Ngabiirwe champions justice in mines, Oil fields

Winfred Ngabiirwe is a social justice activist and entrepreneur. She is the founder and executive director of Global Rights Alert, a civil society organisation, which operates in mineral rich districts of Hoima, Mubende, Kassanda, Kakumiro, Buliisa and Moroto, to ensure that natural resources benefit the local people. Ngabiirwe also sits on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to ensure Uganda gets value for her mineral resources.


In 2016, Jalia Zabib Namatovu left her marital home to sell water, then tomatoes, and later food in Kassanda gold mines. Seven years later, the mother of two owns a gold pit and employs men and women. Namatovu believes women in Mubende and Kassanda are now in a better position, know their economic and marital rights, and enjoy some independence a major shift from the vulnerability that defined them for years. But Namatovu attributes this liberation to Winfred Ngabiirwe, a social justice activist and entrepreneur for over 18 years.

Ngabiirwe is the founder and executive director of Global Rights Alert (GRA), a civil society organisation, which has since 2009 sought to ensure natural resources benefit the people. GRA operates in mineral rich areas like Mubende, Kassanda, Kakumiro, Buliisa, Moroto and largely the Albertine region and in the 10 districts: Hoima, Kikuube, Kakumiro, Kyankwanzi, Gomba, Mubende, Lwengo, Sembabule, Kyotera and Rakai, through which the East African Crude Oil Pipeline will pass.

The making

Growing up, Ngabiirwe wanted to be a Grade Five teacher "because most educated women in Mitooma (Western Uganda) were teachers."Then, during high school she considered being a lawyer. But her brother told her that he could not raise the money to pay for her law course if she missed out on government sponsorship. 

That's how she filled Social Sciences and Social Administration (Swasa) as her second choice, even though it was a new course she knew little about. She even had the chance to switch to law after entry but unfamiliar with the system, she didn't bother. Interestingly, Swasa would turn out the best choice, one that would define her like theology defines a priest. 

"I have no regrets choosing Swasa," she says."I think I made the right decision. I know how change happens. I am more connected to people and I am more fulfilled." No wonder; when she wanted to upgrade, she got a Masters in Human Rights from Makerere University. For a year or two after university, she volunteered with Student Partnership Worldwide, a charity in Jinja, where she saw "unprecedented poverty" in Busoga. She abandoned a better job in a big organisation because her new boss demanded for sex in return. Later she became one of the pioneer staff at Action Group for Health Human Rights & HIV/AIDS (AGHA Uganda), formed by a group of doctors. That five year experience helped her found GRA in 2009, diving into the excitement and worries about Uganda's new oil wells.

Ngabiirwe recalls the tasking early days when she was the only employee of the organisation, when her computer and her baby were competing for her laps. Consulting with other civil society organisations like Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), alongside a supportive family enabled her sail through.

Brokering justice

In 2017, security operatives brutally evicted thousands of artisanal and small-scale gold miners from the mines in Mubende and Kassanda. GRA brokered negotiations between the miners, the representatives of AUC Mining (U) Limited, local and central government. Eventually, the artisanal miners were allowed to operate in other locations in the two districts but after investing millions of Shillings, they became frustrated that the amount of gold in new locations like Kaabikoola was not worth their investment.

Fresh negotiations forced AUC, co-owned by a long time presidential advisor, to surrender the one square kilometre block in the productive Kamusenene, back to the artisanal miners after three years. But it's one of the most protracted negotiations Ngabiirwe has ever witnessed. "I would wonder why the two parties couldn't agree on most basic things." She says the evictees and the Mubende local government perhaps didn't know the actual owner they were negotiating with. "So the demands, feedback and positions kept changing every time we met. The politics were scary."

But government's involvement encouraged the advocates to press on. However, without reliable geological data, no one could tell which area had what volumes of gold. Hence, choosing places like Kaabikoola was just a gamble. Also, the artisanal miners negotiated from a weak point because by then the law didn't not recognise them. Ngabiirwe believes that if this happened today, with more information, better organisation and more resources they could have gotten a better deal.

Empowering women

While negotiating a fair and speedy compensation to project affected persons was a mountainous task, ensuring that women are part of these negotiations was another. Growing up, Ngabiirwe had seen poor and marginalised women, but in oil-rich Hoima during the land compensation it was worse. "I wondered whether people understood what land meant to the survival of a woman, her children and her fam-ily" she says. "How can you talk about taking land and the women are not involved? how can men start signing for compensation of crops they don't grow?" That triggered a revolution in her.

Meanwhile, in Mubende, women like Namatovu had always been part of the mining workforce, but relegated to vending food, drinks, airtime, artisanal equipment such as sieves or crashing, panning, washing, sorting, transporting dirt, ores, among other peripheral roles. Men got richer, as the women, who worked longer hours, and without protective gear, stayed poor. Ngabiirwe wanted to help women break the cultural and institutional barriers and start actual mining, and access the most value-bearing places like pits and fair markets, like men.

And the 2017 evictions were a blessing for women. "We figured it was the right time to organise them and help them negotiate better with the male leadership to have women recognised and supported. Efforts to resolve the evictions provided space for women much faster than it would have been," Ngabiirwe says.

"We engaged the men to allow women to work, and be more productive in their families, while encouraging women to remain obedient to their hus-bands," Namatovu says. Though Namatovu was rebuked for preaching defiance among women, she says some men were more positive than women. Interacting with GRA gave Namatovu exposure and confidence, and in 2019, she was selected by the government for a benchmarking tour into Geita Gold Mine in Tanzania.

Namatovu saved part of her allowance for the tour to pay for her mining licence and buying mining equipment. "Now the Jalia who sold water and food in mines became a self-employed miner."
Agali Awamu Women's Group, which united women in catering, poultry and serving in mines, became Mubende Women Gold Miners Association (MUWOGOMA), with Namatovu the chairperson, and one of the two women on the nine.

Article as published in the Daily Monitor on Saturday, 8th April 2023