my life on hold so I could look after my brother’s children. As far as they were concerned, adoption was the best option. Since they could not cope or wait, they had to move on. For a considerable length of time, I remained single without any serious relationship until my nephews were teenagers.

So we cannot judge Otunnu’s bachelorhood outside these compelling moral considerations in his life story. I am sure there are exceptional women out there who would have stepped up and in partnership with the ambassador, raised his relatives as well as he has done singlehandedly. However, this was a probability over which he had no control and could not gamble on.

Undoubtedly, members of UPC recognize Ambassador Otunnu’s exceptional leadership abilities. He brings to the Ugandan political scene a deeply moral, spiritual, and normative approach to leadership and policy discussions that no or few politicians in the unfolding UPC and national presidential race can muster. Ambassador Otunnu is an accomplished diplomat, international civil servant, a global leader on human rights, a former cabinet minister and member of the National Consultative Council (NCC), and above all a consensus builder.

Therefore, Ambassador Otunnu need not get married in order to provide moral and accountable leadership to this country.

We have many leaders who have a harem of wives, neglected children from broken marriages, abused and disinherited ex-wives and a string of concubines. Yet UPC members and Ugandans have not said they are unfit to lead. In my view, Ambassdor Otunnu’s unwed status is no debilitation to his leadership capacities. In any case, as the people in Bushenyi observed, neither Jesus Christ, nor St. Paul, was married; but they were excellent leaders in their time. No Christian sneered at the Christ or St. Paul, nor does any think today the two bachelors were less credible leaders because neither perfunctorily took the hand of a woman in marriage.

Closer to home, the late Milton Obote, the illustrious nationalist leader, was not married when he founded and led UPC or the time he was elected Prime Minister of Uganda. His leadership abilities and records before and after he got married, are matters of legend no current and past Ugandan leader can pretend to equal.

It should be troubling, if the worries of those who decry Ambassador Otunnu’s single status are informed by the image of a woman as a fixture in the statehouse kitchen, or as a trophy on the arms of our political patriarchs. So they worry and wonder who will pass the teas and biscuits around for them in Mucwini, at Uganda House, or Statehouse Entebbe. In which case, I would expect that the social justice and women rights movement fraternities in Uganda will interest themselves in the debate.

Until there is clarity on what it is proponents think a wife or the absence of one adds to, or takes away from, ones leadership abilities, I will think that the decision to marry or not to marry is a personal matter which each one of us, including Olara Otunnu, is entitled to make privately.


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