Africa’s human rights landscape was shaped by violent crackdowns against peaceful protesters and concerted attacks on political opponents, human rights defenders and civil society organizations. Meanwhile, relentless violence against civilians in long-standing conflicts was compounded by the stagnation of political efforts to resolve these crises. The cycle of impunity for human rights violations and abuses committed in conflicts – including crimes under international law – continued.
Intolerance of peaceful dissent and an entrenched disregard for the right to freedom of peaceful assembly were increasingly the norm. From Lomé to Freetown, Khartoum to Kampala and Kinshasa to Luanda, there were mass arrests of peaceful protesters, as well as beatings, excessive use of force and, in some cases, killings.
Political deadlock and failures by regional and international bodies to address long-standing conflicts and their underlying causes were also in danger of becoming normalized, and leading to more violations, with impunity.
These trends occurred within a context of slow and intermittent success in reducing poverty, and limited progress in human development. According to the Africa Sustainable Development Report, the rate of decline in extreme poverty was slow; women and young people bore the brunt of poverty.
However, there were signs of hope and progress that rarely made global headlines: the courage of ordinary people and human rights defenders who stood up for justice, equality and dignity in the face of repression.
Significant reforms emerged in a few countries. Gambia rescinded its decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), freed political prisoners and promised to abolish the death penalty. Burkina Faso’s draft Constitution included provisions to strengthen human rights protection.
Notable too were landmark judicial decisions on human rights. Kenya’s High Court decision to block the government’s planned closure of Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, prevented the forcible return of more than a quarter of a million refugees to Somalia, where they were at risk of serious abuses. In Nigeria, two judgments declared threats of forced evictions without the service of statutory notices to be illegal, and found that forced evictions and the threat of such evictions amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Angola’s Constitutional Court declared legislation designed to stifle the work of civil society organizations to be unconstitutional.
Repression of dissent
Crackdown on protest
In over 20 countries, people were denied their right to peaceful protest, including through unlawful bans, use of excessive force, harassment and arbitrary arrests. The right to freedom of assembly was the exception rather than the rule.
In Angola, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Sudan, Togo and elsewhere, legal, administrative and other measures were used to impose unlawful restrictions and bans on peaceful protests.
In Angola, authorities frequently prevented peaceful demonstrations, even though no prior authorization was required in law. In Chad, at least six peaceful assemblies were banned, and many organizers and participants were arrested. In DRC, peaceful protests, particularly those related to the political crisis sparked by delayed elections, were banned and repressed. Civil society organizations, political opposition and Darfuri students in Sudan were prevented from holding events.
Use of excessive force and other abuses to disperse peaceful protests resulted in deaths, injuries and unlawful arrests in many countries. In Angola, the few demonstrations that proceeded were met with arbitrary arrests, detention and ill-treatment by police and security forces. Cameroon’s security forces violently repressed demonstrations in Anglophone regions. Kenyan police used excessive force against opposition protesters following the general election – including with live ammunition and tear gas, leaving dozens dead, at least 33 of whom were shot by police, including two children.
In Togo, at least 10 people, including three children and two members of the armed forces, were killed during a crackdown by security forces, who frequently beat and fired tear gas and live ammunition at protesters. Sierra Leone’s security forces opened fire on students demonstrating against a lecturers’ strike in the city of Bo, killing one and injuring others. Uganda’s government used raids, arrests, intimidation and harassment to stop peaceful gatherings and silence opposition to an amendment to remove the presidential age limit from the Constitution.
Attacks on human rights defenders, journalists and opposition activists
Widespread repression of dissent also manifested itself through attacks on human rights defenders, civil society organizations, journalists and bloggers.
In Cameroon, civil society activists, journalists, trade unionists and teachers were arbitrarily arrested, and some faced military court trials. The government banned the activities of political parties and civil society organizations. Many remained in detention on spurious charges relating to national security.
Chad’s authorities arrested and prosecuted human rights defenders, activists and journalists to silence criticism of the government, including in response to rising anger at the economic crisis.
In Equatorial Guinea, police detained activists, highlighting the authorities’ willingness to abuse laws to intimidate and silence dissent.
In Eritrea, thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners were detained without charge or access to lawyers or family members, many having been held for over 10 years.
In Ethiopia, arbitrary detentions continued under the state of emergency declaration, until it was lifted in June. The government ordered the release of 10,000 of the 26,000 detained in 2016 under the declaration. Meanwhile, hundreds were detained under the draconian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, often used to target government critics.
In Mauritania, Mohamed Mkhaïtir, a blogger accused of apostasy, had his death sentence commuted but remained in detention even after he had served his sentence. Meanwhile two anti-slavery activists remained in jail.
The authorities in Madagascar intimidated and harassed journalists and human rights defenders in an attempt to silence them. Those daring to speak out against illegal trafficking and exploitation of natural resources were increasingly targeted through the use of criminal charges.
Sudan’s government persisted in stifling dissent, with opposition political party members, trade union activists, human rights defenders and students increasingly targeted by the security forces; they faced arbitrary arrests and detention on trumped-up charges, and routine torture and other ill-treatment.
In Zambia, the Public Order Act was used to repress the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, particularly against critical civil society activists and opposition political party leaders. Police used excessive force against peaceful protesters while ignoring violence by ruling party loyalists against civil society activists.
In Zimbabwe, Pastor Evan Mawarire – founder of the #Thisflag movement – suffered political persecution and harassment, until he was acquitted following the change in government in November.
Ugandan academic Stella Nyanzi was detained for over one month for Facebook posts criticizing the President and his wife, who was the Minister for Education.
Emerging regressive laws and shrinking political space
Some governments moved to introduce new laws to restrict the activities of human rights defenders, journalists and opponents.
Angola’s Parliament adopted five bills containing provisions restricting freedom of expression, establishing a media regulatory body with broad oversight powers.
Legislation adopted in Côte d’Ivoire contained provisions curtailing the right to freedom of expression – including in relation to defamation, offending the President and disseminating false news.
A draft bill in Nigeria and draft amendments to Malawi’s NGO law introduced excessive, intrusive and arbitrary controls on the activities of NGOs, including human rights groups.
In at least 30 countries – more than half the countries monitored – media freedom was curtailed and journalists faced criminalization.
Misuse of the justice system to silence dissent was common in Angola where the government used defamation laws, especially against journalists and academics.
In Uganda, journalist Gertrude Uwitware was arrested for supporting Stella Nyanzi.
In Botswana, journalists faced continued harassment and intimidation for their investigative journalism; three journalists were detained and threatened with death by security agents in plain clothes after they investigated the construction of President Ian Khama’s holiday home.
Cameroon and Togo blocked the internet to prevent journalists from doing their jobs and closed media outlets.
Activists including journalists and bloggers were detained in Ethiopia and many were convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation which provided vague definitions of terrorist acts.
A military court in Cameroon sentenced Radio France Internationale journalist Ahmed Abba to 10 years’ imprisonment after an unfair trial, for exercising his right to freedom of expression. He was released in December following a decision by an appellate tribunal which reduced his sentence to 24 months.
Political repression and violations in the context of elections
Fear, intimidation and violence marred Kenya’s presidential elections. Police used excessive force against opposition protesters following the elections leaving dozens dead, including at least 33 shot by the police. Senior ruling party officials repeatedly threatened the independence of the judiciary after the Supreme Court annulled the election results. The NGOs Coordination Board threatened human rights and governance organizations with closure and other punitive measures after they criticized the electoral process.
In Rwanda’s August presidential election, incumbent Paul Kagame won a landslide victory, following constitutional changes that allowed him to contest a third term; the election took place in a climate of fear created by two decades of attacks on political opposition, independent media and human rights defenders. Potential presidential candidates were also targeted, including by smear campaigns.
The run-up to Angola’s elections in August was marked by human rights abuses – journalists and human rights defenders were repeatedly intimidated for exposing corruption and human rights violations. Protesters faced arrest and excessive use of force by police.
Political repression was rife in Burundi, with unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, and enforced disappearances across the country.
Armed conflict and violence
Although the nature and intensity of Africa’s conflicts varied, they were generally characterized by gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law – including acts constituting crimes under international law.
Amid the paralysis of regional efforts to resolve the political deadlock, intense suffering and loss of life continued in South Sudan’s four-year armed conflict, which forced millions from their homes. In the Upper Nile region, tens of thousands of civilians were forcibly displaced as government forces burned, shelled and systematically looted homes; sexual violence continued unabated. A cessation of hostilities agreement was signed in December following the forum launched by the intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to revitalize the previous peace agreement. However, soon after, renewed fighting broke out in different parts of the country.
In Sudan, the security and humanitarian situation in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan states remained dire, with widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
There was renewed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), which led to large-scale human rights violations and abuses and crimes under international law. Outside the government-controlled capital, armed groups carried out a range of abuses, and reports of sexual exploitation and abuses by UN peacekeeping troops continued.
In DRC, unprecedented violence in the Kasaï region left thousands dead and as of 25 September 1 million were internally displaced; over 35,000 people fled to neighbouring Angola. Congolese army soldiers used excessive force, killing scores of suspected members and sympathizers of the armed insurgent group Kamuena Nsapu, which, in turn, recruited children and carried out attacks on civilians and government forces. The government proxy-militia group Bana Mura was responsible for dozens of ethnic-based attacks including killings, rapes and destruction of civilian property.
In response to threats by the armed group Boko Haram and its ongoing commission of war crimes, security forces in Cameroon and Nigeria continued to commit gross human rights violations and crimes under international law. These included extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, torture and other ill-treatment, which, in some cases, led to deaths in custody. People accused of supporting Boko Haram were sentenced to death in Cameroon following unfair trials in military courts, although none were executed during the year. In Nigeria, the military arbitrarily arrested and detained incommunicado thousands of women, men and children in harsh conditions. In Niger – where the government declared a state of emergency in the western areas bordering Mali and renewed the state of emergency in the Diffa region – more than 700 suspected Boko Haram members went on trial.
Abuses by armed groups
Armed groups including al-Shabaab and Boko Haram perpetrated abuses and attacks against civilians in countries including Cameroon, CAR, DRC, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Somalia. In some cases, the attacks constituted serious abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law.
In the Lake Chad basin region, Boko Haram committed war crimes on a large scale. Boko Haram attacks targeted civilians, caused deaths and led to an increase in displacement of civilians. Resurgent attacks in Cameroon and Nigeria left hundreds of civilians dead. While 82 of the abducted schoolgirls from Chibok, northeast Nigeria, were released in May, thousands of abducted women, girls and young men were unaccounted for and faced horrific abuses, including rape. Across northeast Nigeria, 1.7 million people were displaced, bringing many to the brink of starvation.
In Mali, attacks by armed groups on civilians and peacekeepers spread from the north to the centre, and a state of emergency was extended in October for another year.
In October, al-Shabaab carried out the deadliest attack against civilians in recent times in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu; it left over 512 people dead.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Torture and other ill-treatment was reported in several countries including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Nigeria and Sudan.
Cameroon’s security forces perpetrated torture against people suspected – often without evidence – of supporting Boko Haram; these violations amounted to war crimes and the crimes were carried out with impunity.
In Ethiopia, detainees accused of terrorism repeatedly complained to the courts that police tortured and ill-treated them during interrogations. Although, in some cases, judges ordered the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to investigate the allegations, the investigations failed to adhere to international human rights standards.
On the positive side, the Anti-Torture Bill – intended to prohibit and criminalize the use of torture – was signed into law in Nigeria in December.
People on the move
Protracted conflicts, along with recurring humanitarian crises and persistent human rights violations, forced millions to flee their homes in search of protection. Refugees and migrants faced widespread abuses and violations. Millions of refugees hosted by African countries were inadequately supported by the international community.
The ongoing conflict and drought in Somalia left half the country’s population in need of humanitarian assistance, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Over a million people were internally displaced by conflict and drought during the year – adding to 1.1 million internally displaced people living in deplorable conditions in unsafe informal settlements.
In Kenya, over 285,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from Somalia remained in urgent need of protection. In February, a High Court ruling blocked the Kenyan government’s unilateral decision to shut Dadaab refugee camp, which – in violation of international law – had put more than 260,000 Somali refugees at risk of forcible return. Although Dadaab remained open, the Kenyan government continued to refuse to register new arrivals from Somalia. Over 74,000 refugees were repatriated from Dadaab to Somalia between December 2014 and November 2017 under the voluntary repatriation framework. The repatriations took place despite ongoing concerns about the “voluntary” nature of returns and despite concerns that the conditions to ensure returns in safety and dignity were not yet in place in Somalia, due to ongoing conflict and severe drought.
Hundreds of thousands of people from CAR sought refuge from conflict in neighbouring countries or were internally displaced, living in makeshift camps.
Military operations and the conflict with Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin region forced millions from their homes. In Nigeria, at least 1.7 million were internally displaced in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. UNHCR said that 5.2 million people in the northeast were in urgent need of food assistance and 450,000 children under five were in urgent need of nutrition. In Chad, over 408,000 refugees from CAR, DRC, Nigeria and Sudan lived in dire conditions in refugee camps.
Botswana denied refugees freedom of movement, the right to work and local integration; asylum-seekers faced lengthy refugee status determination procedures and detention.
Thousands continued to flee Eritrea, where the human rights situation and the imposition of indefinite military national service created major difficulties for many. They faced serious abuses in transit and in some destination countries, and many were subjected to arbitrary detention, abduction, sexual abuse and ill-treatment on their way to Europe. In August, Sudan forcibly returned more than 100 refugees to Eritrea, where they were at risk of serious human rights violations, in violation of international law.
In South Sudan, around 340,000 fled an escalation of the fighting in the Equatoria region, which led to atrocities and starvation between January and October. Mainly government – but also opposition – forces in the southern region committed crimes under international law and other serious violations and abuses, including war crimes, against civilians. More than 3.9 million people − approximately one third of the population − had been displaced since the beginning of the conflict in December 2013.
Other states did little to help neighbouring countries hosting more than 2 million refugees from South Sudan. Uganda hosted over 1 million refugees, mostly children, and encountered difficulties in implementing its progressive and widely respected refugee policy, due to chronic underfunding by the international community. Consequently, the Ugandan government, UNHCR and NGOs struggled to meet refugees’ basic needs.
Failure to ensure justice, redress and the holding of suspected perpetrators to account remained a key driver of human rights violations and abuses in a wide range of contexts and countries.
In CAR, some progress was made towards operationalizing the Special Criminal Court, which was established to try individuals suspected of serious human rights violations and crimes under international law committed during the country’s 14-year conflict. The Court’s Special Prosecutor took office in May, but the Court was not yet operational and impunity remained the norm.
In South Sudan, three transitional justice bodies provided for in the 2015 peace agreement had still not been established. In July, a joint roadmap for the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan was agreed between the African Union (AU) Commission and the government; discussions continued on the instruments for the establishment of the Court, but nothing was formally adopted.
In Nigeria – amid concerns about independence and impartiality – a Special Board of Inquiry, established by the army to investigate allegations of gross human rights violations, cleared senior military officers of crimes under international law. Its report was not made public. In August, the acting President set up a presidential investigation panel to probe allegations of human rights violations carried out by the military; the panel held public hearings between September and November but there was no outcome by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Nigerian authorities held mass secret trials for Boko Haram suspects; 50 defendants were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment in a trial that took place over four days.
In DRC, the killing of two UN experts and the disappearance of their Congolese interpreter and three of their drivers, in Kasaï Central Province in March, illustrated the urgent need to end violence in the region. The Congolese authorities’ investigation was not transparent or credible. In June, the UN Human Rights Council decided to dispatch a team of international experts to DRC to help in investigations. In July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights appointed a team of three experts whose findings were expected in June 2018.
In Ethiopia, the police and army continued to enjoy impunity for violations committed in 2015 and 2016. The government rejected calls for independent and impartial investigations into violations committed in the context of protests in various regional states.
The Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal upheld the conviction and sentence of life imprisonment of former Chadian President Hissène Habré for war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture.
International Criminal Court
Burundi became the first State Party to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the ICC in October. Despite this, in November, the Pre-Trial Chamber made public its decision to authorize the ICC Prosecutor to open an investigation regarding crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court allegedly committed in Burundi – or by nationals of Burundi outside the country – between April 2015 and October 2017.
However, developments in Africa suggested a tempering of the rhetoric calling for withdrawal from the ICC. The AU adopted a decision in January, which despite its misleading title, outlined plans for engagement with the ICC and other stakeholders. More encouragingly, member states – including Senegal, Nigeria, Cape Verde, Malawi, Tanzania, Tunisia, Zambia and Liberia – expressly stated their support for the ICC and rejected any notion of mass withdrawal.
Gambia’s new government revoked its withdrawal from the Rome Statute, while Botswana’s Parliament passed a bill incorporating the Rome Statute into domestic law.
In March, the South African government announced it would revoke its 2016 notice of intention to withdraw from the Rome Statue after the North Gauteng High Court decision held that withdrawal from the ICC without consulting Parliament was unconstitutional and invalid. However, a draft bill to repeal the Rome Statue Domestication Act was introduced to Parliament in early December 2017, signalling the government’s intention to pursue its decision to leave the ICC.
Meanwhile, the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber ruled that South Africa should have executed the arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir during his 2015 visit to the country. The ruling confirmed that President Al-Bashir did not have immunity from arrest and that any states party to the Rome Statute were obliged to arrest him if he entered their territory, and hand him over to the Court.
In its December preliminary report, the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC announced that it was continuing its analysis of the potential eight crimes it had previously identified as having been allegedly committed in Nigeria, as well as gathering evidence on new crimes, but was yet to reach a decision on whether to open an investigation.
Discrimination and marginalization
Discrimination, marginalization and abuse of women and girls – often arising from cultural traditions and institutionalized by unjust laws – continued in a number of countries. Women and girls were subjected to rape and other sexual violence, including in the context of conflicts and in countries with large numbers of refugee and internally displaced populations.
Pregnant girls continued to be excluded from school in countries including Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea. In June, Tanzania’s President announced a ban on pregnant girls returning to public-funded schools – fuelling stigma and discrimination against girls and victims of sexual violence.
Gender-based violence against women and girls was prevalent in several countries including Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland.
In countries including Burkina Faso, lack of medical equipment, medication and staffing in hospitals left pregnant women and infants at serious risk of birth complications, infection and death. Female genital mutilation rates decreased; however, despite being outlawed, the practice remained widespread.
Unsafe abortions contributed to one of Africa’s highest rates of maternal death and injury in Liberia, where affordable and accessible abortion services were largely unavailable to rape survivors.
Despite its progressive abortion laws, women and girls faced substantial barriers to legal abortion services in South Africa and faced serious risks to health, and even death, from unsafe abortions. The government failed to address the refusal of health care professionals to provide abortions.
In Angola, the government proposed an amendment to the Penal Code, which would decriminalize abortion in certain limited cases, but Parliament rejected the proposal. After a public outcry, the parliamentary vote on the legislation was postponed indefinitely.
People with albinism
Superstitions about the magical powers of people with albinism fuelled a surge of attacks against them; in Malawi and Mozambique, they were abducted and killed for their body parts. In Mozambique, a seven-year-old boy was murdered when unidentified men abducted him from his home. Despite public outcry, the government took little action.
Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people
LGBTI people faced discrimination, prosecution, harassment and violence, including in Senegal, Ghana, Malawi and Nigeria. In Ghana, the parliamentary Speaker called for a constitutional amendment to make homosexuality illegal and punishable by law. In Liberia, a man arrested in 2016 and charged with “voluntary sodomy” under the Penal Code, remained in detention awaiting trial. In Nigeria, arrest, public shaming, extortion of and discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation were reported.
In a landmark decision in Botswana, a High Court ordered the government to change the gender marker in the identity document of a transgender woman, ruling that its refusal to do so was unreasonable and in violation of her rights.
Right to housing and forced evictions
Amid increasing urbanization, unemployment, poverty and inequality, many countries failed to ensure accessible, affordable and habitable housing.
A landslide at a vast rubbish dump on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital caused 115 deaths. Most of the victims lived next to the site and supported themselves by recycling rubbish.
At least 10 people, including two children, were also killed in a landslide at a rubbish dump in Guinea.
In Lagos state in Nigeria, authorities forcibly evicted at least 5,000 people from the Otodo-Gbame and Ilubirin waterfront neighbourhoods, while security services fired tear gas and live bullets to clear the area. The forced evictions were in violation of a High Court order restraining authorities from carrying out demolitions in these communities.
On the other hand, a High Court ruling in Nigeria declared the planned demolition of Mpape settlement in Abuja illegal, thereby offering relief to hundreds of thousands of residents. The Court ruled that the authorities were obliged to refrain from forced evictions and should develop policies to implement the right to adequate housing.
Business and corporate accountability
In DRC, children and adults risked their lives and health working in cobalt mines for a dollar a day. In South Africa, Lonmin Plc, a UK-based platinum mining giant, allowed its workforce to live in squalor in Marikana, in spite of making legally binding commitments to build 5,500 new houses over 10 years before. No one was held to account for the killing in 2012 of 34 people protesting against poor conditions at the mine.
At the same time, there were growing signs of public pressure, action and demands for corporate accountability in various countries.
In June, a landmark civil case was launched against Shell in the Netherlands – accusing it of complicity in the unlawful arrest, detention and execution of the Ogoni nine, hanged by Nigeria’s military government in 1995. International organizations called for Shell to be investigated for its part in these serious human rights violations committed by the Nigerian security forces in Ogoniland in the 1990s.
Some governments took positive steps. The DRC government committed to end child labour in the mining sector by 2025, in what could be a significant step towards eradicating the use of children as young as seven in dangerous mining work. Ghana ratified the UN Minamata Convention on Mercury, which aims to protect workers from toxic liquid metal by reducing mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining and to protect children from exposure.
While 2017 saw protracted and, in some cases, deepening challenges to the state of human rights in Africa, it also offered hope and opportunities for change. A key source of hope lay in the countless people across the region who stood up for human rights, justice and dignity – often risking their lives and freedoms.
Africa’s regional bodies remained key to the realization of positive change; they too are presented with many opportunities. During the year, the AU endorsed an ambitious plan to realize its commitment to “silence the guns” by 2020. It embarked on a major institutional reform agenda, which includes mobilizing significant resources for its operations and for peace and security interventions. This holistic approach and the AU’s ambition to address the root causes of conflict offer real opportunities to mobilize an effective regional response for better protection of civilians, respect for human rights and tackling the entrenched culture of impunity.
The year also marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which – despite many challenges – made significant contributions towards the promotion and protection of human rights, including by formulating an impressive list of instruments and standards. In 2017 alone, the Commission adopted at least 13 such instruments; these gave specific content to the broad provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.
The Commission should build on these successes and work towards refining and strengthening its processes and mechanisms; it needs to develop a single set of consolidated state reporting guidelines and to apply consistently the Commission’s procedure for following up the implementation of its decisions and recommendations to states.