Defender of the month: James Rukampena

50 year-old James Rukampena is a Ugandan human rights defender who advocates for the rights of rural local communities in Kabarole District, Western Uganda, to access their natural resources.

Until 2015, Rukampena lived off farming the land surrounding Mwitampungu Lake, one of the many crater lakes in the hilly region of Western Uganda, used by local communities for fishing and drinking water.
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However, that year, privately owned Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited acquired exclusive access to twenty lakes in Kabarole District. This agreement with district authorities was executed without consultation from local communities whose livelihood depends on the adjacent lakes.

The news that a company whose portfolio includes electrical engineering and eco-tourism would be restocking fish in the lakes initially created hope among local villagers that the area would be developed in their favour  – but these expectations were short-lived. Locals were barred from fishing in the lakes, and their access was limited by private security forces. Rukampena recognised the situation as an infringement on the rights of the local communities and stood up to voice his concerns. “I became active when, to my surprise, Ferdsult did not do what it had promised and started simply chasing out people from the lakes. So I mobilised the local people and exposed the eviction of the communities from the lake,” he says.

With the support of the Twerwaneho Listeners Club (TLC), a local human rights organisation, Rukampena and other community representatives challenged the agreement in Court and mobilised locals to attend the court hearings and make their voices heard.
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Following these legal efforts, four other TLC members were arrested for “use of poison or explosive or electrical devices,” although these spurious charges were later dropped.

In June 2017, the company’s monopoly on the lakes was rescinded by a court order, but this was only a partial victory. As Ferdsult awaited decision on its appeal, it continued to operate in the area with the aid of a private security contractor, which often intimidated and harassed villagers. Fisherman have since regained access to the lakes, but the continued uncertainty means many fear what the future might bring.

On 12 September 2017, Rukampena was attacked by three security guards and shot in both legs at close range. As a result, his left leg was amputated, leaving him unable to continue the farming activities that provided the livelihood for his large family. Rukampena decided to initiate another legal battle against Ferdsult and its security contractor to seek compensation. The court process is still ongoing, and the company has allegedly attempted to conceal their culpability through continued intimidation of the local community. Rukampena nonetheless remains hopeful: “I have no fear because I am supported by organisations like TLC and DefendDefenders, and the case is moving forward. I think it will be a success.” For the moment, Ferdsult was forced to stop operations in the area.

Despite the lifelong mark left by the attack on his body and the uncertainty brought upon his family by his disability, Rukampena does not regret his activism. “What keeps me going and motivated to be an activist is that, thanks to the fact that I spoke out against the wrongs of Ferdsult, now things are normal. Even if I was injured, I know that if I had not spoken out, the company would still be here” he says.  “Activists who are in a similar situation as myself should persist and continue to fight for the rights of others, because, even when they will be gone, their children will enjoy the fruits they have left behind.
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See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kasale Maleton Mwaana

Kasale’s human rights activism precedes his years. The son of pastoralist parents from Ngorongoro district in northern Tanzania, he grew up seeing his parents and entire community having to defend their land and way of life against authorities who thought their lands could be put to better use. Now, at 25, Kasale is already one of the most recognizable advocates of his people’s cause, much to the ire of Tanzanian authorities.
“Our people’s struggle goes back many generations. It started with the pushing out of our forefathers from Serengeti to gazette Serengeti National Park in 1959, and then further evictions from the Ngorongoro crater to gazette the Ngorongoro conservation area in 1975. Since then, every generation has had to resist further evictions. It’s now my generation’s turn,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

Arguably no single individual personifies Burundi’s human rights struggle like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Born 72 years ago in the small East African country, Claver’s quest for human rights and justice is as old as his country’s modern history.

When his country was plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 people following the 1993 assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, Claver was one of its earliest victims. Then a close confidant (he was also a former driver) of the assassinated President, he was framed, and arrested, and would go on to spend the next two years between 1994 and 1996 in jail.

It is in prison that the ulcer of injustice bit him hard. There, he met inmates who had either been wrongfully imprisoned or who had been remanded for long periods without trial, all living in dehumanising conditions. “I was strongly revolted by the injustice. Here were probably innocent people whose years were being wasted away by an unfair judicial system, with no one to stand up for them. I swore that I would try to do something about it once I got out myself,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kamau Ngugi

On October 7, 2022, Kamau Ngugi was elected Chairperson of the East and Horn of Africa human rights defenders’ network (EHAHRD-net), a stirring affirmation for the Kenyan human rights defender’s efforts in defense of human rights that go back nearly 30 years.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Margaret Muna Nigba

A human rights lawyer per excellence, Margaret is also an indefatigable woman human rights defender (WHRD) who has won the adulation of millions in her country for her impassioned dedication to defending the rights of women and girls in her native Liberia.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mohammed Adam Hassan

Mohammed Hassan has known mostly conflict, displacement, and war all his adult life. As part of Sudan’s black population in the country’s region of Darfur, they were for long the victims of oppression by Khartoum, then under now deposed dictator Omar Bashir. Then, in 2003, when Mohammed was 19, Darfur’s black population decided to fight back. Two rebel movements – Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement launched a rebellion against Bashir’s government, seeking justice for Darfur’s non-Arab population. The response by Khartoum was chilling: Bashir’s forces launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region’s non-Arab population, and thousands of families were displaced and herded into refugee camps.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Issah Musundi

At first encounter, Issah Musundi is a coy, if not shy, mostly reserved lad. But behind that quiet disposition is a steely character and an enforced existence.
Born 27 years ago in Kenya’s border district of Busia, Issah belongs to Kenya’s sexual minorities community, who have had to win majority rights that other Kenyans take for granted.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Agather Atuhaire

In late May this year, Agather Atuhaire, via her twitter account, broke the story that the Parliament of Uganda had spent a whopping Shs. 2.8billion to purchase two luxury vehicles for the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.

Aside from the fact that the expenditure was unnecessary – both the Speaker and her Deputy already have two luxury vehicles for their official duties, the purchase flouted all public procurement procedures, and when Parliament’s contracts committee could not approve the procurement, the members of the committee were fired and new ones immediately appointed to approve the purchase.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Esther Tawiah

In Ghana, Esther Tawiah is one of the loudest voices for women empowerment and gender. It is also why she is one of the most loathed. Born and raised in New-Tafo in the country’s eastern region, Esther grew up surrounded by a culture that frowned at the idea of women participating in public affairs, and witnessed firsthand, the backlash those who dared to challenge that cultural norm faced.

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