For more than two decades, Winnie Kiiza has been actively involved in formulating policies and making contributions that have shaped this country. Integrity, honesty and a genuine desire to better the lives of others have been a common theme through Kiiza’s illustrious career.
That is why after her announcement that she was not seeking re-election as Woman Member of Parliament for Kasese District blindsided most people, it was a natural progression of events for the legislator.
“Leaving Parliament was not difficult and I believe in the decision I made. I believe in practicing what I preach. As someone who has been fighting against leaders who overstay in power, staying longer in Parliament would contradict the values I stand for. Neither was it sudden. I had planned for it for years,” says Kiiza.
Although her close associates had been informed earlier about her intention of not seeking re-election, Kiiza notes that they appeared shocked after an announcement was made.
“When I reminded them of my decision to step down, they were shocked that I was actually sticking to my word. Some discouraged me against going on with the decision. But I could not be like so many politicians we have seen declare retirement only to make a u-turn and claim they have been coerced,” she says.
Kiiza says the problems facing Uganda and Kasese are still many and she will continue getting involved in all these issues, but not necessarily at a parliamentary level.
She says she wants to see more women shaping Uganda’s destiny. Kiiza says she is looking forward to her retirement from Parliament. “Serving and letting others serve is a good thing. Unfortunately, it is a culture that is unpopular here. I want to ask Ugandans to embrace this culture so that when one assumes a leadership position for seven or 10 years, they will leave. If we can have a clear plan when leaders come and go, we can have a stable society,” says the legislator.
The first female leader of opposition in Parliament’s childhood was steeped in multiparty politics and she could not wait to grow and make her footprint.
Her mother was a UPC leader at the sub-county level while her father had a background in the Democratic Party. When her father died in 1982, she went to live with an uncle, who was a politician. Perhaps these are some of the events that shaped her political career.
She says she admired some leaders and wanted to emulate them. She also took a leap of faith into politics because there are changes she wanted to see in society.
Growing up around leaders gave Kiiza an idealist view towards politics and she was concerned by most politicians’ reputation as being untrustworthy.
“I wanted to be part of those that changed the stereotype of politics and politicians. I wanted people to start looking at it as a noble opportunity to serve others, not themselves,” she says.
When she got an opportunity, Kiiza continued to join forces with others. “I feel good when working with a team. And from my experience, I know teams cannot grow unless there is inclusion, diversity and equitable sharing of roles. If you hoard power and refuse to share your vision, you will be overloaded and you will eventually break down,” she says.
The legislator says her decision to leave Parliament is her own way of lessening the baggage. “With my replacement, former MP Joyce Bwambale and myself in the district, means there are more of us that can authoritatively speak about the issues of Kasese,” she notes.
Although Kiiza believes in a multiparty system, she says some parties do not have the maturity needed for their success. She notes that when teams are not empowered to operate with transparency, cliques take centre stage.
And when cliques form, they deny each team member a chance to play to the best of their ability. “You have to trust the team members, where there is no trust, you will see cliques emerging. With cliques, people start undermining each other, meaning the team will not grow.” This she says explains why she felt unfulfilled in FDC.
Kiiza became a district councillor at age 26 and spent most of her adult life in service in one capacity or another. Her biggest achievements include her 15- year tenure in Parliament and the many policies she was able to be part of.
“First of all being part of a decision making body, such as the Parliament is not a mean achievement. Many would have wanted to be there, so I don’t take it for granted that I managed to get there and stay for 15 years,”
She participated in formulating and implementing a number of policies. As a district councillor, elders implored her to speak for the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu. Together with other colleagues, they moved a motion and Obusinga was recognised.
The Omusinga was also allowed to return to Uganda and took up his traditional duties. “I followed it up when it was presented in Parliament and in my maiden speech, I asked government to recognise cultural institutions.”
When the cultural institution was reinstated, Kiiza was proud of her contribution. As a secretary for finance at the district, Kiiza was part of the team that developed the a personalised graduated tax ticket.
“After computing how much money we spent to collect taxes, I realised we were spending more than we were collecting. You needed a van, a driver and at least two officers who received a safari day allowance to go and round up tax defaulters. At the end of the exercise, you would end up with two men paying Shs6,000.”
“We also realised that some Sub-county cashiers had two books, one for the district, one for themselves. Whenever someone paid, they would issue a ticket from their own.
She suggested compiling a graduated tax registry with all adult citizens to create tickets for everyone with their photo. This would ease the work of knowing who paid and who did not by looking at the uncollected tickets.
Her ingenious idea was approved, which resulted in revenue growth for the district. By controlling such losses, enough money was collected to build schools, roads and other projects.
From the same revenue, Kiiza says the district leadership created a trust fund to provide scholarships for bright but underprivileged students, which benefited many.
“Although the scholarship stopped with the elimination of graduated tax, when I went to parliament I kept it up. As I speak now, I have four engineers, three doctors, five accountants and seven teachers among others,” she says.
As a member of Uganda Parliamentary Women’s Association (UWOPA), Kiiza advocated for safer delivery and challenged government to recruit more midwives. She was part of the team that formulated laws against genital female mutilation, gender based violence law and children rights law.
As chairperson of the local government accounts committee, she also championed the governance and accountability programme. “We also forced government to come up with a treasury memoranda- a recommendation by law that is the end of the accountability system.”
“Instead of dealing with old backlog, we decided to focus at accountability for ongoing projects. We started outreach programmes and community dialogues to ensure community participation to appreciate that the projects belonged to them.”
She also chaired the committee on government assurances, ensuring that all promises made by government were fulfilled. She oversaw the development of a tracking system up to the end with a reporting mechanism, a tracker that is still working.
“Coming from the mountains of Rwenzori from the Bakhonzo community to become the first female leader of opposition is not a mean achievement,” the legislator says.
As a working woman, Kiiza has struggled with balancing family and career. The number of commitments and people that claimed her attention were overwhelming.
“My biggest challenge was finding time to fulfill my duties as a wife, mother and representative. On one hand, Parliament expected me to be in the field and submit reports. The party expected me to be present to push our agenda. My constituents expected me to solve their problems, while on the other hand I had the needs of my family. I had to work three times harder to balance all these,” says Kiiza.
She says her family has been involved in her work. Her children assign themselves roles they can handle, while her husband, with whom she went to Parliament, has supported and guided her. “We are each other’s coaches and biggest cheerleaders. Life in politics is challenging and doubly so for a woman but my husband’s presence made it bearable,” she says.
She says her husband, Yokasi Bihande Bwambale, understood the dynamics of her work because they worked in the same field.
The seasoned politician advises women and all leaders to lead from a point of authenticity. “Do not change yourself for politics. People think there is money in politics but when they get there, they are disappointed and lose interest in serving. They start chasing after anything that promises to make them money, in the end they lose themselves. Serve from the heart. Don’t do things to impress others.”
She says some are overwhelmed by the power and money and lose touch with their communities and families. Likewise consult those with expertise and experience. As an elected representative, people expect you to be the custodian of information, you become an ATM for them. But you can’t know everything so cultivate networks that can help you. You are a link to many others. Find and connect with people in your field consulting and learning from others does not make you weak.
Take criticism and use it to reshape and improve yourself. People will always talk, find the truth in their words and apologise when you are wrong.
If there was one thing Kiiza could change, it would be dishonesty. “People talk passionately about serving their country while in the dark, they are doing something different. It makes some of us feel uncomfortable supporting such people. I wish our leaders genuinely spoke from their hearts,” she says.
Throughout her career, Kiiza has been keen to not make promises she could not fulfill. “I have seen politicians use divide and rule just to serve their own ambitions. It is deplorable using innocent people that trust you to make their lives better. Whenever I go to my constituents, I explain to them about the different manifestos and they choose what they feel suits their needs. The people of Kasese always vote according to a manifesto, so I want the sitting government to look at those manifestos that were voted and find out if the issues were solved,” she advises.
The legislator does not believe the country is ready for an election that is all inclusive, free and fair.
“Many presidential candidates have gone to court over rigged elections, unfairness where certain media houses blacklisted coverage of opposition candidates and rallies dispatched. What will stop them from doing the same now?” “How many people have enough money to buy enough airtime to communicate their message? People want to look at their candidates. How will the leaders know the people and how will people know them?” she wonders.
She also points out that in some areas, to prevent rigging, campaign managers prefer to escort the ballot boxes to the last part. “I remember in Kasese we spent three days at the tally centre to protect our ballot but with the social distancing all these preventive mechanisms are out of the way. Unless a miracle happens, we all know who will win this election. If the President was okay giving Members of Parliament a two-year extension without any apparent need, what is wrong with extending the election even if it is just for six months to ensure that the outcome is acceptable to all?” The legislator wonders. She is further concerned by the resignation of eight staff of the electoral commission five months to the election.
Kiiza wants to be remembered as someone who served her people with all her heart. “Let them remember that I came, put a block and left space for others to participate. I want people to remember me as a peaceful and honest politician who practiced what she believed,” she says.
Winnie Kiiza’s next course of action
While she will miss the camaraderie of her parliament family, Kiiza looks forward to spending quality time with her family. “I want to have some breathing space, enjoy my children and give them attention. I have had all my children while in service. Did you know I delivered my first born six hours after leaving a polling station? The labour pains started as soon as the final result was announced and I had to rush to hospital. All the others have been between campaigns and elections. This will be the first time I will have all the time to devote to them,” she says.
She wants to start a mentorship programme for nurturing young leaders. Many of our leaders are not prepared for the challenges of leadership, my academy will nurture and improve the quality of their leadership. I am also hoping to write my journey so far,” says Kiiza.