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In June 2017, the company’s monopoly on the lakes was rescinded by a court order, but this was only a partial victory.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: Alex Njenga John

Alex Njenga has always believed in egalitarianism both as a principle and as a tool for justice. As a result, he has always been suspicious of, and at times hostile to social prejudices that treat some people as “more equal than others,” – to use a line from George Orwell’s famed political fable, Animal Farm.

Some of the experiences that have shaped his social and political outlook have been personal. As an adolescent in Kenya’s Uasin Gishu County, Alex was stigmatised and denied healthcare after he identified himself as belonging to Kenya’s sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) community.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim

Abacha Ahmed Ibrahim is one of his country’s leading advocates for the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).

Born 34 years ago into a family of Eight, in Kajokeji County, East of Juba, the Capital of South Sudan, Abacha ’s passion for human rights was born out of grim personal experience. At birth, he was immediately neglected by his father on discovering that the little infant was visually impaired.

“My own father denied me access to education because he considered my disability a kind of misfortune brought to him by my mother,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Fadia Khalaf

Fadia Khalaf was not meant to be an activist. By her own admission, she was born into a conservative Muslim family – the first of six siblings. In Saudi Arabia where she was born and raised, the ruling ideology in the Kingdom was wahabbism – a puritanical version of Islam in which women are strictly expected to stay in the background and not play any public role. Yet even in that conservative setting, she managed to nurture a political consciousness:

“I think reading at young age helped build my awareness on concepts like justice and rights in general. I was exposed to concepts around human freedom, and that nurtured the rebel in me,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mugisha Jelousy

As the rest of Uganda readies itself to finally get its oil out of the ground with the conclusion of the Final Investment Decision (FID), Mugisha Jealousy, 50, is one of those following the events with a mournful resignation.

A resident of Kasenyi village, Nile Parish in Buliisa district, Mugisha is one of those affected by the Tilenga project, a multipronged project by Total E&P. The project involves reservation and development of land in districts of Buliisa and Nwoya for oil exploration, setting up of a crude oil processing plant and related infrastructure to support Uganda’s oil production activities.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Anny Kapenga

As a young student, Anny Kapenga used to cringe at the cult-like worship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the then Zaire’s President. By then, in the early 1990s, Zaire was still under one party rule, and calls were increasing for Mobutu to open political space to allow other parties to operate. In the meantime, however, all Zairians were expected to show affection for Mobutu wherever they gathered in public.

Students across Zaire’s schools were required to sing and dance adoringly before his (Mobutu)’s portrait every morning before they went to class, and all school scholastic materials were emblemed with his portrait. A young Anny never really appreciated the obsession:

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Fadwo Hassan Jimale

Women in Somalia are not supposed to be ‘loud.’ Historically, conservative religious traditions combined with a resilient patriarchal system ensured that women in the coastal nation remain veiled and meek, always in the shadow of their husbands.

Not so for Fadwo Hassan Jimale, Somalia’s crusading human rights defender. As a ranking member of Somalia’s Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Fadwo and her colleagues host regular capacity building sessions for current and emerging women human rights defenders (WHRDs).

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Oliver Rubama

As a lone girl in a traditionally patriarchal & heteronormative Muslim family in Tanzania, Oliver Rubama grew up with so much pressure to conform. She was expected to conform to socially expected patterns of female behavior and dress, and to aspire to get married to a man approved by her family.

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