Is Mariam Wangadya a defender or detractor of human rights?

Mariam Wangadya (R) has presided over a controversial reign at UHRC

MARIAM WANGADYA is a prominent figure in Ugandan politics, currently serving as the chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC).

Her career has been marked by significant contributions to human rights advocacy, public service and controversies. The Observer provides a critical analysis of Mariam Wangadya, examining her background, contributions, and the challenges she faces.


Mariam Wangadya was born to two retired teachers in Bulambuli district and has one child. She completed her O-level education at Ngora High School and her A- level education at Kibuli Secondary School. Wangadya then pursued a Bachelor of Laws degree at Makerere University. She also holds a diploma in Legal Practice from the Law Development Centre and a master’s degree in public administration and management.

Wangadya began her career as a lawyer at Dagira and Company Advocates, a private law firm in Mbale, where she eventually became a partner. She also volunteered with FIDA Uganda. In 1996, Wangadya was appointed as one of the founding members of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) at its inception, serving alongside Margaret Sekaggya and Med Kaggwa.

In 2013, she left UHRC to assume the role of Inspector General of Government (IGG), a position she held until 2021. In 2021, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni appointed her as the chairperson of the UHRC, a role in which she was vetted and confirmed by Parliament. Wangadya’s extensive experience and expertise, including her tenure as IGG, have positioned her as a capable leader for the commission.


Wangadya’s tenure at the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) has been marked by a renewed focus on addressing human rights violations and holding violators accountable. Under her leadership, the commission has conducted investigations into various abuses, including political repression, freedom of expression, and gender-based violence. Her efforts to streamline the commission and raise awareness of human rights issues in Uganda have been crucial.

In June of the same year of her appointment, the UHRC reported investigating 69 disappearances and successfully ordering the release of 64 individuals. The commission recommended that the Uganda Police Force investigate all cases of disappearances and ensure that perpetrators are punished.

However, the police denied holding any persons without trial, noting that all detainees had either been released or arraigned in court. One of Wangadya’s notable contributions has been her emphasis on the need for independence and impartiality within the UHRC.

Her advocacy for the commission to operate free from political interference, alongside her efforts to engage with civil society organizations and international human rights bodies, has been instrumental in fostering a collaborative approach to human rights.


Despite her achievements, Wangadya’s tenure has not been without challenges. Human rights officers play a pivotal role in upholding the dignity and rights of individuals across the nation.

The UHRC draws its power from the Human Rights Act of 1997 and Articles 51 to 53 of the Constitution, which stipulate its responsibilities and functions, including monitoring abuses, advocating for victims, visiting jails, prisons, or places of detention to assess conditions of inmates, recommending measures to Parliament to protect human rights, and ensuring the government’s compliance with international human rights standards.

In layman’s terms, regardless of who the person is or their history, an advocate should fight for their rights without exemptions. Wangadya has faced criticism from political activists demanding an investigation into the whereabouts of missing members of the National Unity Platform (NUP), reportedly held in ungazetted places by the secret service.

On October 10th, 2023, NUP secretary general David Lewis Rubongoya sent a list of 30 names of the alleged missing persons to Wangadya. The commission then reported back, stating, “Notably, among these 30, five individuals were reportedly arrested in Nakaseke between January and February 2023. The UHRC commenced investigations into complaints to establish the facts behind the allegations. The aim was to guide the commission on its next course of action.”

In October 2023, the UHRC closed files of inquiry into the now 18 documented missing persons, some missing since 2019. Wangadya stated that the commission was sent on a wild goose chase: “Our entire budget was diverted to looking for, honestly, what I considered non-existent persons or some who actually exist today living in foreign countries. Others were out on bail for serious crimes like terrorism and vandalization of electric wires. When we reached them, they were so surprised that they appeared on the list of missing people.”

She concluded, “It will be futile for us to keep these files open when the people provided to us as the next of kin are not interested in these cases. In my conclusion, none of these people are genuinely missing. From the interactions we have done with these people, none of those people provided for us is missing.” But as the Daily Monitor newspaper reported, on June 13th, 2019, John Bosco Kibalama, an accountant and NUP leader, disappeared.

His wife, Nabukeera Monica, during a news conference, disclosed, “I have never received any letter, phone call, or message asking me to respond to issues concerning my husband’s disappearance from them.”

Another case was Dorothy Najjumba, sister to Vincent Nalumonso, who is still missing. Najjumba, recalling her brother’s disappearance at the age of 27, said, “We brought evidence, his national ID. Can you get an ID of a person who does not exist?”
On December 5th, 2023, Parliament postponed the second demand by the opposition to establish a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate what the then Leader of Opposition, Mathias Mpuuga, called glaring human rights violations.

“We propose that the said commission will be endowed with the authority, independence, and resources necessary to uncover the truth, hold those responsible accountable, and ensure that justice prevails,” Mpuuga stated in response to allegations of unabated human rights abuses and shrinking civic space.

“It is not right and proper for the government to merely dismiss, summarily, without giving due regard to the overwhelming evidence presented,” Mpuuga added.

As of Monday, April 8th, 2024, the list of missing persons now holds 18 names. The government denied knowledge of 11 out of the 18 people that NUP allegedly reported missing, as per the headlines of almost all media houses and social media that day. The government responded to the families (with their lawyer George Musisi) of the victims when court, presided by Justice Esther Nambayo, declared that the party did not report their disappearance to the police or any other relevant authorities.

The NUP spokesperson, Joel Ssenyonyi, while addressing the press, said going to courts of law was the last option as they have tried UHRC and Parliament but no results were produced. A substantial body of literature suggests that leaders are often blocked from implementing efficient reforms that solve substantial problems due to special interest groups or budget constraints.

A politician incapable of delivering a reform has an incentive to implement a policy regardless of its efficiency to avoid being viewed as incompetent by the voter. It is important to note that voters do not have full information on why the politician does not implement a policy.

Therefore, voters cannot differentiate between a lack of action due to difficulties in policy making or a lack of competence, as suggested in the model by Dow and Gordon (1997). Taking a leap back in time, a group of five members from the Torture Survivors Movement Uganda attempted to deliver a petition to the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), demanding the resignation of its chairperson. They were, however, locked out of the commission.

The group accused the chairperson of inaction over human rights violations by officers. In a video by the Daily Monitor, the group is shown outside the gates of UHRC pleading to be heard. As Olivia Nalubwama reported in The Observer, “it was appalling watching the police manhandle the disabled torture survivors, and even more atrocious was the fact that it was right in the premises of the UHRC.”

It is evident from the reports presented by the UHRC that the Uganda Police remain the undisputed abusers of human rights under the guise of carrying out their work. The question remains: how many have been held responsible for their actions aside from the former Inspector General of Police, Kayihura?

Human Rights Watch, after interviewing 51 people including 34 former detainees and witnesses, documented enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture, and ill-treatment by the Uganda Police among other human rights violations in unsanctioned locations. Human Rights Watch reported to Parliament, urging them to open investigations into the safe houses and an island on Lake Victoria which allegedly held more than 400 illegally detained individuals in 2019.

The committee released a report in 2022 after its investigation, concluding that authorities, including the Internal Security Organization (ISO), were torturing and abusing detainees in unsanctioned places. The committee called on the government and other agencies to conduct further investigations, but there were no results at the time of the report.

The detailed challenges faced by victims and their families before and after release were explained in the report, which implied the existence of safe houses. A look through social media reveals numerous cases where police are seen manhandling and violating human rights. This raises the question: where was the UHRC during the two years it took to carry out these investigations?

Article 52(1) of the 1995 Uganda Constitution lays down the functions of the UHRC, one of which is “to create and sustain within society the awareness of the provisions of the constitution as the fundamental law of the people of Uganda.”

This begs several questions to the public: Do you know your rights? Are you aware of the provisions of the constitution? Do you own a copy of the laws that govern you?

Often, if we are not legally trained or did not study law, we neglect the efforts of understanding what the law stipulates or encompasses, leading to our rights being denied without us ever knowing what they are. Is it not the duty of the UHRC to enforce mechanisms or methods that will make Ugandans aware of their rights?

As the UHRC chairperson once said on an NBS TV program, “If the people on the wrong side of the law don’t trust the commission, so be it.” The people are the law, and it is the responsibility of the commission to help these people understand their law.

Chris Maina Peter, in a comparative report on national human rights in Africa (2009), emphasized that UHRC has some teeth, unlike other human rights commissions in Africa. Like a court of law, it has the power to summon people and documentation for any investigation, it can question any person in line with an investigation, it can direct any person to disclose relevant information, and it can even commit persons for contempt of its orders.

According to the UHRC website, following the closure of Civil-Military Co-operation Centers (CMCCs) established to promote harmony between security forces and the people in conflict areas of northern Uganda, the commission now maintains only seven centers. This raises the question: Is there no conflict in other sub-regions of the nation? The unavailability of funds is undermining the functionality of the UHRC.

The chairperson requested additional funding worth Shs 3.75 billion from parliament to improve staff salaries and boost the commission’s operational efficiency. In emphasizing this, she highlighted her own fuel allowance: “As chairperson of a constitutional body, my salary is two-thirds of that of the deputy head of that constitutional body. I am getting fuel of Shs 20,000 per day, which is Shs 600,000 per month,” she told the lawmakers.

Beyond improved salaries, the commission seeks Shs 1 billion for five vehicles to support inspections in detention facilities and investigations, plus an extra Shs 1.5 billion for three vans to be used in conducting human rights awareness campaigns across the country.

Before Mariam Wangadya’s tenure, the position of UHRC chairperson was held by the late Med Kaggwa, who succeeded Margaret Ssekagya and served from 1982 until 2019. Kaggwa was a member of the Constituent Assembly that drafted the 1995 Ugandan Constitution and is highly credited for steering the UHRC to greater heights, gaining official recognition by the UN.

His achievements and impartial work are well-documented online, with comments such as, “It is a big blow to the human rights community that we lost Meddie.”

Crispin Kaheru, the secretary of the National Initiative for Civic Education at the time, praised Kaggwa, stating that he always wished for citizens to be enlightened about political processes and to be heavily engaged. Kaheru noted, “He always said the truth without mincing words, and this is heavily depicted in the human rights reports he authored. Med Kaggwa didn’t fear to say the truth where it mattered most, but he also had the virtue of interacting with everybody and respecting each and everyone’s opinion. That is why he could comfortably interact with members of the ruling party as well as members of the opposition.”

Despite the UHRC’s considerable power, it finds itself in constant contradiction, particularly in light of comments made by its current chairperson, which have left people questioning whether her actions serve the interests of the people or the government.

Source: The Observer

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