One of Uganda’s pioneer female legislators

Thursday October 10 2013

Frances  Akello, is one of the first four black women to have sat in Uganda’s pre-independence

Frances Akello, is one of the first four black women to have sat in Uganda’s pre-independence Parliament. Photo by Richard Otim 

By Richard Otim

At 77, she radiates the amount of energy and passion that none of her contemporaries can easily show off. Meet Frances Akello, a single mother of two sons, who is also a farmer and an educationist. Although she has retired from her lifelong career of teaching, she is certainly not exhausted. “I dig for myself. I rarely take boda-boda for short distance movements and walking is my best form of exercise,” Ms Akello said.

She was among the first four black women to sit in the pre-independence Parliament of Uganda on the Democratic Party ticket, a position she took up at the age of 24 in 1958. Referred to as the Legislative Council (Legco), the convention was predecessor of the National Assembly whose first members were all Europeans.

It comprised the colonial Governor as its president, four officials namely the chief secretary, attorney general, treasurer, the principal medical officer and two other nominated non-officials. The first African members to the Legco were admitted in 1945, and 13 years later, Akello became the first and youngest African woman to sit in it. “The government had a slot for four women nominees and I became one of the first female legislators from Teso to sit in the Parliament.”

How she got there
A special nominee by the Governor to Legco, Akello said her name had been submitted by Mr Raymond Malinga, one of the education inspectors in charge of Bukedea County where she was working as a tutor at St Mary’s Teachers Training College.

The special nominee representation, a slot similar to the present positions for special interest groups was, however, abolished in the post-independence Parliament. “We never contested for the positions. The names were proposed and voting took place in the Legco,” Akello said.

She was also a member of the flag committee, one of those constituted to guide in designing of the National Emblem ahead of the Independence Day and recalls legislating with Joyce Mpanga and Sarah Ntiiro with whom they fought for the establishment of Tororo Girls Secondary School, the pioneer all girls secondary school in the east. Her colleagues from Teso in the parliament then included Sylvester Isiagi (Bukedea), David Anyoti (Soroti) and Philip Auk (Pallisa).

Akello said she only found out about her election, shortly after returning from a trip sponsored by Unesco. As Uganda’s sole representative, the trip was meant to expose her to leadership challenges that the youth in Africa faced at the time. “I had just returned from a tour of seven European countries when I got into the parliament. It was a learning experience for me. Regional interests were jointly supported and MPs spoke with one voice,” said Akello.

Her role model and guardian, the late Cuthbert Obwangor, former Obote I government minister mentored her into politics which she later quit after her four year term expired.
During the independence elections, Democratic Party president, Benedicto Kiwanuka had asked her to represent the party in Usuk Constituency but because that was Obwangor’s stronghold, she opted out.

“I knew I could not stand against Obwangor (of Uganda People’s Congress). He was very popular, besides he was my guardian and mentor. I could not contest against him and so I had to leave politics but Kiwanuka asked me to identify for him someone who would represent the party in that area,” Ms Akello said.

Fighting for issues
Memories of Kiwanuka whom she holds in high tribute are dear to her that when asked about her view of the quality of the party’s current leadership, she frowns in anguish.

“Kiwanuka was very approachable, intelligent and simple. He aspired for truth and justice but the ability of our current Parliament to debate issues has gone to the drains of waste,” said Akello adding that during their time, however bitter a debate would be, it never divided the MPs.

Occasionally, the MPs would meet at the Kampala Club and it is here that all differences emerging from debates in Parliament would be resolved.

Akello is disappointed though that the level of debate in the current Parliament is still wanting and has been marred by trivialisation of issues.

“We were one people and served our country as one voice. There was nothing like easterners, westerners or northerners but such differences have eroded the quality of debates in most of the post-independence parliaments,” said Akello.

Icon of girl-child education in Teso
A Grade III teacher by training, Ms Akello begun her education at Magoro Primary School before she was transferred to Toroma Primary School where her father was teaching in the present day Katakwi District Here she studied for a year and completed the primary education cycle at Ngora convent school in 1950.

Born in 1936, Akello went to Namagunga for a teaching course which she completed in 1958 and later upgraded to a diploma at Makerere University in 1966.
In 1977, she got a scholarship for a degree course on how to teach English at the Leeds University, a teaching specialty she pursued until her retirement about two decades ago. Since then, she has ventured into private business.