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: Dibabe Bacha

Dibabe Bacha is a trailblazer on many fronts. Visually impaired, but unequivocally impassioned for human rights, she has devoted herself to defending and protecting human rights in her native Ethiopia, especially for women with disabilities.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Mariam Nakibuuka

On 26th July 2021, Mariam Nakibuuka, 35, breathed her last at Uganda’s Kampala hospital, succumbing to the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic. Mariam joined DefendDefenders as an intern in 2015, and rose through the ranks from being a fellow, to a Protection Assistant, and finally to a Senior Protection Associate, at the time of her death.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Ana Taban

Ana Taban, which means ‘I am Tired’ in Arabic, was established in 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya out of frustration of South Sudanese artists with several issues related to the civil war in the country. This was after another conflict broke out at the Presidential Palace in Juba a few months after the signing of a peace deal.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Jaqueline Mutere

Jaqueline Mutere’s motivation to establish Grace Agenda was a response to the post-election sexual violence of 2007 and 2008 in Kenya. Additionally, as a survivor of sexual violence which resulted into conception of a child, and following the experience of other survivors, Jaqueline identified the need to form an organisation that advocates for reparations for survivors of sexual violence.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Ocen Ivan Kenneth

Ocen Ivan Kenneth is a Program Director at Foundation for Development and Relief Africa (FIDRA), with more than 10 years’ experience working in the human rights field. Ivan’s ambitions for change focus on building inner peace, defending human rights and empowering local communities using theatre and storytelling. He creates a space where people from the community share their personal stories of trauma and resilience as well as identify mechanisms of healing.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Sandra Aceng

Sandra Aceng is an outspoken and energetic woman human rights defender (WHRD). She is a gender and ICT researcher and policy analyst for Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) where she coordinates the Women ICT Advocacy Group, advocating for internet access for all. In addition, she writes on various platforms such as Global Voices, Freedom House, and Impakter Magazine. Her regular contributions to Wikimedia Uganda often focus on profiling WHRDs, female politicians, and journalists.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Chantal Mutamuriza

Chantal Mutamuriza does not wait for problems to be solved. When the Burundian woman human rights defender (WHRD) encounters a problem, she will seek a solution there and then. When hundreds of thousands Burundians had to flee from political unrest in 2015, many of them were stranded in refugee camps with little economic opportunity or access to education. In her problem-solving spirit, Chantal felt compelled to act: she quit her job to put her skills and network to use and founded the NGO Light For All.

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