‘One-on-one’ with Habiba Osman: Militant civil rights defender, human trafficking expert

*Every little girl has a dream. Some want to marry a prince. Others long to marry the rich and famous. But for one Habiba Osman, a civil rights activist, lawyer and human trafficking expert, her dreams were only about one thing – to defend the innocent and defenceless – and she always knew she wanted to fight for truth, justice and human rights. For her that it doesn’t matter what price she’ll have to pay. Inspired by Martin Luther King’s call to radically restructure political systems, Habiba Osman militantly waged an above-board war against Bingu wa Mutharika’s tyrannical entrenched power-house and she became the first-ever Malawian woman to be arrested and incarcerated for constitutionally fighting for people’s rights in the new democratic Malawi…

She stepped outside of her comfort zone, and vigorously fought the autocratic regime with vigour and candour in partnership with the oppressed public and she doesn’t regret and if need be, she says, she would do it again, even if the price for it means paying with her own life,  because she stands on the side of justice and constitutionality. In this One- on-One interview Nyasa Times Senior Journalist and Columnist Peter Makossah (PM) talks to Habiba Osman referred to in this interview as (HO) on her epic expedition in fighting justice for the  defenceless women and children…*

Excerpts

PM: “Who is Habiba Osman?”

HO: “Habiba Osman is a bonafide Malawian woman who was born to Malawian parents in Blantyre. My Arabic name is derived from my father’s side, who are Moslems from Balaka, my mother, is from Ntonya, Zomba and my great grandfather happens to be Chief Chikowi (now deceased)

Habiba Osman: Malawi need tough anti-human trafficking laws

“PM: “So you’re a Princess from Chief Chikowi’s dynasty?”  

HO: “Laughs…I am a progeny of a Yao ruler, Chief Chikowi, but I was raised a Christian. However, I maintain my Arabic name which means ‘Love.’ I was brought up by a single parent, my father died when I was a young.”

PM: “Tell me about your educational background?”

HO: “It was my Mother’s desire to see me complete my education to the very end. I grew up in Kanjedza Township, Blantyre and attended Chichiri Primary school and thereafter, I was sent briefly to stay in Lilongwe with my mother’s sister who sent me to Central College of Commerce. Afterwards, my mother suggested that I go to Zimbabwe to do    A-levels and I thus went to Girls High School in Harare, Zimbabwe. And interestingly, the current High Commissioner for Zimbabwe in Malawi, who is also the dean of Diplomatic Corps, Mrs. Thandeka Dumbutshena was my headmistress.

 PM: “Then…?”

HO: “After I passed my A levels with flying colours I was offered a place at Keele University, in England, United Kingdom to study law and international history as a dual honours degree. Thereafter, I attended the Legal Practice Course in Chester, again, in the UK. I am a Fulbright and holder of a Masters Degree in Prevention of Trafficking and Policy from Notre Dame University in USA…”

PM: How did you qualify for a Fulbright at Notre Dame in America?

 HO: “In 2010, The US Government advertised through the press, the Fulbright Grant and for the first time, introduced a section for those who were interested to pursue a Masters Degree in Prevention of Trafficking and Policy. As there were no specific universities offering this as a stand- alone specialization, it meant studying this as part of human rights law at a Law School. So I grabbed it. The fact that I had been appointed as a Special Law Commissioner for the Anti-Trafficking Legislation in 2007 enhanced my chances of being a recipient of this award coupled with my job description of coordinating anti- trafficking activities for the Norwegian Church Aid.

“Sighs…However, the competition was quite stiff but I had to prove my salt, I thus ended up being selected to pursue a Masters Degree (LLM) (Magna Cum Laude) in International Human Rights Law from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States of America the same institution, Human Rights lawyer and incumbent Attorney General cum Justice Minister, Ralph kasambara obtained his masters degree from…Coincidentally my thesis was on human trafficking in the SADC region. It is titled “In search for an effective response to counter human trafficking within the SADC Region” I am hoping this will get published next year as a book.

PM: “Is it fair to call you one of Malawi’s female militant human rights activists?”

 HO: “Laughs…A militant human rights Activist? This sounds too harsh Even though I must argue that aggressiveness is sometimes ideal. However, I am not confrontational.  But if this means that I am not shaken and outspoken in standing for what I believe in, no matter what the cost, then I can agree that I can be militant in that regard, especially when it comes to stepping out and having courage as a female to speak for the voiceless. I think Charles Swindoll summarises me well. “It takes courage to think alone, to resist alone, and to stand alone—especially when the crowd seems so safe, so right.”  I look at what I do as a calling from God.

PM: “Who is your greatest source of inspiration?”

HO: “Three women actually inspired me in my career progression and growth; my mother, Roselyn Mankhwala, Emmie Chanika and Su Kyi the Burmese Activist.  My mum, is one of the pioneers in private education, 24 years ago she opened a nursery school and primary school called “Ntonya” and Toys Creche. I have seen her educate half of her family members and also given bursaries to as many orphans. My mother is my heroine, an inspiration for me and has often tells me that; To help people, one need’s to give them knowledge so that they can help themselves and others…

PM: “How did you become a civil rights activist?”

HO: “In fact, it’s Emmie Chanika, who groomed me as a people’s activist.  She always told me to be courageous enough and to step out and do something about a problem, and never to be a bystander when I could do something…”

PM: “Last year this month, you were the only woman  to be arrested and incarcerated along three others who included Billy Mayaya, Ben Chiza Mkandawire, Brian Nyasulu and Comfort Chitseko dubbed ‘the Lilongwe Four’ in protests against the Mutharika regime, what happened?”

 HO: “The previous regime reached a point where they had become so paranoid about any kind of dissent. We were part of the Civil Society leaders condemning the deteriorating governance situation during the DPP led regime in the second term. At the time of the arrest we had planned to stage a peaceful demonstration outside Parliament. This also coincided with the COMESA meeting. But “our mission” was sabotaged by Police Intelligence and we were arrested not at the alleged place of the demo, but in City Centre near NBS Bank. We stayed in Police cell for four days and one day at Maula Prison as we had been denied police bail.”

PM: “Would you do what you did to be arrested that time, in this day, if need arises?”

HO: “Absolutely! If it’s an issue that borders on freedoms and rights as enshrined in the constitution, yes I would! Looking back at the whole experience, it makes me realise that we need not fear, if, we as citizens are being denied our rights. There must be some courageous people that aren’t motivated by greed or egotism but we need people patriotic enough to work for the common good, those that can stand for the truth and justice.

PM: “Why?”

HO: “I strongly believe that it is abortive and to anticipate for accomplishment of a free government without the means of insuring the intelligence of those who are the spring source of power or authority – the common people…”

PM: “Are our many so called human rights activists doing enough to stand for the common good?”

HO: “Sadly No! Some activists choose to compromise the truth and stop representing people once they are offered certain positions in Government. We’ve to realise that we don’t all have to be in Government, but rather we can partner with Government if we want to bring desired change. There should be others willing to take up this task of representing people and speaking truth to power independently if we are to make our leaders accountable in order for our democracy to come of age.

PM: “Do you regret that you were arrested and thrown into the dungeon?”

HO: “I don’t regret one bit. I did what was right and I will always stand on the side of justice no matter the price I have to pay. The only concern for me is the pain and suffering at the hands of the Police, whose primary duty is to protect life and property of the people and not in any way to abuse citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms, but I know that they were following orders from above.”

PM: Are you angry?

HO: I’m not angry. However, I’m so saddened with the fact that our Police Service is still not affable to human rights principles, that our cells are the worst places where human rights violations are a breeding ground and that prisoners don’t have rights in this country. Others may argue that prisoners mustn’t have rights because they’re criminals. but lest we forget not that prisons don’t merely exist to punish lags but largely to rehabilitate criminals into better citizens, once released, if at all.  I must emphasize however that we didn’t commit any offence for us to be arrested and therefore it was erroneous at law to throw us in jail…”

PM: “Do you think things have improved now with the new regime in terms of human rights?”

HO: “What has improved with the new regime is the reversing of some the laws that were unconstitutional. I would love the Executive not using the Police to intimidate and arrest citizens arbitrarily, especially those expressing their opinion in line with the supreme law of the land…

The four citizens who protested that Mutharika is a dictator, Osman is there

PM: “OK?”

HO: “Hopefully, now that we’ve an Attorney General, Ralph Kasambara, himself an astute human rights lawyer and a victim of the previous regime, I’m sure he’ll see to it that there are adequate reforms in our Police and Prison Services, and will advise the government accordingly on human and civil rights in line with the supreme Law of the land. My commendation is that the new Government always should promote and enable an environment that is human rights friendly, so that there is no mismatch between executive directives/orders and what is prescribed in the Constitution.  At the same time, it must ensure that our laws are conforming to regional and international human rights treaties to which Malawi is a signatory.”

PM: “How bad is human trafficking problem in Malawi?

 HO: “Very bad. Human trafficking is a full-size crisis not only in Malawi or Africa but the world at large. Initially, this quandary came to prominence globally in 2000, but in Malawi, we ratified the UN Protocol on Trafficking in 2005. In 2007, Norwegian Church Aid conducted a baseline study and research through the Center for Social Research, where it was confirmed that human trafficking exists in Malawi.

 PM: “What are the challenges that you face in curbing this modern day form of slavery?”

HO: “There are so many challenges. But to mention a few, not many people are aware of this problem, people tend to perceive it as a myth or a mere allegory, or a fable that does not exist at all. Secondly, our legal framework currently does not capture all the elements of trafficking comprehensively. The various pieces of legislation in place can cater for the criminal aspects of human trafficking but there are other elements of the offence that will only require this issue to be addressed if a comprehensive piece of legislation is in place…”

 PM: “What is the major root cause of human trafficking in Malawi?”

HO: “In Malawi, we have many vulnerable groups that are mostly poor and uneducated and these are frequently the targets of scrupulous traffickers, but then, even the educated or rich can also fall prey to traffickers because of lack of knowledge on what trafficking is all about and end up in a trafficking situation if deceived as has been noted from the cases I have come across here in our own country…”

PM: “The final word?”

HO“I believe that it’s not the work that you do that matters, rather, it is how good you do it. Whatever you do it well, do it with integrity, honesty and sincerity. I’ve always thought that the noblest way to serve my nation is to be involved in bringing positive change and acting from good faith. One Judge summarised it better when he said: The vast majority of people who become influential have done some courageous thing in their life…”

PM: “Thanks a lot…”

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