Defender of the month: Vicky Ntetema

Vicky Ntetema is a former journalist and human rights defenders (HRDs) from Tanzania whose work spans more than two decades. In light of her home country’s recent crackdown on civic space, she has begun focusing her efforts towards full-time advocacy, bringing greater attention to human rights abuses and attacks against civil society.

“Tanzania is not peaceful anymore,” she laments. “Where is our independence? Where is our space?”

Ntetema began working as the Tanzania Bureau Chief for the BBC World Service in the early 2000s, working on stories related to current events, politics, and human rights. She says while the government under former Presidents Mkapa and Kikwete were more tolerant of critical views, several topics were off limits, such as HIV/AIDS, the sale expired antiretroviral drugs, the lack of education in rural areas, and the political situation in Zanzibar.

Trouble first came when Ntetema began investigating the murder of people with albinism in Tanzania, who are sometimes hunted by traditional healers claiming that concoctions made from their bodies can bring wealth and luck. As a result of her investigations into these powerful cross-border smuggling networks, threats were made against her life, forcing her to flee the country twice and require round-the-clock security.

In response, Ntetema left the BBC in 2010 and for many years led the Dar es Salaam office of Under the Same Sun (UTSS) an international civil society organisation that seeks to end the discrimination and violence against persons with albinism through advocacy and education.

“When President Magufuli came to power everything changed,” she says. “We expected with the new government that things would be better. Far from it, they have gotten much worse.”

In July 2017, the government attempted to deregister UTSS after the group quoted from a third-party African Union source which compared an albinism centre to a detention centre. This followed a trend in which the government was increasingly intolerant of critical views or any information that contradicted its own official statistics or economic development narratives.

“You know that these are facts, but if you don’t apologize when they ask, they shut you down,” Ntetema says regarding the suppression of independent information.

The controversy forced her to step down as the head of UTSS, leading her to focus her efforts fully towards advocacy in order to bring greater attention to Tanzania’s massive crackdown on HRDs and civil society as a whole. She also notes that the Magufuli government has also increasingly publically threatened media outlets who refuse to comply with the new agenda, creating a culture of impunity where human rights abuses often go unpunished.

“Now we see that even politicians who are very vocal are being attacked. We see quite a few people being killed or injured in police custody.”

Ntetema says that the overall squeezing of civic space means that communities no longer have adequate platforms to voice grievances, which may ultimately destabilise Tanzanian society. While the government has increasingly fragmented civil society organisations in order to assert control, she hopes that groups can come together to share common goals and counter these worrying trends.

“President cannot tolerate criticism, even if it is positive,” she says. “This is an era where we have control freaks in power, and this is very dangerous. We need to come together before it is too late.”

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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