Yakani: I wear civil rights defense scars with pride

Yakani: I wear civil rights defense scars with pride
Edmund Yakani, Executive Director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO). [Photo: Courtesy]

On April 4, 2017, Edmund Yakani, a South Sudanese by birth, became the recipient of the Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award. This was no mean feat considering that this was the first time the Swedish-based international organization that supports human rights defenders who work in some of the world’s most repressive regions on four continents was awarded an African.

The award winner had noted that despite the many risks to his own security, he continued to strive to ensure accountability, justice and respect for human rights ‘in a context of conflict, violence and severe human rights violations.

If you are reading about him for the first time, then you need to know that Edmund Yakani is the Executive Director of a human rights organization – Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO) – based in South Sudan’s capital city, Juba.

He admits that receiving such glamorous awards goes a long way towards weeping the tears that somehow must form in his eyes in the course of his work. But he must just as well wear the scars, some of which being rather too deep to heal properly.

“For me, this award symbolizes motivation and recognition of the efforts and hard work to protect human rights defenders in South Sudan. “This is a call for more efforts to engage in further protection for human rights defenders and their families,” said Edmund Yakani when he received the award nearly six years ago.

Humble beginnings

The story of Edmund Yakani Berizilious starts in Yei. His age – when it became necessary that the government knows his exact date of birth – would be subjected to assessment as his mother could not remember the date of his birth. The assessment gave January 1, 1979, as his date of birth.

Before reaching five, he had already lost his father. And for some reason, he ended up being raised by his aunt – a nurse – who was married to a secondary school teacher.

From his first day in school, the activist in him was already activated, and he ended up taking up various student leadership roles from primary school all the way to secondary school.

“I must be grateful to my aunt’s husband, though this was inadvertent. But I kept moving with him and his family from one school in Sudan to the other and somehow I got to traverse, particularly what was then southern Sudan,” he says.

According to Yakani, it is the movement that first made him feel like a nationalist.

In the late 1990s, he was called to the University of Khartoum, where he undertook a Diploma in Gender and Paralegal Aid. But his interest would drift to the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Soba Aradi. It is here that his first brush with the powers that be started. The year was 2002, long before the secession of South Sudan from the “Old Sudan”. President Omar el Bashir had a strong grip on power and he was ready to crush any voice of dissent without hesitation.

“I stood up against the unlawful demolition of the IDP camp in Soba Aradi. The government intended to take the internally displaced people to some far-flung place where life would not be bearable. So I wrote a petition after staging the protests and addressed it to the Human Rights Council in Khartoum. But I had already been spotted as the brain behind the protest, and I was picked up by the soldiers that same day,” he says.

He says he could not immediately establish where he was in terms of the geographical location.

“I was in a room where several other people were weeping. Clearly, they must have been flogged. There were some officers who would beat me up from time to time. But what I found odd was the strong stench that was unmistakably rotting flesh. They could only be human carcasses because only humans were there,” he says.

Torturing took two days. He says there was very little chance that he would leave that torturing chamber alive. 

Fortunately, there was a warden from the Nuba ethnic community who smuggled him out of that cell that he called home for the two long days. After taking him to a safe distance, he told him to pick up his life from there.

“He must have been a high-ranking official for him to make such a step.” But again, it is possible that he took that bold step because we were both African Sudanese. At the time, there was serious tension between African and Arab Sudanese. If he did not taken such a bold step, I would be dead by now. This is because I would later learn that prisoners taken to that cell would never return home alive,” he says.

As an organization, CEPO was initially formed in Khartoum in 1999 but consisted mostly of university students. Its scope was broadened after it was established in Juba, Southern Sudan as a separate entity in 2010. 

CEPO is currently engaged in the areas of peace and conflict mitigation, human rights, rule of law, livelihood, governance, and democratic transformation.

Walking a tight rope

For Yakani and others who had to pay the ultimate price, being in the civil rights movement was no walk in the path. Before independence and even right after, one must walk while looking back from time to time.

“I can’t remember how many times I have been arrested and tortured by the national security officers before and after the birth of South Sudan. In 2016, I was picked up, tortured, and doused with some chemicals. They dumped me somewhere in Kator. I was rescued by Good Samaritans and taken to the office, after which I sought medical attention,” says Yakani.

CEPO South Sudan has been deregistered a record four times since its inception. He says in all the instances where his organization has been deregistered, it has always taken a lot of pressure to have it registered again. But what is disturbing him most is having to leave away from his family most of the time for fear that they could be targeted.

“I am a husband and father of two. Unfortunately, they live in Uganda while I am here all alone, doing what I believe I was called to do; to give voice to the voiceless. It is a rather expensive arrangement because I need resources to go see them from time to time but that is the only way I can go about it,” he says.

No cars, please

And if you have been seeing him using motorcycle taxis (boda boda), don’t imagine he does not have a car. Actually, he has three cars but you will not see him driving any of them. But he drives when you least expect him.

“The relationship I have had with the national security has been anything but rosy. From my experience, one of the ‘natural’ ways of silencing a critic who drives a particular car or cars is to create a road accident. When the brakes of a lorry for instance fail and it rams into your car killing you on the spot, nobody will raise eyebrows. This is unlike when you are found poisoned or shot dead in your house,” he says.

At times the going gets tough and he admits that he must have sessions with a psychiatric professional at least once in a year.

So should he drop dead today because of natural causes, what would he be proud of as Edmund Yakani?

“That must be leaving the legacy of a citizen that stand up and speak against the action of the states that are not in line with the Constitution or other subsidiary legislations in the government of South Sudan. That’s the legacy I will leave behind. And I think I’ve mentored enough. And I’m confident that if I leave, there are those who will follow in my footsteps because we have presence all over the country.

“I never wanted CEPO to end up as a one-man show, and that is why I opened branches and allowed them to grow and be independent. The organization has enough human resources that even if I’m not there I’m comfortable the struggle will continue,” says Yakani.

Yakani has worked as a national consultant assessing the situation of women, security and peace in South Sudan with reference to UN Resolution 1325, which affirms the importance of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and stresses their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.

He has also evaluated the UNWOMEN strategy for South Sudan as an assistant consultant for the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). In this capacity he also evaluated women’s engagement in the April 2010 elections and referendum and provided a technical report and recommendations for improvement of the strategy.