Ingrid Turinawe is chairperson of the Women’s League in the leading opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), but Ugandans know her more for her brand of courageous and cantankerous politics.
Already boasting of having composed and crooned a song, Turinawe added to her long list of pranks last week when she faced off with the police as the Activists for Change (A4C) kick-started the walk-to-work protests. Turinawe’s cunning plans that beat a security ring around her home made her an instant TV sensation. The same footage, posted on YouTube, went viral.
No wonder FDC president Dr Kizza Besigye told journalists last week that the mantle for causing trouble in this year’s edition of the protests has been handed to Turinawe. Another FDC strong woman, Ann Mugisha, who first met Turinawe after she returned from her nine-year exile in the United States in 2010, describes her colleague as “a very unique, stubborn individual” who is committed to her cause that she doesn’t realise what she is doing is unique”.
Sarah Eperu, FDC spokesperson of the Women’s League, first met Turinawe in 2004 while both were still members of Reform Agenda – a pressure group that gave birth to FDC. Turinawe was then secretary general of the council in Rukungiri district. The two, together with other women, formed the Women’s League during a meeting organised by Beti Kamya, who has since left the party, Winnie Byanyima and Joyce Nabbosa Ssebugwawo.
“She was very eloquent and assertive when she stood up to talk about herself. She automatically became the chairperson of the Women’s League,” Eperu recalls.
When FDC was formed in 2005, Turinawe was nominated unopposed for the post. Her success over the years hasn’t surprised Eperu who not only knows her as “a very brave person”, but also someone who goes for what she wants “aggressively”.
Last week, Turinawe wanted to drive to the city centre in Kampala but police had cordoned off her nearly complete house in Gayaza. She did what she does best – go for it aggressively. Only this time, it was her Toyota Noah that showcased her aggression as she left the police in a thick cloud of dust.
Shaped by polygamy
Turinawe attributes her fighting spirit to her childhood. She grew up in a polygamous family where it was a rat-race to stand out. Born on November 23, 1973 to Jane Bakesiga and Stanley Bakwatilenda in Kashojwa village, Rugyeyo sub-county, in Kanungu district, Turinawe says there was “a lot of competition among women as mothers and among us the children” in the polygamous family.
She added: “My mother is a character who hated failure. She would work very hard to succeed in raising us. In her garden and rearing her animals, she competed to be the favourite”.
It is in this polygamous family that Turinawe was nurtured to grow into a competitive fighter. Her mother had ten children of her own, while her father had many more from his other three wives.
“My leadership skills started at home. When visitors came home, my father picked me to introduce the family, give a speech and lead prayers. So I think I was a leader right from home to school,” Turinawe says.
Turinawe went to Rugyeyo Primary School and later Kinyasano Girls High school where she completed A-level. Those who went to the same school at the same time remember Turinawe as a student who was academically brilliant and vocal. She was still a student when she met a young man, Jackson Turinawe, who would later become her husband.
“I met him through a friend called Faith. We were still young and we were at school. We got to know each other as we waited to finish school,” she recalls.
After her Senior Six in 1992, Turinawe married the prominent businessman in Rukungiri town. Together, they have five children. Turinawe would later continue with her education at the Kabale based National Teachers’ College where she attained a Diploma in Education. She practised for a year before she opted to help her husband run his pharmacy business located on Republic road in Rukungiri town. In 1998, Turinawe plunged into active politics, being elected district councillor for Buhunga and Ruhinda sub-counties in Rukungiri district council. This marked her arrival onto the political scene.
She was active in the 2001 election campaigns, passionately campaigning for herself and for Besigye in the western region. Besigye lost the elections, but Turinawe was re-elected councillor. In 2003, when Kanungu district was carved out of Rukungiri district, Turinawe became deputy speaker of Rukungiri district. A year later, she assumed the role of speaker after the former speaker, George Owakiroru, was detained alongside others on allegations that they were behind the shadowy People’s Redemption Army (PRA) rebel group.
Turinawe served as speaker until the end of her term in 2006. As a member of Reform Agenda, Turinawe became one of the founding members of the FDC political party in 2005. She has suggested before, that government tried to use her husband to get her out of politics, but he always supported her. However, while still serving as district speaker in 2005, Turinawe separated with Jackson.
There were a series of reconciliatory meetings engineered by friends, but these failed to reunite the couple. However, the Turinawes never formally divorced through court, but simply separated. In fact, the father of her children was recently seen in court trying to bail Ingrid out of prison, following more than a month of incarceration at Luzira on treason charges.
After separating with Jackson, Turinawe decided to establish herself in Kampala for both business and further studies at Nkumba University where she completed a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration. Besigye, who has worked with Turinawe since the days of Reform Agenda, is not surprised by the young woman who is raising eyebrows in Kampala.
He says he knows her as a steadfast politician who cannot be put down even by the loss of a hotly contested election.
“In the last election she was clearly rigged out, but she is a strong, courageous person, very eloquent and assertive,” Besigye says.
Besigye recognises Turinawe’s contribution to the party through the Women’s League and to the cause of women in Uganda as a whole.
“In political leadership, especially in autocratic regimes, you need commendable leaders like her to lead the struggle,” Besigye says.
In 2006, Turinawe ran for Rukungiri district Woman MP, but lost to then incumbent, Winfred Matsiko. In 2010, when Rukungiri became a municipality, Turinawe was among a big number of FDC candidates seeking the party’s flag in the party primaries for parliamentary elections. She lost to Rowland Mugume Kaginda, who eventually won the seat. Turinawe then decided to try the Rukungiri district Woman parliamentary seat again, and this time round lost to Public Service minister of state, Sezi Mbaguta.
Die a lioness
Turinawe cannot count the number of times she has been arrested, but says she has seen the insides of many police cells in the country. She has been detained at Kiira Road Police station, twice at Jinja Road police station, Central Police Station, Katwe police post, Kasangati police and prison, Kabale police station, Rukungiri police station and has spent two months in Luzira prison. Her motto is, “I would rather die as a lion than live as a rat”.
She has also been hospitalised twice after being assaulted by police. Turinawe was hospitalised at Nsambya hospital in June 2010, after police sprayed her with dangerous chemicals. She was also hospitalised at Kabale Medical Centre, following beatings by the police. But Turinawe is one woman who walks off the hospital bed, out of a police cell or prison ward, back onto the streets to engage in running battles with the police.
“Imagine going somewhere and you knock yourself; do you stop? I am going somewhere, I haven’t reached my destination. Until I reach there, I won’t stop. This is a normal process of change, we are exposing the brutality of government,” Turinawe says.
She says thanks to Activists for Change (A4C), the group behind walk-to-work protests, Museveni is now regarded in the same category as [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe and [slain Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi.
“We have exposed him; we have exposed the economic crisis that is facing Uganda,” she says with satisfaction.
How about her five children? Don’t they fear for her life? She says: “I know they are not happy about what I go through. They are traumatised, but they have gotten used. Like other children, they know that Museveni is a brutal man. I am a human being, I also fear for my life, my children and my relatives, but I am determined to push on. What this government is doing is to intimidate us into fear, but I cannot allow them to exploit us and continue to step on my rights. I have grown up with a feeling of liberating myself”.
As her term as chairperson of the Women’s League comes to and end, Turinawe says her party has deployed her as its representative in A4C and on the Inter-Party Coalition executive. You can bank on Turinawe to leave an impact.
“Whenever I set out to do something, I don’t want failure. I hate failure, I want to pursue everything to its conclusion,” she says.
But failure has sometimes crossed her path, especially in her political and business endeavours. She was running Da Palace Health Club and Restaurant on Mawanda road in Mulago, and the business failed. Turinawe blames sabotage by government. An avid Facebook user, Turinawe also runs a primary school – Bakwatirenda Primary School - in Rukungiri to help the community and earn her money which sustains her political and family life.