I first met Cecilia Ogwal during the campaigns for the aborted 1985 General Election. At the time, Cecilia was running against incumbent Lira West MP Charles Odyek Okot (RIP), and Dr Absalom Kenneth Oteng (RIP), among others.
At the time, all the candidates were from the dominant Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party. And all came to my father’s house because he was an influential local UPC leader. But the campaigns were cut short by the Okello Lutwa coup on July 27, 1985.
The next time I crossed paths with Cecilia was during the campaigns for the Constituent Assembly (CA) Delegates election, held on March 28, 1994. She was running to be the CA Delegate for Lira Municipality. As was expected, Cecilia crushed a long line of men, including Presidential Advisor Sam Engola, the Rev Yeko Ongora Atwai (RIP), who was the incumbent National Resistance Council (NRC) representative for Lira Municipality, Mr Ogwang Odom (RIP), and NRM’s Director for External Affairs Maj (rtd) Pollar Awich, among others.
Hereafter, the star of the girl from the red dirt village of Adok in Dokolo District could only rise and rise. Cecilia then rose to dominate politics in Lango and become an icon of multi-party politics, clean governance, and democracy in Uganda for 30 years.
Cecilia then represented Lira Municipality from 1994 until 2005, and then Dokolo District from 2006 until her death in India on January 18, 2023. But my most enduring memory of Cecilia is one of a lady who could not rest until Uganda returned to multi-party politics.
When President Museveni shot his way to power in 1986 and sent restricted political parties activities to their headquarters in Kampala, Cecilia saw it as her mandate to fight and reverse that NRM decree. She created Lira Boys, a political outfit of radical young people, mostly businessmen and women, who robustly opposed Museveni’s rule and kept Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party alive in the face fierce anti-UPC campaigns by Museveni and his NRA/NRM.
All of us, young boys and girls, even at school, were deemed members of Lira Boys. Cecilia was our commander, for she, too, was a Lira Boy. By her side in the dogged political fight against the NRA/NRM and to salvage UPC were Yefusa Okullo Epak (RIP), Daniel Omara Atubo, and Ben Wacha, among other fierce warriors for multi-party democracy.
Cecilia was a politician of a rare breed. She was a strategist who rarely went wrong. And in Lango, it was a deadly mistake to have her against anyone in any political contest, whether in her own constituency or anywhere else. She was a star exemplar not only for the girl-child, but also women and politicians of all political persuasions. Cecilia’s distinct signature voice; powerful and authoritative at once, had the undeniable impact of capturing the attention of anybody and everybody at all times.
Her wide knowledge of local, national and international affairs also qualified her as a powerful speaker that was difficult to challenge. Cecilia’s courage and brilliance made it very risky to dare her in public on any matter or subject. In Lango, during political campaigns, we knew that if one did not want to vote for Cecilia, one had to stay away from her rallies; else one would have a very difficult time voting for her opponent.
Cecilia was also a powerful and witty Speaker. She understood the art of public speaking like very few politicians of our time did. During campaigns to elect CA Delegates, and the parliamentary campaigns of 1996, and 2001, candidates would hold joint campaign meetings as no candidate was allowed to have separate campaign rallies. Her opponents dreaded those meetings whether she was the first or the last to speak.
If she spoke first, Cecilia planted “land mines” for her opponents that they spent all their allotted time trying to respond to what she would have said. They rarely got time to speak to their agenda. If she spoke last, Cecilia would demolish everything her opponents had said, and people loved her, her sharp tongue, wit, and humour.
Many have testified about the strong faith that Cecilia professed. I saw her put her faith to work and hold steadfast to James 2: 14-20; that faith without works is dead. She supported widows and paid school fees for many orphans. But her generosity will be missed the most by the elderly, the neglected and the downtrodden that she regularly visited and provided for. Their Christmas and Easter celebrations were bright because of her provision. Now in their houses, it must be truly dark, possibly as dark as the grave in which their heroine lies.
During challenging times in Lango, Cecilia provided leadership, and gave strength, counsel and direction to the community. She lived to touch lives and shared abundant love with all she came into contact with. She worked hard and had the level of integrity most people today find unfathomable. And yes, Cecilia was fearless in the face of evil, injustice, and inequality.
Cecilia’s courage and boldness in fighting for the respect of political freedoms and the return to multi-party democracy, and her disdain for corruption and the corrupt, should inspire the younger generation to respond to the call for a corruption-free Uganda, and make Ugandans embrace the fight for political justice and respect for human rights in an increasingly restrictive environment under the NRM.
Her stubborn refusal to apologise for making deliberate efforts to work with people of other political persuasions, including President Museveni, especially on the issues they agreed on, should be an eye-opener to Museveni and his NRM, and the Ugandan opposition. In a country where political disagreements often quickly turn into petty personal vendetta, Cecilia showed the way – she was a fierce critic of President Museveni, but also insisted that he was her brother. She often appreciated the good things the NRM had done, but was quick to fearlessly admonish President Museveni and the NRM government where she felt they had been wrong. That is the political maturity our country desperately needs, but tragically lacks today.
Now that Cecilia is gone, it all falls on her brother, President Museveni, to deliver Cecilia’s quest for a district hospital and creation of municipality for the people of Dokolo since his sister is no longer here to fight for them. For now, in that narrow space of earth in Alito Sub-county, Kole District, now rests Lango’s golden daughter, a committed wife to her husband and mother to her children, and a fearless warrior for peace, democracy, equality and human rights.
Fare-thee-well Imat Lango, Cecilia Barbara Atim Ogwal.
Okao Tema is a Lira-based journalist and FDC Secretary for Trade, Industries, Economy and Investments.