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.   

Public reaction to the revelation was, as expected, furious. After all, the news came at a time when there was a marked and continuous increase in the prices of general commodities that had provoked a spike in the cost of living, with the public being urged to be frugal, by among others, the leadership of Parliament.

Agather, in true journalistic style, pointed out these contradictions, causing a stir at Parliament Avenue. The reaction was fast and furious:    

They said I needed to be taught a lesson. That I shouldn’t be spoiling the name of the speaker. A few parliamentary staffers were arrested and quizzed as to who had leaked this information to me. They also considered arresting me, but finding that they couldn’t find an offence with which to charge me, I was warned that they would pick me up (a euphemism for kidnap), and throw me in a dungeon,” she says.

But Agather was not the kind to be deterred. Born 34 years ago, in Sheema, Western Uganda, she developed a revulsion for injustice at an early age. Her father was a violent alcoholic who routinely abused her mother and neglected Agather and her seven siblings, leaving the entire responsibility of raising and providing for them to her mother who did not own any means of production or have a source of income.  

“It was a violent childhood. I would go to bed and sleep with one eye open, not sure I would wake up to find my mother alive, because whenever my father returned home drunk, he would beat her up. It bothered me so much that I started inciting my mother to report my father to the authorities, first to insure her against further abuse, but also to warrant him to give her a share of the family resources to take care of us,” she says.

When Agather realised that her mother was never going to challenge her father, she decided to take up the responsibility herself. “Going forward, whenever my father would lock my mother outside the house after a quarrel, I would knock on his door to ensure that he didn’t sleep either, until he opened for her to get in. I also started confronting him on his responsibilities – whenever I wanted a book and it wasn’t there, I would follow him to the bar and ask how he was able to find money to drink, but not for a book,” she says.

That experience shaped her outlook on life, leaving her determined to study hard, be self-sustaining, and fight injustice wherever she came across it.  

“I thought to myself, the reason my mother probably wouldn’t leave an abusive marriage was because she didn’t own any resources or a means of income. So, I swore at an early age that I would study hard and be self-sustaining, so I don’t have to be held hostage by anyone. I also swore I would become a lawyer so I could enforce the rights of victims of abuse and injustice like my mother.”

But neither did education come easy. For her early secondary, she had to walk 7kms to a local school that accepted agricultural produce for school fees.  Alarmed by the strain such a journey would have on a young Agather, her elder sister found her a place in Alliance School Mbarara, which was offering partial scholarships for young, brilliant, but financially handicapped kids. Here, she managed to complete high school.

 

Unable to afford her dream law program at University, she settled for Journalism.  But she remained firm in her conviction that only with the law could she empower herself and vulnerable people like her mother to know their rights as insurance against abuse.

 

So, four years after graduating with a bachelor’s in Journalism and Communication, she returned to Makerere University to study a Bachelor of Laws. At Law School, true to character, she found that there was systemic dysfunction in some aspects of the course’s administration and began questioning them.

“There were cases where as many as half an entire class would routinely fail the same course unit and it seemed implausible to me. Aggrieved students would appeal a course unit they’d failed in year one but would get to year four before their appeal was heard, which meant that they wouldn’t graduate. I started questioning such things. “

This questioning marked her out as a trouble-some student, and so, when she enrolled for the bar course in 2019, her peers took trouble to warn her that at the Law Development Centre (LDC), her restless questioning of things would not be tolerated.

“They were telling me that we know you’re an activist, but if you take that trouble-some streak to LDC, you will never leave, meaning that I would be deliberately failed. That already told me that there were institutional problems at LDC, which everybody was afraid of confronting,” she says.

As fate would have it, at the end of the bar course in 2021, the graduation process was messed up, and Agather found  that before embarking on defending others’ rights, she would have to first defend her own, this time against the very institution that was supposed to certify her as a fully-fledged advocate.

Instead of releasing students’ results for them to know if they had passed or failed, the Centre released a list of students in three categories; of those who had passed and would graduate, those who had failed less than three subjects and were required to undertake supplementary exams, and finally, those who had completely failed and had been discontinued from the course. Agather belonged to the second category and was required to take a supplementary exam, but something was not adding up.

“We were looking at those lists and wondering, how do I verify that I have failed? where are the results? Moreover, there were names on those lists of former students who had graduated in previous years, signalling that something was wrong,” she says.

 Agather wrote to the LDC Director asking for answers, which email was ignored. Unrelenting, she teamed up with other aggrieved students to petition LDC’s Management Committee, the Speaker of Parliament, the Law Council and the National Council for Higher Education.  

Sensing a reluctance of some of the petitioned  institutions to act, Agather and her colleagues started a social media campaign to force their hand, and to publicly challenge LDC’s impunity. As the pressure intensified and debate on the Centre’s conduct gained momentum in public and on social media, LDC caved in. They allowed students to verify their scripts and what they found were glaring inconsistences.

In the resultant rectifications, Agather would emerge among those who had passed – or should have passed, since the rectifications came two months after graduation. Although she and her colleagues had missed out on graduation, a resultant management committee ruling directed that all those students who had wrongfully missed out on graduation be given their transcripts. Agather says this was very illuminating:

“It reinforced my conviction that unless we develop the courage to challenge injustice, it will continue to be perpetrated against others long after we have been victims. The impunity at LDC had become systemic because nobody was willing to challenge it lest they be victimized. But because nobody was challenging it, many more people continually became victims of the institution’s dysfunction,” she says.

Asked why she thinks justice remains out of reach for many people, including those who should-be empowered enough to demand it, she says one of the challenges is the cost of access to justice.

“Sometimes, the cost is financial. But other times, it can be social and political. Many perpetrators of injustice hide behind the power of their institutions and bureaucracies to penalize those who dare to challenge them. Sometimes, the penalty can be loss of job, other times, the sabotaging of one’s career growth, among others.”

Still, Agather insists, change is only possible if we each purpose to challenge injustice wherever we encounter it.  “Like Desmond Tutu urged us, do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world!” she says.

See more HRDs of the Month

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.

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).

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