On the Legal Frontline: Lawyers and Paralegals as Human Rights Defenders in the East and Horn of Africa


Legal activists in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region navigate a complex legal terrain and are routinely subjected to intimidation and violence due to their human rights work. This policy brief is based on lessons learned from a vanguard of lawyers, paralegals, and activists who are “working towards the application of the law with a human rights approach” in the sub-region.[1] They are acutely aware that the law has often been used as a political instrument and a “shield for violations”[2] but they are striving to harness it to pursue human rights and justice. Their initiatives are vital to counteract the widespread injustice and inequality that fuel political instability and violence. They merit greater recognition and consistent support.

The policy brief synthesises the problems that legal practitioners in the sub-region face, and the strategies they use to promote human rights. It is based upon documentation and action research by human rights lawyers and legal activists from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.[3] It provides an introduction to the legal environment across the sub-region, then reflects on what works in practice and highlights remaining gaps.

Legal activists are drawing creatively upon a range of national, regional, and international statutes and mechanisms to secure human rights. They are also confronting legal pluralism at the grassroots by engaging with layers of fragmented, sometimes overlapping courts and authorities, local cultural norms, and sociopolitical networks. Well-informed practitioners are capable of agile responses to violations, despite being deprived of financial resources and often working on a pro-bono or voluntary basis. But promoting the rule of law and human rights requires an understanding of the legal and political diversity that characterises the sub-region. It also requires survival skills, since activists face conditions of political instability, violence, economic hardship, threats to their lives and livelihoods, and widespread impunity.

Strengthening statutory institutions is not sufficient to deliver access to justice. Top-down rule-of-law support cannot address violations in complex legal and political environments; investment in statutory institutions may even compound the problems unless there is corresponding investment in bottom-up legal activism. Justice systems in the sub-region typically present three main problems from a human rights perspective:

  • The majority of people lack access to formal courts and lawyers;
  • Statutory laws and legal instruments are subject to political interference and are used by governments to repress populations, political opponents, civil society, journalists and other independent and critical voices (“rule by law,” as opposed to “rule of law”); and
  • Customary dispute settlement mechanisms and religious courts, as well as authorities, are making and/or enforcing laws which violate basic human rights, especially women’s rights.

In these distinctive legal settings, some activists have become adept at dealing with legal and political complexity. Their experiences point to three practical strategies to advance human rights and justice:

  • Strategic litigation by human rights lawyers in both national and regional courts to counteract the use of the law to undermine human rights and to hold political elites to account;
  • Legal aid and legal empowerment; and
  • Networking between legal activists at local, national, and regional levels.

These strategies can contribute to exposing or limiting violations, while also embedding human rights norms in law and society, even in the contexts of fragile states and conflict. They need to be scaled up, linked, and given long-term support, including financial support. Legal activists can learn and benefit from interaction with their peers by strengthening their local and regional networks. But they need additional resources, including funds for travel and subsistence, especially while in prolonged exile or if under threat from political and security actors. We call on local and national authorities, international agencies, and civil society organisations (CSOs) to step up protection efforts and support for legal activism across the sub-region. 

Legal and Political Complexity

International policies increasingly recognise that peace and development depend on justice. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.3 states that the “the rule of law and development […] are mutually reinforcing” and aims to build “strong institutions.” Advancing justice is essential to securing human rights and long-term peace and stability in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region. Institutions and their capacities vary between the countries in the sub-region, but further support for courts, judiciaries, and bar associations is essential in all of them.

However, the problem is not simply weak institutions. The ‘top-down’ institutional approach – including strengthening national justice systems, human rights institutions, and law enforcement bodies – risks reducing the law to a technical matter. Progress towards justice remains, at best ‘uneven’, as acknowledged in the 2019 SDG 16.3 report,[4] partly because many laws, legal authorities, and judicial institutions are not accountable to citizens, and contradict or vigorously oppose basic human rights principles. Legal activists point to two overarching problems that frustrate reforms and fuel injustices across the sub-region. Firstly, powerful actors use legal instruments to pursue their political and private interests. Secondly, legal pluralism or fragmentation complicates or undermines human rights promotion.

In the sub-region, statutory law is often rooted in colonial and post-independence repression as well as authoritarian rule. Alien laws and frameworks were imposed upon local societies through violent processes of state-making under colonial regimes and (in the Ethiopian case) in modernisation reforms guided by external experts.[5] Laws and constitutions have since undergone major reforms, with the advance of global governance and human rights regimes in the past two decades. Yet, many colonial-era laws remain on the books and authoritarian practices have proven tenacious and difficult to repeal, mainly because subsequent regimes have benefited from them.[6] In other countries, violent conflict has disrupted and undermined progress. In addition, in recent years, diverse regimes have produced new legislation that either directly or indirectly targets political opponents and suppresses civil society.[7]

Furthermore, a multiplicity of laws, authorities, and judicial forums are involved in governance, creating additional challenges for human rights. Most statutory legal systems draw upon some aspect of customary or traditional laws, especially on matters relating to family, such as marriage, divorce, dowry, inheritance, or child custody. Community-based laws and legal mechanisms are prolific and influential in practice, either as a consequence of sparse statutory provision or as a means of resistance to the political and legal regimes of the state.

Legal frameworks and the administration of justice across the East and Horn of Africa sub-region are characterised by hybridity and plurality, to differing degrees. This is starkly apparent in the most fragmented, conflict-ridden countries. In South Sudan, customary courts have a place at the lowest tier of the justice system with jurisdiction over minor civil cases, but they handle the majority of cases in both urban and rural areas and often also act beyond their remit, ruling on criminal matters.[8] Somalia’s Provisional Constitution (2012) recognises the primacy of Shari’a and civil law, but since the formal system has limited reach, customary law (Xeer) is frequently used to resolve disputes.[9] In Sudan, Shari’a influences criminal law, taxation, and family laws, while traditional legal mechanisms have also been officially recognised and commonly used.[10]

Even in those countries where the statutory institutions are stronger, customary and religious laws may be influential. In Ethiopia, there are federal laws and courts and nine (soon ten) state-level legal systems with provision for family laws to either be adjudicated by statutory courts or religious and customary tribunals, with the consent of the parties. The Constitution recognises Shari’a courts and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) for personal and family matters. Unofficially, community elders also continue to rule on criminal matters, especially in rural areas.[11]The Tanzanian legal framework establishes custom as a valid source of law, where it is not in conflict with other laws, and allows for the application of Islamic law to Muslims on cases relating to personal status and inheritance.[12] In Kenya, customary mechanisms for dispute resolution, informally used in some 60 percent of cases, were officially recognised in the 2010 Constitution.[13] In Uganda, only a minority of people outside the capital, Kampala, take criminal cases to formal courts and even fewer have access to lawyers; instead, local council courts and traditional or religious mechanisms often apply.[14] In essence, throughout the sub-region, promoting human rights and the rule of law depends upon acknowledging legal pluralism and fragmentation and engaging not only with statutory laws and legal practitioners, but with parallel and sometimes overlapping local, religious, and customary legal systems.

International and regional human rights mechanisms have created avenues for accountability and access to justice,[15] including the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) and the UN human rights treaty bodies; the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR, or Commission); the East African Court of Justice (EACJ); and the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is also possible to hold perpetrators of human rights violations and atrocities to account in foreign countries under various jurisdictions, including universal jurisdiction, or to pursue cases against multinational corporations and parent companies in their domestic jurisdictions, or through international arbitration. What is needed are the tools and political will to enact these commitments and principles, and to resolve inconsistencies in legal frameworks and practices. At present, compiling evidence and filing cases largely relies on the capacity and availability of civic activists and legal experts, which are currently in short supply.

Legal Activism in Practice

Lawyers, paralegals, and local organisations working to promote justice and human rights in the East and Horn of Africa are adapting their approaches to fit the context and the available resources. They have accumulated invaluable insights through ad hoc efforts and initiatives. The following sections discuss three interconnected strategies to advance human rights and justice, based on lessons learned by members of the legal activism research network. They focus on strategic litigation by lawyers, community legal empowerment, and networking. They also identify the risks facing legal activists, namely their exposure both directly and indirectly (through their clients) to threats, intimidation, and violence.[16]

Listen to the podcast about Strategic Litigation (1:3)

Strategic Litigation

Intrepid human rights lawyers are using legal tools to respond to injustice through strategic litigation aimed at legal and social change, in national and regional courts. Their initiatives are significant not only for the victims and legal practitioners concerned, but for the rights of citizens across the sub-region. At a minimum, strategic litigation identifies, and raises awareness of, human rights violations. It represents a demand for authorities to uphold human rights commitments, and for governments, security forces, or political elites to be accountable to citizens. In some cases, it sets precedents that are of wider legal and political significance. The individual cases discussed below provide inspiration on pathways to legal or social changes. They are all success stories, in one way or another. But they also help to identify challenges, risks, and methods.

Promoting the Rights of Marginalised Groups in Uganda

Lawyers routinely challenge human rights violations in domestic courts and occasionally they set precedents, challenging domestic legislation that contravenes international human rights standards and elaborating on human rights law. The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) in Uganda works to promote and protect the human rights of marginalised groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual minority (LGBT+) persons, sex workers, people living with HIV, and the poor experiencing land grabbing and conflict. It explicitly pursues strategic litigation at national and regional levels in conjunction with legal aid and advocacy. In 2008, HRAPF contributed to a legal milestone, winning a case that held that the rights to human dignity, protection from inhuman treatment, personal liberty and privacy of the person, home and property are applicable to all irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity (Victor Mukasa v Attorney General). In 2014 the organisation was involved in mounting a successful challenge to the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 in the Constitutional Court. HRAPF has reviewed 11 cases of strategic litigation on LGBT+ rights, of which four have been successful. Susan Baluka was directly involved in some of this work and sums up lessons learnt.[17]

Firstly, a progressive judgment in court can be followed by setbacks; legal challenges on related cases may not succeed. Susan recalled taking the Uganda Registration Services Bureau to court for its refusal to register an LGBT+ network organisation, Sexual Minorities Uganda, on the grounds that it would amount to promoting homosexuality. HRAPF lost the case when the judge denied the application on the grounds that it was tantamount to immorality and contrary to public interest.[18] Secondly, discrimination against LGBT+ persons is so entrenched in this context, that not only the judiciary, but even lawyers and  members of the “mainstream” human rights community, may not be prepared to uphold LGBT+ rights. Marginalised people need to be provided with legal aid to ensure that the law is upheld. Without this, they may be ignored by police and prosecutors and judicial officers who continue to make arrests, show bias, and prevent bail applications based on moral or religious convictions.[19]

Grassroots efforts are needed to change discriminatory practices and mindsets. External advocacy may be dismissed as “colonial” or “Western,” provoking resistance, regardless of the evidence that legislation regulating sexuality and underpinning discrimination in Uganda is itself a colonial artefact.[20] In contrast, lawyers can make gains by informing and cultivating relationships with local leaders. An example is Susan’s interactions with Local Council leaders. While their position is based on statutory law, in practice, she observes they also rely upon and are “custodians for” social customs and concepts of traditional law within their communities. Their social influence may either hinder or help the implementation of statutory laws and court judgements. Lawyers can encourage them to contribute to progress, especially on women’s rights, by sharing information and engaging in processes of negotiation and compromise. For instance, in a case representing sex workers who were vulnerable to abuse, Susan encouraged local leaders to tell their constituents to accept her clients for human rights reasons, and in return she asked her clients to fulfil their social “duties” leading the two groups towards “working as allies in terms of curbing other criminals.” A committee bringing together leaders and sex workers was established to enable ongoing deliberation on local issues. These local leaders became “a great resource in terms of creating […] peace to enable sex workers to exist in society without being persecuted.”[21]

Overall, Susan stresses that it is essential to engage with diverse stakeholders to both make and sustain gains. The opinion of a Ugandan academic expert was important in the challenge to the discriminatory Anti-Homosexuality Act. Funding from the international community helped the organisation to build cases. It becomes clear from this experience that lawyers engaged in strategic litigation on behalf of marginalised groups must find allies in different fields; it is not sufficient to take a case through the courts. The enforcement of the law also depends on connections, community outreach, education, and advocacy with government and other authorities. There are also serious risks attached to this work, including intimidation, harassment, reprisals, and violence from both state and non-state actors.[22] Lawyers taking on such difficult cases must be conscious of these dangers and should strive to build relationships and negotiate with influential local leaders, while offering assistance to clients not only in court but also in their communities.   

Holding the Government of South Sudan to Account at the East African Court of Justice

Legal activism in regional mechanisms and courts is essential for the credibility and evolution of the regional human rights system. Human rights law and mechanisms at the regional level are founded upon the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981, the Charter), which has been signed and ratified by 54 countries, most recently South Sudan.[23] Both the Commission and the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Court) have a record of responding to and upholding human rights complaints.[24] The Commission’s rulings are not legally binding, which limits their enforcement. They represent authoritative interpretations of the Charter. The Court can make binding judgments but only has jurisdiction in the 30 states who are parties, while only eight states recognise the Court’s competence to receive complaints from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals, as they have made a declaration to this effect under Article 34(6) of the Court Protocol.

Citizens of the six partner states in the East African Community, namely Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania, can also bring complaints to the EACJ, the judicial organ of the EAC, established in 2001. The EAC Treaty binds members to uphold the Charter[25] and principles of democracy, the rule of law, social justice, and human rights.[26] The EACJ is accessible to any resident of the partner states to complain against any breach of the provisions of the EAC treaty. This court has an advantage over the Commission in that it does not require that victims exhaust local remedies before taking a complaint to the regional level. Human rights lawyers have seized this opportunity to bring cases to the EACJ, although it is not explicitly a human rights court, and in the process, they have advanced the regional human rights system. Crucially, in the case of Plaxeda Rugumba v Rwanda in 2011, the EACJ clarified that the fundamental principles set out in Article 6 (which requires that states recognise, promote, and protect human rights in accordance with the Charter) and article 7(2), (which requires that states abide by the principles of good governance) have a “binding effect.”[27]

Lawyers have seized the opportunity to call their governments to account at the EACJ, including in three landmark cases against the Government of South Sudan. The cases were all filed during a period of civil war and political instability, but each resulted in progressive and impactful decisions. Firstly, Wani Santino Jada of the Pan-African Law Chambers (PALC) successfully brought the Government of South Sudan to the EACJ when he filed a case in 2017 to restrain the members of the East African Legislative Assembly from recognising nine nominees appointed by the President of the Republic of South Sudan to the assembly. He argued that their appointment was in violation of Article 50 of the treaty establishing the East African Community which required that partner states elect the representatives, based on a procedure to be determined by the National Assembly of each state. This put pressure on the government, leading to the withdrawal of the original candidates and to an election in August 2017, contested by 29 candidates nominated to South Sudan’s Parliament by political parties and special interest groups and voted upon by Members of Parliament (MPs).[28]

Secondly, the Pan African Lawyers Union opened a case against the government of South Sudan in the EACJ on the charge that it had arbitrarily detained a South Sudanese businessman, Kerubino Wol Agok. The court summoned the government to answer the charges in March 2018, and within days the businessman and six others, including political activist Peter Biar Ajak, were brought to trial in the High Court in South Sudan.[29] The domestic case raised a further set of human rights concerns, since the businessman was tried and convicted to ten years on charges relating to an incident inside the prison, subsequent to his arrest. There were also reports that lawyers and witnesses were harassed and intimidated during the trial.[30] This further underlines the necessity for citizens in South Sudan to have access to the EACJ, as an independent court at the regional level, and for lawyers to be supported and enabled to bring cases there. Peter was released and pardoned by President Salva Kiir in January 2020.

Thirdly, in July 2019, together with Hope for Humanity, PALC filed a case against the governments of South Sudan and Kenya for involvement in the alleged abduction and likely extrajudicial killing of human rights lawyer Dong Samuel and activist Aggrey Idri. At the time of writing, the two governments had filed their responses and a date was due to be set for the hearing. 

There are dangers and practical difficulties involved in strategic litigation of this kind. Wani acted pro-bono and although he gained some short-term funds and assistance from international human rights organisations for transport and accommodation to attend the court in Arusha, this was insufficient to support his security in exile over time. He lives in precarious circumstances, having received threatening phone calls and warnings, as well as offers of bribes. He emphasised the need for longer term support with protection and the costs of litigation, given the potential for powerful actors to threaten or bribe lawyers and witnesses.

The government of South Sudan stands accused of extensive human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The cases at the EACJ relate to only a fraction of these,[31] but they are more than symbolic victories. The judgments against the government of South Sudan at the EACJ have both legal and normative weight and have stepped up pressure on the government. They have established the possibility of holding the government of South Sudan to account in a court of law in the midst of a civil war.

Defending the Land Rights of Maasai Communities in Northern Tanzania

A victory in court matters in the long term, but it is often only one element in contentious and protracted struggles to secure rights by legal means. Tanzanian applicants have won landmark rulings against their government at the EACJ.[32] Yet regional courts cannot provide protection for lawyers or victims, and lawyers may be pursuing related cases in national forums simultaneously. This is exemplified by the experiences of Joseph Parsambei, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Tanzania Pastoralist Community Forum (TPCF), who brought a case to the EACJ on behalf of four Maasai villages in October 2017, after years of petitioning Tanzanian courts. His experience highlights the value of international support for strategic litigation and to provide parallel research and advocacy. It also demonstrates the limitations of supra-national activism and the enduring vulnerability of litigants to the political and economic interests of domestic elites.

Joseph has represented Maasai communities affected by development projects and foreign investments in the Serengeti in a long-running multifaceted legal contest. He initiated several legal challenges to the investments in Tanzanian courts, dating back to 2010, when he represented Maasai villagers in a case against Tanzania Breweries and Tanzania Conservation Ltd. The villagers alleged forcible eviction from ancestral land in Loliondo without free, prior, and informed consent, in a case which reached the High Court of Tanzania in Arusha. The villagers eventually lost the case in 2015, although they appealed against the decision. Joseph has since continued to initiate legal actions on behalf of Maasai villagers in Loliondo, and to defend their rights, both in Tanzanian courts and at the EACJ.[33]

The disputes over land rights in Loliondo were exacerbated by the tensions surrounding a 25-year lease awarded in 1992 to Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), a United Arab Emirates (UAE) company, for big game hunting and safaris exclusively for the UAE’s royal family and their guests. This concession was awarded without due consultation with local people, yet it affected an estimated 78,000 Maasai, according to Joseph, and originally encompassed 400,000 hectares, later reduced to 150,000 hectares. Over time, the investment stoked tensions within and between communities and ignited resistance from residents who complained of restricted access to grazing land and water, and of a series of violent evictions from traditional villages in the area. In August 2017, Tanzanian wildlife officials and security forces were accused of burning down over 5,000 homes, displacing an estimated 20,000 people. Those who sought to protest and halt the evictions were arrested and harassed, leading Tanzania’s Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance to order an interim stop order on the eviction in September 2017.[34]

The original complaints relating to violations of land rights by investors sparked a simmering dispute marked by human rights violations, intimidation, and violence involving local authorities. A report by the Oakland Institute details the allegations and describes a “climate of fear” among communities seeking land rights in the Ngorongoro region.[35] Lawyers became tied up in defending individuals from arbitrary arrests and detentions. Joseph managed to assist some of the victims, successfully defending three Maasai pastoralists accused of engaging with foreign authorities and endangering the national security of Tanzania, in Criminal Case No 18 of 2016 at the Loliondo Magistrate Court. He recalled that the wider tensions and repressive environment were manifest in the courtroom, indeed a fellow defence lawyer was directly threatened during the proceedings. Yet, in this instance his efforts paid off: the prosecutor failed to prove the charges and the case was finally dismissed.

Numerous Maasai villagers insist that foreign companies and corrupt officials have seized large tracts of land in the Ngorongoro area without consultations, free, prior, and informed consent, and adequate compensation. They attribute the investments and the repression which followed to state corruption, especially at the local level. Human rights defenders, including lawyers and members of CSOs, who have taken up the issue have been pressured, harassed, or even detained by security forces and local authorities.[36] The violence of August 2017 provoked legal activists, including Joseph, to seek remedies at the regional level, filing a case against the Tanzanian government at the EACJ on behalf of the four village councils of Ololosokwan, Oloirien, Kirtalo, and Arash. The applicants demanded formal acknowledgement of Maasai rights to the land, an end to the harassment of local communities, and the release of detained human rights defenders.

In this instance, legal activism at the regional level had mixed impacts on the ground. It generated publicity and provided legal clarity on human rights concerns that Maasai people of the area had suffered for decades. The EACJ granted a court interim order to stop ongoing evictions and human rights violations in Loliondo; however, the case is still pending at the time of writing. The furore surrounding the case likely contributed to a decision by the government to terminate OBC’s hunting concession and to suspend the Director of Wildlife while investigating alleged corruption between foreign investors and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism in November 2017. In particular, the applicants won a significant victory when the EACJ ordered the government of Tanzania to halt the evictions in September 2018. However, some of the original applicants dropped out of the case due to evictions, intimidation, and arrests. Joseph observed that the number of villages involved dropped dramatically over time: “When we decided to go to the EACJ there were first 12 villages, but because of threats only four went to the court”; and that it continues to decline.[37] While the matter remains unsettled, lawyers continue to try to defend Maasai communities who complain of land grabbing and human rights violations in different forums.

Joseph has continued to invest his efforts in the case on a pro-bono basis, not least because he is a member of the Maasai community and is directly affected by the issues. He is ideally placed to represent the community since he speaks the local language, has a deep understanding of the issues, and enjoys the trust of traditional leaders. He has also managed to gain external support and resources, including from the Legal Service Facility andDefendDefenders. Further support has come from members of the media and human rights advocacy groups, who have raised awareness of the violations and of the legal case at the EACJ.[38]

These experiences from different countries indicate that embarking on strategic litigation demands great courage from both the lawyers and applicants concerned. Legal activists can set important precedents that will be of enduring significance, but they need access to training, financial and protection support, and to build relationships with local and international actors.

Legal aid and empowerment

Listen to the podcast about legal aid (2:3) 

The formal justice system will only become meaningful to the majority of citizens if legal aid provision is increased and enhanced, and court victories are secured. Without legal aid, vulnerable people can neither be sure of a fair hearing and process, nor initiate cases when their rights are violated. Comprehensive recommendations for legal aid that recognise international standards and local circumstances, including legal pluralism, have already been in existence for almost a decade.[39]  A host of institutional measures are called for, including initiatives to improve common standards and coordination among lawyers, and the establishment of independent legal aid bodies. Support to train community paralegals, establish university legal clinics, and promote legal awareness are also all understood to be essential.[40] Governments have made recent commitments to, and promises of, legal aid in legislation and draft policies in the sub-region,[41] but too often they have yet to translate promises into action. In the interim, universities, NGOs, law societies, and voluntary initiatives by lawyers and paralegals have taken up the burden of legal aid provision.

Legal aid and legal empowerment initiatives are mostly likely to be effective if they respond to the particularities of law and society in the region. The fact that economically disenfranchised people cannot afford legal representation in statutory courts is only one part of the problem. There is also a lack of available and trained lawyers willing to undertake these cases. There is a lack of awareness of statutory laws and human rights provisions at the community level. Moreover, in most countries in the sub-region, customary or religious courts and leaders administer the bulk of the law, so alternative forms of support and representation are needed. People often understand and use customary or religious systems at local levels, but their processes and decisions are not routinely subject to scrutiny and records of proceedings are imprecise or non-existent, reducing the potential to devise appropriate human rights responses. As South Sudanese lawyer Wani Matthias summed up: “people are ignorant of their laws; this created a wider space for those who have the knowledge of the law to do their own things… the customary courts and laws have not been documented. With the judiciary, the laws are documented but people don’t know what they say.”[42] 

There is an urgent need to boost the number of lawyers and paralegals; support law clinics and public interest law at universities; and to work with traditional authorities and communities to improve and expand legal awareness especially in conflict-affected localities. Some law societies, law firms, academics, and NGOs have devised a mix of voluntary initiatives aimed at assisting and empowering people in their encounters with the law. At present such initiatives are patchy, and reliant upon unpredictable and temporary international support. Yet, ongoing efforts to provide legal aid can be learnt from and built upon. Two models stand out as productive and complementary: (i) legal aid clinics attached to universities (ii) community legal empowerment initiatives, supported by law societies and NGOs.

University legal aid centres

In Ethiopia, university legal aid centres have made strides towards the provision of free legal assistance and education, as all higher education institutions are required to provide community services alongside their teaching and research responsibilities. Law schools continued to evolve and innovate during the 2005-2018 period, a time when civil society laboured under repressive legislation, tight restrictions on the media, and sweeping anti-terrorism measures, to the point that some civil society organisations, such as the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, had to cut back staff and regional offices.[43] Examples from two university legal aid centres working in difficult settings provide insights into their achievements and the challenges they continue to face.

Alongside restrictions on civil society funding and activities, the Somali Regional State, one of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s nine regional states, was also hard hit by political tensions and outright fighting between the government forces and the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front. The Jigjiga University (JJU) legal aid centre was one of the few places in the historically beleaguered region to which people suffering human rights violations could turn between 2007 and 2018, when access to the region was severely restricted for journalists, human rights groups, and independent monitors. Law lecturers at the centre have also been involved in promoting reforms in the local justice sector and developing the capacity of personnel working in criminal justice.

Salahadin Towfik, Dean of the law school at JJU, has himself provided legal aid for clients at various levels of the judicial system, including the region’s Supreme Court, High Court, and Woreda (district) Court. More generally, the school has tried to expand its training and reach with the establishment of new legal aid clinics and activities, including in partnership with the Federal Human Rights Commission, UNICEF, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), and UN High Commissioner for Refugees. They have handled reports of all manner of violations including torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, arbitrary detention cases, rape, and violations of women’s rights.

The JJU legal aid centre mainly serves people in urban areas, and lawyers lack the financial means to enable travel across a vast, conflict-affected region, with a population estimated to be over four million.[44] A further problem is that in much of the state, the customary justice system is “dominantly being used to regulate the conduct of the society” and elders frequently solve disputes. Salahadin emphasises the need for research and engagement on customary law and for the current government of Ethiopia “to reform and reverse previously harmful policies and practices” that have undermined the statutory system in the region. “Jijiga has suffered a lot before the reforms. There has been good progress, but human rights violations, especially related to internally displaced people, need urgent action. If perpetrators are not held accountable, people use extrajudicial means or take the case to customary courts.”[45]

Lecturers and paralegals at Hawassa University legal aid centre, in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), work under similarly tough conditions to respond to victims of human rights violations. The statutory courts in this area are not easily accessible, although they are functional. Shari’a courts are also popular and to a lesser extent there are customary or Orthodox church courts. However, for economic and social reasons people often turn to community elders to resolve conflicts between family members, including those relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance, at the expense of women’s rights. Since even women tend to turn to customary tribunals or community elders in such cases, addressing them requires broad engagement with an array of authorities, including public officials responsible for women’s and children’s affairs at different levels, police officers, judges, and community elders. Additionally, the women concerned are usually economically dependent on their partners and urgently need support to find shelter and security for themselves and their children. Without the ability to provide this material assistance, lawyers may be unable to pursue the case.[46]

Women and girls encounter resistance when they try to report abuse, and this also frustrates or prevents efforts by lawyers to assist them. Lecturer Armaye Assefa has been involved since 2015 in offering free legal aid on a pro-bono basis, focusing mainly on women’s rights, including domestic violence, abduction, rape, marital and property issues. She was involved in an abduction and rape case in Aleta Chuko Woreda court in 2017 that illustrates some of the challenges. Armaye and members of staff from the legal aid centre and the local Woreda office for women and children’s affairs intervened when they heard that the girl had been abducted from school. They went to great trouble, including borrowing a car from the university, to find and rescue her from a remote area. Yet, when they returned and reported the case, the police insisted on keeping the girl overnight in a cell. By the following morning, they had forced her to sign a statement saying that she was 19 years old and “loved the offender.” The lawyers managed to take the case to court and to arrange a medical examination which confirmed that the girl was under 16. In court, she testified to the abduction, attempted rape, and described having been pressured to sign a false statement. However, the offender denied the charges, and ultimately, despite the efforts of the legal aid centre, the court adjourned the case and community elders and police seized this chance to draw up an arbitration agreement, forcing the girl to drop the case. Meanwhile the rescuers were criticised by members of the victim’s family who claimed it was “against the culture.”

This underlines that either state officials or community elders, or both, may oppose lawyers’ efforts to uphold the rights of women and girls. Rather than prosecutions, elders favour the arbitration of cases and payment of compensation, which they sometimes share in. To intervene effectively, lawyers need a deep understanding of local customs and societal attitudes. People turn to Assefa because she is an active member of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and she is also familiar with local cultural norms and can communicate with elders in their own language. She draws upon her social networks and membership of a local ethnic group as well as her knowledge of the law. However, she is constrained by a lack of material resources, since women often need access to food and shelter that she cannot provide. A social taboo against women reporting abuses, especially domestic violence, is a persistent obstacle.

The problems of social discrimination and malpractices in courts are being tackled by the Hawassa project area of the Addis Ababa University Centre for Human Rights Project to Support Teaching, Research, and Community Engagement of the Centre for Human Rights (STRACE-CHR).[47] The centre focuses its efforts on the promotion and protection of the rights of women, children, workers, migrants/refugees, and persons with disabilities. It has trained local government officials, the judiciary, and police and community rights promoters selected from community elders, local unions, and other members of civil society on the rights of these vulnerable groups, and relevant international, regional, and domestic laws. In addition, the STRACE-CHR project has established legal aid branches in four courts in Sidama zone. It has selected fourth- and fifth-year law students as paralegals and has trained them to provide legal advice, write statements and provide information and referral to volunteer lawyers provided by the Attorney General’s office. Over five months from December 2018 to April 2019, the legal aid centres assisted a close to equal number of female and male clients with some 80 cases, including 26 family cases, 24 criminal cases, and various others relating to contracts, succession and property.

The project’s combination of legal aid and education is challenging patriarchal beliefs and judgments in the courts. Helen Abele, a lecturer in law and human rights, the project area manager gave an example in an inheritance case which a 20-year-old woman brought to the Loka Abaya First Instance court in August 2018. The young woman had filed a suit against her father in asking for her share of her inheritance from her deceased mother’s property, a plot of land and a house, then being administered by her father. The court ruled that in the local Sidama culture women could not own property, so it determined that the property must belong to the father. The father denied paternity of the young woman so the court ruled that she would need to prove his paternity to pursue the case further. The legal aid team took the case to Sidama Zone High Court’s president, arguing that the decision discriminated against women, violating their constitutional rights to equality and to the ownership of property. The High Court president accepted their complaint and allowed the centre to take the client’s appeal to the Sidama Zone High Court. The centre then supported the young woman to bring a successful appeal of the case.

University legal aid clinics fulfil several interrelated functions. They provide free legal representation or assistance to people who cannot afford a lawyer or legal advice. In so doing, they put the courts under scrutiny and challenge them to administer the law fairly. At the same time, they facilitate broader processes of legal and human rights education, research and engagement with influential community representatives, including local authorities, religious leaders, and elders. They support institutions that are training new cohorts of lawyers and provide practical learning experiences for law students. By monitoring and keeping track of cases, they assemble information about human rights violations and about the workings of courts and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. They can also facilitate networking between actors engaged in the administration of the law, including lawyers, judges, paralegals, and community elders. However, even in established law schools in Ethiopian universities, underfunded law clinics struggle to cope with demand; indeed a recent study found that many were barely functioning and were “hindered by lack of expertise and commitment of law schools to run clinical programs and financial problems.”[48]Moreover, a key limitation of law firms, and even the most well-established university legal aid clinics, is their location in urban centres, and their distance from the most marginalised groups in rural areas. This underlines the need for community-based legal empowerment initiatives.

Community legal empowerment

Listen to the podcast about legal empowerment (3:3)

Local ‘intermediaries’ are pivotal in informing and assisting people to exercise their rights in communities where ordinary people lack access to lawyers, and knowledge of the law and human rights.[49] Some law societies and NGOs have equipped local activists with knowledge of the law, either through community paralegal programmes or other legal empowerment programmes, with positive impacts, even in countries affected by violent conflict. When individual human rights defenders combine knowledge of the law with knowledge of the local norms and relationships within their community, they can have an impact, as exemplified by human rights defenders in South Sudan and Somalia. 

Community legal empowerment is essential in South Sudan given the shortage of legal professionals, and the fact that customary courts handle the majority of cases.[50] Bashir Ahmed, a teacher, volunteer and founder of the Civil Society Human Rights Forum in Yambio, South Sudan,[51] gained knowledge of the statutory laws, details of the Constitution, penal code, and criminal procedures, from workshops and interactions with lawyers and human rights professionals. As a resident of Yambio, with relatives in the Zande community, he is also familiar with local customary courts.[52] He has used his education and knowledge of plural laws to provide advice and support to people in his local community on difficult cases including rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and enforced disappearances. 

The problems with the justice system in South Sudan are multifaceted, in Bashir’s experience. Firstly, the courts lack independence, since the judges are appointed by, and can be dismissed by, the head of state. Secondly, statutory courts, judges, and lawyers are only available in major towns, and most people cannot afford to hire a defence lawyer, while legal aid is rare, and at the discretion of individual lawyers. Thirdly, customary courts and chiefs administer the bulk of the law, and inevitably, they are also prone to intervene and preside over cases beyond their jurisdiction, such as murder and rape, in an effort to resolve disputes and prevent aggrieved parties from exacting revenge through mob justice. Customary courts have no written law: “they solve issues according to their culture and norms,” so there is a lack of information about the decisions taken and potential for human rights violations. Overall, he concluded: “access to justice and security is very limited for ordinary citizens, since the power of guns and money outweigh them.”

Despite many obstacles, and working pro-bono, Bashir has achieved remarkable results, including assisting the wife of a rebel commander and her eight children to return home to her community after she had spent a month in the bush fearing arrest or assassination by government forces. He spoke to the relevant authorities, and successfully called upon them to ensure the family’s “right to protection.” In this and other cases he has pursued a “negotiation approach” relying on a mix of his knowledge of the law, and his personal relationships with people in authorities at different levels, including in the army, National Security Services, and local government. He also relied upon his status as a teacher, his connections to international human rights organisations, United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) staff, and contacts at a local radio station. A monthly rule of law forum in Yambio provided Bashir with a regular opportunity to raise concerns, and to network with relevant authorities. In addition, his efforts to document local court cases for a research project served to monitor the courts and to encourage better practices: “our presence in the court made a lot of difference in those days; the judges were paying attention. Most judges succumb to public opinion.”[53]

Bashir’s experience demonstrates that community-based efforts to address injustice in conflict settings are necessary and feasible, but they are also dangerous. His work was hindered by a lack of financial support and eventually halted by threats and intimidation by security actors. In 2018, Bashir was detained for several months by South Sudan’s National Security Service, and then forced to flee the country after his release.

Somali activist Mohamed Farah is also a refugee, having received death threats from Islamic group Al-Shabaab following his efforts to bring to justice the killers of a fellow disability rights campaigner.[54] This case is still pending and is a reminder of the extreme risks that legal activists face in Somalia. Yet, Mohamed remains convinced of the need and potential to promote disability rights at community level in Somalia. His understanding of the problem and solutions is rooted in personal experience: “people tend to treat the disabled with the attitude that they have no rights, to demand instead it should be for their caretakers to decide on what is good for them.” Yet, in 2016, he was involved in a successful campaign that persuaded some schools in Kismayo to make provision for learners with disabilities, and encouraged families to enrol their children.[55] Somalia has now ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and a national disability agency was established in December 2018. Mohamed perceives a revival of the statutory legal system that can be leveraged to change attitudes towards persons with disability among elders and the authorities that govern at community level and to promote disability rights.

Community activists and paralegals are using their knowledge of both local and national legal frameworks to assist others, despite working on a voluntary basis without formal recognition; and despite working in dangerous environments. Formal recognition of paralegals by governments might help to increase their security and stature, but it is no guarantee, and can bring additional problems. Tanzania recently gave statutory recognition to paralegals, a step forward in legal terms, but one that is encumbered by a requirement to pay a fee for registration as a legal aid provider.[56] Moreover, legal recognition is not sufficient to enhance the status of paralegals or to protect them at the local level, nor is training, regulation, and access to material resources. Equally important is the social status and relationships that an individual activist has within the community. The Tanzanian experience confirms that paralegals have most impact when they are “recognised and embedded as leaders in their own right.”[57]

There is a strong argument for supporting community legal empowerment across the sub-region, given the lack of available lawyers, the delays and distance of statutory courts, and the proliferation of customary and religious mechanisms. Activists with training in international human rights and statutory law, and deep knowledge of the local customs and norms are in a unique position to straddle plural legal systems. They can work flexibly to support people to take cases to court or serve as mediators, using their knowledge of the law and government and their education, organisational, advocacy and negotiation skills to help people to “seek concrete solutions to instances of injustice.”[58] They can also contribute to documentation and information-sharing about legal practices at the local level. Customary or religious courts often command legitimacy; they work in local languages and idioms and reach and implement decisions in a timely fashion. However, as South Sudanese lawyer Wani Matthias observes, activists and policymakers need to understand these systems better if they are to engage them in the interests of human rights: “The influence [of unofficial legal structures] is not documented. By making small reports, which formalise and document the system, it can be seen as an innovation in the legal system.”

The gains of community legal empowerment are inevitably micro-level, dispersed, and incremental, yet are more than the sum of their parts. Community-based activists and paralegals are engaging with the “fundamental processes of making laws and policies actually authoritative in society” [59] and their routine contributions are therefore essential to steering locally embedded norms and practices towards respecting human rights.


Legal activism requires elements of legal training and human rights awareness, but in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region it also demands political understanding, negotiation skills, protection strategies, and extensive socio-professional networks. In these complex legal environments, there can be no single template for action, and creative locally improvised responses are necessary. However, regional legal networks can enhance and amplify human rights impacts by building social capital, but it is also a means to acquire new knowledge and skills. There are many differences in the political arrangements, legal frameworks, customs, languages, and traditions across the East and Horn of Africa, but activists across the region have witnessed and experienced the consequences of political instability, violence, and displacement, and are familiar with the realities of legal and cultural heterogeneity. Their activism can be reinforced by cultivating learning experiences and relationships within and beyond the communities in which they work.

There are a number of existing networks connecting legal activists across the continent and internationally in the interests of human rights and legal empowerment.[60] Yet most lawyers and paralegals in the sub-region still work in relative isolation with rare or limited encounters outside of their immediate circle and national framework. Even paralegals, human rights defenders, and lawyers may hardly interact on a routine basis in their domestic context, sometimes because of political suspicions of community or civil society organising, or simply as a result of dissonant socio-professional spheres in closed societies.[61]

Networking offers rich opportunities for social and educational empowerment. Sudanese lawyer, Lamis Elnageib, suggested the potential to enrich conceptions of human rights and justice: “dealing directly with a regional community enhances the ideas of diversification and acceptance of others.” For Salahadin Towfik, links across borders are needed to “create a common culture with regard to human rights protection” and there may also be practical impacts on advocacy: “our voice will be heard loudly if we act in a group rather than struggling in on individual basis.” Wani Santino sees the opportunities for developing new strategies: “we are very few those who have knowledge of the laws. We really need to have the network. Some cases can be done at another level… If all of us come up with one voice they will listen and make changes.” Helen Abele proposed the establishment of an East African Human Rights Lawyers Association to collaborate for the protection and promotion of human rights in the region. Armaye Assefa concluded that networking provided a means to “share common problems and challenges… [and] identify potential solutions, learning from the success and failure of each other.” She also concluded “being together is power by itself.”


The East and Horn of Africa sub-region was the locus of extraordinary peaceful uprisings leading to political changes in Sudan and Ethiopia in 2018-2019. However, the region remains politically unstable, and authoritarian and violent tactics of government and modes of political contestation persist. Durable political transformations in favour of human rights will be elusive without corresponding changes in laws and legal practices. In the interim, community legal empowerment is an everyday problem-solving endeavour with immediate benefits for marginalised and vulnerable people in the sub-region. Legal activism at the grassroots combined with strategic litigation in national and regional courts can make a difference, even if legal processes can take years to pursue and normative changes are even slower to materialise. Furthermore, legal activists are also ‘norm-entrepreneurs’ who both embody and promote social changes.

Courageous and dedicated legal activists have engaged with government officials, courts, and communities to combat injustice, despite a shortage of resources and assaults, threats or intimidation by political authorities or other non-state actors. They are working pragmatically, against harsh odds, to challenge discrimination and provide legal aid and empowerment. By engaging creatively with diverse judicial authorities, some are also contributing to the harmonisation of law ‘from the ground up.’ Supporting, connecting, and amplifying these scattered instances of legal activism is key to invigorating and embedding the human rights project locally, and to the prospects for sustainable peace and development across the sub-region. All too often, legal activists are isolated and working voluntarily and are subject to violence and threats. They urgently need more comprehensive forms of support, protection, and solidarity.

[1] This definition was coined by Helen Abele and adopted by the network at the Regional Justice Networks Workshop in Kampala, 6-8 June 2019.

[2] Salahadin Towfik, Regional Justice Networks Workshop: Kampala, 6-8 June 2019.

[3] The East and Horn of Africa legal activist research network was convened by DefendDefenders and Goldsmiths, University of London, and comprises: Helen Abele, Bashir Ahmed, Lamis Alnajeeb, Armaye Assefa, Susan Bakuka, Mohamed Farah, Estella Kabachwezi, Salahadin Towfik, Joseph Parsambei, Wani Matthias, Wani Santino, coordinated by DefendDefenders, with coordination and editorial support from Rachel Ibreck, David Meffe, and Siri Berge Engerud. The agenda and findings also draw upon previous research by DefendDefenders research team in Ethiopia in 2019 and Rachel Ibreck in South Sudan 2014-2019. The funding for the research network was provided by a Global Challenges Research Fund grant held by Goldsmiths, University of London (2018-19).

[4] See United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg16, Accessed 30 August 2019.

[5] See for instance Mamdani, M. (1996). Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.  Kaius Tuori (2010) Legal Pluralism and Modernization: American Law Professors in Ethiopia and the Downfall of the Restatements of African Customary Law, The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, 42:62, 43-70. Ethiopia’s imperial government was influenced by Western experts in the sweeping legal modernisation and reforms after the late 1950s, pp 48-9. Note for instance that Somaliland’s Penal Code, is based on the 1930 Italian Penal Code. See Omaar, R. and Lambert, C. (2017) Rethinking Customary Law in Somaliland: Specific Jurisdiction for Rape to Promote Post-Conflict Development, April 23, Horizon Institute, https://www.justiceinfo.net/en/other/33071-rethinking-customary-law-in-somaliland-specific-jurisdiction-for-rape-to-promote-post-conflict-development.html Accessed 30 August 2019. Tanzania’s concept of ‘public land’ is based on colonial law, See Kauzeni, A.S. Shechambo, F.C. Juma, I. (n.d.) Private and communal property ownership regimes in Tanzania University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, http://www.fao.org/3/w8101t/w8101t06.htm

[6] Sudan’s authoritarian regimes blatantly engaged in ‘legal politics’, especially under Omar al Bashir’s government, see Massoud, M. F. (2013). Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan. Cambridge University Press; Meles Zenawi’s regime used the judiciary as a sophisticated ‘technology of repression’ in Ethiopia, see Allo, A., & Tesfaye, B. (2015). Spectacles of illegality: mapping Ethiopia’s show trials. African Identities13(4), 279-296. South Sudan’s government has used the law and legal instruments to repress opponents, including extending the powers of the national security service during the 2013-2019 civil war, see Ibreck, R. (2019) South Sudan’s Injustice System, Law and Activism on the Frontline, London: Zed Books. Uganda’s government deploys ‘legal manoeuvres’ to undermine political opponents, See Goodfellow, T. (2014). Legal Manoeuvres and Violence: Law Making, Protest and Semi‐Authoritarianism in Uganda. Development and Change45(4), 753-776.

[7] On the restrictive legal environment for civil society in the region see PAX, Al Khatim Adlan Center for Enlightenment and Human Development (KACE) & Horn of Africa Civil Society Forum (2017) Shrinking Civil Society Space in the Horn of Africa: The Legal Context. Note the welcome repeal of Ethiopia’s highly restrictive 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation and the adoption of a new law for civil society in 2019, DefendDefenders (2019) Turning the Page, Rebuilding Civil Society in Ethiopia, p.20, https://defenddefenders.org/publication/turning-the-page-rebuilding-civil-society-in-ethiopia/ Accessed 30 August 2019.

[8] Musila, G. (2018) The Rule of Law and the Role of Customary Courts in Stabilizing South Sudan, May 29, https://africacenter.org/spotlight/the-rule-of-law-and-the-role-of-customary-courts-in-stabilizing-south-sudan/ Accessed 30 August 2019.

[9] IDLO (2016) ‘Elders’ Represent Foundation for Stability in Somalia,19 April, https://www.idlo.int/fr/news/highlights/%E2%80%98elders%E2%80%99-represent-foundation-stability-somalia Accessed 30 August 2019.

[10] Chr Michelsen Institute, 2016, Sudan: Challenging the law, 6 July, https://www.cmi.no/news/1716-sudan-challenging-the-lawAccessed 30 August 2019.

[11] Fentaw, Alemayehu, n.d., Legal Pluralism: Its Promises and Pitfalls for Ethiopia Jimma University Journal of Law Vol.1 No. 1, p 9-10.      

[12] Manning, C. and Kasera, S. (2016) Update: Guide to Tanzanian Legal System and Legal Research, https://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/Tanzania1.html Accessed 30 August 2019.

[13] Kariuki, F. K. (2015). Customary Law Jurisprudence from Kenyan Courts: Implications for Traditional Justice Systems. https://su-plus.strathmore.edu/bitstream/handle/11071/3868/Customary%20Law.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[14] Only five percent of cases are taken to formal courts and one percent have lawyers, Hiil (2016) Justice Needs in Uganda: Legal Problems in Everyday Life, p.7 https://www.hiil.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Uganda-JNST-Data-Report-2016.pdf Accessed 30 August 2019.

[15] Most countries in the sub-region are now party to most of the various international and regional human rights laws and mechanisms, although no country has signed and ratified all without reservations, and not all such commitments are fully integrated into domestic law.

[16] At the time of our research, the Somali and South Sudanese members were unable to return to their home countries due to threats to their lives from either the government or armed groups, the Sudanese lawyer participated in the nonviolent Sudanese revolution and had recently escaped an attack on protesters in Khartoum. The Tanzanian lawyer had faced threats to his life and harassment, while his colleagues were arrested and detained.

[17] Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) (2018a) Litigating on the Rights of LGBTI Persons in Uganda: Successes, Setbacks, Outcomes, and Lessons Learnt, March https://www.hrapf.org/ Accessed 20 November 2019

[18] See Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) (2018b) 2017 Annual Report. https://www.hrapf.org/. Frank Mugisha and Others v Uganda Registration Services Bureau Miscellaneous Cause No. 96 of 2016.

[19] This section is largely based on Susan Baluka’s report and contributions to Regional Justice Networks Workshop: Kampala, 6-8 June 2019.  

[20] Kizito, K. (2017). Bequeathed Legacies: Colonialism and State led Homophobia in Uganda. Surveillance & Society,15(3/4), 567-572.

[21] Baluka, 2019.

[22] And HRAPF paralegal was recently murdered. https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/15/uganda-brutal-killing-gay-activist Accessed 20 November 2019.

[23] See ACHPR https://www.achpr.org/statepartiestotheafricancharter

[24] http://www.achpr.org/communications/

[25] EAC Treaty 1999, Art. 6.

[26] EAC Treaty 1999, Art. 7(2).

[27] This section is based on Estella Kabachwezi’s presentation, Regional Justice Networks Workshop: Kampala, 6-8 June 2019.

[28] This section is largely based on Wani Santino’s report and contributions to Regional Justice Networks Workshop: Kampala, 6-8 June 2019.


[29] Wol was charged and convicted of subversive activities while under detention and sentenced to ten years. Both the case at the EACJ and an appeal at the High Court are pending. See Amnesty International (2019) South Sudan Government summoned before regional court in step towards justice https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/03/south-sudan-government-summoned-before-regional-court-in-step-towards-justice/ Accessed 20 November 2019.

[30] Amnesty International, South Sudan: Amnesty International slams sham trial that resulted in prison sentences for six men including activist Peter Biar Ajak, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr65/0510/2019/en/ Accessed 22 November 2019

[31] See for instance: United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (2017) Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan 6 March, A/HRC/34/63 Human Rights Council, Thirty-fourth session.

[32] In March 2019, the court found that Tanzania’s Media Services Act was in violation of the EACJ treaty and directed the government to bring it into compliance, upholding a complaint brought by three Tanzanian NGOs and their lawyers. See Committee to Protect Journalists (2019) East African court rules that Tanzania’s Media Services Act Violates Press Freedom, 28 March, https://cpj.org/2019/03/east-african-court-rules-that-tanzanias-media-serv.php Accessed 30 August 2019.

[33] This section is largely based on Joseph Parsambei’s report and contributions to the Regional Justice Networks Workshop: Kampala, 6-8 June 2019.

[34] See DefendDefenders (2018) To Them: We’re Not Even Human: Marginalised Human Rights Defenders in Uganda pp.24-29, https://www.defenddefenders.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Marginalised-HRDs_FINAL-REPORT.pdf Accessed 31 August 2019.

[35] Mittal, A. and Fraser, E. (2018) Losing the Serengeti: The Maasai Land that Was to Run Forever, Oakland CA: The Oakland Institute, p.16 https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files/losing-the-serengeti.pdf Accessed 31 August 2019.

[36] DefendDefenders (2018). p26.

[37] Parsambei personal communication 15 September 2019.

[38] Parsambei, 2019. See also DefendDefenders 2018, p.24; The Oakland Institute 2018.

[39] See the Danish Institute for Human Rights (2011) Access to Justice and Legal Aid in East Africa: A comparison of the legal aid schemes used in the region and the level of cooperation and coordination between the various actors, A report by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, based on a cooperation with the East Africa Law Society, December. See United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2011) Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems in Africa Survey Report, p.ix


[40] UNODC (2011) p.ix.

[41] Tanzania passed a Legal Aid Act in 2017, Ugandan civil society and a few MPs have pushed for a National Legal Aid policy (NLAP).

[42] Santino, 2019.

[43] See DefendDefenders (2019) pp 14-15.

[44] According to the 2007 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia Statistical Report for Somali Region.

[45] This section is largely based on Salahadin Towfik’s report and contributions to Regional Justice Networks Workshop: Kampala, 6-8 June 2019. Also see Jigjiga law school https://www.jju.edu.et/SL.php

[46] This section is largely based on Armaye Assefa’s report and contributions to the Regional Justice Networks Workshop: Kampala, 6-8 June 2019.

[47] This section is largely based on Helen Abele’s report and contributions to the Regional Justice Networks Workshop: Kampala, 6-8 June 2019.

[48] Abate, M., Birhanu, A., & Alemayehu, M. (2017). Advancing access to justice for the poor and vulnerable through legal clinics in Ethiopia: constraints and opportunities. Mizan Law Review11(1), 1-31.

[49] Maru, V. and Gauri, V. (eds) (2018) Community Paralegals and the Pursuit of Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[50] At independence in 2011, there were only around 200 lawyers belonging to the Bar Association and after the civil war broke out December 2013, many were displaced. SSLS trained some 280 paralegals as part of its access to justice programme by 2015. See Ibreck 2019, p. 172.

[51] This section is largely based on Bashir Ahmed’s report and contributions to the Regional Justice Networks Workshop: Kampala, 6-8 June 2019.

[52] These included a workshop at the International Peace Training Centre in Kenya in 2012, and interactions staff from the United Nation’s Mission in South Sudan, South Sudan Human Rights Commission, and the South Sudan Law Society paralegal programme.

[53] This project was coordinated by Justice Africa and supported by the Justice and Security Research Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. See Ibreck 2019 for details.

[54] He sought to bring a case against the killers of Ali Osman, who represented persons with disabilities on the electoral committee of Somali Parliament in 2016. But Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the murder; they then threatened Mohamed and killed his cousin. See http://www.somalidisability.org/a-soden-member-disabled-man-mr-ali-osamn-was-killed-by-the-alshabaab-militant-group/

[55] The program was sponsored by ADRA and NORAD in July 2016. See http://www.somalidisability.org/soden-held-4-days-community-mobilization-for-access-to-equity-and-inclusive-education-for-children-with-special-needs-in-kismayo-southern-somalia-collaboration-with-adra-and-norad/

[56] This point was highlighted by Joseph Parsambei, 2019.

[57] Dancer, H. (2018). Power and rights in the community: Paralegals as leaders in women’s legal empowerment in Tanzania. Feminist Legal Studies26(1), 47-64.

[58] See Kampala Declaration on Community Paralegals, Kampala, Uganda, July 26, 2012, and Maru and Gauri 2018.

[59] Jennifer Franco, Hector Soliman, and Maria Roda Cisnero (2018) ‘Community-Based Paralegalism in the Philippines From Social Movements to Democratization’ in Maru, V. and Gauri, V. (eds) (2018) Community Paralegals and the Pursuit of Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[60] Notably the Pan African Lawyer’s Union https://lawyersofafrica.org/; Namati’s Global Legal Empowerment network, https://namati.org/; the Rights in Exile Programme, http://www.refugeelegalaidinformation.org/

[61] These points were made by Parsambei and Towfik (2019) respectively.


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.