Why Ugandan activist Spire won EU rights award

Saturday May 11 2024

(L-R) Ambassador of Denmark to Uganda Signe Winding Albjerg after presenting the EU Human Rights Defenders’ Award 2024 to Jimmy Spire Ssentongo. PHOTO | POOL


The winner of the European Union Human Rights Defenders’ Award (HRD) 2024 award, Ugandan academic, activist and political cartoonists Jimmy Spire Ssentongo was chosen for his courage in exposing corruption, most recently through the online campaign under the hashtag #UgandaParliamentExhibition.

The award presented during on May 2 at the residence of the Denmark ambassador in Kampala, is given annually by the EU and Norway to recognise an outstanding contribution by a human rights defender in Uganda.

He was chosen for his campaigns aimed at improving the state of public infrastructure in Kampala, health services and policing.

Read: Uncomfortable laughter: Satirist Spire speaks truth to power

Ssentongo, a political cartoonist popularly known as Spire, is known for his social commentary through satirical cartoons published in The Observer newspaper, and for his work as an academic at Makerere and Uganda Martyrs Universities. He is also a team member at the digital activism platform Agora Discourse.

Receiving the award, Ssentongo, said: “This gesture means a lot…I am encouraged by the many people who have taken to social media to speak against all odds of what the streets have become…I thank everyone who has taken the risk of standing with us as we speak for those with little or no voice. Granting this award is an act of courage by the EU.”


"It is encouraging to know that my work is being acknowledged as useful and impactful. Because it is one thing to do things that you think are for the society, or speaking for those who need to be spoken for or even speaking for myself. But then the message does not go where it should go, or where you intended it to go to have an impact,” he said.

“Certainly, I will continue with the activism. Like I have been doing over the years, sometimes I choose to change the form. There are moments when the cartoons are more visible, there are moments when I have been doing a lot of writing, and at times just tweeting or engagement through other means. So, the activism will continue.”

Presenting the award to Ssentongo, Denmark Ambassador to Uganda Signe Winding Albjerg said: “His online exhibitions depict courage and resilience and have opened up alternative options for active citizen engagement in calling government to action on issues that affect communities.”

The EU and Norway received an overwhelming number of applications for the HRD Award, highlighting both the range of human rights issues and also the vibrancy of activism in the country.

Read: Defiant Ugandan novelist breaks silence with award

Also shortlisted for this year’s award were Jessica Ruth Ataa, a women’s rights activist based in Kotido District and Doreen Namyalo-Kyazze, a human rights lawyer with Penal Reform International.

Ataa was shortlisted for her outstanding contribution to women-led peacebuilding efforts in Karamoja. She also leads Nakere Rural Women Activists, a community-based network for women’s groups.

Namyalo-Kyazze was nominated for her notable contributions to improving conditions in prisons, especially for women detainees. She has authored several papers on torture and the management of vulnerable prisoners.

Speaking before the award announcement, European Union Ambassador to Uganda His Excellency Jan Sadek, said: “These leading human rights defenders demonstrate that universal values have real meaning in everyday life, and that, when used as a framework for governing societies, they can transform people’s lives.”

Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) are individuals who, individually or with others, act to promote and protect universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms. These include civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

The work of HRDs has a positive impact on a country’s development and is essential for encouraging the respect for human rights as recognised by international human rights standards and agreements.

HRDs need to be protected from interference and reprisals while executing their work. The HRDs’ rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly need to be safeguarded to enable them to defend others.