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Opiyo honored with German Africa Prize

Fred Muvunyi
May 5, 2017

Ugandan human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo has won the 2017 German Africa Prize. He has been credited for defending civil rights and political freedoms in Uganda. But how did he get there?

Uganda, Rechtsanwalt Nicholas Opiyo
Image: DW/A. Gitta

Nicolas Opiyo is a leading human rights lawyer and founder of the human rights organization "Chapter Four Uganda." Since 2005, he has worked tirelessly to promote civil liberties in Uganda, often on pro bono.  For this reason, he has been rewarded with the German Africa Prize for which he was selected by an expert jury. "I'm delighted to be the recipient of the award 2017. This award is very prestigious and I follow after extremely eminent Africans including the former South African public protector [Thulisile Mandosela]. It's really humbling to me that this award was bestowed upon me," Opiyo told DW.

Since 1993, the German Africa Foundation has awarded the German Africa Prize to honor "outstanding individuals for their long-standing endeavors to foster democracy, peace, human rights, art, culture, the social market economy and social concerns."

Opiyo,37, grew up on the outskirts of Gulu, Nothern Uganda. The region was a center of fighting between Museveni's government and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that is notorious for using child soldiers and terror under the leadership of Joseph Kony. Opiyo had to walk long distances in order to avoid abduction by the LRA. His sister was kidnapped and spent several years with the rebels before escaping. Many young Ugandans, especially in the north, were abducted to serve as soldiers, laborers or sex slaves to the rebel group. According to a US-based rights group, Human Rights Watch, Opiyo channeled his difficult childhood experience into a passion for defending human rights for all.

Critical role in political freedoms

Uganda Prozess Stella Nyanzi
Lawyer Nicholas Opiyo(right) is an oustspoken lawyer in UgandaImage: Gael Grilhot/AFP/Getty Images

He is a known lawyer, who fearlessly, handles the most sensitive topics that many of his colleagues are afraid of. Under the organization "Chapter Four Uganda", he developed into an outspoken leader of the civil society in his country. "It has been a difficult journey in a country which you have a leader in power for the last 30 years and has no intention of leaving," Opiyo noted.

Rights activists say, President Yoweri Museveni has successfully transformed himself into an autocratic and despotic supreme leader.

Opiyo does not only express his opinion on the state of democracy in his country, but he also has a leading role in prominent courts dealing with the defense of civil rights and political participation. That has turned him into one of the most influential voices in Uganda. He is committed to the observance of constitutional order and the rule of law in an increasingly autocratic environment. He has been outspoken on the electoral law, the restriction of freedom of assembly, and clampdown on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. "This award will give us more impetus to carry on the work we've been doing," he said. "Despite the challenges we have on the continent, if we work hard with the support of friends - there's a better tomorrow," Opiyo added.

As a lawyer, Opiyo successfully pushed that parliamentarians should also lose their parliamentary seats after their political parties lose elections. As an applicant against the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2013, a law which provided life imprisonment for certain cases, he succeeded in August 2014 by convincing the Ugandan constitutional court to declare the law null and void. 

He is also representing Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan academic who has been charged with "cyber-harassment" and "offensive communication" for comments she made concerning President Yoweri Museveni in a recent Facebook post.