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Doctors’ apathy and Uganda Medical Association’s problems

Doctors’ apathy and Uganda Medical Association’s problems

Photo: Prof. Alexander Mwa Odonga MB ChB, FRCS, LMS (EA), Dip. Med. (EA), President of the BMA (Uganda Branch) 1964, President of the Association of Surgeons of East Africa 1971-1972, Dean of Makerere Medical School, 1975-1977.


Dr. Samuel Odongo Oledo, who knelt to beg Yoweri Museveni to remain president of Uganda, has confirmed my fear that he is completely unsuited to serve as president of the Uganda Medical Association (UMA). In a recorded interview with Kampala’s NTV News, Oledo was defiant in defense of his partisan, self-serving act that offended many Ugandan doctors. That he had turned the medical profession into a laughingstock seems to have flown past him unnoticed.  Instead, he deepened the wound by engaging in futile claims that he had been misunderstood.


 Oledo issued a written note on December 6 in which he claimed: “By endorsing the chairman of my political party, the NRM, for the 2026 general election, I was not in any way representing UMA. I would like to categorically state this.” Sounding like a common garden ruler with no obligation to consult with other leaders and members of UMA, Oledo contradicted himself: “However, I am also the president of UMA and therefore the vision bearer, projecting where Uganda will be in the next 5, 10 or 15 years.”  


Oledo’s statements demonstrated a dishonesty that was very unbecoming of a doctor, further injuring his credibility. Prior to kneeling before Museveni, Oledo had shouted “NRM Oyee!”  The man who claims that he had acted in his private capacity, had in fact told the president: “As health workers here, your excellency you can see we are happy here.” Clearly, he had pretended to represent the opinion of doctors and other health workers. It was only after he was called out on his embarrassing worship of a mortal being that Oledo claimed that he was just a partisan exercising his right to flatter his party leader.


Obviously, he had choreographed the entire thing to look like a representation of Uganda’s doctors. Oledo had mobilized medical students to stand with him at the Kololo function. He had instructed them to dress in white lab coats. The medical students had been promised refreshments (“provided by the UMA president”) and a tour of Kololo, among other benefits for acting as his props in his special moment before the man he correctly likes to refer to as “the fountain of honour.” 


To Oledo’s student chaperons, they were there to support the president of UMA, not a private member of the ruling NRM. Poor souls may not have known that they were needed to support their president as he presented his personal hope for reward by the “fountain of honour,” a term that refers to a person who is “the source of all justice, honours, dignities, titles, peerages, and privileges.”  


Oledo knows of what he speaks. He may yet receive his appointment and title and leave the UMA to pick up the pieces. Nevertheless, he appears to lack humility. He represents himself, not the members of the Association. He seems to lack the requisite discipline for listening to others, engaging in self-examination, and apologising to offended colleagues. 


What is puzzling is how Oledo became the president of UMA. I am eager to read his authentic resume, especially since he left A-level. What qualified him to lead UMA? Surely Uganda has more mature and experienced doctors with the integrity, professionalism, and leadership ability, who can separate personal partisan interests from their duty to the organization. UMA is not some village hobby club of malwa drinkers or other strugglers that are desperate to catch the eye of the president. UMA is an organization that is descended from the British Medical Association (BMA), one of the most powerful and well-organized professional trade unions in the world. 


The BMA, which was founded in 1832, gave birth to branches in British colonies. The BMA-Uganda branch first met in September 1913, under the chairmanship of Dr. Albert Ruskin Cook, the pioneer of Western medicine in Uganda.  BMA-Uganda changed its name to Uganda Medical Association in 1961, led by Dr. Finekasi George Sembeguya. It remained affiliated to the BMA until 1969. 


UMA adopted its Constitution on June 15, 1964, a momentous year that marked the triumph of African Ugandan doctors’ long quest for recognition through the same certification as that of their British colleagues. The original subscribers to that Constitution were Dr. William Roy Billington, Dr. Stephen Bosa, Dr. John William W. S. Kasirye, Dr. Chunibhaiti Narhabhai Patel, Dr. Kantibhai Maganbhai Patel, Dr. Yusufu Balirwana Semambo, and Dr. Fenekasi George Sembeguya. All of them were men of substance.


So, this is an organization with a long history, which has been led by some distinguished doctors like John Kibuka-Musoke (1962), Alexander Mwa Odonga (1964), Frank Bariseene Mwesigye (1995), and Margaret Mungherera (1999), to mention just a few. These leaders had self-confidence anchored by their professionalism and the high esteem they were accorded by their peers and society.  Politicians listened to them and interacted with them as equals. 


UMA is a national institution that is worth defending and promoting by all citizens, especially by Uganda’s doctors and other health care professionals. Sadly, there appears to be a malignant apathy among the doctors. Of the reported population of 6,000 doctors in the country, only a small fraction are registered members of UMA. I understand that there are only 401 registered members of UMA, including non-physicians. If true, this calls for a serious review of the reasons why over 90 percent of Uganda’s doctors are not part of an organization that officially represents their interests. 


Such apathy is very consequential. The election of an unqualified leader may be a result of that.  Membership of doctors’ associations is so important that in some countries it is a mandatory requirement. In Ontario, Canada, for example, medical doctors automatically become members of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA). They are required to pay membership fees, which enables the Association leaders to carry out critical representation of doctors’ and patients’ interests without depending on the government with which they negotiate fees and other key matters. 


As a result, the OMA, which was founded in 1880, has had a great record of success in representing its 31,500 members because of its financial muscle and its members’ active engagement in their collective affairs. To become a president of the OMA takes exceptional ability, humility, wisdom, political skill without partisan pandering, and demonstrable professionalism and integrity. 


Forget the common fallacy that such things only happen in countries like Canada and Britain. We already have a long history of professionalism displayed by people who served Uganda in important, albeit challenging, roles. Oledo’s shambolic leadership is a wakeup call for all Ugandan doctors to get involved and reclaim their Association. It can be done. It must be done.


©Muniini K. Mulera


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