Alfred Okello Oryem, 43, comes in the mould of the lawyers – always suited, loud and difficult to ignore. A distinguished practising lawyer as well as managing partner at Okello Oryem & Company Advocates, his colourful CV perhaps says it all.
He has won some 5,000 cases in court and, to his recollection, lost three, between 2001 to date. Many of them have been in the area of electoral litigation where he has represented the Electoral Commission (EC). He has also represented parties in the aviation industry, handled several commercial cases in the area of concessions and bilateral contracts as well as criminal law.
Yet this list of achievements says very little, if nothing about who he really is and where it all started.
As a little boy in 1980, Okello roamed and played about in Parabongo Sub-county, Agago District, on the highway from Gulu to the Sudan border. Waking up to catch up with contemporaries and run around the village to see who was a better athlete was all the six-year-old cared about then.
He was raised by a grandfather who was an ex-World War II combatant. His father and mother were absent for much of his younger life. The rest of the village elders and teachers at school always chipped in to offer parental guidance.
Simple village life
“I grew up in the village with uncles and aunts. When you grow up in the village, you are raised by the village; everybody is your parent and they are entitled to discipline and teach you. Typically in the village, you had to grow up fast,” Okello recalls.
By the age of five, his routine was to wake up early in the morning to tend the gardens before preparing to go to school which was 10km from home.
Pupils would study up to 2pm, and go home. Okello says lunch was the only meal of the day. There would be more work thereon, such as general cleaning.
“In the evenings, you would be ‘stuck’ around parents and the elders who mostly shared World War experiences. There was not much activity apart from eating, occasional partying and learning from the elders. As children, we also used the opportunity to roam around the village,” he says.
Life was not as demanding. A home needed food, salt and a boy like Okello was happy to wear a pair of shorts and T-shirt for five years. He changed clothes when he wore the school uniform. For bedding, children would use their mothers’ gomesi as a blanket. But amid enjoying life’s simplicity, people were cautious about their security.
Memories of war
There were wars: the 1979 war that ousted president Idi Amin, the chaos that characterised the 1980 post-election era, the war that brought the National Resistance Army into power and the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency.
Okello – a child of war so to speak – grew up in that era and even lost his childhood friend who he suspects was abducted by the rebels. The memories are nasty and painful. As a pupil at Parabong Primary School, he witnessed soldiers showing up at the school and shooting aimlessly, which led pupils and teachers to run for their lives everywhere.
“I believe that is when my mother decided to come and get me out of the village. My friend, Tabu, had been picked up by the rebels. We never heard of him again. Many people from my family did not make it through the war. Many of them got killed or lost their lives to hunger. Many of the young people were abducted,” Okello recollects.
His mother, who occasionally went to check on him at his grandfather’s home, made arrangements to relocate him to Nkoyoyo Boarding Primary School in Mukono District.
The memories of war stayed with him but Okello was glad that he was out of the village and was given an opportunity to study in a secure environment. Young as he was, he made up his mind that scoring well in school was his sure ticket to success.
“I just wanted to be successful because my background was very poor and challenging. Not wretched, because I grew up in a place where there was some food. Our problem was war. I knew that the only way was to succeed in my academics, first and foremost,” the lawyer explains.
He strived to excel. It was satisfying for the youngster when Primary Leaving Examinations were released and he had scored aggregate five, which earned him a place at Namilyango College.
There, he continued to excel academically. What he also credits Namilyango College for was building his self-confidence and nurturing his sports capabilities.
“At Namilyango, I found great stories of people like Norbert Mao. It was alleged at the time that he was the last person to get a B in literature at A-Level.
So for us who were drawn to the arts, that was the yard stick. Of course, we eventually managed to get better grades. For me, academic excellence was a combination of a personal determination that I came with out of primary and then the inspirational stories that we found.”
When he sat for Uganda Advanced Certificate in Education exams, he scored good grades that enabled him get into Law School at Makerere University.
He had decided that he wanted to become a lawyer. Once, he contemplated becoming a journalist.
Through his academic journey at law school up until he started practising, he enjoyed the experience given the fact that he found law to be clear on what is right and wrong.
He started practising under the wings of the big lawyers in town, and made his contribution to the development of the law in Uganda.
“In the 18 years of my career, you could now define me as a lawyer with a passion for aviation or an aviator with a passion for law. But, I suppose my biggest highlights would be in the area of governance and constitutional law; I have practised that at the highest level,” he lists some of his career highlights.
He adds: “You will find my name on virtually all the big cases in constitutional law practice, governance and electoral practice. I have done some big commercial cases. I have some major highlights in land law practice which, if you are a good lawyer, you cannot really run away from because land is the one asset that Ugandans have disputes about.”
“I have done most of my pro-bono cases in areas of land dispute, especially in northern Uganda, where the land tenure system is customary and, therefore, not properly protected.”
Is the law an ass?
May be, may be not! But that is what many people say. I ask him what it feels like representing a client who is seemingly guilty in the eyes of the public. Okello chuckles for a minute before responding:
“The law is not the same thing as justice. The law is only one of many things that contribute to justice so when representing a client that has already been convicted by the public, and sometimes the client may even confess to you that they don’t believe that they will win the case, you have to remain a lawyer first and not become emotionally involved in the case in order to advise the client well so that you will defend them well.”
Okello explains that many times, a client will never tell the lawyer the entire truth.
“They argue their case before you and tell you what is good about their case. You have to audit the client, the opponent or those making the accusation and at the end of the day, judges, courts are manned by people like you and I who have their opinions of what the law and the constitution is, so they will give you what their interpretation is, you have to persuade rather than insist when you go to court,” he argues.
To that end, he adds that it is important to determine what the facts are, what the law is, and present the case for the benefit of the clients but also for the benefit of society.
Work and play
Okello excels at work but also finds time to let the ties and suits loose, though to his admission, says he is still a village boy and does not know his way around Kampala well. “There are places I have never been too. The only place I know well is Old Kampala because it is the way to the Law Development Centre (LDC).”
Further prodding reveals a man who is defined by hard work and what he calls “progressive friendships”.
He says he has two bosom friends in Uganda and the other two live outside the country. The four are: Patrick Oketa, an investment banker; Ronnie Mich Egwang, a media personality; Eddie Okila, a media person too; and Brian Komakech. The four transcend all social, professional, family spheres.
They are within his age group and they do social things.
“We work together, and also share problems and success stories.
But I have many people I work with, people who are acquainted with me, those who just think I am a good person. I am sure I have one or two enemies I don’t know of but on top of all of them, God, because I am a Roman Catholic through and through,” he says.
Okello is married with two children, a boy and girl.
“I am probably not the best husband in the world but I would like to think that I have done a good job of it so far. I inherited my siblings because my mother died when I was in Senior Five and I sort of had to become their father and mother since then. So they are part of my family; one sister, one brother, my sister’s daughter and my brother’s son,” he adds.
To the village boys living the life Okello lived in Parabongo, he says do not look at Uganda because it is so small.
“You can actually take a bus and be in Kampala in five hours and go back to the village. Work hard at whatever you decide to do, pray about it and make sure you find out what is happening elsewhere in Uganda. If you are in a village where farming is good, do some farming.
If you are where trading is what people do, trade. If you are where all people do is to rear animals, do that. But also find a way of going to school and while there, decide what you want to do early and spend most of your time trying to get it done,” he advises.