Atuhaire: We had not planned for the ‘Parliament exhibition’ 

Ms Agather Atuhaire, a journalist and activist, has been part of the team championing the recent “Parliament exhibition” on social media. Photo/Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • Agather Atuhaire has been part of a team spearheading some of the recent online exhibitions, including the most recent one focusing on Parliament where allegations of corruption, nepotism, and other fraudulent activities have been exposed.  For her courage, Atuhaire was announced on March 1 as one of this year’s recipients of the International Women of Courage Award by the United States Department of State. The annual awards are given to women who demonstrate exceptional courage in advocating human rights, justice, and gender equality, often at great personal risk. The journalist, lawyer, and activist opened up to Esther Oluka on what inspired her to join activism, the risks, price, and everything else in between. Below are excerpts of the interview. 

On March 1, you were announced as one of this year’s recipients of the International Women of Courage Award courtesy of the United States Department of State. What does this award mean for you?

It was such a big honour for me and a source of motivation to do more work and an opening door to getting more meaningful partners and alliances. 

Activism is tiresome and frustrating. Sometimes you are thinking, ‘Oh my God! I should give up and rest.’ 

It is too much-risky. It is threats, warnings, intimidation, all sorts of things. It is a country like ours where you will not get a hand even from authorities to hold these people you expose accountable. 

This award and the one last year received from the EU (European Union) - a Human Rights Defenders Award were received at a time when my energies were running low.
You have been part of the team spearheading online respective exhibitions on social media mostly on X (formerly Twitter). What inspired you to embark on this kind of activism?
I have always been an activist, perhaps born as one. I was born in a family that had domestic violence. 

At a tender age, I began standing up for my quiet mother, a trait I presume made her be taken advantage of. 

I would defend her from being abused. In addition, I also often felt sorry for other women in my village who had no say.  All these things would enrage me even as a child. 

Later, when I studied journalism, we were taught about the importance of doing impact journalism and so after leaving mainstream media to concentrate on doing my law degree, I developed an interest in exploring different things. 

I began writing on the social media platform (then) Twitter (now X) around the year 2020 when issues began to emerge during the lockdown that had been activated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Later, I exposed things that were happening in other places including LDC (Law Development Centre) which attracted many reactions and participation from the public. Afterward, I proceeded to write about Parliament in 2021 and still got enormous public feedback, developments which later made me realise that social media was a big platform.

Which exhibitions have you spearheaded?
I have participated in several but mostly championed the one for NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) and the recent one for Parliament which attracted many participants including Kakwenza Rukirabashaija (Author and Human Rights Activist).
Whom do you work with in the exhibitions?

I work with mainly Jimmy Spire Ssentongo (philosophy teacher, cartoonist, and columnist) and Godwin Toko (lawyer). But there are also other people like Samuel Banada. Besides them, we have a bigger team at Agora, who do behind-the-scenes work research and help with Tweeting. 

Knowing their character and integrity is how we put the team together. We are all driven by the same desire and passion to see positive change in our country.
What have been the most shocking revelations for you during the Parliamentary exhibition?
There has been nothing shocking for me but rather, everything has been shocking for the public. There was a time I was told that the Speaker had asked someone to withdraw Shs400 million for her. 

She was going to Bukedea for Christmas and they withdrew it. She sent the person to go and get new notes from the Bank of Uganda so that she could take them to her village, Bukedea.

But well, with that said, I do not fear to say it now because I have all the proof now. 

I have known these things for a while having covered Parliament for a long time [including in] Kadaga’s [former Speaker] time when I did many behind-the-scenes stories about the budgeting process, which we were always closed out of as press.

How was your experience covering Parliament?
I am still a parliamentary reporter who, however, does not sit in the press office at Parliament. When I sat there from 2011 to 2016, the conditions were not bad. Yes, we knew some reporters were [then] Speaker Kadaga’s favourites, for example, I remember [a time] when I went to her office to ask for an interview with then her Principal Private Secretary Opata who asked me what issues I wanted her to address. 

I articulated them and when they communicated this to Kadaga, she called in one of her favourite reporters and gave them a response to my questions. 

There is when she (Kadaga) attempted to throw out of Parliament two journalists- David Lumu and Sulaiman Kakaire and they took the matter to court. She at least didn’t think she was above the law like the current Speaker.

There have been reports that your team championing the exhibition is being funded by a section of Western powers to push certain agendas. What is your response to this?
That’s nonsense and the usual deflection of our leaders and their handlers. I would have appreciated it if all of us journalists treated it with the contempt it deserves and insisted on getting the answers to the issues being raised. 

Because my question is, are we funded by Western powers to concoct the things we say? Is the information we have shared real or not? 

If it is real like how we have proved and how many people (Mpuuga, Chris Obore) have admitted, how then can the question of who funds us still arise? 

Can they then respond to why they are siphoning taxpayers money and not who funds us for whatever motive? 

What next after the Parliament exhibition?

We have not yet decided on what to do is often a spontaneous plan. For the Parliament exhibition, we had not planned to do it [until] when a screenshot made rounds about the Speaker and her husband [documenting] them getting so much money from their official leave and people started demanding an exhibition.
Earlier, you spoke about threats that come with activism. How has this intimidation affected you? 
This activism takes a toll on you. I get mentally exhausted, I break down very easily and I am frustrated. I snap easily, especially at my children. 

I need to start taking that seriously and seek professional help. I keep promising myself this but never do because I put everything else above my well-being which is not good.
How is your family taking all this in?

My family is scared. Sometimes they are called and told, “Tell your sister to stop what she is doing. Who does she think she is” etc., and yes, if it were up to them I would stop but it isn’t. My children have also been affected. 

Recently the younger one told me that his elder brother was saying I have time for everyone else but them. But you know, I just feel obligated to do this work. People have faith in me to help them with issues they face. They send me messages and ask for my help. 

I cannot let them down. 

But I also don’t want to try to save the whole world and neglect my children. So that’s a balance

I have been trying to see how to strike but I’m still struggling.
How do you feel the issues brought out in these exhibitions should be resolved?

What is happening is illegal. If we were in a country that had systems that work, you would see the Inspectorate of Government (IGG) working, the Auditor General, and other Anti-Graft agencies auditing activities the House claims to have carried out for Corporate Social Responsibility and spent billions on.

Withdrawing Shs500 million and they are not accounting for it? The way forward, I would suggest, is for the citizens to rise up themselves. This is a duty for all of us.

Who is Atuhaire?
She is a journalist and lawyer by training. She previously worked in the mainstream media including at the Independent News Magazine, Uganda Radio Network (URN), briefly at NBS, and also corresponded for Nation Media Group-Uganda. 

With a couple of friends recently, they started a not-for-profit organisation called Agora that does evidence-based activism and investigative journalism.