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.”
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.”
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.”