Ugandan human rights attorney inspires Stanford community through activism

Nicholas Opiyo is a visiting scholar at the Center for African Studies at Stanford University. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Opiyo.

For more than 15 years, Nicholas Opiyo has practiced law in Kampala, Uganda, and he is recognized as one of the country’s leading civil rights attorneys and activists through his work with Chapter Four Uganda, an organization dedicated to promoting human rights.

Invited to come to Stanford in 2015 as a visiting practitioner to share his inspiring work with the campus community, Opiyo returned this January to join the Center for African Studies as a visiting scholar. On April 17, he will speak to students and faculty across 14 centers and programs at the annual SGS Student Dinner.

Read the interview below to learn about his experience growing up in the shadow of war, research on civil society, and efforts to defend and empower marginalized communities in Uganda.

Can you tell us about your experience growing up in northern Uganda during a period of war?

From the age of five until 20, I was living in northern Uganda, the epicenter of a brutal conflict between the government in Uganda and a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The conflict is known for gruesome murders, abduction of children into rebel ranks, sex slavery, and displacement of the population into internally displaced persons’ camps. Living in a warzone meant that I was a witness to grave cases of human rights violations. My own siblings were abducted and spent years in the rebel ranks.

During the war, there were what was called “night commuters,” young children who walked more than five miles every day to sleep in open public spaces to avoid being abducted by the LRA. For many years, I was a night commuter. Like all children at the time in the region, I lived trying to avoid abduction by the rebel group while also trying to study and compete with children in other parts of the country where it was peaceful.

What inspired you to become an attorney and civil rights activist?

My father’s way of teaching me English was to make me listen to the BBC. When I listened to the radio, the things I heard happening in other parts of the world were quite different from my lived experiences. That sent me on a journey to search for what I could do to make my life better. Initially I wanted to be a journalist, so I could tell the world about the plight of the people in my community. But as I grew older, I was not satisfied that telling my story would be the most effective way of impacting my community. I found myself gravitating toward law school, and ever since I became a lawyer 15 years ago, I have dedicated myself toward human rights work. You could say, in a nutshell, that my early childhood experiences inspired my desire and passion to do what I do today – defending the rights of the vulnerable and underprivileged in our society.

What factors enabled you to become the successful lawyer you are today?

If I wasn’t exposed to what was happening in other parts of the world, I might have had a very narrow view of life. I was curious about what was happening elsewhere – I read newspapers and books, and I listened to the radio. My early engagement with the external world drove me to want more, to see what was possible beyond my own locality. The second thing that made a difference was the enormous generosity of the people in my community and elsewhere. Finally, my mother and father, who were both teachers, put a strong emphasis on education. My father never had a house, a car, or any material possessions other than his bicycle because he invested all of his time and effort into educating his numerous children. Even when I was a night commuter, if the moon was bright, I was reading a book. A combination of those factors and a bit of luck got me to break through from a difficult situation and make it to law school to become the lawyer I am today.

In 2014, you received international recognition when you successfully overturned Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act. Can you discuss some of the cases you and your team at Chapter Four Uganda have taken on in recent years?

The cases we’ve done are varied both in scope and nature – from cases of people who have been tortured by state agencies to those whose rights have been violated by the police. What has been most outstanding – not because of the work we are doing but because of the situation in the country – is our work around same-sex relations and LGBTQI cases. We are one of the few groups who are bold enough to associate with, work with, and defend the rights of the LGBTQI community in a very homophobic society. Even if the work is unpopular in Uganda and comes at a huge personal cost to all of us at Chapter Four Uganda, we do so because we believe it is the right thing to do.

We have also done a lot of work with women’s groups. Last year, we supported a group called Women’s March Uganda to organize the first women’s march in the country to highlight concerns about violence against women. The march didn’t just highlight the problems that women are facing but brought together a variety of women, including sex workers and lesbian women, who used this platform to speak about their problems publicly.

What brought you back to Stanford’s Center for African Studies in 2019?

I came back to do research, but to get some rest and respite as well. As a human rights lawyer in a country like Uganda, you get so fatigued, especially because I was facing a lot of threats. While here, I have been giving talks around the university and the Bay Area, connecting with human rights organizations, and helping students doing research in the area.

What does your research focus on and what do you hope to accomplish through it?

We are researching two things. One is related to a case we are working on, which is to challenge the practice of forced anal exams for LGBTQI individuals in Uganda to determine their sexual orientation. We have also been reflecting very deeply about the sustainability of the civil society sector in Uganda, which is reliant on foreign funding. I have been reflecting on new models of organizing that respond to two emerging challenges: restriction of civic space by governments in the Global South and emerging philanthropy models in civil society.

What can attendees look forward to hearing about at the SGS Student Dinner on April 17?

I hope to make the connection between events occurring in Uganda and why that should matter to students here at Stanford. I would like to show the interconnectedness of our struggles and to inspire the community and students to use their privileged positions in the Silicon Valley to impact lives around the world, perhaps in much the same way that I am trying to do.