In late May this year, Agather Atuhaire, via her twitter account, broke the story that the Parliament of Uganda had spent a whopping Shs. 2.8billion to purchase two luxury vehicles for the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.
Aside from the fact that the expenditure was unnecessary – both the Speaker and her Deputy already have two luxury vehicles for their official duties, the purchase flouted all public procurement procedures, and when Parliament’s contracts committee could not approve the procurement, the members of the committee were fired and new ones immediately appointed to approve the purchase.
Public reaction to the revelation was, as expected, furious. After all, the news came at a time when there was a marked and continuous increase in the prices of general commodities that had provoked a spike in the cost of living, with the public being urged to be frugal, by among others, the leadership of Parliament.
Agather, in true journalistic style, pointed out these contradictions, causing a stir at Parliament Avenue. The reaction was fast and furious:
But Agather was not the kind to be deterred. Born 34 years ago, in Sheema, Western Uganda, she developed a revulsion for injustice at an early age. Her father was a violent alcoholic who routinely abused her mother and neglected Agather and her seven siblings, leaving the entire responsibility of raising and providing for them to her mother who did not own any means of production or have a source of income.
When Agather realised that her mother was never going to challenge her father, she decided to take up the responsibility herself. “Going forward, whenever my father would lock my mother outside the house after a quarrel, I would knock on his door to ensure that he didn’t sleep either, until he opened for her to get in. I also started confronting him on his responsibilities – whenever I wanted a book and it wasn’t there, I would follow him to the bar and ask how he was able to find money to drink, but not for a book,” she says.
That experience shaped her outlook on life, leaving her determined to study hard, be self-sustaining, and fight injustice wherever she came across it.
But neither did education come easy. For her early secondary, she had to walk 7kms to a local school that accepted agricultural produce for school fees. Alarmed by the strain such a journey would have on a young Agather, her elder sister found her a place in Alliance School Mbarara, which was offering partial scholarships for young, brilliant, but financially handicapped kids. Here, she managed to complete high school.
Unable to afford her dream law program at University, she settled for Journalism. But she remained firm in her conviction that only with the law could she empower herself and vulnerable people like her mother to know their rights as insurance against abuse.
So, four years after graduating with a bachelor’s in Journalism and Communication, she returned to Makerere University to study a Bachelor of Laws. At Law School, true to character, she found that there was systemic dysfunction in some aspects of the course’s administration and began questioning them.
This questioning marked her out as a trouble-some student, and so, when she enrolled for the bar course in 2019, her peers took trouble to warn her that at the Law Development Centre (LDC), her restless questioning of things would not be tolerated.
As fate would have it, at the end of the bar course in 2021, the graduation process was messed up, and Agather found that before embarking on defending others’ rights, she would have to first defend her own, this time against the very institution that was supposed to certify her as a fully-fledged advocate.
Instead of releasing students’ results for them to know if they had passed or failed, the Centre released a list of students in three categories; of those who had passed and would graduate, those who had failed less than three subjects and were required to undertake supplementary exams, and finally, those who had completely failed and had been discontinued from the course. Agather belonged to the second category and was required to take a supplementary exam, but something was not adding up.
Agather wrote to the LDC Director asking for answers, which email was ignored. Unrelenting, she teamed up with other aggrieved students to petition LDC’s Management Committee, the Speaker of Parliament, the Law Council and the National Council for Higher Education.
Sensing a reluctance of some of the petitioned institutions to act, Agather and her colleagues started a social media campaign to force their hand, and to publicly challenge LDC’s impunity. As the pressure intensified and debate on the Centre’s conduct gained momentum in public and on social media, LDC caved in. They allowed students to verify their scripts and what they found were glaring inconsistences.
In the resultant rectifications, Agather would emerge among those who had passed – or should have passed, since the rectifications came two months after graduation. Although she and her colleagues had missed out on graduation, a resultant management committee ruling directed that all those students who had wrongfully missed out on graduation be given their transcripts. Agather says this was very illuminating:
Asked why she thinks justice remains out of reach for many people, including those who should-be empowered enough to demand it, she says one of the challenges is the cost of access to justice.
Still, Agather insists, change is only possible if we each purpose to challenge injustice wherever we encounter it. “Like Desmond Tutu urged us, do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world!” she says.