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Ugandan human rights lawyer and founder of Chapter Four Uganda, Nicholas Opiyo, was last night awarded the 2017 German Africa Award by the Federal President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier during a ceremony at the Allianz Forum in Berlin.Allianz SE
At the German Africa Award 2017 (from left):
Nicholas Opiyo is one of those individuals who will not back down from a fight. He doesn’t go out looking for trouble, but he will not take a side step if he sees it coming.
Opiyo’s preferred weapons are words and he has carved a legal career from wielding them fiercely to make a difference in the lives of the powerless and downtrodden. Last night at the Allianz Forum in Berlin, the work of this Ugandan human rights lawyer was honored with the prestigious German African Award.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded the German Africa Prize to Opiyo saying, “You have become a key figure for your country’s democratic development and your courageous fight for equal rights has been giving hope to so many people in Uganda and beyond.”
In his welcome address, Coenraad Vrolijk, Regional CEO Africa at Allianz, also lauded Nicholas Opiyo’s exemplary courage, highlighting the lawyer’s outstanding commitment to the sustainable development of Uganda and to “creating a brighter future for the country’s young population.”
"I’m so honored and delighted to be the recipient of the 2017 award," Opiyo said about his vocation upon accepting the award. “If you believe in the rights of women, of children, of refugees – simply, if you believe in the corpus of human rights, you must then defend the rights of everybody.”
Opiyo’s most famous case was before the Ugandan Constitutional Court in 2014, when he played a key role in having the country’s draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act overturned. Those convicted under the act would have faced a lifetime in prison.
For his success, Opiyo was ousted as general secretary of the Uganda Law Society after the country's Christian Lawyers Fraternity campaigned against him because of his challenge to the anti-LGBT law. Opiyo’s Facebook page was also filled with abuse and he was insulted to his face on the streets.
Opiyo took it all with a shrug. "That is in no way near the pain that the members of the [LGBT] community suffered," Opiyo said at the time. "I am a public figure. I can withstand all of that."
Although his win gained him international attention, Opiyo was already a name in his country. The 37-year-old lawyer has made a career from handling some of Uganda’s most politically sensitive cases and in defending the powerless against the excesses of authority.
At the award ceremony in the Allianz Forum, Berlin:
Nicholas Opiyo, Ugandan human rights lawyer, recipient of the German Africa Award 2017 (Deutscher Afrika-Preis 2017) and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Ironically, Opiyo’s early years were spent trying to avoid serious trouble. Growing up during the ongoing conflict between government forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army in the 1980s and 1990s, he walked up to ten miles from his home in northern rural Uganda to sleep in the nearby town of Gulu every night.
Children like him were known as "night commuters," a generation whose young lives were marked by tramping the roads in search of safety. The threat was being abducted and forced to serve as a child soldier into the ranks of the LRA, an extremist rebel cult. Sleeping in town wasn’t an absolute guarantee of security, but the government forces largely kept the rebels away.
One day, his father arrested by government soldiers in an operation to identify LRA collaborators within the town. All men over the age of 18 were herded into a stadium and held for days without food or adequate clothing. Through a crack in the stadium wall, he watched his father being beaten.
His father was released three days later, but the terror of the incident stayed with Opiyo. "I lived this injustice — I saw it," Opiyo later said. "I saw terrible things happening to my family, and I said no."
Later, at university, he focused on human rights, and, after graduating from law school, found a job as an interpreter for the International Criminal Court's investigating war crimes committed during the LRA war. In his spare time, he took up cases, often pro bono for vulnerable and marginalized people.
Eventually he began defending anti-corruption and pro-democracy activists, as well as taking on constitutional cases, including tackling laws that restrict freedom of assembly and the press. In 2013, he created Chapter Four Uganda, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting civil liberties and promoting human rights in Uganda. The organization takes its name from the bill of rights contained under chapter four of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.
Opiyo has been honored with the German Africa Award for his role in protecting peace, democracy, and human rights. Since 1993, the German Africa Foundation has awarded the German Africa Award to honor "outstanding individuals for their long-standing endeavors to foster democracy, peace, human rights, art, culture, the social market economy and social concerns."
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