Saturday March 15 2014

Another Obote born at inter-university debates

By Asuman Bisiika

Former president Apollo Milton Obote remains the gold standard for oration and speech delivery in Uganda’s politics. It is, therefore, not uncommon that his name is thrown around when a young speaker does his thing with confidence and poise.

This is what happened last week during the 7th Annual Inter-University Human Rights Competition which took place at St Lawrence University in Lubaga (Kampala).
The sponsors for this competition, as one would guess, were the usual suspects: Foundation for Human Rights Initiatives, whose invitation to the event brought me close to such youthful exuberance and talent.
This inter-university debate on human rights was initiated in 2006 FHRI after some kind of outreach programme in universities.

According to Mr Livingstone Ssewanyana, the executive director of the initiative, the outreach to universities was intended “to enable university students understand human rights and its correct application in their future professional life”.

And what I saw was a movement of students passionate about a human rights culture in Uganda. Students have formed and registered human rights clubs in their respective universities (public and private). These clubs, from 23 universities, are networked as the University Students’ Human Rights Network (USHRN).
There was a panel of judges which was composed of well-spoken personalities including my friend Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi of NTV’s Fourth Estate fame. As an independent observer, I had my views. But what most of the people seemed to agree on was the delivery of Geoffrey Wanyama of Gulu University Human Rights Club.
The young man knew when to pose for absorption effect; he knew how to engage the audience in a more conversational narrative. Add to that, the technicality of his arguments; it was not surprising that he was compared to Obote by the guest of honour. His performance though did not win his club the trophy. This was won by Uganda Pentecostal University. Now, for those who may need to know, Uganda Pentecostal University is in the Rwenzori Region where yours truly hails.

And Makerere University, the elephants of higher education in the country, was voted as the club that presented the most technical paper. Big is big, you know.
But the story of FHRI is the story of Livingstone Ssewanyana. Perhaps one day, someone with more competence than mine will write the story of the foundation and its founder. FHRI has been around from the early 1990s. The NRM rebels had come to power in 1986 riding on the crest of a wave of popular dissent against human rights abuse by previous government. So, when FHRI was founded, the government enjoyed such goodwill no one would have thought of a private (almost personal) initiative to monitor human rights in the country. Mr Ssewanyana did.
But there are always people who look at things differently. FHRI has now gained the confidence, trust and relevance they enjoy today because of the initiative they took more than 20 years ago.
Well, with the current level of respect for human rights, it is not surprising that Ssewanyana’s organisation is viewed as the avant guarde of human rights advocacy.

When I visited the headquarters of FHRI, my companion thought it was the seat of a European Embassy. And indeed, Human Rights House had this aura of a diplomatic mission.
As I said, I am not the one to write the story of FHRI; someone more competent will.

Mr Bisiika is the executive editor of East Africa Flagpost.