She speaks with a soupçon of diplomacy, her handshakes come with a Midas touch of diplomacy, and yes, she walks with a tad of diplomacy. Taking one step at a time, saying one word at a time and articulating one thought at a time, as though awaiting divine instruction on what to say next.
Margaret Sekaggya is arguably the mother of human rights movement in Uganda. She only retired this month from United Nations where she served as special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders for six years. Hers, one could say, has been a career most illustrious.
The diplomat surfaces
“At times it is better for people to describe you. I’m just an ordinary person who gets a vision to do something and once I get it, I want it done and done with excellence,” she says of herself, seated in her Centre for Human Rights Uganda office, in Kampala.
If this be the litmus test of her life so far, the human rights champion, born in 1949, has had her star shooting for the skies. It is plausible to assume that she speaks, thinks and breathes human rights for the largest chunk of her time. But how did she get here?
“From a young age, my father used to bring newspapers home and ask me to translate them for him from English to Luganda. I remember translating for him the arrest of the minister, Grace Ibingira in the 1960s. I started to understand politics and human rights at a tender age and also went to multi-racial schools; Old Kampala Senior School, and later Makerere College School for A-Level. All these shaped my perception of life and humanity early,” she says.
Now, this is how it played out. Upon completing her bachelor of laws degree at Makerere University in 1973 and postgraduate diploma in legal practice at the Law Development Centre (LDC), she was appointed a magistrate at Mengo. She left the bench in 1976 and returned to LDC to lecture.
“Oh, Makerere law school was hard work. We had to read a lot of cases. Mr Sam Kutesa was my classmate, but I won’t comment about him. We had no rich or poor people, we were all given allowances by the government,” she reminisces.
“I want to see things move. I sat in the bench and said ‘No, this is not for me’. First of all, you make rulings, which may not be followed. I wanted a position where I could move things,” she says.
By 1978, the Idi Amin reign of terror had hit its peak and some of her family members were becoming a target, forcing her to join the herd of Ugandans fleeing the country. She left for Zambia where she lectured at the UN Institute for Namibia, training magistrates-to-be for 11 years.
“We had no challenges. Ugandans were many in Zambia, so, we felt at home. I returned in 1990 and returned to LDC as a principal lecturer because I love to interact with people and again, see results of my work,” she says.
Journey to the UHRC helm
In 1994, she joined the 1995 constitution drafting team as a researcher and later was appointed commissioner at the Akabway-led Interim Electoral Commission, which delivered the 1996 general elections.
“They were calm. Everything went well. We had no rigging and money was not used. Police was trained. Those days, we even requested some people to stand. Today the situation is different; I see a lot of money but I also think people now know their rights better,” she recollects. At this point, her star could only illuminate more and more. The Uganda Human Rights Commission was established under the constitution. She was appointed its pioneer chairperson, serving from 1996 to 2008.
“It was very good, starting something is always good. You become innovative. We had to introduce the commission, put it in the market. We made it visible and people started to come on board,” she says, taking refuge in humility not to comment on the organisation now, as it would not augur well criticising her predecessor’s work.
So, what does she think of the ethics of Ugandans, often chastised as lazy and with terrible work manners? The diplomat in her pops out again. Ugandans, the widely-travelled woman observes, are actually more hard working and professional than imagined.
“The ones who work, really work well. At UHRC and the Centre here, I’m blessed with perfect people. Depending on how they are supervised and motivated, people in Uganda work,” she emphasises. She adds though, that our time keeping and fulfillment of appointments remains wanting.
For the record, this interview, confirmed a day earlier, was set for 11am and by 10.50am, she was ready to meet the team.