WASHINGTON — As a child, Nicholas Opiyo would walk miles from his home in northern rural Uganda to sleep in town every night. They called kids like him “night commuters,” a generation of children who would walk miles each night to avoid being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army and forced into its ranks. The rebel group was fighting a fierce battle against the government of President Yoweri Museveni in the 1980s and 1990s and was infamous for its use of child soldiers.
Today, Opiyo is 34 and riding one of his biggest wins as one of Uganda’s top human rights lawyers. Late last month, he and a team of lawyers won a case in Uganda’s Constitutional Court, striking down the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which called for up to a lifetime in prison for those convicted of homosexuality.
Days later he won another high-profile case, getting the Constitutional Court to block Museveni’s reappointment of the chief judge after he had exceeded the mandatory retirement age. He has now argued more than six cases before the Constitutional Court.
Taking these cases has come at some cost. In March, Opiyo was ousted as general secretary of the Uganda Law Society, when the country’s Christian Lawyers Fraternity campaigned against his leadership because of his challenge to the anti-LGBT law. His Facebook wall has filled with insults, he said in an interview during a recent visit to Washington, and he says even his own 25-year-old nephew has called him “retarded” for taking the case.
But Opiyo sees taking that abuse as part of his job as one of the most high-profile human rights attorneys in Uganda. He has specialized in not only working on some of Uganda’s most politically sensitive cases, but in defending people who have run afoul of authorities with no means to fight back.
“That is in no way near the pain that the members of the [LGBT] community suffered,” Opiyo said of the abuse. “I am a public figure. I can withstand all of that. For me, I’m OK.”
Fighting these kinds of fights is why he became a lawyer in the first place.
Opiyo grew up on the outskirts of Gulu, the capital of a northern district that was a center of fighting between Museveni’s government and the LRA, a rebel group that had its roots in an extremist brand of Christianity but became increasingly devoted to raw terror under the leadership of Joseph Kony. Sleeping in Gulu wasn’t an iron-clad guarantee of a safe night — the LRA overtook the town from time to time — but government forces were largely able to keep the rebels out of the heart of the city.
So, from the time he was around 8 until he was 14 or 15, Opiyo would walk 4 to 10 kilometers to sleep, often choosing a church compound in the city center. If the church was full by the time he arrived, he would sleep on the stoops of shops around town. Sometimes he would sleep alongside some of his six full siblings, and once in a while near his mother, who was the last of his father’s three wives.
“I lived this injustice — I saw it,” Opiyo said. His career path was set, he said, when he saw his father arrested by government soldiers in an operation to ferret out LRA collaborators within the town. The soldiers rounded up all the men over 18 and herded them into a dilapidated stadium, where they were held for days without food or adequate clothing. Through a crack in the stadium wall, Opiyo watched as his father was beaten and paraded before captured rebels who were supposed to identify those they’d worked with. Those men were then loaded into trucks and taken away. Sometimes Opiyo’s father would talk to him and his siblings through the crack, but he tried to shield them from the danger he was in.
“He didn’t want to explain to us the details,” Opiyo said.
His father was released after three days, but the terror and humiliation of the incident stayed with Opiyo throughout his education, which his parents — both teachers — ensured he continued throughout the civil war.
“I saw terrible things happening to my family, and I said no.”
Opiyo first thought he’d be a journalist so he could get the word out about abuses like the ones that had befallen his family. This was in part because the BBC played a key part in his education. From the age of 6, he would listen to the BBC program Focus on Africa every night with his father, who would then leave the room when the 8 o’clock news began. Opiyo’s job was to report to his father the events of the day when he came back.
This was part of his father’s way to teach Opiyo English — his mother tongue is the local language, Acholi. But it also gave him an interest in public affairs, and a pride at being engaged in world events.
“I used to be the guy in school to break the big news to the headmaster,” said Opiyo, who swings from principled argument to cracking jokes in a single sentence. He especially recalled bringing in word that the first African had been elected secretary general of United Nations when Egypt’s Boutros Boutros Ghali was selected in 1992.
He got his basic education in rustic private schools, where he also would sleep on the floor at night. He didn’t reach the big city until he was 20, when he headed to the capital Kampala to attend Uganda Christian University. This was his first taste of relative stability, since Kampala was somewhat insulated from the armed conflict that continued to percolate throughout the country. But it was also a culture shock. It was the first time he’d encountered a flush toilet.
Though he had started writing for newspapers while still in high school, Opiyo decided to study law, in part because he was inspired by his cousin, Norbert Mao, who had entered politics after practicing law and now heads one of Uganda’s opposition parties.
“First I wanted to be a journalist so I could speak about [mistreatment],” Opiyo said. “But I thought … I can go to court and change things.”
He focused on human rights in university, and, after he finished law school, found a job as an interpreter for the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes committed during the LRA war. He then became an investigator with an organization called the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, monitoring police abuse.
He took up cases on the side. The ones that stand out in his mind are those in which people found themselves locked up without any way to challenge their detention. In one instance in 2008, he came upon a woman in tears in a jail because her father, a local official, had been arrested for forging a document just a week after his wife had died. He tried to offer her help, but she thought he was trying to pick her up and brushed him off. But he left her his card.
“I think she realized much later … you cannot get a girlfriend in a police station in a crying state,” Opiyo said, now laughing. “It’s the wrong place to get a girlfriend.”
After he was able to secure the man’s release, he thought the business was done and he was preparing to move onto another case. But the next day the whole family turned up at his office with gifts: chickens, cooked bananas, a flask (though Opiyo is a teetotaler). Another time a man whom he’d gotten out of prison after a year and a half being held without charge offered him his daughter in marriage.
Opiyo’s first constitutional case began in 2006. At the end of the legislative session, the government made payments to lawmakers — and several civil society groups contend was those payments were an attempt to buy their votes. Opiyo was part of the legal team that sued on their behalf. They lost, but, he said, he was satisfied that “the point had been made.”
He later was part of legal teams that took on the ruling party in other cases. He helped sue to stop elections because the voter rolls were “full of irregularities.” Earlier this year he helped successfully challenge the ruling party’s attempt to expel four members who had become known as the “Rebel MPs” because they openly broke with party leadership over several issues.
When a group of LGBT people, opposition politicians, and human rights advocates came together earlier this year to challenge the Anti-Homosexuality Act, signed into law by Museveni in February, Opiyo joined as a petitioner and was one of the six lawyers working on the case. He had taken up some cases over the years on behalf of LGBT people, and he had earned the trust of the community. He was also the general secretary of the Uganda Lawy Society at the time — his involvement in the case ultimately cost him his leadership post — and he’d sought the position in the hopes of prodding the group to be a clear voice in support of human rights.
Opiyo took the lead on one of the least profound questions in the case — but it turned out to be the key to victory. While other lawyers focused on the way the Anti-Homosexuality Act violated rights protected by the Ugandan constitution, Opiyo made the case that the law was invalid for procedural reasons: There were not enough members of Parliament present when they voted on the bill in December to meet the Parliament’s requirements for conducting official business, and so the court had no choice but to invalidate the law.
Some other members of the team, Opiyo said, weren’t even sure they should include this point in their arguments at all — they thought the court was unlikely to take it seriously. But in the end, it was the only point they argued before the Constitutional Court. The court agreed with Opiyo’s argument, and dismissed the law on Aug. 1 without ever considering the constitutional questions.
The case is not over, however. On Friday, Uganda’s attorney general filed notice to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. Even if they sustain the ruling, the issue could soon be back before the courts. A group of lawmakers are collecting signatures to force a quick re-vote on the Anti-Homosexuality Act with the necessary number of lawmakers present.
Opiyo, who now runs an organization models on the American Civil Liberties Union called Chapter 4, is also working on several other high-profile cases: suits against new laws restricting freedom of assembly and the press, as well as a challenge to an Anti-Pornography Act passed the day before as the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which became known as the “mini-skirt law” because of its sweeping definition of things deemed too sexually explicit.
Opiyo, who came to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leadership Summit organized by the White House last week, said he has no worry about returning to Uganda even after having helped defeat the Museveni regime in several high-profile cases.
Even in Uganda — where elections are dubious and the ruling party shuts down media outlets when it doesn’t like what they publish — “the legal profession still has a fairly good level of independence,” Opiyo said.