DENIS NYOMBI: THE LAITY WHO SAVED THE 5 PEPPER BISHOPS
By John V Sserwaniko
Its more than 7 years ago but Dennis Williams Nyombi reminisces his first day at Red Pepper like yesterday. The year was 2011 (September) and the dark-skinned fast-talking young man had just completed Bar Course training at LDC. And all this had a lot to do with city lawyer Maxim Mutabingwa who was Mr. Nyombi’s lecturer at LDC. Nyombi’s inquisitive character prompted Mutabingwa to notice him in the LDC class. Nyombi gradually became the contact person between Mutabingwa and his LDC class. “I would go to his law firm to pick or return work and that is how we bonded,” Nyombi reminisces in this Mulengera news profile interview. “After LDC, Mr. Mutabingwa called me to his office saying there is a client I want to assign you. He told me this by the way isn’t a simple client. I said who is that? When he said Red Pepper, I said no right away because I had never read that paper.” Nyombi says that, being his senior, mentor and former lecturer, Mutabingwa eventually convinced him. He put him in touch with Mr. Richard Tusiime, the Pepper Publications CEO saying “we already talked and he is expecting your call.” Nyombi vividly recalls: “When I reached, Mr. Tusiime cordially received me and asked what I knew about defamation. We had a prolonged debate over what was and wasn’t defamation and how I was going to be of help as a legal officer based at Namanve. These were my instructions from my mentor Mr. Mutabingwa. He told me I’m too busy I want you to be full time there but under my close supervision.” Nyombi admits the Red Pepper environment was too dynamic, having to advise on defamation in so many newspapers, but he gradually managed to catch up. Those who grew up with him say Nyombi is very fast and always desperate for results. He is also a risk taker who likes trying out new things-venturing into the unknown.
DOING OTHER THINGS:
After a few years of full time work with the RP, it was time to expand and approach life differently. Without letting go of the RP assignment, Nyombi moved to start his own law firm which was the 7th to open in Mukono town now home to 13 law firms. This was shortly after being enrolled as an advocate. It was then agreed that since he was no longer able to sit in office 8-5pm, Nyombi whose time kept diminishing would now concentrate on representing Pepper Publications against defamation suits in mostly magistrate courts upcountry. Looking back at closely working with Tusiime and other Pepper Directors, Nyombi says it was a rich learning experience for him. “I learn a lot from the Red Pepper bishops,” he says. The upcountry assignment, which he still does for Red Pepper, has taken him virtually to all major upcountry towns. Under his own law firm, Dennis Nyombi & Co Advocates, Nyombi has (besides the RP) represented many other clients including renegade David Sejusa whom he co-defended in the court martial along with other lawyers like Ladislaus Rwakafuzi and Mutabingwa. In the end, they got Sejusa off the hook at least temporarily. This was as recent as 2016 when he was jailed campaigning for Kizza Besigye. Earlier on, Nyombi represented Mukono’s famous Dr. Bingi who was put on criminal trial after a patient died at his clinic.
MP Betty Nambooze was one of the complainants who wanted Bingi to rot in jail but Nyombi’s cross examination tactics irritated Nambooze and discredited her evidence causing Court to disregard it. Antagonizing Nambooze was a bit risky given her soaring popularity in the same Mukono town where Nyombi trades from. “It was really duty and the desire to do justice for my client made me overlook the potential risk posed by cross examining Nambooze in her town,” Nyombi says. In the end Bingi was acquitted and that case gave Nyombi a lot of clout in Mukono resulting in more clientele. He was with three other defense lawyers. That in fact is how the realization came to him that he would excel as a defense lawyer and that is what he has mostly been so far (in both criminal and civil cases)and doesn’t regret. He says he doesn’t specialize as such but it has so far turned out all the cases done so far required him to defend the accused or defendant.
1ST PEPPER SIEGE:
In around the same period (May 2013), Nyombi again found himself in the limelight ever standing between the RP Bishops and the more than 200 security operatives who besieged the Namanve premises over the Sejusa story. The company was closed for more than 10 days and Nyombi, along with his clients the 5 Bishops, was at the center of the negotiations for re-opening. Clearly, risky as they are the RP assignments have no doubt given Nyombi media visibility as media reporters seek him for updates including during the latest siege. As the bishops languished in Luzira, it was Nyombi running around responding to one TV/radio interview request after another. In the latest episode, his clients were first held in Nalufenya and Nyombi was at hand to ensure their rights aren’t trampled upon until they were relocated to Luzira. He was that very outspoken young lawyer who initially challenged the procedural aspects of the court order security used to storm the Namanve premises and eventually besiege it for more than 60 days (counting from Tuesday November 21st). For long he admits he has been doing all these RP errands under close supervision of Mutabingwa who he says for long mentored him along with Fred Muwema. “I have consulted Maxim from time to time as I developed my lawyering skills and then Fred Muwema taught me determination, persistence and generally being a fighter. And I actually have grown to consider that life is a battle field,” Nyombi says. He says one biggest thing he has learnt from the RP bishops is courage and always being able to ignore skeptics. “Those guys are courageous and they may look soft to a casual observer seeing them on TV but I can tell you JV they are thick skinned and it’s an attribute I learn from them. They are also calm, patient and full of humility and they always take legal advice seriously. It has been fun working for them. I have no regrets whatsoever. We have been through a lot already and I will always be by their side.”
THE GASHUMBA LINK:
City businessman, social critic and philanthropist Frank Gashumba is another prominent Kampalan whose troubles Nyombi has endured. He continues to represent the Sisimuka Uganda maestro along with his two brothers in the curious fraud case the state preferred against them. This case alone has taken Nyombi through a lot as it was initially not easy getting Gashumba out of military detention. The military was determined to hold onto him for much longer but Nyombi’s persistence and pressure, based on legal provisions regarding detainees’ rights, prompted them to vomit the activist from Masaka. I ask him how he met Gashumba and Nyombi, without blinking, says “I had gone to Commercial Court and then I saw a man dressed in a very nice suit. I drew close to greet him thinking he was a fellow advocate. He gave me his business card and he was Gashumba. He hadn’t become very prominent like today. That was around 2011. I later called him to say hi and he said why don’t you come to my office and see me? It was at Pioneer Building [opposite Kitgum H’se].” On seeing a huge portrait of Martin Luther King hanging in Gashumba’s office, Nyombi reacted with excitement and approval. This made Gashumba more inquisitive. Speaking with his characteristic eloquence, Nyombi threw around a number of quotes not only of King but other civil rights movement icons like Mahatma Ghandi and Malcom X. It turned out these icons equally inspired Gashumba. Their fondness grew. Nyombi back then had just started working with the RP and Gashumba, who was very much involved in discussing politics and social justice matters on Radio Kaboozi with Basajjamivule, would regularly call Nyombi seeking to understand the legal implications of what he intended to say on air. Many victims of injustice would come to Gashumba seeking legal assistance and he would refer them to Nyombi for representation. Nyombi excited Gashumba when he offered to always represent such pauper litigants for free (probono). Matters of legal representations can be very tempting especially in contemporary Uganda where lawyers often connive with (richer) adverse parties against their own (poorer) clients. So it rightly dawned on Gashumba that it’s not every day that you will come across a lawyer that is so much upright when it comes to integrity (very scarce in today’s lawyers). Naturally when he got recent problems with CMI, having now closely known Nyombi for 8 years, Gashumba called the young man from Mukono to be his advocate. Reports are rampant how would-be defense lawyers are sometimes compromised by the state to the detriment of their clients but with Nyombi doing his defense, Gashumba was sure of a good job being done.
In his 30s, Nyombi grew up mostly in Mukono with his mum Rose Lule (now deceased). He never knew his daddy (died too early) and Nyombi describes himself as a “maternal man” because he grew up on the mother’s side. His mum’s daddy lives in Kawempe where Nyombi briefly stayed as a child before permanently relocating to Mukono to live with his mum. He was the only mum’s child and daddy’s. “I’m my mother’s only child and I have no siblings and no daddy. I only grew up with cousins in Mukono Nabuti neighborhood and the adversity I experienced as a child taught me that life is a battle field and my motto is man is born free but everywhere in chains. I chose to fight on instead of being overcome by self pity. You just have to be good in what you do and the rest will fall into place. This is why I deeply share the Barrack Obama story convincing yourself that with determination, you can surmount mountains and overcome the impossible. This is why he remains my biggest role model [indeed Nyombi’s caller tune is permanently an extract from Obama’s famous speeches].” His mum died 1998 when Nyombi was in S2. Nyombi is closely related to much revered Justice Julia Sebutinde because the maternal Mukono grandmother (still lives), who single handedly raised him, is biological sister to her (Sebutinde). “But that didn’t entitle me to any previledges because I can’t lie to you that I have ever been anywhere close to Lady Julia Sebutinde. I had to fend for myself and Pius Kawere is the only lawyer whose office [in Rubaga] I had ever been to. My mum had a case and we went there,” Nyombi says of his relationship to Sebutinde. “Not that we are at loggerheads or something. It just happens that way sometimes.” As a child, Nyombi went to many schools (almost every term) because his assertiveness and insistence on his personal rights being respected always irritated school heads resulting into rampant expulsions. “I didn’t like this idea of anybody stepping on me because they are prefect so and so. I always defended my space which they misconstrued for indiscipline. That is why I would always change schools,” says Nyombi who went Rubaga Boys P/S partly because of the strong catholic family in which he was born. Even when he legally represents the 5 Bishops (RP Directors like calling themselves Bishops to emphasize devotion to their Catholic faith), Nyombi is merely a lay Catholic with no priests or even catechists in his family. He was at Rubaga Boys from P1-P7 and in boarding throughout his education. For S1 he went to Buddo and on being expelled, he joined Kyambogo College School for S2 but still didn’t last there long. At the time of doing UCE/S4, Nyombi was at Namakwa SS Mukono. Being the intelligent student he has always been, he passed well and joined Mukono High School for A’levels whereafter he joined UCU Mukono to study law. Very intriguing circumstances explain why he chose law including the fact that his mum, who was modestly educated as a nurse, insisted literature had to be one of his subjects. “I didn’t want to disappoint her because she was all I had as a child. So I religiously went for literature and became passionate about reading and philosophically questioning phenomena around me. I was such an avid reader that by 2nd term in my S2, I had read M7’s Mustard Seed twice,” says Nyombi who recalls reading many novels and biographies besides the mandatory syllabus books in O’level. “I had a friend [Amos] who knew the librarian of UCU. He introduced me there and this enabled me to access the UCU library even when I wasn’t their student yet. I recall the fondness with which I read Prof Mamdani’s works including Good Muslim Bad Muslim. The words ofcourse would sometimes be too complex for a secondary school chap but I always carried my huge dictionary. I also used to read biographies in New Vision including that of Abu Mayanja. He was a lawyer and his story strengthened my resolve to become a lawyer,” recalls Nyombi. “Free access to UCU library blessed me in so many ways because I used to go to the vendors and pay my 200/-to buy a page in the newspaper with a story that I liked. I would pin those newspaper cuttings in my room for repeated reading but this access meant I would have the full newspaper.” Along the way, younger Nyombi also fell in love with movies two of which further inspired him to become a lawyer. “High Crime” was one of them (movies) especially the part of Morgan Freeman who was the lead character therein. As defense lawyer for a US soldier indicted for shooting people in the Caribbean, Morgan came off as very eloquent, witty, humorous and well read. “The confidence and coherence with which he made submissions as a defense lawyer greatly inspired me. I started feeling I was getting too late to be like him,” reminisces Nyombi who watched many more such movies with excellent defense lawyers who fascinated him. As a future lawyer, Nyombi read his first case in S5 and says it was just curiosity. Since his school days, Nyombi is an early riser ever in office at 6am and stays up till late. “It’s a schedule I became addicted to right from childhood because I knew the adversity awaiting me and I had to read hard.” As for school fees and other requirements, the young orphan did many errands in Mukono including street vending and running kiosks to supplement on efforts by grandma and an auntie. “I grew up hassling and it’s the only way I would free myself from the chains surrounding my birth and childhood. I hate self pity.” He adds “in fact that is why I chose UCU and not Makerere because it was near home and enabled me to remain around to supervise my kiosk business as opposed to far away Makerere.”His later school contemporaries have been Benjamin Katana, George Musisi, Frank Sebowa, Geoffrey Mukasa and Amos Ntege whom he has closely lived with since primary.
SETTING UP FIRM:
After working as full time employee for RP for a few years, time came and Nyombi felt he had a lot more energy enabling him run his private law firm besides the newspaper work. And yet opening the law firm wasn’t easy. “I had no money yet I was determined to be the first one of the class of 40 lawyers at UCU to open my own firm. It had to be because I don’t like losing bets.” Nyombi says a man in Kireka where he rented a two-roomed muzigo gave him an assignment that accelerated his decision to start the firm. “He wanted a sales agreement which I drafted and the money he paid inspired me to move faster.” All he had was the zeal but nothing of the logistics he required. He says: “I had no rent and didn’t know where to get it from. This is why it hard to be Mukono because town is even more expensive. But it was also because it’s my home town and I knew there was still potential for business even when 7 firms were already there [today they are 13]. I had to operate alone for the first two months because I couldn’t afford employing anyone; I had no clients. It was a room without any furniture which I saw was bad for business as it would create negative perception in would-be clients. So I painfully decided to remove the modest furniture I had at home in Kireka and took it to office. It paid off and I have no regrets. Today some years later, things are a lot better. We have clients and I have created opportunity for many other people working with me.” I ask him where he sees himself five years from now and his short answer is “I want to be an example to the young people that, as Obama taught us, with determination and the right values we all can. We can overcome adversity and become the very best in our respective trades.” Despite being the hunk he is, Nyombi isn’t married. Neither is he seeing anyone at the moment. No kids. Nothing. And he defends his decision thus: “I’m still a young man JV and it’s not too late. The right time will definitely come and sooner than you may think.” To comment on this story and other Mulengera news stories, call or text 0703164755