Betty Aol Ocan, the new Leader of Opposition (LoP), welcomed me to her office on the 5th floor of parliament with her trademark smile. She looked well put together in a black knee-length dress and a floral jacket outfit. Contrary to my earlier misconception, Ocan is a very warm person almost motherly in mannerisms.
Dealing with criticism
Ocan’s life changed when Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party headed by Patrick Oboi Amuriat, appointed her as LoP on August 3, 2018, after dropping Winnie Kiiza, the Kasese woman MP. She is also the Gulu Woman Member of Parliament (MP) serving her third term. The appointment sparked off an avalanche of criticism.
“There was a lot of bickering and people talked left, right and centre. Some said I was unqualified for the new role. Then, there were those who said I was incompetent, not visible, not aggressive enough as well as not vocal enough. Others called me timid and weak,” Ocan says in a soft spoken tone.
Being criticised, Ocan says was nothing new having been in politics for as long as she has.
“Was I offended by what they said? No, not really. Criticism is part of the politics business. But I always wish that rather than people talking behind my back or criticising my capabilities, they would walk up to me and say what they do not like either about me or my work, so that we find a way of fixing the problem together. If you have noticed a certain weakness, come and tell me so that I find a way of working on it,” she says.
As if attacking her character and competence was not enough another group started accusing Amuriat of tribalism.
“They said Amuriat gave me the job because we belong to the same tribe, which is not true. I come from the northern part of Uganda while he comes from the East. He is from Teso region while I come from Acholi. People got it all wrong,” she says calmly.
I am struck by how much care she pays to her words as she goes on to admit that she and Amuriat by virtual of working together can be called friends.
She says her strategy for handling the heavy criticism was to stay calm and concentrate on the job at hand.
“I love working with people and listening to them more. You may term me as a servant leader. But also more importantly, since I am a Christian, I am not the kind of person who carries out revenge. When people do bad to me, I do not pay them back in a similar manner. I do the opposite. And when things are not going as expected, I turn to God for strength and wisdom,” Ocan states.
She reveals that unlike the outsiders who were making comments based on limited information, her appointment was not such a surprise for insiders.
“Before my confirmation and appointment, there had been talk doing rounds in the corridors that I was getting appointed, into the role. Since there were a number of other MPs being considered nothing was definite. So, my being chosen over the others was probably a surprise for me,” she relates. She believes her long political career was one of the big reasons she got the job. This echoes Amuriat’s sentiments while appearing on a morning show, to defend his choice of LoP.
How her life has changed
Since her appointment, Ocan’s life has become busier. Her mobile phone never stops ringing; she is forced to switch it off if she needs a moment of peace for instance during an interview. Anyone can walk to her office, meaning there is always a queue of people waiting to see their MP. This, she says can at times get overwhelming.
“I have all sorts of people calling me; fellow politicians, members of my constituency, journalists, family members, and many other kinds of people. And because I hold this office, I have no choice but respond to most of these calls,” she says.
Our conversation is briefly interrupted when a middle-aged man walks into the office to bring a wedding pledge card. She receives the card and promises him that she will contribute to the wedding. Appeased by the promise, the man excuses himself.
“And this is how my life has changed,” Ocan says while resuming our conversation.
“Besides people requesting me to make contributions, there are those who will ask me to attend their private functions including weddings, attend to matters in their local communities or give talks at their respective institutions of learning,” she says, adding, “This office comes with a number of responsibilities, which I must fulfil.”
Asked if she gets help, the MP reveals she is putting together a team that will take over some of those responsibilities.
Why was she against security?
Before becoming the LoP, Ocan enjoyed relative freedom to do whatever she wanted and the liberty to go wherever she wanted even as an MP. That has changed now.
“My movements are now controlled. I am not allowed to move alone. Parliament gave me six policemen for security. These accompany me wherever I go,” she says. She expects two more policemen to be added to her security detail soon.
“I found it a little bit disturbing in the beginning that all these policemen were guarding me. I even remember at some point refusing their protection because I wanted to be free. I did not feel I needed the security detail,” Ocan says.
The 59-year-old was only able to completely conform to the idea after the head of security in Parliament gave her an insightful lecture on why the security is important. They reasoned it was for her own good, especially with the ongoing rampant killings of high profile individuals.
The loss that shattered her world
In February 2017, Ocan’s life was shattered after her husband succumbed to heart failure at the age of 63.
“We first got to know about his condition when he was 58 years old and tried managing it until the time of his death,” she says, adding nostalgically, “He was loving and very supportive. I still miss him a lot.”
The couple had been married since 1980 and they have seven children together. The eldest is 37 years while the youngest is 24 years. They, however, adopted a number of disadvantaged children too. Ocan says it took her almost a year to come to terms with the loss.
“I read the Bible a lot during my time of grief and came across several important messages. There is one that says we are never alone and that God is always with us. I found comfort in such revelations,” she says.
“Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of Oxfam International, is one of my mentors in the political cycles. Back then, when she was still active in political cycles, I admired her personality and ability to produce results.
She was soft-spoken, yet, still very effective in her work. I also admire Norbert Mao, the president of Democratic Party (DP), for a number of things. First, he is a great public speaker.
Mao is the kind of person you cannot get tired of listening to because he is articulate while speaking. Also, he is courageous and a straightforward man,” Ocan says of people who inspire her.
A day in the life
Most days, I wake up between 5am and 6am. I then prepare myself and ensure to get to office by 9am. It is here where I have my breakfast.
Right there after, if there is any pending work on my desk, I will try to finish it up. If there are visitors, I attend to them as well. My plans normally depend upon the activities in Parliament that day. For example, if there is plenary (a sitting), I attend until the time it ends.
If by the end of the session I still can, I head straight back to my office and finish any other pending work. I may leave office after 9pm. On weekends, I to attend to other duties. For instance, I attend functions, visit my constituency in Gulu, visit schools or spend time with my family.”
Who is Ocan?
She was born in 1958.
Ocan graduated with a diploma in education in 1981 from Makerere University.
A teacher by profession, she taught at Layibi College in Gulu District between the years, 1981 to 1986. Also, she taught at Awere Secondary school, Gulu, from the years 1986 to 1990.
She has a Bachelor of Development Studies degree from Gulu University obtained in 2006 as well as a number of certificates in rural development and leadership from other respective institutions.
In 2011, she graduated with a master’s degree in Development Studies from Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.
She worked with Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD) at their Gulu offices as the rural development from the years 1990 to 1995.
She then worked as a programme officer at St. Muritz Catholic Parish for two years until 1997.
She was elected to parliament in 2006 on the FDC ticket as Gulu woman MP. Currently she serves as Gulu MP as well as the LoP.