Human Rights Defender of the Month: Omot Agwa Okwoy

In Ethiopia, land grabbing and villagisation has resulted in severe human rights abuses, however, being vocal about these abuses can be extremely risky. Omot Agwa Okwoy, our human rights defender of the month for December 2019, has fought for land rights and the rights of indigenous people in the Gambella region in Ethiopia for almost 20 years – leaving him with visible and invisible scars. “If you commit yourself to good things, you will make it. But if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine too, you should not be forced. Human rights work starts as an internal motivation,” Omot states.

Omot is a living testimony of the gruesome massacre that took place in the Gambella region in December 2003. The massacre, carried out by Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), killed about 400 Anuak people, destroyed over 1,000 homes, and forced thousands of Anuaks to seek safety in refugee camps in Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya. For three days, Omot was forced to hide in his house without food, water, and contact with the outside world. “They burned houses, they raped women. The town was filled with gunshots,” Omot recalls.

“If you commit yourself to good things, you will make it. But if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine too, you should not be forced. Human rights work starts as an internal motivation.”

As an Anuak himself, the massacre manifested his incentive to continue to fight for human rights. “I refused to run. I wanted to make sure that the massacre was heard in the world,” Omot says. “I started writing the names of the people who died, and I kept this document very safe – they would kill me if they found it.”

His human rights devotion made him a target. “People from the federal government kept following me. When you are looking for someone like me, it’s because you want to arrest me. But I made it clear to them: if you arrest me, if I die, you will be the one responsible.” In his fight for Anuaks’ justice, Omot was an interpreter in the World Bank Inspection Panel in 2014, which investigated a complaint submitted by the Anuak in relation to their displacement.

In March 2015, Omot was arrested by Ethiopian security agents at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, and charged under the previous Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, facing 14 years to lifetime in prison. “They said they would bring my family back – what had my family done! They said we know where they are.” His fight for human rights cost him two and a half years in prison. He was given a bail of 50,000 Birr (about 1550 USD) but was not allowed to leave the country until his charges were dropped in 2018.

“I refused to run. I wanted to make sure that the massacre was heard in the world. I started writing the names of the people who died, and I kept this document very safe – they would kill me if they found it.”

Before the massacre, Omot was elected the first President of the Church of Gambella, a position he held for four years. As the president, he initiated peace talks between the Anuak and the Nuer to end the longstanding conflict between two groups – an event which brought together more than 5,000 people for a peace conference, in addition to initiating several trainings for the two groups. “I said: guys, let’s have a meeting – we are human beings, let’s not kill each other,” he recollects. At the time of the massacre in 2003, the Nuer were not part in the killing, and Omot states that “if it was not for the trainings, the Nuer could have joined the killing of the Anuaks.”

For years, Omot has worked as a park protector in Gambella’s national park, advocating against land grabbing, deforestation, poaching, illegal logging, as well as foreign investment – which largely threaten the parks’ biodiversity and the livelihood of local people. He is committed to continuing his human rights work. “I need to train young people in human rights, because tomorrow when I am not there, they need to continue the work,” he says.    

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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