Rights Today in Africa – 2018

The “third struggle” for freedom in Africa

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948, much of Africa was still in its first struggle for liberation from colonial rule. Only three African countries were present at the UN for the vote: Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa. Apartheid South Africa abstained.

After independence came the struggle to guarantee human rights in law and practice, often against a backdrop of one-party states, brutal repression and persecution of dissenters.

Today, the struggle is far from won, but the intervening decades have seen extraordinary progress.

Human rights defenders’ tireless campaigning, often at great personal risk, has led to the Universal Declaration’s founding principles – including freedom from fear and want – being enshrined in regional human rights treaties, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as in the national laws of most, if not all, African countries.

But the struggle continues: a fierce “third” struggle to make national laws and regional human rights obligations and commitments worth more than just the paper they are written on. While sub-Saharan African states have become adept at speaking the language of human rights, too many continued in 2018 to brutally repress dissent and restrict the space in which individuals and organizations can defend human rights.

Eskinder Nega, Ethiopian journalist

In 2018, I was released. Not because the government changed its mind, but because the people demanded the release of detained activists, journalists and bloggers.

State-sponsored intimidation and harassment

In the south, critics of the Zambian government have been harassed and charged on spurious grounds. The most prominent example involves the ongoing trial of six activists, including rapper Fumba Chama (also known as Pilato), who were arrested in September for protesting against exorbitant levels of government spending.

Mozambiqueimposed prohibitively high accreditation fees on journalists and media houses in July, in an attempt to clamp down on independent reporting. In March, Ericino de Salema, a journalist, was kidnapped and beaten, contributing to a growing climate of fear. The continuing persecution faced by environmental rights activists in Madagascar is illustrated by the suspended sentences against Raleva and Christopher Manenjika which were confirmed on appeal in May and June respectively.

In Niger, Moussa Tchangari, Ali Idrissa, Nouhou Arzika and Lirwana Abdourahmane, prominent activists, were detained in March for organizing protests against a new finance law. Lirwana Abdourahmane remains in jail. The Sierra Leonean authorities continue to restrict peaceful demonstrations, while the killings of protesters by police go unpunished. In Togo, authorities arrested pro-democracy activists including Atikpo Bob in January. Naïm Touré, an online activist in Burkina Faso, was sentenced to two months in prison in July for a Facebook post. In Mauritania, journalists and anti-slavery activists were arrested ahead of the September parliamentary elections. They include Biram Dah Abeid, who remains in detention.

Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, this pattern of state-sponsored intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders persists. For example there were renewed attacks on freedom of expression in Uganda via a tax on social media use, introduced in July, and several MPs were arrested after participating in a protest march.

In Sudan, opposition figures and human rights defenders were arbitrarily arrested, including 140 activists detained in January and February following sporadic protests over rising food and medicine costs.

In South Sudan, civil society activists continued to be arbitrarily detained, including Bashir Ahmed Mohamed Babiker, a human rights defender, arrested in August.

Eritrea continued its policy of zero tolerance for any form of dissent or free media. In September, Berhane Abrehe, former Finance Minister, became yet one more of the thousands of prisoners of conscience and other detainees after he published a book calling for a peaceful transition to democracy.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there was a widespread crackdown on peaceful protests, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries and the sentencing to 12 months’ imprisonment in September of four pro-democracy activists, all members of the Filimbi citizens’ movement.

In Cameroon, Franklin Mowha, a civil society leader, was subjected to a possible enforced disappearance while on a fact-finding mission in the south-west to document internal displacement and the denial of justice. His case illustrates the government’s brutal crackdown and its suppression of information connected with ongoing clashes between the military and armed separatist groups in the Anglophone regions.

The backlash against human rights, and regressive measures to restrict the space in which individuals can defend rights is also evident at the continental bodies level. The independence and autonomy of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Africa’s main regional human rights treaty body – suffered a severe setback in August when it revoked the observer status granted to the Coalition of African Lesbians, a civil society organization registered in South Africa. The move came after immense political pressure from the African Union’s Executive Council.

Not all bad news for human rights defenders

Despite the widespread challenges, however, there is some good news for African human rights defenders.

In a few countries, leadership change has provided the impetus for significant improvements. In Ethiopia, thousands of people were released from detention in the first half of 2018, among them Eskinder Nega, the renowned journalist and prisoner of conscience, imprisoned since 2011 on trumped-up terrorism charges. The new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, introduced further reforms, including lifting the ban on several opposition parties, initiating the reform of repressive laws and removing arbitrary restrictions on websites and online media groups. However, there were major setbacks. Prisons filled up again when, in September, police arrested more than 3,000 young people and arbitrarily detained over 1,000 in Addis Ababa, including peaceful protesters, claiming it was containing “rising criminality”.

Amidst unprecedented steps towards tackling endemic corruption in Angola after President João Lourenço succeeded the long-serving Eduardo dos Santos in 2017, human rights defenders saw encouraging signs that they would be protected. These included the court acquittals of Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Brás, prominent journalists, in July. However, there have been no steps towards investigating past human rights abuses by security forces.

Other notable victories for human rights defenders included the release in April of Tadjadine Mahamat Babouri, known as Mahadine, arrested in September 2016 and tortured in prison for posting online criticism of the Chadian government’s alleged mismanagement of public funds. Meanwhile, international pressure led to the release of Ramón Esono Ebalé, an Equatorial Guinean cartoonist and activist, after six months in Malabo prison.

In Sudan,Matar Younis, a teacher, was released in July after spending a month in prison for criticizing the government’s inhumane practices in Darfur. In Rwanda, Victoire Ingabire, a jailed opposition leader, was pardoned by the President in September. Both countries, however, continue to detain real or perceived opponents.

Ordinary people: extraordinary bravery

The best news of all, however, is the ongoing extraordinary bravery displayed by ordinary people across Africa, including countless courageous women human rights defenders, who exemplify resilience in the face of repression. Women like Wanjeri Nderu, who spearheads a campaign against extrajudicial killings in Kenya; Nonhle Mbuthuma, the land rights activist in South Africa who continues to advocate on behalf of her community despite being mistreated by police during a protest in September; and Nigeria’s Aisha Yesufu and Obiageli ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili, co-founders of the #BringBackOurGirls movement who were arrested in January during a sit-in in the capital, Abuja.

There is no doubt that these are difficult times for human rights defenders in sub-Saharan Africa and, indeed, around the world. Although their work remains dangerous, it is also demonstrably effective. This year proved that Africa’s governments do respond to public pressure. Even in an increasingly hostile atmosphere, the courage, dedication and selflessness of the continent’s human rights defenders are keeping human rights at the front and centre of the regional agenda. In the year that the Universal Declaration turns 70, it is imperative that we acknowledge their victories, resilience and bravery.