Cecilia Ogwal: The Iron Lady melts at 77

Cecilia Ogwal addresses a rally at Coronation Park in Lira during one of the 2001 election campaigns for Lira Municipality MP seat in . PHOTO/ Hudson Apunyo

What you need to know:

Speaker of Parliament Anita Among announced the passing of “our mother, mentor and role model” yesterday, leaving some legislators at a loss that Ms Ogwal had been terminally ill to begin with

Cecilia Barbara Atim Ogwal finally broke a heart. Many actually. But only because she shocked the nation with her death, on Wednesday, from India where she had checked into a hospital two weeks ago for treatment.

Speaker of Parliament Anita Among announced the passing of “our mother, mentor and role model” yesterday, leaving some legislators at a loss that Ms Ogwal had been terminally ill to begin with.

“She was such a fighter,” said Ms Anne Magona, who taught the deceased Geography at Gayaza High School in the 60s.

Sources said Ms Ogwal succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

She had lived for 77 years, for the better part of it, enjoying the song, “Oh Cecilia (Breaking My Heart)” by American folk rock duo Simon and Garfunkel.

“She was my auntie, my idol, she used to inspire me a lot,” said Rasta Rob MC, born Robert Ogwal.

The 90s belonged to the Ogwals. It was the FM radio era and Robert Ogwal, a Kampala-bred Lango, was sensational on the Spectrum evening drive show on 88.2 Radio Sanyu and later Super Show on CBS.

Ogwal, the DJ, had personalised jingles, and Ogwal, the politician had been baptised Iron Lady. Every evening, the DJ played ‘Oh Cecilia’, interrupting the lyrics whenever it said “Oh Cecilia…” with ‘Ogwal’ to make his statement.

“She used to love this song, that is what I can tell you,” Rasta Rob told Daily Monitor.

Glimpses in Gayaza

Ms Ogwal will no longer listen to Oh Cecilia from the other side, but listening to songs is not what she was known for. She made it all in politics. And she made it as big as they come.

In the 90s, many babies were christened Cecilia by the same name who was sentenced to death for defying the Roman gods but because of the Iron Lady life, she inspired the nation to live.

Cecilia had long exhibited traces of what she was to become before national politics thrust her mettle onto the nation.

Ms Magona recalls a particular evening at Gayaza High School – where she was one of the first Catholics admitted to the Anglican school – when Cecilia courted trouble during the Senior Four mock examination period.

“She shared a room with Janet Odong and they were house leaders,” recalls Ms Magona.

The two girls, who would join Makerere together, broke the lights-out rule and they were not up for compromise.

“The night before the Geography paper, the night watchman went to the HM saying the girls would not listen to him. The HM picked up her lamp and joined him after midnight. They got to Janet and Cecilia’s room.

“The watchman said ‘switch out the light’. Cecilia replied ‘Go away. We shall tell the HM you are disturbing us’. The HM then spoke telling them to open the door.”

Of course, the askari had no gun but Cecilia had defied an askari all the same. And she would live her political life defying real armed askaris in ways that caused chills and inspired millions of others.

Former presidential candidate Kiiza Besigye described Ms Ogwal as “brilliant and charismatic” while former Leader of Opposition in Parliament Mathias Mpuuga said she had an impeccable sense of duty.

“Cecilia and Hussein Kyanjo – recently deceased – were the only senior MPs who had time for others. They could give us time for mentorship. She was immensely humane and we miss her. She left huge lessons to budding politicians. One is doing politics with conviction.”

That conviction took a prophetic angle in 1993 when Ms Ogwal stood up to President Museveni, who had only come to power six years prior and was enjoying immense popularity having restored sociopolitical order in parts of the country.

Ms Winnie Kiiza (second left), a former Leader of Opposition in Parliament, with other mourners gather at the home of late Cecilia Ogwal, Dokolo Woman MP, in Bugolobi, Kampala, yesterday. PHOTO/SYLIVIA KATUSHABE

Predicting Museveni

At a time US President Bill Clinton was gushing about “a new breed of African leaders”, Cecilia Ogwal was painting the same Yoweri Kaguta Museveni in a cloak of deceit.

Yet Ogwal’s strongly-worded conviction was that Mr Museveni was giving the country “fake democracy”.

“This man Museveni is entrenching himself daily militarily,” Ogwal told Courier Magazine’s Augustine Oyowe in a 1993 interview.

“The whole country is being militarised towards supporting a dictatorial system. The more Museveni is given time, the more he will entrench himself and it will be very difficult for us to uproot him. The sooner the outside world can help us get rid of him, the better it will be for Uganda.”

It was a textbook comment from President Milton Obote. And having served the two-time Ugandan president at his party Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) as acting Secretary General between 1985 and 1992, it was easy to dismiss her observation.

Indeed, Ogwal was labelled a pot calling the kettle black by government functionaries at the time UPC was being dragged into the mud.

But no amount of intimidation could melt the iron in her. Her stance on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war in northern Uganda was always loud like helicopter gunship rotors over the swathes of the north.

She maintained that Mr Museveni’s politics was designed to undo everything his nemeses Obote and Idi Amin had done for the country. To this, she fought gallantly to save parastals like Uganda Commercial Bank and Dairy Corporation, among others.

In November 2003, she walked out on Museveni at Parliament, demanding the President find a solution to the Joseph Kony-led war even if it meant seeking international help.

From the Constituent Assembly that drafted the 1995 Constitution to representing Lira Municipality from 1996 to 2005 and Dokolo as a Woman MP from 2006 until Wednesday, the iron Cecilia was panel-beaten from was as firm as ever.

“Firm in her convictions, brave yet humble, she carried the mantle of UPC when no one would speak for that organisation in the early 1990s and throughout the Constituent assembly deliberations,” said Mr Odrek Rwabwogo, a son-in-law of the First Family.

Citing how Ms Ogwal defied Obote on UPC’s involvement in elections organised by Museveni’s regime, Mr Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi, a veteran journalist and television talk-show host, said she was true to her beliefs but alive to the realities of her times.

Ahead of the first national elections under the NRA era in 1996, Obote – who was in exile in Zambia, ordered a UPC boycott?

But Ms Ogwal insisted that staying away would only help bury the Opposition at a time they were advocating for multiparty politics.

“One time, during a cocktail, I think at the German ambassador’s residence, I got into conversation with her and Winnie Byanyima,” recalls Mr Michael Wakabi, a veteran journalist.

“Winnie was lamenting about how Museveni had fought her in the 2001 elections. Cecilia said her situation was worse because two presidents were fighting her. She was fighting Museveni on the ground while Obote was also squeezing her in the background. She said all this with a cheerful, triumphant tone.”

By early 2000s, Ms Ogwal was facing big pressure from Obote’s family in the battle for UPC’s soul. Ms Mira Obote, who had returned two months earlier from a 20-year exile when Obote died, was elected party president.

Her son Jimmy Akena wrestled Ogwal from Lira Municipality. She took refuge in the Forum for Democratic Change and contested and won the Dokolo Woman MP seat that she held from 2006 until her death.

Even when it looked like she had adopted self-preservation, the Iron Lady who told The Observer  in 2014 that she had survived 12 attempts on her life, would take a beating from security operatives as she and husband Lameck Ogwal were molested for campaigning against the lifting of the age limit from the Constitution in 2017.

In 2011, Ogwal gave the world a taste of her strong voice during the Global African Diaspora Parliamentarians Summit in South Africa when she rejected how gay rights were being forced on Africans.

“Practices that are against African culture are now classified as human rights. I am forced to accept homosexuality. That is wrong and should be condemned,” she said.

Beauty queen

Lameck Ogwal first met Cecilia in 1965 at Makerere University where a dance event had been organised for secondary schools.

Born on June 12, 1946, she was in Senior Five at Gayaza while Ogwal worked as a community development officer in Lango and Teso region.

Lameck would tell her he was destined to marry the most beautiful girl in Uganda.