Nana Oye Lithur“Not even the President of Ghana can deny anybody’s human rights irrespective of the person’s sexual orientation, ethnic group, gender and what have you. These are guaranteed in our constitution and everybody in Ghana has an obligation to respect that constitution. ”
That was Nana Oye Lithur, the popular human rights lawyer and gender activist, speaking on Citi FM in August 2011 on the need to respect and uphold the rights of homosexuals in Ghana.
President J. E. A Mills had proclaimed that homosexuality would never be legalised in Ghana as long as he remained President, and many Ghanaians had rallied round him. But typical of Mrs Lithur, and in defiance of the view of majority of Ghanaians, she described the President’s proclamation as an affront to the fundamental human rights of homosexuals in the country.
This is what Mrs Lithur stands for, and has been doing for the 20 years that she has been at the bar – campaigning against human rights abuses in Ghana, no matter how trivial.
In a two-hour conversation with The Mirror Monday, Mrs Lithur shed light on her personal convictions, motivation, and plans for the future.
Behind the apparent tough personality, is a lovely wife to Mr Tony Lithur, a lawyer in private practice, and a caring mother to four children: Nikita Sena Lithur, Anthony Dodzi, Michael Edem and Christopher Kekeli.
Born to the late Mr Michael Bampoe Addo, a former Deputy Controller and Accountant General at the Accountant General’s Department and the late Madam Victoria Duamroh, a former Senior Nursing Officer at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, life definitely began on a smooth note for Mrs Lithur.
She attended Ridge Church School, where she was imbibed with analytical skills that she continues to put to good use today.
“It was modest life. We lived normally, walking barefooted here and there, boarding ‘tro-tro’, and even doing petty trading.
“I remember my mum had a garden, so I used to sell onions on a table top. It was exciting and interesting”, she recalled.
At Wesley Girls High School, Cape Coast, where she studied and obtained her General Certificate of Examination (GCE), Ordinary and Advanced levels, the spirit of helping others was inculcated in Mrs Lithur.
“We used to go to the Ankaful Psychiatric Hospital to play with inmates, assist and entertain them. Our headmistress, Mrs Clarice Garnett, ensured that we played music and games with them.”
Mrs Lithur also engaged in voluntary and other services with several clubs, including the Red Cross, Girls Guild, Choir, the Catholic Students Association, and the Ghana United Nations Students Association (GUNSA).
She was so committed to the clubs’ activities that her mum, worried that it would adversely affect her academic performance, wrote to the school requesting that she (Mrs Lithur) be restricted to only two clubs.
“It was difficult to leave any of the clubs because they were all interesting, so I strategically participated in all of their activities, but declared only two – Choir and GUNSA – for the purposes of my terminal report.
“Wesley Girls shaped my values as a human being in terms of leadership and reaching out. The values of integrity, discipline, honesty, hard work, and strength of character were literally implanted in me. I also made lifelong friends not only at the school, but also other Cape Coast schools as well”, she said.
On the way to obtaining a Bachelor of Law (LLB) degree from the University of Ghana (UG) in 1989, Mrs Lithur continued to participate in social activities. She contested the Volta Hall Junior Common Room (JCR) presidency and lost by 46 votes.
She went on to serve as the Communications Director for the UG Students Representative Council (SRC), and participated actively in National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) activities.
Mrs Lithur was also a member of the UG hockey team, and played in several matches against other universities.
Though Mrs Lithur’s beginnings were essentially memorable and enjoyable, she had some negative experiences. Mrs Lithur recalled how in the 70s, the Head of State, General Ignatius Kutu Achaempong, sent soldiers to evict them from their quarters at Korle Bu.
General Acheampong had ordered nurses who were on strike to return to work; when they refused, he ordered the military to evict them from the hospital apartments.
'The soldiers came in armoured cars and started booting people out of their homes. My family had to escape within one hour to Lartebiokorshie. It was a scary experience that I cannot forget, she said.
She also remembers, with trepidation, the murder of three high court judges in 1983. I was in school, Wesley Girls, when we heard that some judges had been abducted. Even at my tender age, I didn't think someone could kill them.
“When the Provisional National Defence Council Chairman, Rawlings made the announcement on GTV, I was shocked. When I think about addressing human right violations in Ghana today, these are some of the things I think of, and say to myself ‘never again’.”
Mrs Lithur, who is now the Executive Director of the Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC), told The Mirror that Ghana has made progress in its human rights agenda since the institution of the 1992 constitution. However, she said a lot more needed to be done to strengthen the country’s human rights culture and standards, and ensure a better protection for human rights and a reduction of human rights violations in Ghana.
“It’s my hope that the constitutional review process will help us achieve this”, said Mrs Lithur, who also boasts a Bachelor of Law (BL) qualification from the School of Law, Accra (1992) and a Masters in Law, Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa (LLM) from the University of Pretoria, South Africa (2001).
Her advocacy centre helps poor people access justice. Since 2009, the centre has handled 677 human rights cases.
“Many people have good cases but can’t go to court because they cannot afford to secure the services of a lawyer, so in December 2010, we contacted 53 pro bono lawyers who do cases for free”, Mrs Lithur said.
The human rights lawyer said 69 cases had been referred to the 53 lawyers so far. The centre also does public interest litigation for remand prisoners, juvenile and adult prisoners at the Human Rights Court.
Mrs Lithur’s outfit also undertakes projects on research and advocacy on human rights, HIV, gender rights, maternal mortality, reproductive rights, abortion and death penalty cases.
Freedom of Information Bill
Mrs Lithur, who is also the chief advocate of the Right to Information Coalition in Ghana, expressed regret that the Freedom of Information Bill had still not been passed by Parliament. She blamed the lack of political commitment for the stalemate.
“Since 2004, we have been lobbying, advocating, sensitising, and educating people on the benefits that will accrue to Ghana if we adopt this bill.
“We believe it will enhance transparency and accountability in governance. We have challenges with corruption in Ghana; the Right to Information Bill is an effective and efficient tool for addressing this, she stressed.
Mrs Lithur went on: “From the Presidency, everyone is making the right rhetorical ‘noises’, but not whipping their majority side into ensuring that this bill is passed.
“We are asking Ghanaians to hold the National Democratic Congress (NDC) accountable, because they promised Ghanaians they would pass the bill when voted into power. It’s six months to elections and we are not seeing the bill coming out of Parliament.
“Ghanaians should ask the NDC questions about this failed promise”, she urged.
Explaining her stance on homosexuality, Mrs Lithur underscored the need for Ghana to avoid being homophobic.
She said the 1992 constitution guarantees right to life, liberty, education, free trial, and cultural rights for all persons who find themselves within the borders of Ghana.
“You cannot, on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation, say the person has not got human rights”.
She added that though anal sex - which could be between male and male or between male and female - was criminalised in Ghana, the constitution did not specifically prohibit homosexuality.
According to Mrs Lithur, even in the Bible, Jesus shunned the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were abiding by the religious rules at the time, and interacted with ‘sinners’ like Zacheaus, the woman at the well, and the adulteress who was almost stoned.
“I believe I’m living my Christian principles because if Jesus was around today, he would reach out to homosexuals, prisoners and persons living with HIV”, she said.
“I respect culture and tradition, and respect the position of Ghanaians on homosexuality; all I ask is that we accord homosexuals some respect because they are human beings”.
“I won’t advocate homosexuality, but I will not denounce it”, she added.
Mrs Lithur is a beneficiary of the ‘Vera Chirwa Award for Human Rights in Africa, 2007’, from the University of Pretoria.
She is also a recipient and champion torch bearer for women rights, one of 100 selected globally by the Danish Government in 2008.
She also received the African Servant Leadership Award in 2011; the Champion of Women’s Rights Award in 2012, and the West African Women in Leadership Award for “Distinguished Impact”.
She was selected by the Commonwealth Secretary General to be part of the Commonwealth Observer Group for the Guyana national and regional elections in November 2011. She has also been made a honourary member of the Institute of Public Relations.
Mrs Lithur has written several publications, articles and research works on human rights. She writes a column – Women and the Law - in the Daily Graphic.
She told The Mirror that she was satisfied with her achievements in life so far, and expressed appreciation to her mum, the late Madam Victoria Duamroh, her husband, Mr Tony Lithur, and her “big brother”, Mr Kenneth Kwamina Thompson, Sydney and Isaac Bampoe Addo for their continuous support and advice.
She also thanked her staff, interns and volunteers at the Human Rights Advocacy Centre for all the efforts they put in to ensure that the poor access justice.
She extended her appreciation to the Ghanaian lawyers who are doing free cases for poor and indigent clients.
Mrs Lithur urged the many youths who admire and look up to her to “pay attention to hard work, tenacity of purpose, team work, and be passionate about their vision”.
She also called on them to read about Eleanor Rossevelt, former First lady of United States of America, and Sir Winston Churchill, “the greatest Prime Minister of Britain” - two people who inspire her at all times.
“They failed several times and had several challenges, but they surmounted with steadfastness, faith in God and tenacity of purpose”, she noted.
Mrs Lithur said she would continue to play her part in deepening the human rights culture in Ghana. “I will do this diligently and in service to God and humanity”, she pledged.