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: Veronica Almedom

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Godfrey Kagaayi

Born 33 years ago, in Bukoba, northern Tanzania, Godfrey Kagaayi did not have to look elsewhere for inspiration to tackle the daunting challenge of mental health. By his own admission, the family and community in which he was raised were fertile grounds for the same.
His family had crossed the border into Uganda when he was barely 5 months, settling into present day Rakai district. But the Rakai of the 90s was a difficult place for a child to make their earliest memories: In 1990, Uganda’s first ever case of HIV/AIDs was reported in the district, setting off a decade of suffering and anguish for many of its residents. Taking advantage of the Rakai’s fishing and polygamous lifestyle, the novel virus spread like wildfire, killing people in droves and leaving untold heartache in its wake.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid

Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid is one of the lucky survivors of Sudan’s latest conflict.

He was born 36 years ago, in Almalha locality, North Darfur state, the third born in a family of 10. Then, Darfur was not the hot bed of war and conflict it has since become infamous for. Although the region, predominantly inhabited by Sudan’s black population remained segregated by the predominantly Arab government in Khartoum, its people co-existed in thriving, predominantly subsistence communities. In Almalha, people reared camels and cattle, while others tended crops. The community was also famed for its hospitality to strangers, welcoming outsiders who ended up staying, owning land, and intermarrying with their hosts.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo

In personality, Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo could not be more different. Where the former is loud, if free-spirited, and mischievous, the latter is quiet, reticent, and predominantly solitary. Together though, they are the quiet champions behind DefendDefenders’ digital skilling programs, equipping (women) human rights defenders with critically transformative – and sometimes, life-saving digital tools and skills.
“You’ll be surprised how many people out there, including the literate are not exposed to the idea of digital safety. And as technology gets more advanced, it is getting ever more lucrative for hackers and other malign actors, which means that the urgency of the need for digital security skills for everyone cannot be over-stated,” says Daphne.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Mary Pais Da Silva

On 17 February 2023, in Ethiopia’s rustic resort of Bishoftu, more than 5000Km from her homeland, Mary Da Silva was announced winner of the 2023 AfricanDefenders Shield Award, in the presence of hundreds of colleague human rights defenders from 36 African countries. It was a fitting validation for the Eswatini human rights lawyer, whose sense of empathy and sensitivity to injustice has been a defining hallmark of her career.
Born 45 years ago in Lubombo, eastern Eswatini, the last of 4 siblings, Mary attributes her values to her upbringing. Although she was born in Eswatini, her parents are originally from Mozambique, and only relocated to eSwatini at the start of the Mozambican civil war that lasted between 1977-1992, which ravaged families and displaced many others.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Jane Naini Meriwas

Like many African societies, The Samburu community in Northern Kenya is a gerontocracy – a very hierarchical community in which elders hold sway over almost all private and public matters. Among these predominantly pastoral nomads, very little importance is attached to the young – especially young girls, who are barely given a chance at education and often married off before their first menstrual cycle, but not before they undergo mandatory Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
It is in this community that Jane Naini Meriwas was born 46 years ago, in Kipsing village, Oldonyiro Subcounty, Isiolo County. When she was 16, her mother passed on, and she watched with great trepidation as her father planned to marry another wife, not sure what that would mean for her or her ambitions for school. As it turned out, fate was on her side. When her father uncharacteristically asked what she thought of his plans, Jane seized the opportunity to stand up for herself and interests:

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