Irene Ovonji Odida is no ordinary politician. Having been brought up by humble parents and spent five years in exile, lived a pitiable life as a refugee, she came back to Uganda to study law and has decided to devote most of her time volunteering to fight for equal rights for all.
Born in 1964 and the fifth born in a family of seven, at first sight one would think that Ovonji is your uptight politician. But her father groomed her into a different kind of political figure who would rather be called a development lawyer than an honourable.
She intimates that her father, the late Valerian Ovonji, was prominent and he served in many capacities; as a permanent secretary, a minister and on other commissions of government.
She explains: “My dad had been a permanent secretary in the 1960s and in 1971 he was made a minister. It was during this time that a number of permanent secretaries were made ministers by Amin.”
However, a year after serving the Amin government, he was dropped.” She says because of his integrity, his father disagreed with most of the things that the government in power was doing. After her father was relieved of his duties, Ms Ovonji says that from then forth, life was not easy.
Her mother, who was a tailor, became the bread winner of the family. “She used to make clothes for people and it was through her work that we had food on the table. Many of the people, even our relatives who used to come home when my father was active in politics stopped coming. They even discourage others from coming saying that my father will put them in trouble.”
By then, Amin’s militia had started hunting for her father. She says army men would always come to their home looking for her father but “fortunately” they never found him. It was during this time that some of the few friends he was left with told him to go to exile.
“However, he refused saying he had not done anything wrong. But in 1977 when Janan Luwum was killed, he was told that his name was on the list of people who had to be killed. So he left the country for Kenya and we later followed him.”
By then Ms Ovonji was 13 and in Senior One. Because her father had not amassed wealth and established businesses “like most politicians do,” the Ovonji family entered Kenya as refugees like so many Ugandans who were living in Kenya at that time.
She explains: “Life was hard because my father had not stolen money and the only thing he had was the house we were staying in. When we came to Kenya, we were depending on the UN refugee services. We used to get a minimum allowance as a family but it was very little.”
Ovonji adds: “The main thing I remember about exile was the poverty. My parents had to sacrifice a lot. While there, my mother still had to do tailoring to put food on the table. It was not an easy time especially for the adults.”
Her family stayed in Kenya for a year and returned to Uganda in 1979 because by then Amin had been overthrown. However, she stayed back because she had been enrolled in one of the rural schools.
“In the one year we were in exile I had enrolled in Gandu Girls School. It was a school for farmers’ children but it used to perform well. So when my family returned in Uganda in 1979, I stayed back for another five years to complete my secondary education.”
Because she had been left alone in a foreign country, she kept on living with various relatives who were still living in Kenya until she completed secondary.
When she came back to Uganda, she joined Makerere University where she did Law. However, the time she spent in exile and the sacrifices her father had made in the political sphere had already groomed her into what she is now.
“From my experiences I had learnt that the importance in people’s lives is values and principles because when I looked at my dad he insisted that government procedures had to be followed. It is important to be simple and honest and not change your mind because of circumstances, especially if they are not right mainly when you are a leader, you need such qualities. Right now the challenge we are facing as a country is that we lack honest leadership.”
She says the political character she inherited from her father and the footprint he left behind made a pathway for her. “When I stood for the East African Legislative Assembly, most of the ministers that had to nominate me were people that had worked with my dad and they all told me that they were nominating me because they believed I will be like my dad.”
Now 48, Ms Ovonji explains that her father was a major influence in her life and he taught her not to associate with people because of what they are. “I wish the leaders we have would learn some of the important things like a nation cannot be built basing on ethnicity. Everything in this country is influenced by ethnicity. This is also evident in government’s response to issues affecting the country.”
“I think this whole tribal basis of doing things is making the differences among people even sharper. Every leader in power now and those to come need to prioritise building national reconciliation.”
Her perspective about leadership has seen her serving in various capacities. She has been chairperson of the International Board of Action Aid International since 2009 and prior to that was chairperson of the International Board Committee responsible for governance from 2007 and Action Aid Uganda from 2005.
She has served in a voluntary governance capacity in various human rights and development NGOs since 1989. She has also been a member of various national and regional government-appointed bodies set up to formulate policies and design programmes. She has recently been appointed to a UN High-Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa.
Ms Ovonji was an elected member of the East African Legislative Assembly from 2001 to 2006. Her key contributions as a legislator included spearheading initiatives to increase transparency and accountability of the EALA to marginalised constituencies, increasing effective participation of African legislators in international trade negotiations, including chairing a daily coordination forum in Cancun WTO Ministerial; leading an EALA conflict resolution investigation on fishing disputes. She participated in election monitoring for the EAC in Uganda in 2005 and Commonwealth Observer missions in Tanzania in 2010.
Previously she worked as director, Legal, Directorate of Ethics and Integrity, Office of the President, Uganda; and before that in the Uganda Law Reform, and the Uganda Constituent Assembly Commission which managed the 1995 constitution-making process in Uganda. Her professional experience includes lecturing, training and mentoring, research and advocacy. She has authored or contributed to publications on women’s land rights in Uganda, constitutionalism and East African regional integration.
However, while she has political governance and leadership as her main passion, she also loves reading and as she arrives for the interview, she only has a book and her phone. She also has a soft side.
Married at 23, Ms Ovonji is a mother of two and while she grudgingly consents that she has not been able to strike a balance between family and work, she says her husband has been there for the family.
“I have put a lot of effort in work and I think it is hard for women to balance these two. But my husband is always there for the children because I am always travelling and I think every woman needs to look out for this in a man. A man who still feels like a man even when he has to help cook in the house.”
While a number of people would consider themselves wealthy because of their material gains. Ms Ovonji considers herself wealthy because of relationship she has with the people around her. “I do not think material wealth in important in one’s life.”
“Even though it is true that people have to work hard to meet their basic needs. But that is not the end of the world. A lot of people have money but are not happy. So wealth is about the relationships you have with people. If they are good, then you are wealthy,” she explains.