Student portrait: Sylvester Uhaa - "Respect the rights and dignity of people"

2021-07-26 The Nigerian has been campaigning for human rights since 2004, working to improve prison conditions, reform the criminal justice system, and protect and serve refugees in his home country. After studying at Oxford, he will complete the part-time online master's programme "Governance and Human Rights" at Leuphana Professional School in autumn. Prospective students can still apply until August 8 for the programme.

Sylvester Uhaa ©privat
Sylvester Uhaa studied in Zimbabwe, in the USA, at Oxford and now also at Leuphana Professional School.

When Sylvester Uhaa talks about human rights, he becomes passionate: "People have the right to participate, to improve their lives and to achieve their dreams. I am developing myself to make my country and our world a better place to be a better place.“ His home country is Nigeria and he has been working for human rights and justice reforms there for close to 20 years. For example, he founded the organisation – Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (Cure Nigeria), which campaigns for human rights of people in prisons and the social reintegration of former prisoners. Most recently, he was Consultant Project Director at Jesuit Refugee Service, cordinating humanitarian and protection services for Cameroonian refugees, IDPs, returnees and other vulnerable members of host communities in the NE. "It was not easy for me to continue studying during that time. There was often no electricity, and the internet was often down, but I was motivated by my desire to study and by the knowledge and skills I gained from the courses. I found the courses very facinating and inspiring“ the 48-year-old said. In autumn, he wants to complete his Master's degree in "Governance and Human Rights" and is therefore working again in Nigeria's capital Abuja, where the technical conditions are better than in regions of Nigeria where he led the humanitarian operations for close to two years. 

After school, he first studied philosophy in Zimbabwe. He then transferred to Columbia University in the USA, where he completed the Human Rights Advocate programme. In 2016, he graduated with a Master's degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford. But not all of Sylvester Uhaas' questions had been answered yet: "Research, political commentary and events have shown that one of Africa's biggest challenges is poor political leadership. That's why I wanted to learn more on this very topic." The Nigerian was looking for suitable courses and came across Leuphana Professional School and the part-time distance learning programme "Governance and Human Rights": "I was immediately fascinated by the programme. There are so many exciting courses," he recalls. He finances the tuition fees with a scholarship from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. "Our Organisation had parterned with KAS to organise an event on justice reforms“ explains Sylvester Uhaa. 

For him, the contents from the Master's programmes in Oxford and at Leuphana complement each other very well: "In England, the approach was more theoretical and intellectual, here the seminars are more application-oriented. It offers me pratical skills on govervance, leadership, advocacy and campaigns etc. I have learned a lot. I feel very competent to lead any organisation and to lead successful advocacy and campaigns now", he stated. The aim of the program is to learn about governance principles, to be able to discuss them critically and to know how to apply them in a specific context in order to establish and secure human rights. Students acquire theoretical knowledge on human rights and governance and at the same time learn to apply this content practically. The lecturers not only have profound academic knowledge and teach at international universities, but are often active in human rights organisations themselves. 
Sylvester Uhaa's final thesis will deal with some of his own professional work: He refers in his thesis on Organisational Leadership to a speech by Barack Obama to the Ghanaian Parliament in 2009, saying: "Africa doesn't need strong men; Africa needs strong institutions." Therefore, based on the idea of Host Leadership, Sylvester Uhaa wants to develop a guide for leaders in organisations. This welcoming leadership style is meant to encourage more people to participate in leadership and governance, and in decision-making: "Often political and public leadership on the African continent is characterised by exclusion, lack of transparency, control, and sit-tight-leaders, people who do not give up their posts and thus cause stagnation. This is compounded by corruption, lack of accountability, as well as violations of human rights and disregard for the rule of law," explains Sylvester Uhaa.

But everyday obstacles also make life difficult: "The biggest challenge in my thesis is the lack of access to books. There are no public libraries in Nigeria where I can find literature on leadership. So I have to rely on online sources. I fear for the quality of my research." That's why he relies on the support of Leuphana Professional School: "My supervisors are very competent." After graduating in Germany, Sylvester Uhaa would like to do a doctorate in non-profit governance to help develop and strenghten the non-profit sector in Nigeria and Africa. For him, education is the key to social change.