Africa / Forged by fire: My experience as president of the Uganda Law Society
By: Pheona Nabasa Wall
President Emeritus – Uganda Law Society
I have always believed that leadership is a God-given assignment which we must all take to heart and be wholly committed to. This is the mindset that I had as I put my name forward to be elected as the President of the Uganda Law Society (ULS) in 2020. I had already served as the Honorary Secretary and Vice President of the ULS, but I felt that I could be of even greater service as President where I could not only exercise my leadership ability to its fullest but also have access to other leaders from whom I could learn some invaluable lessons.
I must be honest and say that I did not anticipate the magnitude of the task that awaited me once I was voted in as President in September 2020. I needed to make hundreds of decisions daily as well as represent the organisation at countless events while also making time to mentor the next generation of leaders, whom I am deeply passionate about.
Indeed, it seemed like the furnace had been turned up to one thousand degrees and I had to remind myself that it is during times of intense pressure and intensity that great leaders are forged! This analogy is taken from the process of purifying metals such as gold. To get the highest quality of gold, the furnace has to reach a certain temperature so that impurities can be extracted.
This is a lesson I had started to learn in my position as the in-house Counsel of a government agency in the years prior to becoming the President of ULS. I was the first female in the position of President who was also the Head of Legal at a government agency and this invited inevitable scrutiny from those who doubted that I could be impartial when advising the government on matters concerning the rule of Law.
The weight of that historical precedent seemed to rest on my shoulders every day and I had to be deliberate in reminding myself of the reasons I had put my name forward in the first place. Indeed, I really wanted to set an example to young women everywhere, especially to my teenage daughter, that being a leader might be hard, but it is possible for us women to do hard things and to do them well! Women and girls can often be their own worst enemies by agreeing with our critiques that we are not good enough. However, by setting an agenda for ULS and hitting every milestone, I know that I have paved a way for women and girls, even boys, to emulate by taking on the challenging task of leadership wherever they find themselves!
Remember that it was during my tenure that COVID-19 hit and as Uganda went into lockdown, we realised that having a place to call ‘home’ was so vital, yet ULS still had no permanent premises despite this being on the agenda of the previous councils! This was a core promise to those who voted for us, so we simply decided to roll up our sleeves and put the work in, no matter how long and hard the road ahead seemed!
Without my capable team of dedicated council members, we never would have been able to fulfil any of our promises! I am grateful to God for the four women and one man who handled the pressure with both stoicism and optimism! From the outside, it may have looked like it was an only-women council, but we also had male team members although the top four positions of President, Vice President, Treasurer and Honorary Secretary were occupied by women who went on to demonstrate their incomparable competence and ability time and time again!
As a Council, we made a conscious choice to align ourselves with the F.A.T mantra – Faithful to our membership and stakeholders; Available to the membership and stakeholders; and Teachable in our character and choice of actions. These became the pillars of our brand of leadership.
Advocacy was at the heart of all our efforts. We focused on providing leadership and mobilised the legal profession to promote and defend the rule of law, constitutionalism, good governance, human rights, and access to justice. We established a task force to protect members from persecution and also rescued a number of our members from wrongful imprisonment. The ULS, as an election observer, was able to contribute to the civic welfare of the country. We also spent the year advising our government, during the COVID-19 pandemic, on matters regarding and incidental to the law as well as other issues of importance. These issues became the central advocacy themes throughout the year and the focus of our programmes.
The Council also worked to ensure member participation and self-governance through the clusters and committees where ULS members contributed to bills in Parliament, professional development programmes, and the society’s events. ULS representatives were appointed to serve on several key advisory boards and groups, and through this, positive relationships have been established with the Government, Civil Society, and other organisations.
Furthermore, under member engagement, the Council visited advocates in districts outside Kampala and had the opportunity to hear their views. ULS Programmes were adjusted to increase the participation of regional members and members in the diaspora. The waiver of CLE points in 2020 also worked as a boost to our profession that had been hit badly by the pandemic and allowed us to prepare a rich cocktail of training for 2021 and 2022.
As a Council, we were equally cognisant of the growing number of young lawyers in our membership. We commenced the Mentorship Series for young lawyers that we believed would create a solid legal foundation for future generations of advocates. The launch of the medical insurance scheme, the vaccination program, the office space arrangements, and the mental health sessions saw the emergence of a more member-centric bar association. We championed the birth of significant relationships with stakeholders like Criminal Investigation Department of the Police, PSFU, the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces and the Kingdom of Buganda, among others, to increase the footprint of legal services within the country. Our relationship with the Ministry of Works and Lands saw ULS members access mobility and other services even during the lockdown.
We also had a dream of harnessing opportunities for the membership as a whole at a regional, continental, and worldwide at various fora. As such, we seized the opportunity to lobby and have the ULS represented on various fora that are of strategic benefit to the membership such as the Council of the Common Wealth Lawyers Association, African Bar Association, Pan African Lawyers Association (PALU), The East African Business Council (EABC) and, as a society, we are privileged to host the 2023 African Bar Conference, the first to happen in an Anglophone country!
There is a Chinese proverb that states that ‘the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step’. As a council, we were able to do the ground-breaking and commence the construction of the ULS House that will be a permanent home for the membership and, by the end of our tenure, we had completed Phase 1A and were about to complete Phase IB.
I like to remind myself of another Proverb, this one of African origin, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together.’ We could not have done all this without our vibrant membership, our stakeholders like the JLOS institutions and Development Partners such as IDLO and UN WOMEN who ensured that member services always remained available.
There was never a point at which our differences prevented us from achieving our goal of rational decision-making. With mutual respect and objectivity, we were able to have a successful tenure and leave a legacy that can be used as a benchmark by future generations.