Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onesmo Olengurumwa

Protecting human rights is Onesmo Olengurumwa’s passion. When his secondary school lacked access to water and was threatened with closure, Onesmo successfully rallied his fellow students together and protested for their right to education. While at university, he was the human rights association’s president. Following his experience with the Legal and Human Rights Centre, Onesmo was appointed the national coordinator of the Tanzanian Human Rights Defender Coalition (THRDC), which was founded in 2013 in cooperation with DefendDefenders. Becoming a human rights defender (HRD) was not really a conscious choice, but just the natural course of Onesmo’s life.

I did not start championing human rights because of employment, I started this at secondary school and we were not paid. I am extremely passionate about my human rights work, whether they pay me or not,” Onesmo tells us. But this passion does not make for an easy life: “I chose this work, knowing that it’s risky and I’ve faced a lot of difficulties. My house was surveilled and at one point I had to be evacuated internally. Life is not independent and free.”

I did not start championing human rights because of employment, I started this at secondary school and we were not paid. I am extremely passionate about my human rights work, whether they pay me or not. I chose this work, knowing that it’s risky and I’ve faced a lot of difficulties. My house was surveilled and at one point I had to be evacuated internally. Life is not independent and free.

Tanzania’s human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating, in the lead up to its general elections scheduled for 28 October, with reports that opposition party members have been arrested, media  increasingly restricted, and NGOs not only limited in their ability to monitor the elections but also facing a severe crackdown. THRDC has sorely felt the consequences: on 12 August Onesmo was summoned by police and released on a bail of 400,000 Tanzanian shillings (about 170 USD). THRDC’s bank accounts have been frozen – since August. THRDC has only been able to carry out activities not requiring funding and the staff has had to work without salaries. THRDC is not the only organisation facing such difficulties, Onesmo says: “We see a lot of different moves that restrict the work of civil society at this time until the elections are done. Many NGOs are scared, there is a lot of self-censorship. The vibrance we used to see in HRDs is no longer there, because of the current political environment. And those who boldly continue – well, you’ve seen what’s happened to us. Everything is in a very big shamble right now.”

We see a lot of different moves that restrict the work of civil society at this time until the elections are done. Many NGOs are scared, there is a lot of self-censorship. The vibrance we used to see in HRDs is no longer there, because of the current political environment. And those who boldly continue – well, you’ve seen what’s happened to us. Everything is in a very big shamble right now.

Yet, he calls on fellow HRDs not to lose hope and continue their work: “whatever we are undergoing today is temporary. The moment the political environment changes, our working environment will normalise, and we can pick up our work.” He hopes to be able to count on the support and solidarity from regional and international actors and calls on them to remind the Tanzanian government of HRDs’ legal rights to exercise their work.

Onesmo’s unrelenting optimism has caused concern with his friends and family. They regularly hold interventions to ask him to stop his human rights work. But protecting human rights is Onesmo’s calling, he cannot imagine a life in which he is not an HRD: “there are many ways to be in trouble. I could be in a car accident tomorrow and that would be the end of my life. My motto is: ‘once a human rights defender, always a human rights defender.’ Human rights is my calling and I need to take it to the end. And the end of it, is the day I die.”

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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