Laetitia Mukasa-Kikonyogo: First female judge, justice (1940-2017)

Thursday November 30 2017

Karoli Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an

Karoli Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate 

By Karoli Ssemogerere

Even in death, Laetitia Euralia Mukasa Kikonyogo, daughter of a chief, niece to a High Court Judge and former DP secretary general, was a pioneer. She was the first female Chief Magistrate, first woman Judge of the High Court appointed in 1986, first female Justice of the Supreme Court in 1997 and later first female Deputy Chief Justice appointed in 2001.
Justice Kikonyogo’s career one of many firsts, many accolades didn’t always seem so. She overcame actual barriers to enter first and then rise through a male-dominated legal profession. There were many symbols of her rise. As a High Court Judge, one of about a dozen puisne Judges, she sat in G-16 at the far end of the building removed from more plum judicial chambers and she sat there throughout her stay until she was promoted to the Supreme Court.
At the Supreme Court, she was assigned the smallest chambers next to the Registrar even though she wasn’t the most junior justice. Ever efficient, her buzzer came in handy to bring in work, summon help as she went about her judicial duties. In her early life, her steadfastness allowed her to open new ground. In her time, Trinity College Nabbingo offered junior secondary and O-Level. She attended A-Level at King’s College Budo, itself a symbolism as Budo was more famous for boys rather than girls. She read a full degree at Makerere, a Bachelor of Arts awarded by the University of London before attending Oxford for post-graduate work in social anthropology. She joined the Inner Temple and was called to the bar before returning to Uganda to work first as a tutor at the Institute of Public Administration, later a State Attorney and then magistrate. Her male peers often sneered at her, a practice which continued even as she ascended the ranks in the judiciary. Fortunately, she out eclipsed them. Justice Kikonyogo combined roles as a Judge, a feminist, a leader yet she remained a model Catholic in public life. If she slipped she was always humble enough to accept mistakes, but she also had a rare attribute to stand her ground even when faced with the most adverse circumstances.
At the Supreme Court, she was very close to Chief Justice Wambuzi, who patiently waited for her as the Justice whose residence where she collapsed and died last week, was the furthest from the city.
To her record, she never lived in an official residence even though she was entitled to one for years. On the weekends, she would either be digging close to home or further away in Mityana, where she is to be laid to rest. In her chambers, she wrote with a feather pen, an anti-dote to the weight of her rulings. The Wambuzi court entered its golden era during her time with famous rulings in AG v Tinyefuza (1998) where a 5-2 decision reversed a ruling of the Constitutional Court allowing Tinyefuza to leave the army. Key figures in that case are alive - Amama Mbabazi, the Minister of State for Defence at the time and Chief Justice Bart Katureebe, former AG, who appeared for the first and perhaps only time to argue the appeal.
The same court famously set the stage for striking down the Referendum and Other Provisions Act of 1999 allowing the use of the Hansard, where leave had been unreasonably withheld. The Court of Appeal then famously branded a number of government functionaries led by Henry Kajura, Rebecca Kadaga, Mwesige and others as liars for pretending that there was a quorum in Parliament when the impugned Act was purportedly passed in contravention of the provisions of the Constitution.
In 2006, Justice Kikonyogo, then Acting Chief Justice, true to her identity, kept the Courts of Judicature closed in protest of the attack by Black Mambas led by Gen Sejusa to forcibly arrest Col Besigye. She threw up. She was appalled. When she wanted to assert herself, she revelled in pronouncing her married name. The old lady, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s words, was never ever for turning.
Rest in Peace.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law
and an Advocate. [email protected]

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