What you need to know:
- From the well laid out reception area to the office he occupies, everything is neatly arranged. Lawyers pride themselves in heaping files on their desks but Opiyo disdains clutter. His office desk is clean and only has what requires his attention at a particular moment.
To understand Nicholas Opiyo, you need a sense of perspective. You need to understand adversity. Above all, you need an ability to reflect on things that happen to you from a particular point of view. Nicholas Opiyo grew up at the height of the war in northern Uganda. He knows what injustice is. He knows what suffering is. Above all he knows what abuse of power is.
Those who know Opiyo will attest to his brilliant mind, compassionate heart and calm demeanour. When you reach his office you notice the high sense of order and cleanliness. From the well laid out reception area to the office he occupies, everything is neatly arranged. Lawyers pride themselves in heaping files on their desks but Opiyo disdains clutter. His office desk is clean and only has what requires his attention at a particular moment.
I saw Opiyo grow up. He was a precocious child. From childhood he has loved to read. No wonder, even in his captivity at Kireka, he had a book. In the dock at the Nakawa Magistrates Court the same book was his only companion. At an early age his eyesight started weakening probably from reading too long in the dim lights of the ubiquitous kerosene lamps that most of us are familiar with. When he asked for spectacles, his father first ignored him claiming he just wanted it as an ornament to pose with! Eventually he succumbed.
When I was battling attempts to rig the parliamentary elections in Gulu Municipality in 1996, Opiyo was a little boy but insisted on walking to the tally centre claiming that he had come to “guard Mao’s votes”.
That was an unusual level of consciousness in a child. Rigging an election is a serious affront to democracy. It is the ultimate abuse of power. It undermines free and fair elections which is the sovereign right from which all the other rights flow.
In mid-December, Opiyo was quoted in The Independent magazine speaking out after authorities froze the accounts of two leading NGOs, the Uganda Women’s Network and the Uganda National NGO Forum.
“You would think that someone has evidence against the person or organisation they claim is financing terrorism activities,” Opiyo said. ”They do not provide any evidence to back up the claims and yet their arbitrary actions have far reaching implications... If you were indeed fighting terrorism activities but then you leave us to roam the streets, what does that show? You should arrest us and take us to jail.”
Those words were prophetic. The paranoid State obliged. On Tuesday December 22, 2020, while Opiyo and four other human rights lawyers were having lunch at a Kampala restaurant, heavily armed and hooded men surrounded them, handcuffed them and bundled them abduction style into minivans and sped off. They surfaced at Kireka Special Investigations Unit on the outskirts of Kampala.
The regime harassing Opiyo is caught up in its own dilemmas and drama. It has forgotten that what they profess now is based on their point of view. The narrative they are pushing is that foreign powers are working through certain political leaders and prominent government officials to ferment instability and eventually overthrow the current government.
We recall the Kale Kayihura saga and the circumstance under which President Museveni took drastic measures to purge the police of “weevils” suspected of serving subversive foreign interests. Museveni insists that the police (and probably other security agencies) are heavily infiltrated and may have elements determined to undermine the Ugandan State. This may explain recent changes in the leadership of the Special Forces Command, the police and the intelligence organisations.
Opiyo may be in the dock now but in a wider sense, the Museveni regime is also in the dock. The money laundering charges aside, Opiyo’s real offence is that Museveni’s hitherto darlings in the power centres of the West are lending the likes of Opiyo a keen listening ear. It may be unsettling to the Uganda government that policies towards Uganda may be defined by the input of people like Opiyo.