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Professor Epelu Opio, Veterinarian, Educationist And Pacifier :: Uganda Radionetwork

Professor Epelu Opio, Veterinarian, Educationist And Pacifier

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Prof. Epelu-Opio was longest-serving Deputy Vice-Chancellor (1993 – 2004).
19 Apr 2024 15:20
Professor Justine Epelu Opio as known in acdemic circles in Uganda, East Africa and the world. Courtsey picture

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St. Francis Chapel at Makerere University was filled as academics, educationists, and past and present politicians turned up to honor the life and legacy of Professor Justine  Epelu Opio. 

Professor Epelu Opio served in different capacities at Makerere University in the early seventies. Prof. Epelu-Opio was longest-serving Deputy Vice-Chancellor (1993 – 2004).  Epelu Opio, one of the longest veterinary medicine lecturers in Uganda died this week at the age of 80. 

According to medics, he died of severe pneumonia. It is suspected that he got the infection from the hospital where he was admitted for treatment of a kidney-related complication.

A requiem mass held in honor of the veterinarian, academic giant, education administrator, and pacifist looked like a reunion for students that he had lectured, those who had worked under him, his peers at Makerere, and politicians from Teso where he hailed.  

While Epelu Opio retired from Makerere on clocking sixty years almost twenty years ago, from eulogies, it appears like he had left an indelible mark in Uganda’s tertiary education having supported the idea of private-sponsored students at public universities and the establishment of other public universities other than Makerere.   

Among those in the Church included, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Thomas Tayebwa, State Minister For Works, Musa Eweru, State Minister for Gender, Hellen Asamo Ministers for PWS, and Justice Margret Oguli Oumo. Former Minister, Richard Kaijuka who was at Makerere at the time Epelu was at Makerere as a student. Politicians from Teso also included former MPs Christine Amongin Aporu, Alice Alaso, Captain Mike Mukula, and Elijah Okupa among others.   

Among the people who have long interacted with the late Professor Justine Epelu Opio is Professor Francis Omaswa, the Chancellor of Soroti University. Omaswa,  Epelu Opio, and others were members of Teso University Council. They had come together to establish a community University. 

Epelu was an alumni of Teso College  Aloet.  “We had land given to us by the Soroti Local Government Council as part of Teso College but people were trying to steal it. They grabbed the title from our secretary, Eplu Opio was against people who were trying to take the land,” Omaswa shared.  

Justine Epelu Opio authored a book titled: “Teso War 1986-1992: Causes and Consequences” The book shares his experience having served as the chairperson of the Presidential Commission on Teso. 

The Commission was appointed by President Museveni to convince the Uganda People’s Army rebel group that had emerged in Teso after the fall of the Obote II regime. 

Teso was a UPC stronghold at the time. So young people like Musa Ecweru rose in arms to fight the Tito Okello regime. When the NRA took power, the boy in Teso turned his arms against it. Museveni asked Justine Epelu Opio to leave his job at Makerere to serve as Chairperson of the Tso Commission which was charged with convincing the rebels to give up arms and the rehabilitation of the returnees and their victims. 

According to several accounts, Professor Jsutine Opio Epelu with colleagues like Beswero Akabway and Grace Akello did a good job and convinced the boys to give up the rebellion. For Professor Francis Omaswa, the peace that returned to Teso later was a result of his efforts.  “He took many risks from what I have heard, disappearing for days, negotiating with those people, others fearing that he had been kidnapped and killed,” said Omaswa.    

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After a good job in Teso, Justine Epelu Opio returned to Makerere. At that time, the HIV/AIDs pandemic was raging across the country. President Museveni was eager to have Ugandan-based research on HIV/AIDs and other diseases. 

Professor Epelu Opio was appointed as the pioneer board chairperson of the Joint Clinical Research Council (JCRC). JCRC was established in 1991. Epelu Opio served as the chair of that board from February Feb 1999 to Feb 2021.  

JCRC turned out to be one of the strongest clinical research institutions in East And Central Africa thanks to the dedication of Epelu Opio. JCRC originally operated from Mengo but later acquired its land and constructed its current home on Lubowa Hill. 

Professor Omaswa was the Director General of Health Services at the time when JCRC was being established. He remembers the personal efforts of Professor Epelu Opio and Professor Peter Mugenyi who ensured that Ugandans had access to ARV drugs.

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He was the chairperson of the Board of Directors at Joint Joint Clinical Council for two decades.

“This man has left a legacy behind. They say you come with nothing and go with nothing. But you can leave something and that is what he has done,” said Omaswa.

Professor Charles Ibingira, the chairperson of the Joint Clinical Council said the late Professor Justine Epelu Opio was a towering figure in human medicine though he was a veterinary professional.

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“Professor Opio was not just a colleague but the very fabric that held us together through times of challenge and change at JCRC. His passion for medical research will be remembered for generations to come,” he said.

Epelu Opio the Veterinary Lecturer 

He taught many students who went on to emerge as veterinary professors in Uganda and  East Africa. One of those is Professor John Asibo Opuda, the Chancellor of Victoria University and former Chairperson of the National Council For Higher Education. 

Opuda Asibo remembers joining Makerere University in 1973 to be taught by Epelu Opio who was already pursuing his PhD at the University of Nairobi. “He was a very young lecturer. He taught us anatomy. By the way, all these vets were my students and therefore Professor Epelu’s students” said Apuda-Asibo.  Professor John Apuda Asibo goes on to say Epelu Opio was a very simple man but rather complicated. “If he chaired a meeting and you thought that he had fallen asleep you are jocking. When he woke up, he would summarise everything he said,” Apuda-Asibo remembers. “ He was very intelligent, very consistent, and very simple. I know he offered a lot of services to this country. I’m glad that the nation has remembered him” he added.   

He had a big sense of humor. 

Epelu Opio won the first prize for being witty according to those who associated with him at Kampala Club where he played tennis and in places where he worked. 

State Minister for Works, Musa Ecweru has brushed shoulders with the late Justine Epelu Opio. He remembers the times in the early nineties when they combed the bushes of Teso in search of talks with the Uganda People’s  Army.

Professor Opio was chairing the Presidential Commission on Teso. The Commission had prominent figures like Professor Besweri Akabway. Former Minister, Grace Akello was the secretary to the Commission. Former rebel leader turned Minister under Museveni said Professor Epelu beyond being an intellectual was a champion of peace. 

Ecweru, like the late Brigadier Chefe Ali, the Late Nobel Mayombo, and General Angina under Professor Epelu Opio's leadership combed Teso's bushes to convince the rebels to give up arms. Ecweru narrated that the late was too humorous.    

“The jock we use to have is that we would go to difficult situations. The Opio would ask me Ecweru how can you bring me a professor to walk in the bushes like this? Then  I would tell him you were in the lecture theater, now we have brought you to the war theater. We gave you a job but let’s end it”

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Times at Makerere University 

The Acting Vice Chancellor, Professor Umar Kakumba laid bare the historical background of the late Professor Justine Epulu at Makerere.

According to Dr. Kakumba, Prof. Epelu-Opio was our longest-serving Deputy Vice-Chancellor (1993 – 2004). Professor Epelu was the last to serve in that position before the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act enacted the two positions of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs) and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Finance and Administration). “He was not only a great administrator, but also a great academic who selflessly contributed to Makerere University’s transformation. He served humanity with a lot of dedication and touched many lives in Uganda and beyond,” he said.   

Justine Epelu Opio had served at Makerere from February 1973 where he took up an appointment as Lecturer in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy, in the then Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

Epelu Opio briefly served in Zambia. When he came back to Uganda, he returned to Makerere,  he was appointed Senior Lecturer in the then Department of Veterinary Anatomy, a position he held until 1984 when he was appointed to the rank of Associate Professor in the same Department. 

He embarked on his PhD in Veterinary Anatomy the same year and completed it in 1976. Before that, he had completed his Bachelor of Science in Veterinary Medicine (1967 – 1971) and Master of Science in Veterinary Anatomy (1971 – 1973) both from the University of Nairobi.

Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Thomas Tayebwa joined Makerere at the time when Professor Epelu Opio was still serving. Tayebwa joined the University politics and testified that Epelu Opio turned out to be his mentor having spotted his leadership potential.

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“I want to appreciate him for believing in young people. Because if you ask a person like me to bring a political godfather. Then you have knocked me out. I didn’t have any when I came to Kampala. But to have a person like Professor Epelu believing in you, not looking at where you come from. You we have judged Ugandans to be tribalistic but it is a lie” said Tayebwa. 

Like Professor Kakumba, Tayebwa said the late Justine Opio Epelu will be remembered together with Professor Johnmary Ssebufu for having championed reforms leading to the admission of Privately-sponsored students at the Universities. 

He said Epelu was also fast enough to note that the admission of students would be a precursor to poor-quality graduates. “ I remember he left behind strong policies that would regulate optimal numbers you must admit even if it is private,” said Tayebwa who once sat on Makerere University Council.

Justine Epelu Opio the Man at Home

“We never lacked everything. He made sure that we had everything. For that, I’m very grateful. However, he was strict with discipline. He was very giving as much as he gave to us, there are so many people that he supported in paying school fees. He was very forgiving. I was a very stubborn child. We clashed a lot. I would do something he would forgive me,” said Max, one of Epleu Opio's sons.

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