Sekaggya: mother of the human rights gospel in uganda

Margaret Sekaggya at her Human Rights Uganda office in Kampala. File photo

What you need to know:

I desire to influence change: Her work with the United Nations as the first woman from the Commonwealth region to hold the position was voluntary, thus came with no salary. All she wanted was a chance to make a real difference.

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.

“I like people who are reliable and dependable. If I promise you that we meet at such and such a time, I will make it a point to be there. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver,” she cautions. This raises the question of her schedule, serving at the United Nations. During her six year mandate, she visited more than 45 countries, travelling at least twice every month from the north to the south pole of the globe. “You have to plan your diary well.

That is all. I was also lucky my family was supportive. They would drive me to the airport at 3am and bear with the long absence,” she shares, emotion taking the better of her voice. Sekaggya is a mother of four and grandmother of several, whose number she declines to reveal. Of her husband, she says, “I think he likes a private life but he is famous in the Rotary circles. He is very supportive. He accompanied me to Geneva and on some country visits.”

Sekaggya the family woman
Away from the passionate human rights voice is a woman deeply immersed in her family. “I like to spend time with my grandchildren. We run up and down, shout in the house, and drive to the national parks or Jinja. The weekends are for my family,” she says, an infectious smile spreading out on her face. Sekaggya says she grew up in an expansive family. On today’s family, she shakes her head, ponders in deep reflection, then says, “In our time, we would run home, have lunch with the family and return to office. Today, that is not possible because of traffic jam. The world has changed and the family has been affected. We have absent parents now.”

“Why should a man get scared if he is educated and has his own source of income? A man has to be confident,” she says when asked if her husband ever feels insecure by her ever rising career star.

Her work, in her own words
“I was the first woman from the Commonwealth to take up the position. I was supported by Uganda government in all ways. Africa and Europe also supported my candidature. It is voluntary service, so, there was no salary. What drove me was passion for human rights defenders. Sometimes, I would go to places as dangerous as Congo in armoured vehicles, with body guards. That was all due my passion and zeal to see things change. I met everybody, from presidents, prime ministers to human rights defenders.

“Everywhere I went, I was seen as a person who could understand their problems. Presidents would say, ‘You are from a third world country, so, you will understand our challenges’. I registered a number of achievements, key among them, getting the president of Honduras to make a public statement recognising the role of civil society organisations after a long impasse with them.

“That eased my work. Back home, I’m running the Human Rights Centre Uganda, which started in 2008, and I’m seen as being diplomatic. I keep telling my colleagues in civil society to avoid confrontation, but engage government constructively.”


My role models: I admired Nelson Mandela for his level of understanding, perseverance and forgiveness after all he had undergone. My late sister was my mentor, everything rotated around her, she taught me to be reliable and humane.

Taken to the desert: I would carry along sun glasses, a hat, comfortable shoes and clothing.

On fashion style: I’m not a fashion person so I wear what is ok for the occasion.

Last cried: Three years ago when I lost my sister.
If I met the Pope: I would ask him to pray for the world to become a better place for everyone and stop wars. Look at Sudan, Kenya, Syria, where is our humanity?
President Museveni: First on my agenda would be to ensure space for civil society is widened and also that democracy is key for peace and security.

Sudhir Ruparellia: Integrate a human rights approach in his operations, workers under him must be happy and their rights observed.

Salva Kiir and Reik Machar: I would persuade them to bring peace to the country by talking peace.
On her legacy: (Thinks) I pioneered human rights issues in Uganda.

Message to youth: You can make it to the top, work hard, be reliable and dependable.
On politics: I’m not a politician, I’m a leader, people join politics to get power, I prefer to work from this side.

Lowest moment: We worked so hard at UHRC with police, army, and prisons to introduce human rights manuals for all of them but I get disheartened when I see brutality by security agencies anywhere in the world.

Happiest moment: We advocated for human rights committee in Parliament and it was set up. That was fulfilling. It is good to see leaders align themselves with human rights work.

On corruption: We all need to fight corruption. A lot could be done with that money.

Favorite music: Anything, at times Christian music is good for me but I also enjoy other people like Juliana, and Isiah Katumwa. I get happy when I attend their shows.
On the media: The media can make or unmake you. I personally benefited from the media because my views were portrayed well. I watch all TV news channels and read all newspapers, but Charles Onyango Obbo is my favourite. He makes me laugh with his humour.

What they say
Elizabeth Namusisi, head of finance and administration, Human Rights Commission-Uganda Madam Sekaggya is a wonderful lady, good leader, humane and has a positive attitude. She listens and listens patiently and is extremely understanding.

Robert Mugisa, programme assistant, legal
Margaret is an inspiration, dedicated to work and when she focus on something she gets it done. She is a go-getter.