Skip to content

Nicholas Opiyo on Renewing Commitment to the Rule of Law

Our final episode of our second season features Nicholas Opiyo, the Founder and Executive Director and Lead Attorney at Chapter Four Uganda, a civil rights organization providing pro bono legal representation for marginalized and underserved communities in Uganda. Since 2005, Nicholas has been at the forefront of championing civil rights and political freedoms for underserved communities in Uganda. For his work, Nicholas has received several awards including the German Africa Prize in 2017, Voices for Justice Award from Human Rights Watch in 2015, the European Union Parliament Sakharov Fellows Prize in 2016, the Alison Des Forges award for extraordinary activism in 2015 and the Tulip Human Rights Prize by the Dutch Government in 2021.  

Currently, Nicholas is a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy. Previously, he was a Visting Scholar at The Centre for African Studies, Stanford University in Palo Alto, California and a Visiting Scholar at The Global Health Program, University of California San Francisco.  Nicholas is also an amateur photographer and an ardent soccer fan, supporting SC Villa in Uganda and Manchester United in the United Kingdom.

Nicholas speaks about the most pressing human rights concerns in Uganda at present, how social media is shaping the discourse around human rights all over the world and renewing commitment to the rule of law in Uganda. Nicholas also speaks about how participants in civil society could reclaim public conversation in connection with the protection of civil liberties.  Nicholas also shares his love for SC Villa, a leading football club in Uganda. 

*Note: This episode was recorded prior to Chapter Four resuming its operations in June 2022, after a successful challenge before the High Court of Uganda. 

As we close off a successful second season, a big thank you to all the incredible guests this season for agreeing to share their knowledge and expertise with the audience. Thank you to the audience for sticking with us through the season and we are grateful for your support. A big thank you to our producers, Tim Poulton and Dave Waugh over at Scrubcast, for yet another seamless production experience this season. 

Viewpoints with Brenda will be back in 2023.

Listen Now: Apple | Google | Spotify


**The transcript below has been generated through software, and may contain errors. Viewpoints with Brenda is designed to be heard. We strongly recommend that you listen to the episode for context and speech emphasis before quoting the text below in print.

BN: Welcome to the podcast, Nicholas. 

NO (01:40): Thank you so much. It’s a profound honour to join you on this podcast. It’s a tough act to follow given the other guests you’ve had people have impeccable achievement. It’s an honour.

BN (01:51): I’m sure you’ll do fine. What inspired you to become a human rights defender?

NO (02:01): In hindsight, now I can tell with clarity really why I got to the place where I’m at and it has to do with my early childhood. I was born and raised in Northern Uganda, at a time when the region was engulfed in a brutal conflict between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army. So as a child, I grew up witnessing atrocities committed by the two forces fighting in Northern Uganda and I was really driven looking for a solution to the problems that people were facing. Initially, I wanted to be a journalist and did quite a bit of work trying to write for newspapers at my school. But in 1994, something changed dramatically. In the year 1994, Uganda was conducting elections to the Constituent Assembly to begin a process of enacting a new constitution for the country. A young smart lawyer entered the contest at the age of 25. He was so articulate and so inspiring, but he also was running a small Legal Aid Clinic in Gulu town at a time when nobody wanted to go to Gulu. There was no lawyer practicing law in Gulu and he went to Gulu and opened a small Legal Aid Clinic. This person who is Hon. Norbert Mao, who is my first cousin. When I met him for the first time, he made me his personal assistant, I was carrying his food around the campaigns. He inspired me to go to law school and helped me along the way to go to law school, and that’s why I became the lawyer that I am today.

BN (03:36): Wow, I didn’t know that about Norbert Mao. So, you know, you learn something every day.

NO (03:44): Norbert was the Guild President of Makerere – he could have easily stayed in Kampala at the time and gotten a job in a law firm. But he left the law firm, left his family in Jinja – his father was living in Bukaya in Jinja – and went to Northern Uganda, not to open a law firm to serve business interests. He opened the Legal Aid Clinic of the Uganda Law Society in Northern Uganda and began to work for poor people in the North. You can imagine, at a time when there was war, he was doing all kinds of cases and he just inspired many of us. I think people of my generation were hugely inspired by him, because he was not just articulate and smart, but he showed a dedication to serving people who are disadvantaged.

BN (04:34): Such an impressive story. We had a small chat before we started recording and obviously, I’m going to ask questions that might make some people uncomfortable, but I’m sure they wouldn’t make you uncomfortable.

NO (04:46): I’m an open book.

BN (04:47): I know that. Given recent events in Uganda in the political landscape, what would you say are the most pressing human rights issues in Uganda?

NO (04:58): Uganda is going through a difficult time. I think that the country is experiencing what I see as the birth pangs of transition. Certainly, what is happening is not a sign of strength. I think it’s a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of end times and both people in government and those outside of government realize that this is an opportunity for transition, for changing the page, because the best days of President Museveni are behind him. But that said, in that context, several human rights concerns arise. I think for me, what is really impressive is the response of the people of Uganda, largely the young population, who are saying, “Look, we want to be heard, we want to participate in our governance“. People are becoming so engaged in shaping the discourse in our country and in that process, several issues arise. You have, first of all, this is being done at the expense of social and economic rights – there’s little investment and attention to social, cultural and economic rights issues. You have the-right-to-health advocates still harping on about women dying at hospitals giving birth – something that a country like Uganda should never be experiencing. You have issues of poverty – people are still dying of hunger in many parts of the country, in Karamoja. There’s little attention page to social and economic rights. We are focusing too much on civic rights. You have discussions around free speech, discussions around civic rights, the freedom of association, assembly expression. Then we’re investing a lot of our money and time in shutting down NGOs suppressing the press. 

There are so many human rights concerns in the country. Of course, the most recent has been the widespread use of torture as a means of investigations by the security forces. Disappearances that began during the elections and still continue up to now. Those are really pressing concerns. Now there are many families who have no idea where their loved ones are because they were abducted. They disappeared during the elections, and nobody knows whether they’re dead or alive. These concerns preoccupy many Ugandans now as we speak.

BN (07:18): It’s a bit unfortunate that what we see happening now is things that we used to hear our parents talking about and we’re living this reality.

NO (07:27): In my office, I have the verbatim report of the Justice Oder Commission of Inquiry that was set up by the NRM government when they came to power in 1986. They went about investigating human rights violations in Uganda from 1962 to 1986 and the stories that people told in that commission are no different from the stories we’re seeing nowadays. It begs the question whether the educated elites that are in power now are any different from the uneducated folks who help power before them, because they’re doing the same things, or even worse. Amin had nine years in power of atrocities, we’ve had thirty-four years in power of similar things, or even worse, in scale and time they have done a whole lot more to the people of our country.

BN (08:23): Where there’s a lot of law being broken, where the rule of law is being broken with impunity, and I think I’d be right to say that you’ve unfortunately been a victim of this impunity. How should we be seeking to renew commitment to the rule of law?

NO (08:38): First of all, my problems pales in comparison to the plight of thousands of young Ugandans who have suffered heinous human rights abuse. I went to prison for only a week, and I was released on bail, my case was quickly dropped in nine months. There are many young people who are languishing in prison without trial, or on flimsy, trumped up charges, and so my experience pales really in comparison to the experiences of hundreds and thousands of other people. But I think that two things in my view will become urgent for our country if we are to turn the corner. 

The first thing is that everybody must get involved. The business of governance is not for those who are elected. It is for all of us to participate in public affairs to be concerned about what’s happening in Karamoja as what is happening in Kasese. In the past, people used to talk in very degrading terms about the war in the North and nobody cared. Nobody paid too much attention to it until the same things happening in the North began to happen in Buganda, began to happen in Kasese and in other parts of the country. We must be involved and be as concerned about human rights violations, no matter where they occur. If there’s violence and killings in Kasese, and you don’t stand up to condemn it, to repudiate it, it is going to come to your doors. I think that people now realize that something is going wrong, so we have to get involved in public life, whether you’re in the business arena whether you’re a religious leader, or a student or indeed a farmer. Governance impacts on your work in ways that you never imagine. It is important, you must take interest in the governance of the country. Go and vote, hold leaders to account throughout their time in office. If there’s suspicion of corruption, go and ask for information, seek to hold leaders to account. That’s the only way in which leaders will respond to the needs of people. I like to say that leaders are like bicycle tires, they respond to pressure. Ramp up the pressure on them. 

The second thing is this, that clearly, we are getting into a lawless society. If you just drive on the streets of Kampala, the simplest and basic rule of life for orderly societies is traffic rules. Nobody seems to care about them. Government ministers break traffic rules. We are right to ask if they cannot keep traffic rules, how will they keep public money, they will steal it. We are just a lawless society. We have to get back to a point in which we begin to appreciate the place of law as a basic necessity for an orderly society. Just follow the law – basic things to do in life, like traffic rules, like dumping garbage. If we do that, and we all live up to it, we will have a better society.

BN (11:53): You touched on this briefly about young people becoming a bit more engaged in calling out human rights abuses and I wanted to ask you something about social media. A critical component now is just the ability to capture through videos, photos, audio recordings of any human rights violations in real time. This isn’t only happening on the continent, but it’s all over the world. What do you think social media’s contribution will eventually be in protection of civil liberties?

NO (12:22): At the turn of the century, many people believed that social media was revolutionary for democracy scholars like Larry Diamond and Francis Fukuyama were very hopeful about the importance of social media as a tool of liberation. In fact, they call it liberation technology. They thought that social media was going to break the barriers of autocracy across the world and empower people. But even those scholars now realize that social media is a double-edged sword. It can be as empowering as it is destructive to our democratic process. 

We’ve seen the use of social media to manipulate public conscience in the US. Back home, even in Kenya, the role of Cambridge Analytica in the elections in Kenya, and in Uganda in the last election, the use of what Facebook has called in authentic communication by organized groups to subvert the cause of democracy. And so social media cuts both ways. The other thing is this, that social media really is largely driven by passion, and less about critical appreciation of facts. Very salacious stories tend to travel faster than boring, factual, analytical stuff on social media. We must realize that social media has its own disadvantage. 

But that said, in a country like Uganda where holding a public assembly is becoming so restricted, and almost impossible, especially if you’re demonstrating against government. So peaceful assemblies are just impossible. So much so that politicians now can’t wait for barriers because that’s the only opportunity for them to speak to a crowd – whether they go to a requiem mass, they go to burials, they use the opportunity to talk to people. Social media becomes a powerful tool for mobilizing people, for whatever cause you want to undertake. 

Social media is going to be an important place in Uganda and indeed, in many countries that are repressive, or where physical assembly is becoming difficult social media becomes a place for organizing in Uganda. You can see that by the way the state is reacting to social media and social media activists, because the state is incapable of coping with the development in technology. They’re using very brutal approaches to dealing with social media. In Uganda during elections, we just simply turn off the switch. As we speak, Facebook in Uganda is inaccessible unless you are using VPN. Or in many cases, activists online are prosecuted. You’ve seen cases of people like Dr. Stella Nyanzi, Shaka Robert before Stella, people like Andrew Karamagi, and now Rukirabasaija. And so social media, in spite of its limitations is an important tool in autocratic state or repressive countries as a tool for mobilization, and it’s going to be the space in which people will want to be heard. 

Therefore, I think for me, first, we must democratize social media, make sure that it is accessible to everybody, at the most minimal cost possible, because it’s a powerful tool for mobilization, both for government actually. Because, you know, the state uses social media as well to mobilize people around, you know, health care issues and cultural issues. We must make social media accessible as cheap as possible. But secondly, social media companies must begin to take greater responsibility for the misuse of their platforms by people to subvert public interest. Therefore, the question of online monitoring by social media companies is going to be very important going forward. 

BN (16:19): You actually touched on this briefly, and I was going to ask you next about disinformation, and just the general lack of shame that comes with disinformation. Sometimes it’s just obscene, the sort of things that are put out there. How are we as participants in civil society, going to reclaim public conversation, and how is this public conversation going to eventually be grounded in shared principles, especially when it comes to protection of civil liberties?

NO (16:47): First of all, we must take civil society back to where it used to belong. Civil society is now too formalized. They have become detached from people centered movements. They have become places for employment, where people go to look for alternative employment. They’ve become projects and lost the potency of civil society. We must take civil society back to where it used to belong – as a people’s movement based on constituency, based on shared interest that is not dropped upon you by a donor but generated by a local interest. We have got to take civil society back to that space. 

It will also require a complete rejection of this notion of registration as a precondition to operate as a civil society. Citizens in a country have an inherent right to associate without necessarily the requirement for registration. If that association is then involved in criminal activity, there are thousands of laws to deal with that. So we must reject this notion of, “Oh, you must go and get a certificate to register” and get civil society back to where it used to belong – associations for lawful, peaceful purposes and for participation in people’s governance. Once we do that, we can then develop a constituency based on local interest and local context. 

Second thing is this, we must also deal with the question of pervasive corruption. People talk about corruption in government and have no idea the extent of graft in civil society, we’ve got to deal with that because it undermines your legitimacy undermines your message, because you cannot give what you don’t have. Once we deal with that, we can then go back to the basics of people organizing and really connecting to people’s struggles. These struggles are based on organic local context interests. Sometimes you’ve seen places where people go and dig up a borehole and nobody wants to use the borehole because the women want to go to the well to collect water in the well because that’s the only time they have away from their abusive husbands. The borehole becomes a white elephant in the village because the people in the village were never consulted about what it is that they want. We have to back civil society to that space in which people determine the agenda, people drive it, and it is not done because it’s an allowance to collect. Once we do that, I think for me, would be a long way in resolving many of our problems. 

BN (19:29): So, Nick, what next for Chapter Four?

NO (19:32): Well, I mean Chapter Four was suspended by government, on what we strongly believe were false accusations. We have challenged the actions of government. We have a judgment coming up on the 18th of March, we have every confidence that the court will declare the actions of the state illegal, and Chapter Four will reopen because Chapter Four has never been involved in any illegal activities. Chapter Four as they claim hasn’t failed to file returns, we’ve filed all our annual returns, we have shown evidence to that effect. These accusations of failure to file returns are baseless and without basis. In fact, the whole process was unlawful. We were never given a chance to be heard. We think that the court will absolve Chapter Four of those accusations and reopen the organization, we will continue doing our work. But even if Chapter Four is not reopened, our work will not stop. It will take on a different shape or form. People must not underestimate our resolve and our commitment to doing the things we have set out to do. We will do it in one way or the other. Chapter Four is simply an organization, a vehicle. If that vehicle develops a mechanical problem, we can get onto another vehicle and continue doing the work that we do because that work is really more important than the address in which we sit.

BN (20:56): The work you’re doing is really, really important. And obviously, those of us who are watching from the sidelines are always very impressed. 

NO (21:05): Thank you. You’re very kind. Thank you, Brenda.

BN (21:07): You’re one of those who motivates the rest of us to stop being armchair critics, you know – to get out there and do something.

NO (21:16): Coming from you, it means a lot, because I also have very deep admiration for your trailblazing journey. You’re brilliant. So really coming from you it means the world to me. Thank you. Thank you, Brenda.

BN (21:28): Thanks, Nicholas. So, before we go, I have to ask you my burning question, which is on football, obviously. Why SC Villa, why not Express? Why not, any of those other teams?.

NO (21:41): In my younger years, I was a very decent footballer actually, but my father stopped me from taking on a career in football. I used to play for Gulu United. When I left Gulu United, I was signed on to play for Sports Club Villa by David Otti. I didn’t have the chance to play for Villa for a long time because I had to go to law school and I couldn’t cope with the heavy schedules of law school, and the requirements for training at Villa Park. That’s how my football career just vanished in thin air. I still follow Sports Club Villa through its many difficult problems, and love to catch a game or two when I can. So that’s why I’m an avid Sports Club Villa fan, because it was my club, the club that saw my talent and signed me to play for it.

BN (22:28): I didn’t know this about you so. One more thing I’ve learned today.

NO (22:32): I’ll tell you this, when I was at St. Joseph’s College Layibi in Gulu, there was a fantastic priest called Father Ryan who used to run a school called St. Leo’s and he would go across the country sporting talent. Father Ryan came to Gulu, and in my school, wanted to recruit five players and I was one of the five. He took the four other guys – my father just couldn’t allow me to go. Many of those guys went on to play for the national team. I could have ended up on the impressive team of Father Ryan at St Leo’s Kyegobe or even on the national team. I was decent.

BN (23:18): That’s impressive. That’s what we call being multifaceted. You know?

NO (23:27) I still have football scars on my shins. When I have time, I get out and play.

BN (23:34): Are you mentoring any young soccer players? 

NO (23:37): Actually, I don’t mentor any players anymore, but rather mentor a lot of young people who are interested in human rights work. There are countless people who I have picked up their school fees. I have taken back to school policemen who in the course of my duty, I found and thought that they could benefit from learning the law. When I discovered that the problem was lack of money, I’ve paid their fees to go back to law school just to try and let them understand the law. There are many people that I’m mentoring but mainly in the field of human rights and law.

BN (24:13): Well, thank you Nicholas, for coming on to the podcast. I’m really honoured. I’ve enjoyed this conversation. It’s been so impactful on me, and I hope it will impact – actually, I know it’s going to impact – the audience very positively. Thank you so much for taking the time and because of the time difference, I actually appreciate you coming on even more.

NO (24:35): No, thank you. Thank you, Brenda. I really appreciate it and thank you so much. It’s an absolute honour. Really, it is. I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

BN (24:45): Thank you, Nicholas. 

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.