PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Eulalia Laetitia Mukasa-Kikonyogo
First Woman Deputy Chief Justice
By Maureen Mapp, Ph.D.
Justice Eulalia Mukasa-Kikonyogo (1940-2017) was an inspirational figure whose career journey up to the judiciary’s ‘concrete’ ceiling is still record-breaking. Born on the 2nd of September 1940 to a Buganda chief, Eulalia Mukasa-Kikonyogo had access to education. She attended Busuubizi Girls' Primary School (1948-1952), Trinity College, Nabbingo for her Ordinary level studies (1953-1958), and King's College, Budo for her Advanced level studies (1959-1960) before joining Makerere University- then affiliated to the University of London, where she graduated with Bachelor of Arts Certificate (1964-1968). Mukasa-Kikonyogo did a Post Graduate Diploma in Social Anthropology at the Somerville College of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom (1964-1965) before studying for the Bar at Inner Temple in London. She became a qualified Barrister at Law in 1968.
Mukasa-Kikonyogo was appointed Uganda’s first female judge of the High Court in 1986, and after starting her career in the judiciary as a magistrate, she would become the first female Chief Magistrate in 1971. In 1997, was appointed Uganda’s first female Supreme Court Judge. In 2001, Mukasa-Kikonyogo was appointed Uganda’s first female Deputy Chief Justice and served for almost ten years making her Uganda’s longest-serving female Deputy Chief Justice. As Deputy Chief Justice, she was the sixth most powerful person in the government of Uganda. From 2002 to 2004, she was elected as the first African president of the International Association of Women Judges.
Mukasa-Kikonyogo was fearless, always putting the rule of law first, even if it meant squaring up to the Executive arm of government and putting her own life at risk. One landmark decision that exemplifies her commitment to justice is her lead decision following the events of 16th November 2005. On this day, a security Anti-Terrorism Taskforce nicknamed the ‘Black Mamba Squad’ laid siege to the High Court and forcibly arrested retired Colonel Kizza Besigye, a prominent member of the opposition along with other men jointly accused of treason. Their bail application had been granted by a judge of the High Court, who was later forced to withdraw from the case citing intimidation. The Court of Appeal, led by Mukasa-Kikonyogo, declared the actions by the state as an unjustifiable interference with the right to personal liberty and the right to a fair trial, and a violation of the independence of the judiciary. Her lead judgment in Uganda Law Society versus Attorney General of Uganda 2005 is a must-read for any scholar of Ugandan constitutional law.
On the 1st of March 2007, history repeated itself. Acting Chief Justice Mukasa-Kikonyogo was now personally caught up in the events. The same five men--Colonel Besigye included-- were once again violently arrested by armed security forces after being granted bail by another judge of the High Court at Kampala. During the ‘second court siege’, Mukasa-Kikonyogo protested the invasion of the court. She held a crisis meeting in her chambers and negotiated a deal for the accused persons to be released. After a six-hour siege in which her Ladyship alongside the Principal Judge and other judges were held ‘hostage’ in the High Court by the security forces. After the men were released at around 8.30 pm, they were once again captured, beaten, and taken away from the High Court in a police car stolen by the security forces.
Justice Mukasa-Kikonyogo kept the courts closed in protest of the attacks by these special operations forces. This moment was significant, as standing up to the executive and shutting down the courts at a time when political tensions ran high sent a firm message about the judiciary’s stand on the protection of individual’s human rights, and on its own authority. Justice Mukasa-Kikonyogo had other accolades up her sleeve- specifically on the religious front. After years of dedicated service to the Catholic Church, Mukasa-Kikonyogo was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as one of two African female Dames (Papal Knights) - a first in the history of the Catholic Church in Africa. On her appointment, and in true Kikonyogo style, she told New Vision newspaper in an interview in 2013:
“I am overwhelmed by the Pope's choice. Who am I to be his dame? I only thank God for such a great honour bestowed on me for I don't consider myself deserving...”
This statement sums up Dame Mukasa-Kikonyogo’s philosophy of service, a deep sense of commitment to do right, but without seeking fame or feeling deserving of praise. She remained in her home, close to her community. Her sense of fairness was tempered with her concern for the well-being of others. As attorney Karoli Ssemogerere aptly puts it, Mukasa- Kikonyogo was able to combine the role of judge, feminist, and leader while remaining true to her Catholic faith even in public life.
Mukasa-Kikonyogo’s distinguished career journey to the sixth-highest political position in Uganda, and the top of the judiciary leadership was not without its problems. Climbing up the rungs of the male-dominated judiciary was fraught with gender barriers along the way. Some were structural, like being allocated the smallest chambers in the court building not only as a newly appointed High Court judge but again as a senior Supreme Court judge. Gender bias likely motivated those within the judiciary who publicly fought her appointment as Deputy Chief Justice in 2001, claiming that she was ill-suited for the post.
Unsurprisingly, not a shred of evidence of her alleged incompetence has been brought to light. If anything, Mukasa-Kikonyogo was vindicated of such allegations by fellow judges at a meeting chaired by then Chief Justice Sam Wambuzi. The following year, she went on to be elected as Africa’s first President of the International Association of Women Judges, an election which is a resounding endorsement of Justice Kikonyogo’s competence and capability as a judge at both the national and international level.
As a feminist, Kikonyogo fought for fairness and gender equality, a legacy that lives on in the organizations she co-founded like the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA) formed in 1974, and the National Association of Women Judges- Uganda (NAWJU) established in 1994. With level-headedness that was truly exemplary, she successfully combined being a wife and mother with her demanding political and leadership roles. Although her career highlights the gendered hurdles that women judges face reaching top political and administrative positions, it also shows that if a woman is competent at their work and level-headed, these hurdles are not insurmountable. Significantly, at the time of writing in September 2020, there has not yet been another long-serving female Deputy Chief Justice appointed in Uganda. And, as Dawuni predicts, women will have to fight harder to break the ‘concrete’ ceiling before a woman is appointed to be Chief Justice in Uganda.