Human Rights Defender of the month: Kamau Ngugi

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.

Born half a century ago in Kenya’s Rift valley region, Kamau is part of the generation of African activists whose human rights consciousness was stirred by the far-reaching impact of the IMF/Worldbank – instigated structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that were sweeping across Africa in the late 80s to early 90s.

The SAPs, as the programs came to be known, were a set of wide-ranging economic reforms that developing countries were required to adopt to qualify for financial aid from the IMF and the World Bank. They ranged from currency devaluation to significant reduction in public-sector spending, all of which had a massive effect on critical public sectors like education and health.

Kamau was a student at Moi University at the time and watched with growing concern as public funding for higher education was summarily suspended, affecting thousands of students from low-income families who could not afford University tuition.

“All of a sudden, education became a class issue only accessible to the well-to-do, leaving a significant majority in limbo,” he says.

“The brutal response of the authorities awakened us to the fact that the economic challenges we were demonstrating about were connected to a governance deficit in the places from where we were seeking answers. We therefore realized that to sustainably address the issues that were affecting us as students, we had to confront the wider governance issues of the country,” he says.     

“Despite the significant strides made, Margaret says demand for their services remains more than their capacity to meet it. “Getting more volunteer lawyers to offer pro-bono services is difficult. Lawyers make a lot of money representing people, so asking them to devote themselves to free work is difficult ,” she says.

“I always see myself as a survivor. I never had the opportunity for people to come and talk to my mother to help her stand her emotional and physical distress that finally claimed her life. So, I come with empathy – I see every suffering woman as my mother. I want a better life for them. And it’s something that I enjoy – I fill fulfilled doing this work. When a woman smiles, I am encouraged to support more. Sometimes, they bring me chicken, goats, and whatever else they can afford. And it gives me so much joy” she says.

With that realization, Kamau joined an emerging movement of mostly student agitators from Moi, Kenyatta, Egerton and Nairobi universities, who were determined to challenge then President Moi’s repression of free expression and civic organising at institutions of higher learning. “Once we started, we were branded political opposition sympathizers and we were targeted for clampdown,” he says.

 

But Kamau would not relent. As opposition to President Moi’s dictatorial tendencies galvanized in the mid to late 90s, security agencies started targeting political opponents for arrest. Once in their custody, these suspects would be tortured to yield confessions to support their criminal prosecution. Once they got aware of this, Kamau and a few others started a pressure group called People Against Torture, via which they petitioned courts to outlaw torture-induced confessions in criminal trials.

This advocacy marked out Kamau for targeting by the wide network of Moi’s regime enforcers, forcing him to flee into exile in Canada in 2002. He would return to Kenya in 2010 to play a leading role in the newly launched Defenders’ Coalition Kenya, a coalition of human rights defenders (HRDs) founded to coordinate and offer solidarity to HRDs in Kenya who were increasingly vulnerable to attacks and repression as individual rights defenders.

As leader of Defenders’ Coalition Kenya, Kamau has since attracted over 1000 members into the fold, who have gone on to form HRD solidarity networks across Kenya. In addition to coordinating and supporting the work of individual HRDs, these also serve as social justice centers, where citizens can report rights violations for which the networks subsequently pursue accountability and justice.

“One of the things I am most proud of as a leader and member of Defenders’ Coalition Kenya, is the transformation of the title “human rights defender” or “activist” from a shunned identity into a revered one. When we started, nobody was willing to host or associate with us because we were deemed “risky.” Today, I am proud to note that because of our work, people proudly describe themselves as human rights defenders and more HRD-focused organisations are sprouting up. Furthermore, HRDs no longer need to go to exile to seek protection. The Coalition intervenes in all cases of HRDs at risk, and consequently, we have contributed to having a vibrant human rights community in Kenya that is confident they have dependable backup when they do their work,” he says.

As leader of the EHAHRD-net, Kamau hopes to build on these gains in his native Kenya to build an even bigger, more connected solidarity of HRDs across the 11 countries that make up the network.

“The subregion is still dogged by war and conflict and a mad rush by multinationals to exploit the region’s natural resources. Caught in this middle are the HRDs who are trying to ensure the protection of rights and demanding accountability for violations. I hope we can still build strong supportive HRD networks across the region and leverage human rights mechanisms at the regional and international level to ensure justice for victims,” 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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