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Mulyagonja’s long journey from Jinja to judge to IGG

It is a year and a half since Justice Irene Multagonja Kakooza was appointed Inspector General of Government.

She told her life story to Simon Kasyate, presenter of Capital radio’s Desert Island Discs programme, which airs on Sundays at 7pm

Away with the titles and accolades, who is Irene Mulyagonja?

I was born in 1963 to a civil engineer father and a Primary school teacher mother. I was born in a family of 13 children. Strictly speaking my father and mother had 5 children between them, but my father had other children.

In that family, I came third, two boys before me and two girls after me. I have a number of brothers and sisters, some passed.

This was clearly an affluent family, by any standards, even more of that time…

I was born in town, then we moved to live in a peri-urban area for some years and when I was 11 years old, in Primary six, we moved to town again.

We lived near the source of the Nile in Jinja and some of my earliest childhood memories, growing up as a teenager, I remember Jinja Club, where we used to go swimming and the walks along the source of the Nile. My father collected many children.

When I was 12 years old, an uncle of mine who was very close to my father passed on, his children, my cousins, came to live with us.  It was a big family, sometimes of over 20 children, cousins and the like. That’s the kind of family I grew up in.

As a young girl growing up, what character were you; the soft spoken docile type of the little obstinate one always in trouble with mummy and daddy?

It’s difficult to describe that, but I cannot say I was the docile one; no I wasn’t. What I seem to recall is a lot of interaction with my siblings, playing, walking, swimming, not much of housework.

You will appreciate that our family was not the type where you awoke to fetch water or collect firewood. Actually my first encounter with real housework was not until I joined Senior 1. Otherwise at home, it was a free environment. We learnt the basics like washing your own clothes, cleaning up your space, your room.

And so which schools were you attending at that time?

When I started school, my parents were living in Kampala; my father had a contract Job with Sterling. We lived in Makerere and my first school was Bat Valley Nursery School. But while still in nursery school, we moved back to Jinja and I joined Jinja Kindergarten.

I started primary in Naranbhai Road  primary school, where I studied my entire seven years. It was a largely Asian School with a number of African children. From about P3, one of the languages that was spoken and even taught in school was Gujarat. [Drops a few words in the language….]

Around P4, Asians had to leave and then the school reverted to ministry of Education and the staff changed to African teachers and an African head teacher.

You were there; would you say this was a change for the better?

I think at the time we did not fully understand what had happened. All we saw was Asians leaving, Africans taking over the economy, our parents taking over some businesses that were Asian owned. My own father, one important business that he took over was a stone quarry that once belonged to Asians.

That is what I recall about that period of transition from an economy run mostly by Asians to one run by Africans.

Would one be correct to say your parents were the type that spoilt their children?

No, I wouldn’t say they spoilt us. I said my mother was a primary school teacher and you know how teachers are with their children. So there was no spoiling. My mother was a strong disciplinarian, she took on the role of parenting mostly, as most of our mothers did in those days. She was very tough on us.

What I recall is that my mother would NOT beat you, she would talk to you. But sometimes in talking to you, she would beat with her mouth and put you in your place so as to make you understand what you did wrong and how you have to change.

Don’t you think the alternative of  some whipping would have delivered the desired discipline results better?

I think her way was better and I appreciate it and I myself have not taken the cane to my children – not often; maybe once or twice for them. I think for my mum, it worked because she was able to bring the five of us, her children in such a way that each of us is successful in their own way.

For your secondary Education, where did you go?

I went to Mt. St. Mary’s College Namagunga. I had two cousins that went to that school and they used to talk about the school and the way they talked about it made me want to go to that school.

I had an aunt who went to Wanyange – I listened to her talk about her school. I had a half-brother that went to Nabumali Secondary School, I also heard him talk about his school, but when I heard my two cousins talk about Namagunga, I knew that was the school.

My father wanted me to join Gayaza, but my choice had been made. He allowed me to go with my choice. My father was the kind that listened and respected your view. I had no idea what I wanted to become in future.

Were your expectations of Namagunga similar to the actual experience you met on the ground?

Yes, my expectations were confirmed when I walked into Namagunga. Namagunga had tough discipline because the school is run by the little sisters of St. Francis. They have set ways of doing things but I wouldn’t say they were too strict that there was no space for having fun. We had fun.

There was time for studying, time for housework, time for entertainment, having a fashion show; there was sports, music dance and drama, all those things. I was one of those people who wasn’t particularly good at sports, I also did not take Music Dance and Drama seriously although I participated.

It was not one of those things that I found really attractive. But when I got to HSC, I gave it a shot and joined the school choir. I discovered I could sing except that for the kind of singing I do, it was difficult for my voice to be placed.

As you can hear I have a deep voice and when you have one, you alternate between singing high and low and it had to take a lot of voice training for me to get to sing the correct voice category I was placed into. There were also other things that we did as part of the co-curricular activities like learning how to cook, to sew; there were clubs like the debate club. Those were the kind of other activities I engaged in.

What kind of company were you keeping?

From S1 to S4, I don’t see often the people I shared class with. But S5-S6, that is the time when I specialized and got this group of friends that I have associated with up today. One of them is one who joined Namagunga in HSC, Prof. Monica Barya now Chibita[wife to the DPP] of Uganda Christian University Mukono; another is Mariam Luyombo; she was then Dorothy Nanziri.

And I bet by this time, in HSC, you have already made up your mind to be the astute lawyer you are today?

You will be surprised that up to the last minute of filling up the form, I had no clue what I wanted to be or study at the university. I knew that I didn’t want to do sciences; I didn’t not even attempt Sub-maths which was a prerequisite if one of your subjects was Economics.

So I went about with my three subjects Literature, Economics and Geography and General paper. There was not much career guidance but at that time, a cousin of mine was in law school, one of those I took after to join Namagunga.

So when I said, maybe law school, my friends said, yes yes yes, you would fit in law school.  And so I agreed.  I think I am quite an argumentative person and precisely for that reason my friends thought I would make a good lawyer.

A common joke on lawyers goes something like ‘a good lawyer is a good liar’. Could liar have described you then for your friends to think you would make a good lawyer?

No I don’t think so. It’s not true that lawyers are liars. People perceive lawyers to be liars because they represent people who are thought to be, liars but lawyers are not liars as a rule.

At the risk of sounding like asking the Pope if he is Catholic; were you certain you would make the grades for Law school?

The strangest art of life’s story is when I did my HSC exams, I knew I would pass. But when I was in S4, my father was murdered, in the middle of the second term. We are not clear whether this was a politically motivated murder [as was reportedly common in the 70s] but one day when he was in the village, at home in Kaliro in Bulamogi county, thugs came in at night and gunned him down as he tried to run away from the house.

He died on the spot. They took away cars, electronics and run off. That experience affected my school life because then I sat my S4 exams the very year my father was killed. I still managed to be the best student in that year. How did I pull that off?

I remember squaring up and saying to myself, ‘dad is dead and the only way to avenge his death is to pass these exams and make a success of myself in life.” That is the attitude with which I did my exams in S4. When I got to S5, you know we don’t recognize mourning in young people in our culture. But I guess I continued to mourning but in such a way that is not recognized in our culture.

So in my academic life I was slow, unable to exert myself as hard I should have and it turns out with my three subjects, I managed an A in Literature, a C in Economics and the Geography an O and a distinction in General paper. With ACO for law school, that was a hard one.

Weighting the points, I still had enough to join law school, but I joined with two principal passes. Because I got into law school with two principals, at the point of registration there were some doubts as to whether I was material good enough for law school.

And the dean at the time was quite hard on me even more because there was a bit of confusion on my certificates regarding an Esther name that was not consistent on all. So my first two weeks at the university were spent trying to sort out the certificates. I had to swear an affidavit for this.

I felt quite miserable at the beginning of my university tenure but my aunt, Idah Okunga, with her husband helped me a great deal. I found law school very interesting though, fond memories of lectures and everything.

You may wish to share with us how you managed between the new found freedoms as never witnessed in your high school time...

Coming from Namagunga, there is a discipline that you acquire. For instance I am one of those people who did not wake up to study at night because I was used to our preps timetable. That is after dinner at 7 pm, I would find space to study.

Two hours later, back to the halls of residence to bed. Even during examination time, I would study more or less with the same schedule. What’s interesting to note about the time we were at Makerere, it was not advisable to go off campus in the night, it was unsafe.

There was the university canteen, and the dances, balls, parties and we had our fair share of those, I attended some with friends. Our fun was restricted to the confines of campus. The excesses were about having relations here and there but also, that was the time when Aids was becoming a real nightmare a scare.

Are you saying you didn’t indulge?

Yeah we did have relationships on campus. Discovering the other sex, getting to know how men behave, how they talk, how to associate with them and so on. We discovered that relationships can be disruptive and therefore we treaded with caution to get the kind of relationship that wouldn’t disrupt you from your goals.

Also note that my time at university was the most challenging in my entire academic life. I got a problem with my nerves that made me incapable of writing and because of that I had to go the extra mile. Because of my inability to write, things became very difficult for me and I was very apprehensive at how this would all end.

At the time, I had friends who would write notes for me via the carbon paper. I also had to learn to write with left hand. And that occupied a bit of my time and took me off social interactions. Eventually for my third year, I didn’t take my exams with my classmates. I took time off and did my exams when my class was going to Law Development Centre so I didn’t go with them.

My exams for the second year were written by the left hand and in third year, I used a type writer. Peninah Simba was one of those who helped take notes. From the Law Development Centre, I was offered a job as assistant lecturer which I took and stayed with LDC until 1993 from 1988.

But at the same time I had a job with a law firm, Mulira and Company. I also met my husband while at LDC, Mr. John Baptist Kakooza. We got together, got married and had three children. And none seem to want to be a lawyer.

[…But] the two jobs of teaching and private practice were demanding and I had to decide to drop one and eventually, I opted out of lecturing to concentrate on the private practice, where I did Commercial law. Eventually I left Mulira and Company and with a friend, Eva Luswata Kawuma, we started our firm in 1996 called Kakooza and Kawuma Advocates.

The transition from an advocate in your own law firm to a high Court judge… Did you see it coming?

It wasn’t something expected or one I was yearning for. In any profession you have mentors and coaches and one of my mentors, Egonda Ntende, became a judge quite early in his life.

When I got to a point in my practice, the [Uganda] Law Society interested me in taking a chance to become a judge. So the law society recommended me to the Judicial Service commission; I was interviewed in 2002. From 2002 I was in the data bank pending appointment until 2008.

Why did it take this long?

I guess it had everything to do with age.

And when you were appointed IGG? How did it feel; you had barely warmed the bench?

I wondered how I was going to transform from being a judge into this public office. I felt it was a big challenge, given the experiences what the past inspectors general had gone through.

What’s your feeling on how you are progressing?

I think I have discovered that I can stir the institution into the right direction. There are very many cases we have worked on successfully, I cannot enumerate.

I know what people want to see is us going after the so called big-fish; that is when they realize that you are doing work, but a lot of work s being done by the inspectorate quietly but effectively.

But wait a minute; in a sea of corrupt fish, we see you more inclined to the small ones and letting the sharks swim roughshod.

You will hear from our end very soon. Cases take time to mature and we have the challenge of the Anti-corruption court being closed. I can assure you, you may not quite get what you want in regard to us prosecuting ministers and political heads.

That was tried out, you saw what happened when they prosecuted the ministers of Health, the former vice-president, the minister of Foreign Affairs and you saw how evidence was hard to come by to secure a conviction. T

his was not by accident. If you really want to prosecute such offences as abuse of office and causing financial loss, technically speaking in terms of process of government, political heads don’t touch public funds. So how are you going to convince court, beyond reasonable doubt, that a minister who is not an accounting officer has caused financial loss?

Any challenges you may wish to share with us regarding the day-to-day execution of your job?

What I have observed is doing investigations and making recommendations that are not implemented because of the wishes of some political leaders. But as lawyers we are trained to accept losing some and wining some cases.

I have however not experienced a situation where I have been stopped from investigating. It’s frustrating when recommendations are not implemented, but that does not mean you hang your boots. I have a maximum of 8 years as IGG, I don’t not know if I will do all of them. However what is certain is when my tenure ends, I wish to return to the bench, as judge.

Let’s go back to the person, not the IGG. Your favourite Dish?

Matooke and envuruga [groundnut paste source] with some mushrooms to it.

What’s your typical day like.

I am an early riser, from 6 a.m. sometimes 5 a.m. I also do not want to go to bed after 11 p.m. so the latest I sleep is midnight.

What do you do to relax?

I listen to music, I like to watch movies but I don’t get time to watch them. I would like to read a god book, but certainly have no time. I like human interest and stories about a family, a person and motivational books.

And on matters of grooming; your hair, nails, and all, how and when do you get those fixed?

I walk into a public saloon. Surprisingly I have had one hair dresser for the last 15 or so years! If am to go shopping I go to very specific shops.

Usually what happens to people like me in my position, you actually get to shop in places where they get to invite you only when they have things they know you will like.  I do my shopping every Saturday. That is one errand that makes me feel like a normal mother. So I will walk into a super market and buy everything I need for the week.

Can we draw some parallels with your predecessor; how religious are you?

I am not religious. I believe in God, I draw my strength from God, I belong to a church and prayer group, I do my devotions every day, I take time off to read the word of God and to pray and I believe I get guidance from God.

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