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: Kasale Maleton Mwaana

Kasale’s human rights activism precedes his years. The son of pastoralist parents from Ngorongoro district in northern Tanzania, he grew up seeing his parents and entire community having to defend their land and way of life against authorities who thought their lands could be put to better use. Now, at 25, Kasale is already one of the most recognizable advocates of his people’s cause, much to the ire of Tanzanian authorities.
“Our people’s struggle goes back many generations. It started with the pushing out of our forefathers from Serengeti to gazette Serengeti National Park in 1959, and then further evictions from the Ngorongoro crater to gazette the Ngorongoro conservation area in 1975. Since then, every generation has had to resist further evictions. It’s now my generation’s turn,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

Arguably no single individual personifies Burundi’s human rights struggle like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Born 72 years ago in the small East African country, Claver’s quest for human rights and justice is as old as his country’s modern history.

When his country was plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 people following the 1993 assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, Claver was one of its earliest victims. Then a close confidant (he was also a former driver) of the assassinated President, he was framed, and arrested, and would go on to spend the next two years between 1994 and 1996 in jail.

It is in prison that the ulcer of injustice bit him hard. There, he met inmates who had either been wrongfully imprisoned or who had been remanded for long periods without trial, all living in dehumanising conditions. “I was strongly revolted by the injustice. Here were probably innocent people whose years were being wasted away by an unfair judicial system, with no one to stand up for them. I swore that I would try to do something about it once I got out myself,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kamau Ngugi

On October 7, 2022, Kamau Ngugi was elected Chairperson of the East and Horn of Africa human rights defenders’ network (EHAHRD-net), a stirring affirmation for the Kenyan human rights defender’s efforts in defense of human rights that go back nearly 30 years.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Margaret Muna Nigba

A human rights lawyer per excellence, Margaret is also an indefatigable woman human rights defender (WHRD) who has won the adulation of millions in her country for her impassioned dedication to defending the rights of women and girls in her native Liberia.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mohammed Adam Hassan

Mohammed Hassan has known mostly conflict, displacement, and war all his adult life. As part of Sudan’s black population in the country’s region of Darfur, they were for long the victims of oppression by Khartoum, then under now deposed dictator Omar Bashir. Then, in 2003, when Mohammed was 19, Darfur’s black population decided to fight back. Two rebel movements – Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement launched a rebellion against Bashir’s government, seeking justice for Darfur’s non-Arab population. The response by Khartoum was chilling: Bashir’s forces launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region’s non-Arab population, and thousands of families were displaced and herded into refugee camps.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Issah Musundi

At first encounter, Issah Musundi is a coy, if not shy, mostly reserved lad. But behind that quiet disposition is a steely character and an enforced existence.
Born 27 years ago in Kenya’s border district of Busia, Issah belongs to Kenya’s sexual minorities community, who have had to win majority rights that other Kenyans take for granted.

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.

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