Uganda is mourning the death of its first beauty queen, long-serving legislator and senior opposition leader Cecilia Barbra Atim Ogwal, who succumbed to cancer while receiving treatment in India at age 77.
Ogwal passed away on Thursday morning, according to family sources and Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament Anita Among.
Mourners, including members of Parliament, opposition leaders and businesspeople, thronged her home in Bugolobi, a Kampala suburb, following news of her demise.
Ogwal won Uganda’s first beauty pageant in 1969. She later joined politics, becoming an MP for Lira in 1996 and later for her home district of Dokolo in northern Uganda.
She earned the nickname ‘Iron Lady’ in her role of advocating for women’s rights and democratic principles during the making of Uganda’s Constitution in 1994.
Ogwal is also remembered for holding the fort for the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), a political party led by former president Milton Obote when the latter was in exile in Zambia. She became the face of opposition when political parties were banned by President Yoweri Museveni, who fought Obote’s government in a guerrilla war, eventually capturing power in 1986.
“She is one of the women I have admired since I was a little girl because she is a lawyer, just like me, and very assertive and passionate about women’s rights,” said Laura Kanushu, Parliament’s representative for women with disabilities.
During her time in Parliament, she was also a commissioner, opposition chief whip, chair of various parliamentary committees, and a member of the Pan-African Parliament, where her performance was recognised by her colleagues at the continental level.
In a meeting of legislators and at a time when many states were hesitating to take a stand against homosexuality, she stood up for Uganda in the OACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, earning both the nation and herself a standing ovation from representatives in several European countries, especially at a time when Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill passed in May last year, which had sparked opposition from western countries.
She spoke as her voice flared up, drawing everyone’s attention, saying, “The new law was conceived to criminalise the commercialisation of homosexuality, mainly targeting vulnerable persons, including the physically and mentally impaired, and innocent children in schools.”
Eulogising Ogwal, Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayebwa said, “You were instrumental in guiding and shaping local leaders, as well as advocating for a just global agenda where the voice of the global south was heard, especially in the OACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly. Your remarkable contributions will forever be etched in the annals of history.”
Four-time presidential candidate and leading opposition figure in the country, Dr. Kizza Besigye, described Ogwal as a brilliant leader of women.
“She was very brilliant, one of the few strong, competent women leaders that our country has raised, and a strong leader from the Lango region. It’s a terrible loss for the country,” Besigye said.
In addition, former prime minister Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda described Ogwal as a consistent leader who firmly spoke her mind about issues she believed in, while Agriculture Minister Frank Tumwebaze said, “Despite being in opposition, her positions were always anchored on logic and not extremism.