Elizabeth Lwanga, a Ugandan, has lived and worked in many countries including Kenya, which she regards as her second home. Warm-hearted and humble, Elizabeth is a retired United Nations (UN) senior manager having worked in several African countries in different capacities. She has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of Africa but remains insightful and hopeful of the great African potential. She speaks to ESTHER KIRAGU about her life, passion for leadership, gender equality and governance.
“I studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree in linguistics and a Diploma in communications with specialization in broadcasting before plunging myself into a career of development work,” Elizabeth Lwanga starts off, as we settle down for the interview. She has also attended many short-term professional training programmes in management, negotiations, gender analysis and development. Elizabeth is also a human rights activist and practitioner who has laid a lot of emphasis on gender equality and women’s advancement.
She has worked with the United Nations (UN) in different capacities. “I was first posted as United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) representative and resident coordinator of the UN in Sierra Leone in 1994. I worked there for five years before moving to Swaziland in the same capacity for another,” says Elizabeth. After a while, she became deputy director of UNDP Africa based at the UN headquarters in New York.
In New York, her work entailed overseeing all programmes of the UNDP offices in Africa and offering support work to 46 Sub-Saharan countries. From New York, she was posted to Ethiopia as a resident coordinator before moving to Kenya in the same capacity. In 2008, she retired from the UN but was re-hired a year later and sent to Zimbabwe as UN resident coordinator in a temporary capacity while the UN sought for a substantive person to replace her.
She worked in Zimbabwe for nine months before being hired by United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), now UN-WOMEN, to serve as the regional director for Eastern Horn of Africa, a position she served in until December 2011. Though retired from the UN, she is often called for consultation and short time assignments owing to her over 30 years experience in development work.
Serving in Kenya during PEV…
During the post election violence in Kenya in 2007-2008, Elizabeth was UNDP representative to Kenya. “UNDP was in charge of election coordination and also offered support to the Kenyan media, the Election Commission of Kenya (ECK), the Kenya Human Rights Commission and many other institutions, in preparations for the election,” says Elizabeth.
“UNDP supported several peace strategies key among them Chagua Amani, Zuia Noma campaign with various non-governmental organisations, religious bodies, peace networks and agencies joining us,” she says, adding that in her opinion they did everything possible to ensure there was a peaceful election.
“Perhaps we underestimated the depth of disharmony and language of disunity in the society and should have worked more within the lowest levels of the community, especially the youth who were mainly misused by interested parties,” she says, adding that Africa needs to reconsider its electioneering process. Elizabeth says Kenya and Africa in general should be true to themselves and hold on to their values and authenticity.
A radical thinker…
Having worked in many African countries, Elizabeth’s experience is that people have sets of values they use to choose a leader even at the grassroots level. “Must we then only elect leaders through the Westminster electoral process of ticking someone’s name on a ballot paper inside a booth?” she asks rationally.
She is saddened that fifty years later, Kenya and many other African countries are still tackling the same old issues of poverty, illiteracy and disease. “Worse still is the issue of poor governance. Must Africans die every five years because they are choosing a president?” she asks. She says that Africa can come up with its own model of governance to ensure people don’t die during elections.
Elizabeth cites China as a great example of a country that does not hold elections yet it has a way that ensures a regular change of leadership and accountability. She says Africa’s election conflicts have been a real eye-opener that simply because a country goes through an election process doesn’t mean it is a democratic country. “This is because the electoral process is becoming less democratic, more exclusive and unaccountable,” she says.
It is such valid questions that have made Elizabeth and other like-minded people seek alternative approaches to development in Africa. They plan to interrogate the systems and processes in Africa, most of which have been passed down by the pre-colonial masters and find out whether they are “the absolutely” only ones that can bring development to Africa.
“Although I and my colleagues have made some contribution to African development and touched the lives of many, we would have liked to see so much more transformation in Africa especially with a lifetime career in development work. There is still so much illiteracy, poverty, disease and poor governance hence the reason why we seek to provide alternative solutions to Africa’s problems,” Elizabeth explains.
Together with her collegues, they are currently seeking to grow an organization – African Development Alternatives (ADA), which is focused on looking at alternative approaches to Africa’s development.
“We hope to trigger conversations that will challenge the systems and processes that have been in place for several years yet they don’t work, and hopefully find alternative solutions,” she says, adding that change can only be possible in Africa when it becomes autonomous from donor dependency.
Lessons applicable in Kenya…
Elizabeth says that currently Kenya is in the process of adapting an initiative – The Women Situation Room, which was adapted by the African Union (AU) as a best practice. The women situation room is a model that was first introduced by the Liberian Women Peace Leaders and Activists and was first implemented under the Angie Brooks International Centre (ABIC) leadership during the Liberian 2011 presidential and legislative elections.
This was followed by the successful replication of the model in the Senegalese elections in 2012 and Sierra Leone also in 2012. This is a women’s initiative that provides a safe option for women to employ their expertise and experiences by taking action so as to prevent or mitigate potential conflicts and other threats before, during and after elections.
The women monitor the elections, advocate for peace and flag the country with messages of peace to challenge political leaders to commit to ensure peace prevails throughout the electioneering process. This model involves setting up a room a few days to the elections and engaging in consultations with all electoral stakeholders in order for selected eminent women to be involved in peace advocacy, mediation, coordination and observation.
The women pay attention to the concerns raised and pay courtesy calls to political leaders to ensure peaceful elections without resorting to acts of violence. The intention is to analyse information coming from the polling centres, provide early warnings and respond rapidly to election-related emergencies.
Elizabeth warns that whenever there is crisis in a nation, a country opens itself up to become a humanitarian industry. “People often take advantage of money and aid mobilised and make lots of personal money out of it. Also, when no one is made accountable for the triggering war right from the grassroot to top, then impunity is likely to be on the rise,” she warns.
Role of women in society?
Elizabeth advocates for the raising of levels of awareness and education for women in order for them to have independent thoughts, analyse issues, and play constructive roles for the progress of society. In this view, she champions for gender equality as a temporary measure to create balance so that there is leverage for equal opportunities between males and females in order to compete competitively.
She says that often it is the youth of a country who are misused in order to create chaos during elections. But she emphasises that when women rise up against conflict they are able to stop their sons, brothers and husbands and hence peace prevails, as was the case in Liberia.
“As long as women agree to be divided along tribal, class and political grounds, nothing much can be achieved by that society. The coming together of women should be above their personal differences,” she says, adding that this is one of the biggest issues in Kenya.
Elizabeth is disappointed that Kenya, the leading nation in the East African region hasn’t made much strides in gender equality and alludes it to failure by Kenyan women to rally up. She applauds Rwanda and Uganda for their great efforts in gender equality.
Elizabeth is inspired by the fact that there is still so much work to be done in Africa. Despite having served for more than 30 years she still has the will power to do more. She serves in several boards where she offers her skills, knowledge and expertise.
Some of the boards she serves include Equity Bank (Uganda), African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), VSO Jitolee, Regional Advisory Board and World Alliance of Youth (Africa). In addition, she is a Member of Council of Inoorero University in Kenya and the Eminent Women of the African Elections Women’s Situation Room.
The people of Sierra Leone crowned Elizabeth as a chief because of her efforts in bringing peace in Sierra Leone, a crown she is grateful and proud of.
On leaving a legacy…
Elizabeth would like to be remembered as one who touched the lives of many and made a difference. “I wish to leave the world a better place for my grandchildren. I hope that they will deal with other issues at their time and not the endless cycle of poverty, disease and illiteracy that have been a thorny issue in Africa for such a long time,” she says.
Although she wishes that she would have had a chance to work and be grounded in her motherland – Uganda – because perhaps then she would have vied for a political seat there, she is glad to have made Kenya her second home.
Elizabeth was married to a Ugandan who served as a cabinet minister during Milton Obote’s reign before Idd Amin overthrew it. They have three loving children from the union.
“Although it was a good marriage, the revelation of some things I was unaware of before, was the reason I walked away after about 16 years of marriage, amid feelings of mistrust,” she says, adding that her children have a relationship with their father, which she encourages and supports. She recognises the challenges women face trying to balance their career and family life, but is of the opinion it can all be done through proper planning.
She later remarried a Liberian banker, who has five children from a previous marriage. “I am now a mother to many,” says an excited Elizabeth, adding that she has another stepdaughter who is really her daughter. She says that her family shares time in Kenya, Uganda and Liberia where they have homes. She adds that she comes from a closely-knit family and her children have taken on the same values, stating that family is one’s pillar of strength.
She is also a grandmother; an experience she says is exciting and unexplainable. “It is the most wonderful, almost unconditional, mutual love,” she says elatedly.
“People should know that things are not accomplished overnight. Success is a journey that requires passion and hard work. Of equal importance is the values you get from family, since they give one satisfaction and happiness in life,” she says in conclusion.
Published on March 2013