Cecilia Barbara Atim Ogwal, one of Uganda’s longest-serving female legislators, passed away on 18 January 2024 at the age of 77.
Ogwal was regarded as a trailblazer, one of the strongest, most charismatic women leaders in the opposition, and a staunch defender of multipartyism, democracy and human rights. Known for her toughness, she was unafraid to stand up to male leaders in the ruling party and even within her own party. Hence she came to be known as the “iron lady” in Uganda.
Having studied gender and politics in Uganda for almost three decades, I followed her career as she became one of the strongest parliamentarians and a mentor to younger female politicians. She was a role model to them and stressed the importance of balancing work and family.
Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni lauded her as a true patriot at a vigil held in her honour after she died. But her experiences as an opposition politician are emblematic of the challenges faced by political opponents of the regime in Uganda.
She told Kampala’s The Observer newspaper in 2014 that she had survived 12 attempts on her life. In 2017, she alleged that security operatives beat her and her husband for campaigning against the lifting of the constitution’s presidential age limit. The age limit, which was lifted that year, allowed Museveni – then in his fifth term – to run for yet another term and potentially rule indefinitely.
Ogwal was the first girl to participate in a mathematics contest sponsored by the Verona Fathers congregation in the early 1960s.
She won a scholarship that allowed her to enrol in the oldest girls’ boarding school in Uganda, Gayaza High School. She was one of the first Catholics admitted to Gayaza. Even her father was initially against her attending the institution, which had been established by the (Anglican) Church of England.
She became one of four Ugandan women to be admitted on a trial basis by the University of East Africa, the precursor to the University of Nairobi, in Kenya. There she emerged as the best student in her field, graduating in 1970 with a Bachelor of Commerce degree.
Her extraordinary achievements didn’t end there. After marrying Lameck Ogwal in 1965, she went on to pursue a professional career while also raising seven of her own children and several adopted children.
Her first job in 1979 included the position of liaison officer at the Uganda Embassy in Nairobi, helping Ugandan refugees in Kenya return to Uganda after Idi Amin’s ouster. In 1980 she assumed the position of operations manager at the Uganda Advisory Board of Trade.
In 1982 she was instrumental in founding the Housing Finance Bank, which is still in existence, and she chaired the board of the Uganda Development Bank from 1981 to 1986.
But it wasn’t until she entered politics that her assertiveness and distinctive voice earned her the moniker “iron lady”.
A warrior for democracy
Ogwal first entered political leadership in the early 1980s.
She served as the acting secretary general of the Uganda People’s Congress from 1985 to 1992. She participated in the constituent assembly that promulgated the 1995 constitution.
Ogwal’s parliamentary journey began in 1996 when she represented Lira Municipality (1996-2005). She was also Uganda’s representative to the African Union’s Pan African Parliament. In 2011, she was elected as the women’s representative for Dokolo district for the Forum for Democratic Change.
Among her contributions, she helped rescind Article 252 from the 1995 constitution, which banned multiparty politics. Thus she helped ensure that the country transitioned from a de facto single party to multiparty politics in 2005.
In November 2003, after the government had launched a massive military offensive against the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in northern Uganda, Ogwal, a Langi from the affected area, walked out on the president in parliament, demanding that he find a solution to the conflict, even if it meant seeking international assistance.
Her difficulties were not limited to the ruling party. She opposed former president Milton Obote, the leader of the Uganda People’s Congress, when he called for a boycott of the 1996 elections. Obote had been in exile, and she felt he was out of touch with Uganda. She argued that a boycott would destroy the opposition at a time when they were advocating for multiparty politics.
Her differences with the Uganda People’s Congress’ top leadership came to a head by the early 2000s, and she was expelled from the party. Ogwal then joined the leading opposition party at the time, the Forum for Democratic Change, and ran for the Dokolo Woman MP seat, which she held from 2011 until her death.
In her tribute to Ogwal at a special session of parliament, Speaker of the House Anita Among described this woman, who had once served as the opposition chief whip, as a unifying force between the opposition and the government in parliament.
She recalled the mediating role Ogwal had played at key political moments, such as when she brought the two contenders together following the 2021 speaker election. On more than one occasion, she stepped in and helped feuding legislators to bury their differences. For this, she gained enormous respect from legislators on all sides and even had her own reserved seat in the assembly.
“When she speaks, everybody keeps quiet,” the speaker added. “That is the Cecilia Ogwal we have lost.”
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.