On Thursday September 29, 2022 (tomorrow), Mariam Fauzat Wangadya makes exactly one year as the Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), having been appointed to the coveted office on Wednesday September 29, 2021. To many local and foreign human rights defenders and enthusiasts, Wangadya’s appointment came with immeasurable relief. This is because for about two years, the Commission had been weighed down by operational difficulties due to lack of a substantive head after it was orphaned by the abrupt death of its Chairperson, Meddie Kaggwa, on November 20, 2019.
And by that time, the country was heading into the final bend of the 2021 electoral cycle which was characterized by incessant reports of gross human rights violations by the political actors from both the government and opposition.
Curiously, the government was blighted by ceaseless accusations of abductions, arbitrary arrests and torture of opposition politicians and their supporters; mainly those of singer-turned-politician, Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu aka Bobi Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP).
Worst still, these violations were specifically pegged onto the country’s security structures; mainly the Police and army, and to some extent, the Uganda Prisons.
UHRC CALLED TO DUTY
With the very people tasked with keeping peace, law and order heavily implicated in depriving citizens of the same, the victims needed a neutral arbiter to offer them redress.
Without doubt, this neutral ear was the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC).
Unfortunately for the victims, the UHRC could do nothing much in this regard due to its structural incapacitation, mostly occasioned by lack of a substantive head (who by law is supposed to be an advocate of the High Court). This deficiency meant that the commission’s human rights cases resolution mechanism, the tribunal, could not convene to hear cases and dispense justice to victims, which led to an unprecedented case backlog. This essentially meant that the work of anyone who would be appointed as head at Twed Plaza was cut out and all indications were that such a candidate had to have both the brain and body to move things at a more than normal speed.
Wangadya The Perfect Candidate
It is not surprising that in zeroing on Mariam Fauzat Wagadya, the appointing authority put his finger on the right person. Her choice meant that the commission would instantly benefit from her wealth of experience both in running the establishment as well as defending human rights.
Most importantly, Wangadya was simply returning to a familiar work place and one at which she had excelled tremendously before venturing elsewhere. Her profile shows that following a short stint fighting for the rights of marginalized women at FIDA, Wangadya was appointed on the team which founded the UHRC in 1996. During her first stint at the then new rights body, she served under Margaret Sekaggya, the pioneer chairperson of the UHRC and later under her now predecessor, the late Med S.K Kaggwa. She left UHRC after 17 years following her appointment as the Deputy Inspector General of Government in 2013. Her return to the commission after 8 years at the IGG’s office thus makes it a second homecoming for Wangadya and it is not surprising that as she makes it one year in office, there’s already a very long trail of tangible achievements to write home about.
Prioritizing The Marginalized
World over, human rights defenders are usually guilty of prioritizing the rights of the privileged ahead of those of the marginalized.
Under Wangadya’s short tenure, however, the UHRC is slowly gaining prominence for coming out boldly on the rights of the marginalized groups including islanders, ghetto dwellers, refugees, teenage mothers and Karimojongs, among others.
This can be evidenced by the 24th Human Rights Annual Report which carried an unprecedented thematic area focusing on the lives and rights of Islanders on Buvuma and Kalangala islands. Human rights defenders praised the report for generally focusing on ESCR as opposed to the usual Civil and Political Rights.
While commenting on the 24th annual report’s theme, Dr. Zahara Nampewo, the Executive Director of the Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC), hailed UHRC for highlighting that “human rights is not for the upmarket people or the well-to-do people alone but also the people in ghettos and islands so nobody should be treated less than others”. Zahara also noted that the theme was in line with the Social Development goals’ agenda 2030 of “leave no one behind”.
While the report dedicated the entire Chapter 3 to assessing the human rights situation on the two islands, other chapters which covered the rights of the marginalized include: Chapter 2 (on Middle East Migrant workers), Chapter 4 (on extractive industries in Karamoja sub-region), Chapter 6 (refugees’ plight).
In the above chapters, the UHRC particularly advocated for guarantees to the rights of cheap transport, affordable and quality education, better healthcare, decongestion of police and prison cells, among others.
It is worth highlighting that the above report only works to cement Wangadya’s obsession with defending the rights of the lowly. Reports indicate that during her earlier time at UHRC, Wangadya is credited for her dedicated service in the delivery of justice to the indigent members. So passionate is she in this regard that it is clearly stated in her work records that by the time she left the commission in 2013, she had gained fame for diligently handling so many of such cases at the Commission Tribunals. This is why many rights defenders saw her return to head the Commission as a vote of confidence in her leadership skills, managerial experience, and ability to defend rights without bias.
Investigations done by our inspectors showed that on a managerial level, Wangadya has surpassed expectations by moving quite more things than expected during her first year in office.
For starters, she is credited for having fast tracked the launch of the 22nd & 23rd Annual reports which had stalled for two years following Kaggwa’s demise.
But if there’s any achievement which can be directly attributed to Wangadya, then it’s her ability to put UHRC in the face of every Ugandan. This has been achieved through increased strategic liaisons with state, corporate, private and diplomatic institutions in the bid to entrench human rights advocacy. The Commission has also embarked on programmes targeting specific segments of the population in terms of increasing human rights awareness.
For instance, on Monday May 30, 2022, she launched a digital human rights education programme targeting mainly youth. While passing out the programme resource persons who had been trained by UHRC at Esela Country Hotel in Wakiso, Wangadya revealed the programme was mainly designed for the youths, who are the biggest users of social media.
It is therefore not surprising that with such awareness drives, the UHRC and the topic of human rights have grabbed widespread social media attention. Tied within this is recent data which showed that currently, 70% of torture victims report their cases to the UHRC and other human rights defending organs as opposed to the Police.
And while presenting this ironic stat on NBS TV on June 26, 2022, ACP James Kusemererwa attributed the trend to increased trust of the UHRC and its sister organs by the general public.
Our investigations revealed that such trust is a result of increased efficiency and professionalism by UHRC staff who have mainly benefitted from the commission’s encouragement of its staff to get continuous training in human rights so as to improve their skills. We have learnt that this year alone, 5 UHRC staff graduated in human rights law at the Law Development Centre (LDC).
And to further stamp its commitment to promoting human rights education, the Commission gives the UHRC prize to the best human rights student at the LDC; with this year’s winner being Venon Mukhwana.
Increased Workers’ Productivity
Efficiency of a worker is often gauged on their output in a given period. It is safe to say that Wangadya’s experience in management has been pivotal in increasing employee productivity at the commission in the little time she has been behind the steering wheel. It is worth noting that Wangadya’s resume spells her expansive wealth of technical experience as having emanated from several trainings in areas such as Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), Public Administration and Management, Monitoring and Evaluation, and Women’s Rights among other disciplines. This, coupled with her exposure as a high level corporate manager, only serves to benefit the Commission. In fact, statistics show that as she clocks a year in office, the commission has registered over 1200 cases of human rights abuses as of 2022. And in terms of ground work output, the 24th annual report showed that this year the commission managed to visit 312 police stations, 200 police posts, 93 prisons, 3 remand homes and 3 military detention facilities. This is no mean achievement considering that such inspection visits were a major challenge especially during the post-Covid period.
On top of fostering liaisons with local rights bodies, Wangadya has also increased contact with a foreign legion of donor organisations and development partners. These, among others, include GIZ, UNICEF, UNDP, EU, and the British High Commission; all of which have paid a courtesy call on her in a bid to cement their relations with UHRC. From these engagements, the UHRC has been able to get resource mobilization. For instance, in the last year, the UN Human Rights donated to UHRC an assortment of office equipment including chairs, computers, tables, and cabins among others following mobilization from UNICEF, UNDP and other UN agencies.
Meanwhile, the GIZ also delivered an ultra-modern conference facility, ultra-tech laptops, computers and outdoor screen for Gulu Regional office among others. Coupled with this is the expansion of the UHRC presence on the ground. Apart from increased visibility of the UHRC in the media and also top decision making organs like Parliament, under Wangadya’s short reign so far, the UHRC has physically expanded, with two regional offices recently launched at Lira and Kabale in northern and western Uganda respectively.
Increased engagements with security organs
Although widely seen as a double-edged sword for Wangadya, her close engagement with the country’s security agencies including the Police, army and Uganda prisons service is worth commending. It is worth noting that many Ugandans, mainly opposition politicians, view the security forces as their major tormentors. Incidentally, all past UHRC annual reports have backed up these claims by naming these organs as the topmost rights violating bodies in the country.
This has therefore created widespread opinion that Wangadya should be antagonistic to them. However, being a lady with credible experience and academic qualifications in areas of peace-building and conflict resolution, Wangadya has chosen to remain impartial. This explains why her defence of the rights of all has included fighting for the rights of the security men, much to the chagrin of many. In the past year, Wangadya has courted controversy twice for berating the conduct of some unscrupulous Ugandans who are paid to claim human rights violations by the security forces. Sadly, these have persistently refused to lodge formal complaints with even the UHRC for redress. Earlier this year, however, Wangadya’s rights-for-all approach was vindicated when a video went viral of supposed opposition torture victims who came limping on crutches but quickly threw them down and sprinted for dear life when they saw the police approaching them. Later on, Wangadya’s agitation for the protection of security personnel’s right to work was emboldened with a spate of attacks on security officers which left many dead. These happened to police officers who were attacked and killed and their guns robbed in Luweero and Wakiso areas, while UPDF Chief Political Commissar Maj. Gen. Henry Masiko revealed that an army officer had lost an eye after he was attacked and scalded with hot water by an assailant.
Such acts only justified Wangadya’s balanced opinion that what is good for the goose should also be good for the gander!
But by and large, Wangadya has been able to win the trust of the security organs that have increasingly felt safe enough to attend the Commission’s engagements and also open up their facilities to the commission to inspect them, which has gone a long way in curtailing human rights abuses at many detention centers.
Ironically, despite this seemingly friendly working relationship, Wangadya has boldly come out to fault the security forces on many issues which border on human rights abuses, including condemning the dishonorable arrests of jailed NUP MPs Muhammad Ssegirinya and Allan Ssewanyana. For instance, on August 9, she met new justice minister Norbert Mao to discuss the interventions for the release of the jailed NUP MPs while on May 4, 2022, she issued an order compelling CMI to set free one Obed Katureebe who had been held since May 2, 2022.
Lastly, insiders at UHRC intimated to our Inspectors that to depart a little from her predecessors, Wangadya instituted an open door policy for staff who are now confident in her reassuring and peace-building method of work. Because of that, her administration has blended in easily with the Commission staff thus eliminating cliquism and office politics which normally happens in other institutions when new CEOs assume office. This openness also extends to the public, where she expresses her opinions and also shares her fellow commissioners’ content on her socials — especially Twitter — even at the risk of being misunderstood by many.
It may still be a long, bumpy road ahead for Wangadya but if a health plant is determined by its powerful sprout, then all indications so far are that we can expect even better from Wangadya by the time she exits office.