Lina Zedriga is the second most important leader of the National Unity Platform, the grassroots political party in Uganda that is challenging the long-time rule of dictator Museveni. Leader of the movement is the popular singer Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known by his stage name Bobi Wine. Lina Zedriga worked as a teacher and judge, but most of all as a lawyer and activist for human rights and the rights of girls and women. She talks about her struggle to Fréderike Geerdink, host of Avaşîn Podcast.
Lina Zedriga grew up in a village in the north of Uganda, in a deeply patriachal society. Her mother wanted her to stay in school, and Lina was dedicated to her studies and became a teacher, lawyer and judge, but most of all an activist. When she was ready to retire from decades of activism, a few years ago, singer Bobi Wine asked her to join him in his political struggle to oust president and dictator Museveni, in charge since 1986, from power. How could she refuse?
What is the source of your struggle? Where did it all begin?
Lina Zedriga: I was born in West Nile, in the north of Uganda, in Arua, in 1961. I grew up in the village, in a patriachal society where girls were not supposed to go to school. So where did my struggle start? At birth. I was socialized for marriage. But I started school early and it was a privilige for me. We were with many girls in primary 1, but by the time we reached primary 5, we were only with three girls. The rest had dropped out and got married very early. In primary 7, I was the only girl. So it dawned on me, I was studying for the more than fifty girls who dropped out of school.
I became a teacher, and I got married and became the mother of five children, one girl and four boys. In my culture, whatever you have in the house belongs to the man and his clan. I needed to ensure that I was protected and my children were protected. When Museveni came to power, I was in the village with my daughter and one son, and my husband was stuck in Kampala. The bicycle which he left was taken by my older brother because he said, “You don’t own anything and you are also actually owned”. When I came to Kampala to join my husband, I decided to go and study law, to protect myself and my children. The injustices in society, the pressure that women do not own anything, that they themselves are property, and I said, I don’t want my daughter to go through that, and girls from her generation and other women. I specialized in the family and children’s court.
But I also saw that it is not just about law, it was about knowledge, power, about having a voice, so then I became very active.
Lina Zedriga continues to speak about a huge crisis that unfolded in her country after Museveni took power:
“The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the brutal extremist group of Joseph Cony. The LRA committed large-scale human rights violations, including mutilations, murder, rape, and mass abduction of children to become soldiers. The war lasted 25 years, and many people from the north of Uganda became displaced”
You have been involved in struggle for different causes, for a long time. How do you tie these struggles together?
I moved from one struggle to the other. I moved on to advocacy for women’s reproductive rights. We also organized women to end the war, a war that was even more inhuman for women. Then I learned how important politics is. The political will has to be there. That’s why I decided to run for Member of Parliament in 2016. The election was rigged. But then, when I had decided to retire, Bobi Wine asked me to join his movement.
Can you explain who Bobi Wine is?
Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, is a musician. His music is always about the plight of the people, about human rights and the struggle. He comes from a ghetto background and is a self-made person. He won a by-election in 2018. As he was in parliament, he continued to inspire people and then when the 2021 elections came, he offered himself as a presidential candidate and registered the National Unity Platform [NUP].
When he campaigned in 2018, his slogan was ‘People power our power! People power our power!’ – it was robust, it was inspirational, it was speaking to everybody, young people came on board. When I ran in 2016, NUP was not there. The election was rigged and I decided to not do politics but to inspire girls. But in 2020, there was a big protest against social media taxes, and a young girl whom I mentored, her name was Rita, was run down by a police vehicle. That police vehicle, by the way, is bought by money from the Netherlands and EU you know? For me, Rita’s death was a game changer. She was only 22 years old! We held a press conference as women of Uganda to condemn it.
Then Robert aka Bobi Wine asked me to be his coordinator for northern Uganda. The previous person bad been bought off, because that’s what the government does, they buy people. I said yes, and we did a solidarity walk and it was sensational, sensational. We registered the NUP and joined the elections, we were just two, three months old when the elections were held [in January 2021]. We won overwhelmingly. You saw the crowds, the defiance of the people, the young people who came to take positions. It was a transformational thing.
You’ve been active for decades. What have you learned along the way of your struggle?
You see, it is a life, not an event in which you are traveling and arriving. You travel with a baton, it is a long relay, you hand it over to the next generation. It’s a journey, it’s a life, and you immerse yourself in it. And you never end it, but hand it over. That is why I immersed myself in mentorship of young men and young women.
The majority of Ugandans are very poor and they can not speak, they are so afraid. For social injustice, corruption, when we were speaking about it, Bobi Wine was targeted to be killed. He had to wear protective headgear and a bullet-proof vest, where in the world do you find an elections campaign so militarized? I was arrested on the campaign trail by anti-terrorist groups, over fifty of them when there were only five people in our car. Abducted, thrown on the back of the pick-up, beaten, driven at high speed and dumped in a police cell. I was imprisoned with men.
Many of our campaign team members are still in jail and tried before military courts. Many have been abducted, murdered, killed, thrown in the river Nile with stones tied to their legs. We have documented it. Everywhere we went, teargas, live bullets, teargas, live bullets, teargas, live bullets.
Does it make you consider to stop?
No, it actually inspires me more. You know, today I was in court for two young men and a young woman, Olivia, who were abducted on a campaign trail, they were charged of possessing bullets but it’s all trumped up and they are tried in a military court martial. They are still so resilient, they came out and say ‘People power!’ They are in the most horrific prisons, very bad situations, the brutality around it is just too much and they are very innocent, very innocent people. When I encounter those people, it makes me stronger. We will reclaim our stolen victory and create a better, safe Uganda.