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: 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: