West and Central African states must stop persecuting human rights defenders who expose corruption, bribery and abuse of office, and instead take concrete and effective measures to protect and support them, Amnesty International said today, in observing African Anti-Corruption Day. Today marks the 20th anniversary of the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption.
In a new report, Anti-Corruption Fight in Peril: Crackdown on Anti-Corruption Human Rights Defenders in West and Central Africa, the organisation reveals how anti-corruption activists in 19 West and Central African countries risk arrest, harassment, detention, hefty fines and even death for speaking out against corruption. Others are targeted with court cases and criminal prosecutions in attacks on their right to freedom of expression.
“The repression faced by anti-corruption human rights defenders in West and Central Africa is shocking. These individuals play a critical role in fighting corruption and thus defending human rights. Yet they routinely endure attacks, intimidation, harassment, and persecution for exposing the truth.Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“Governments in the region must live up to their international human rights obligations to respect, protect, promote, and fulfil the rights of those who take a stand against corruption and defend human rights. They must address the pervasive culture of impunity that continues to fuel endemic corruption, contributes to further violations of human rights, and denies victims access to justice and effective remedies.”
Anti-corruption activists subject to repression and abuse
“Corruption is a human rights issue. It interferes with the effective enjoyment of individual and collective rights guaranteed under international and regional human rights treaties. It hinders the ability of law enforcement officers, judges, prosecutors and lawyers to carry out their duties impartially. Corruption leads to ill-treatment, torture, or deaths in custody. It deprives economically and socially vulnerable groups of income. It undermines states’ ability to meet their human rights obligations,” said Agnès Callamard.
Yet those who shed light on these abuses are routinely subjected to repression, intimidation and harassment by authorities across West and Central Africa. This includes the use of defamation and “fake news” laws, disproportionate fines, arbitrary arrests, and threats and physical violence to silence activists and journalists exposing corrupt practices.
In Niger, journalist and blogger Samira Sabou was convicted in January 2022 of “defamation by electronic communication” under the country’s cybercriminal law, and sentenced to one month in prison and a US$100 fine. The prosecution stemmed from her decision to republish a May 2021 article from the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), which alleged that a drug shipment seized by the Nigerien anti-trafficking agency was reacquired by drug traffickers and leaked back into the market.
In a separate case dating from June 2020, Sabou was accused of defamation following a complaint filed by Sani Mahamadou Issoufou, Minister of Petroleum, Energy and Renewable Energies, and son of Niger’s former president Mahamadou Issoufou. The complaint was filed after a Facebook user mentioned Issoufou’s name in a comment in response to a Facebook post Sabou had published about alleged corruption in the purchase of arms. Although Sabou did not mention the former president’s son by name, she was arrested and immediately transferred to Niamey prison.
“I was summoned to court as a witness. Once at the courthouse, I was no longer treated as a witness. I was asked to tell them who are behind some of the pseudonyms that appear on my Facebook account, and I told them that I don’t know. When they realized that I could not provide that information, the prosecutor told me that he was sending me to prison while he finished his investigation. I was four months pregnant; I was not a danger to society, and I had never been imprisoned. [Yet] I spent 48 days in prison,” she told Amnesty International in February 2023.
In Togo, journalist Ferdinand Ayité was arrested on 10 December 2021 after accusing two members of the Togolese government of corruption on his YouTube channel “L’autre journal”. On 15 March 2023, Ayité was sentenced with another colleague to three years in prison and a fine of XOF 3 million (US$5,000) for “contempt of authorities” and “propagation of falsehoods”. The journalists appealed the decision but were forced to flee the country for their safety.
In Cameroon, Martinez Zogo, a journalist and head of the privately-owned radio station Amplitude FM, was abducted by unidentified men on 17 January 2023. His mutilated body was found in a wasteland in the suburbs of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, on 22 January 2023. Zogo had been investigating and reporting on the alleged embezzlement of hundreds of billions of CFA francs by political and business figures close to the government.
Better laws needed to protect anti-corruption human rights defenders
There are few laws protecting anti-corruption human rights defenders (HRDs), and biased judicial institutions and a culture of impunity allow corrupt practices to go unpunished. In addition, authorities in many countries have adopted repressive laws to restrict human rights and have weaponized existing laws to silence critical voices, including whistleblowers, who play a crucial role in reporting wrongdoing.
Amnesty International is calling on states to enact and strengthen laws that would protect anti-corruption human rights defenders (HRDs) from retaliation and that would create an environment where they can safely investigate and report on corruption and its human rights implications. Currently, only Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Niger have adopted laws on protecting HRDs, and only Ghana has specific legislation protecting whistleblowers.
Ten countries in the region have adopted access to information laws, which allow citizens to obtain information held by public bodies and hold powerful individuals and entities to account. However, high fees imposed by information holders and misconceptions that these laws are solely for journalists remain a challenge
Amnesty International is also calling on all states to adopt laws and policies and implement practices to robustly protect against corruption and prosecute those responsible for it.
Corruption is a scourge — it has a destructive effect on fundamental human rights across West and Central Africa. Instead of prosecuting those who expose corruption, authorities should protect the rights of anti-corruption HRDs and ensuring that civil society and the press can speak truth to power for the enjoyment of all human rights in the region.Agnès Callamard