PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro
First woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English Bar
By Ire Fagbemi
Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro was born in the capital of the Toro Kingdom, Kabalole, in 1936 to King George Matthew Kamurasi Rukiidi and Queen Kezia Byanjeru of the Toro Kingdom in Western Uganda. She married Wilbur Nyabongo in 1981 and they were together for five years until his death in 1986.
Bagaya attended elementary school at Kyebambe Girls School in Uganda. Afterwards, she was sent to Gayaza High School, a prestigious girls boarding school in Buganda, central Uganda. At her father’s insistence, she continued her education in England, at the Sherborne School for Girls, where she was the only Black student. A year later, she was accepted to the University of Cambridge, Girton College, and was the third African woman to attend this university. In 1962, she graduated from the University of Cambridge with a law degree and three years later in 1965 she qualified as a barrister-at-law, at London’s Gray’s Inn. She became the first woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English Bar.
Unfortunately, at about this time, Bagaya’s father died, and so her brother, Rukirabasaija Patrick David Matthew Koboyo Olimi III, ascended to the throne. As a result of these events, she returned home, where she joined Kazzora and Co, a law firm in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. She completed a six-month internship at the firm before she was called to the Ugandan bar in 1966, becoming the first woman to do so.
In the same year, the then president of Uganda, Milton Obote, had violently abolished Uganda’s traditional monarchies, and so Bagaya’s life was in serious jeopardy. Fortunately for Bagaya, she received a personal invitation in 1967 from Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon to participate in a widely publicized Commonwealth fashion show at Marlborough House in London. She walked the runway in an outfit from a Uganda Collection designed by Phillipa Todd and was a big hit. After this appearance, she began her modelling career.
From there, she signed with the Peter Lumley Agency and modeled in several fashion shows that were featured in the British and American Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Queen magazines in 1967 and 1968. Between 1968 and 1970, she took her modeling career to New York, where she signed to the Ford Agency, the top modeling agency in America at the time. She then had an entire layout of the 1968 summer issue of Vogue dedicated to her. She was also featured in Look, LIFE, and Ebony magazines and became the first Black model to appear on the cover of a top fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar.
Considering her successful modeling career, the Ford Agency advised her to enroll in acting classes. She did so at the American Place Theatre and went on to act in a few films, including “Bullfrog in the Sun” (based on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) and “Sheena: Queen of the Jungle.”
In 1971, Idi Amin overthrew the Obote government in Uganda and Bagaya once again returned to Uganda to serve her country. Her first appointment under Amin was as Roving Ambassador, where for three years she used her fame and connections to get direct access to various presidents and dignitaries. This position led to her appointment as Foreign Minister in February 1974. Even though her tenure as Foreign Minister was short from February to November 1974, Bagaya revived Uganda’s tarnished image abroad, attempted to soothe hostilities, and encouraged heads of state to visit the country .
Her tenure as Foreign Minister was cut short as her relationship with Amin soured over claims that she planned to overthrow him. Bagaya stated in an interview that because of these rumors, Amin had her placed under house arrest. If not for international and local pressure, she believes she would have been killed.
Bagaya left Uganda in 1974 and sought political asylum in Britain. She kept a low profile until she returned to Uganda in 1979 when Amin’s government was overthrown. In the country’s first free national elections, Obote returned to power in 1980, and his hostility and previous aggression towards the monarchy caused Bagaya to leave Uganda once more, until her final return in 1985 when he was overthrown and replaced by Yoweri Museveni.
Museveni appointed Bagaya as Uganda’s Ambassador to the United States between 1986 and 1988. As Ambassador, she used the media and contacts from her previous careers for the Ugandan cause, including arranging a meeting between President Museveni and then Vice-President George Bush and President Ronald Regan in October 1987.
After her husband Wilbur Nyabongo died in December 1986, Bagaya made the decision to leave public service and get involved in charity work. She resigned from her position as Ugandan Ambassador to the United States on July 21, 1988 and began promoting different causes through television appearances and her book, “Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess”, published in 1989 .
In 1993, President Museveni’s government restored cultural leaders in Uganda. This led to Princess Bagaya’s return to serve as Princess Royale to her brother, King Patrick Kaboyo Olimi VII. She was a key player in restarting the kingdom, and when her brother died, she was named as one of her nephew’s guardians, as the leadership was passed down to men/boys. She still plays an important role in the Kingdom, following a period where she was Uganda’s Ambassador to Germany and the Vatican, and her subsequent appointment as Uganda’s High Commissioner to Nigeria, based in Abuja, the country’s capital .
Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro is a pioneer woman in law for various reasons. She was the first woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English Bar, and the first woman to be called to the Ugandan bar. These are major accomplishments, as regardless of her privilege in a royal family, she entered the male dominated profession and inspired many women to do the same in the following years.
As well as this, her modelling career was also boundary breaking, as she was the first Black model on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, and first Black model to have an entire layout in Vogue. In discussing her modelling career, she stated how she wanted to use it to “destroy the myth of white superiority in terms of beauty and sophistication”. This was so important, as Euro-centric views of beauty were the standard for a long while, and her work as a model did a lot to counter this in the 1960s and 1970s.
Her political career, where she operated as various Ambassadors for Uganda, was very successful and beneficial to promoting Uganda internationally. She helped better the country’s international relations and always sought to uplift Uganda.
For all these reasons, Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro should be considered a pioneer woman in law.