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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: Apollo Mukasa

Apollo Mukasa’s journey into activism is deeply rooted in his commitment to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). As the Executive Director of Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD), Apollo is a driving force behind initiatives aimed at combating discrimination among PWDs. UNAPD was established in 1998 as a platform for voicing concerns of persons with physical disabilities to realise a barrier free environment where they can enjoy their rights to the fullest.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Leon Ntakiyiruta

As a child, Leon wanted to be a magistrate – whom he saw as agents of justice. Born in 1983 in Burundi’s Southern province, he came of age at a time of great social and political upheaval in the East African country. In 1993 when Leon was barely 10, Burundi was besieged by a civil war that would last for the next 12 years until 2005, characterized by indiscriminate violence and gross human rights abuses in which over 300,000 people are estimated to have died.In 2012, still struggling to find her footing in Kampala, Aida was introduced to DefendDefenders, where she was introduced to the organisation’s resource center, and assured, it (the center) would be at her disposal whenever she needed to use it.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Aida Musa

In August 2011, Aida crossed into Uganda, pregnant, and barely able to communicate in another language other than Arabic. The transition was a difficult one, she says: “It was my first-time outside Sudan, and yet I did not know any other language. The first months were very difficult.”
In 2012, still struggling to find her footing in Kampala, Aida was introduced to DefendDefenders, where she was introduced to the organisation’s resource center, and assured, it (the center) would be at her disposal whenever she needed to use it.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pamela Angwench Judith

For most of her life, Pamela Angwech’s existence has always been a defiant and simultaneous act of survival and resistance. In 1976 when she was born, the anti-Amin movement was gathering pace, and her family was one of the earliest victims of the then dictatorship’s reprisals in Northern Uganda. Her father, a passionate educationist in Kitgum district was one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorship’s human rights excesses, which made him an obvious target of the state’s marauding vigilantes.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Joseph Oleshangay

As a human rights lawyer and advocate with the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzania, Joseph Moses Oleshangay spends most of his time crossing from one court to another, litigating human rights cases, some with life-altering implications for ordinary people. It is a monumental responsibility, one he never envisaged growing up.

As a young boy born into a Maasai household in northern Tanzania, his entire childhood revolved around cattle: “Our entire livelihood revolved around cattle. As a child, the main preoccupation was to tend to cows, and my formative years were spent grazing cattle around Endulen. It a simple lifestyle,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Julia Onyoti

The situation of South Sudan’s women and girls remains one of those enduring blights on the country’s conscience. The country retains the unenviable reputation of having the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and at 51.5%, one of the highest cases of child marriages. It is even worse with gender-based violence(GBV): A 2019 study by UNICEF found that one in every two South Sudan women have experienced intimate partner violence, while a recent UN study, alarmed at the widespread nature of conflict-related sexual violence in the country, in which women are tread as “spoils of war” described it as “a hellish existence for women and girls.

Human Rights Defender of the month:SHIMA BHARE

Shima Bhare Abdalla has never known the luxury and comfort of a stable and safe existence inside her country’s borders. When she was 11, her village was attacked and razed to the ground, sending her family and entire neighborhood scattering into an internally displaced People’s Camp, at the start of the Darfur civil war.

That was in 2002. Shima and her family relocated into Kalma refugee camp in Southern Darfur, where, alongside over 100,000 other displaced persons, they had to forge out a living, under the watch and benevolence of the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID. It is here that Shima’s human rights consciousness came to life. She enthusiastically embraced whatever little education she could access under the auspices of the humanitarian agencies operating in the camp, to be able to tell the story of her people’s plight.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Martial Pa’nucci

Martial Pa’nucci is a child of what is fondly known as Africa’s second liberation. In 1990 when he was born, the Republic of Congo, like many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was undergoing a transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet developments in ordinary people’s lives were not as optimistic. Pa’nucci was born in one of Brazzaville’s ghettos to a polygamous family of two mothers and 19 siblings, where survival was a daily exercise in courage. When he was two, his father died, followed in quick succession by many of his siblings. Pa’nucci did not start school until he was nine, and he had to do odd jobs – from barbering to plumbing to earn his stay there, lest he dropped out like many of his peers.