Civilians continued to pay the price of protracted armed conflicts in Africa. Parties to the conflicts in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. In certain cases, such violations amounted to crimes against humanity. The pursuit of justice for victims proved largely to be elusive. Conflicts displaced millions, yet the humanitarian and security situations in refugee and internally displaced people (IDP) camps remained precarious.
As conflicts raged, the Covid-19 pandemic tore through Africa with a devastating impact on human rights. Governments’ efforts to stem its tide were hindered by the global vaccine inequality created by pharmaceutical companies and wealthy nations. By the year’s end, less than 8% of the continent’s 1.2 billion people had been fully vaccinated. The pandemic led to school closures and disruption to learning, with children in conflict-affected countries experiencing additional difficulties in accessing education. In several countries, forced evictions were carried out regardless of the pandemic, leaving tens of thousands homeless.
Measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 provided governments with a justification for repressing the right to dissent and other freedoms. Many governments banned peaceful protests, citing health and safety concerns. When people defied bans and poured onto the streets, security forces used excessive force to break them up. Authorities also continued to silence human rights defenders or to criminalize them. Governments took measures to close civic space and curtail media freedom, and weaponized sedition, terrorism and criminal defamation laws.
Gender discrimination and other forms of inequality remained entrenched in African countries. Major concerns included spikes in gender-based violence, limited access to sexual and reproductive health services and information, early and forced marriages, and the exclusion of pregnant girls from schools. Meanwhile, LGBTI people faced harassment, arrest and prosecution for their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Several countries were particularly affected by drought aggravated by climate change, while concerns relating to environmental degradation emerged in others.
Unlawful attacks and killings
Targeted attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure were pervasive in every conflict in the region. In Cameroon’s Far North region, Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) had killed at least 70 civilians in around 51 attacks by 24 October. In CAR, national forces and their allies targeted a mosque in February, killing 14 people. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) said that 228 civilians were killed between June and October as a result of the conflict. In Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), national security forces, and militia groups were responsible for the massacre, in many cases based on ethnic identity, of hundreds of civilians, including in the towns of Bora, Edaga Berhe and Adi-Goshu. In Niger, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) attacked villagers and traders in the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions. Three such attacks between January and March resulted in at least 298 civilian deaths. In North East Nigeria, Boko Haram and ISWAP carried out at least 30 attacks causing more than 123 civilian deaths.
Indiscriminate attacks that killed and injured civilians were also common in each of the region’s conflicts. In CAR, improvised explosive devices killed at least 15 people in the first half of the year. In Ethiopia, an airstrike by the Ethiopian military on a market in Edaga Selus village in Tigray killed more than 50 civilians and wounded many more. Similarly, an artillery attack, allegedly by TPLF forces, killed six people in a residential area in Debre Tabor town in Amhara region. In Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado conflict, the Dyck Advisory Group, a private military company hired by the government as a quick reaction force, fired machine guns and dropped explosives indiscriminately from their helicopters, often failing to distinguish between civilian and military targets.
In North East Nigeria, at least 16 people were killed and 47 injured in February when Boko Haram fired rocket-propelled grenades on parts of Maiduguri city, Borno state. In September, nine people were killed and several injured during a military air strike in Buwari village, Yobe state. In Somalia, the UN documented 241 civilian deaths and 295 injuries between February and July. The armed group, Al-Shabaab, caused 68% of the casualties during indiscriminate attacks; the rest were attributed to state security forces, clan militias, and international and regional forces including the African Union Mission in Somalia.
Almost all actors involved in Africa’s armed conflicts deployed sexual violence as a war tactic. In CAR, MINUSCA documented 131 such cases, including 115 rapes, between January and June. In DRC, conflict-related sexual violence remained widespread – at least 1,100 women were raped in North Kivu and Ituri alone between January and September, according to the UN. In Ethiopia, parties to the conflict committed widespread rape against women and girls in Tigray and Amhara. In South Sudan, the UN estimated that state security forces and non-state armed actors committed at least 63 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence, including rape, gang rape and forced nudity. In Niger, members of the Chadian contingent of the G5 Sahel raped two women and an 11-year-old girl in April in Tera, Tillabéri region.
Blockades and restrictions on humanitarian access were also used as a war tactic in some conflicts. In Burkina Faso, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) blockaded Mansila town, Yagha province, causing food insecurity among the population. In Mali, GSIM blockaded many villages and communities, restricting villagers’ free movement and access to farmland and water, to force them to cease collaboration with the army. Denial of, and restrictions to, humanitarian access by armed groups and vigilante groups or governments continued in Cameroon, DRC, Ethiopia and South Sudan. This contributed to leaving over 5 million people in Ethiopia, 19.6 million in DRC, and 8.3 million in South Sudan in dire need of humanitarian assistance according to UN estimates, particularly food and medicine.
In several countries, many people were killed in spates of inter-communal violence and political unrest. In Cameroon, people, healthcare facilities and schools in anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions were targeted by suspected armed separatists. These abuses happened in the context of growing inter-communal tensions. In Ethiopia, ethnic violence claimed at least 1,500 lives in Afar, Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia and Somali regions. In Nigeria, inter-communal violence between herders and farming communities, as well as attacks by bandits, resulted in more than 3,494 deaths. In South Africa, violence triggered by former president Jacob Zuma’s arrest resulted in at least 360 deaths.
In almost every country, perpetrators of crimes under international law, and other serious human rights violations and abuses, enjoyed impunity. In Burkina Faso, two members of armed group Ansaroul Islam were convicted on terrorism-related charges, but no significant progress was made in the investigation into the unlawful killing in 2019 of 50 people and the enforced disappearance of 66 others, allegedly by the armed group Koglweogo in Yirgou village, Sanmatenga province. In CAR, the Special Criminal Court announced that it had issued 25 arrest warrants, but none of them have been successfully implemented to date. While the government established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations committed by all parties since the beginning of the offensive by armed group Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), it did not make its report or next steps public.
In DRC, at least 80 army and police officers were prosecuted in North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri, Tanganyika and Kasaï provinces for serious crimes including sexual violence. Former Congolese warlord Roger Lumbala was arrested by French authorities over war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, many other perpetrators of crimes under international law in DRC continued to enjoy impunity. In Mali, trials on terrorism charges took place but there were concerns about whether they met international fair trial standards. Meanwhile, there was little progress in the investigation of crimes under international law committed by armed groups and the military.
In Rwanda, Jean-Claude Iyamuremye, accused of being a leader of the Interahamwe militia in Kicukiro commune during the 1994 genocide, was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Two genocide suspects were extradited from the USA to Rwanda to stand trial while another suspect was extradited from the Netherlands. In South Sudan, the government seemingly prioritized truth over trials, continuing to delay and block the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. In Sudan, the year ended without anyone being held accountable for the killing of at least 100 protesters on 3 June 2019. Authorities also continued to fail in their obligation to transfer Omar al Bashir and two other suspects to the ICC to answer charges of crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes in Darfur.
Economic, social and cultural rights
Right to health
The Covid-19 pandemic continued to tear through Africa with a devastating impact on human rights. Nearly 9 million cases and more than 220,000 deaths were recorded during the year. South Africa remained the epicentre of the pandemic, in terms of reported cases and deaths. Governments’ efforts to stem the tide of Covid-19 were hindered by inequality in the global distribution of the vaccine, created by pharmaceutical companies and wealthy nations. Pharmaceutical companies prioritized delivering vaccines to high-income countries, who in turn stockpiled more doses than they could use. Rich countries also blocked attempts to increase supplies to low and middle-income countries by supporting the temporary waiver of intellectual property rights and increased sharing of technology and know-how.
Covid-19 vaccines were mainly supplied to African countries through the COVAX facility, the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Trust and bilateral donations. Too often, supplies were insufficient, or their arrival times unpredictable, making it hard for governments to build trust among their populations and structure effective roll out campaigns. In countries like DRC, Malawi and South Sudan vaccine deliveries arrived with short expiry dates forcing authorities to destroy supplies or return the bulk for reallocation to other countries. Supply problems made it more difficult to ensure vaccines reached vulnerable groups, including older people and those with chronic conditions. Internal factors impeding effective vaccination programmes in Africa included inequality, vaccine hesitancy and national insecurity. Less than 8% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people were fully vaccinated at the year’s end, the lowest rate in the world and a far cry from the WHO’s 40% vaccination target.
The Covid-19 pandemic continued to highlight the region’s chronic lack of investment in health sectors over many decades. The already inadequate healthcare systems in most countries were severely strained, especially during the pandemic’s third wave. In Somalia, only one hospital in Mogadishu, the capital, handled all Covid-19-related cases across south central regions for much of the year. With about 91% of their beds occupied during July, private and public hospitals in the Gauteng province of South Africa struggled to cope. In Congo, DRC, Nigeria and Togo, health workers went on strike or organized sit-ins to denounce dysfunctional health systems or to demand months of unpaid salaries. Allegations of corruption, including in relation to Covid-19 funds, further undermined health sectors in many countries, including Cameroon and South Africa.
Right to education
School closures and other disruptions to learning due to the pandemic remained a major concern. In Chad, girls’ enrolment in secondary schools fell from 31% in 2017 to 12% in 2021 due to school closures and high rates of early and forced marriage. In South Africa, approximately 750,000 children had dropped out of school by May, over three times the pre-pandemic number of 230,000. In Uganda, where schools began a phased reopening in February but closed again in June, the National Planning Authority predicted that more than 30% of learners would not return to school.
Children in conflict-affected countries experienced unique and profound difficulties in accessing education. In Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Niger, Boko Haram, GSIM, ISGS and other armed groups continued to prohibit “western education” and committed war crimes by attacking schools. Meanwhile, threats and violence continued to deter teachers from going to work. In Burkina Faso, UNICEF reported that 2,682 schools remained closed, affecting 304,564 students and 12,480 teachers. In CAR, the CPC attacked or occupied at least 37 schools between January and June. In Niger, 377 schools in the Tillabéri region had closed by June, by which time over 50% of seven-to-16-year-olds nationwide were not enrolled in schools, according to UNICEF.
Right to housing
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, forced evictions were recorded in several countries, leaving tens of thousands homeless. In Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, forced evictions were mainly carried out in urban centres, involving the demolition of hundreds of homes built on what the respective governments called illegal settlements. Other forced evictions in the region were driven by economic interests. In Uganda’s Kiryandongo district, more than 35,000 people were forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for industrial farming projects. In Zimbabwe, thousands of villagers were driven from their land in Chisumbanje to allow a fuel company to expand its sugarcane fields.
On a positive note, courts in Kenya and Uganda affirmed the right to housing and condemned forced evictions. The Supreme Court of Kenya ruled that the 2013 eviction of residents of City Carton, an informal settlement in Nairobi, the capital, violated their right to housing. The Constitutional Court of Uganda found that the Wildlife Authority had illegally evicted the Batwa Indigenous people from their ancestral land in the Mgahinga forest in the south-west.
Repression of dissent
Protests and the use of excessive force
Measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 provided a pretext for the repression of peaceful dissent and other rights which continued unabated across the region. The first instinct of many governments was to ban peaceful protests, citing health and safety concerns, including in Cameroon, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire. Meanwhile, in countries like Eswatini and South Sudan, organizers were arrested beforehand, and the internet disrupted in what may have amounted to efforts to derail planned protests. Security forces used excessive force to break up peaceful protests of hundreds or thousands of people who defied bans. In over 12 countries, including Angola, Benin, Chad, Eswatini, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Sudan, many people died when security forces fired live ammunition. In Eswatini, the violent dispersal of pro-democracy protests that began in May resulted in 80 deaths and more than 200 injuries by October. In Sudan, at least 53 people died when security forces used live ammunition to disperse protests against the October military coup.
Peaceful protesters also faced arbitrary arrest and prosecution. In Chad, at least 700 people protesting against the electoral process and later against the establishment of the transitional government were arrested. In DRC, three activists arrested in North Kivu for organizing a peaceful sit-in to protest mismanagement in a local healthcare administration remained in detention. In Eswatini, at least 1,000 pro-democracy protesters, including 38 children, were arbitrarily arrested.
Human rights defenders and freedom of association
The defence of human rights remained an act of courage. Authorities sought to silence human rights defenders or to criminalize them. Along with opposition activists, they were arrested and judicially harassed in many countries, including Benin, Congo, DRC, Eswatini, Kenya, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In DRC, two whistleblowers were sentenced to death in their absence after they revealed financial transactions made for the benefit of individuals and entities under international sanctions. In Rwanda, Yvonne Idamange, a YouTuber, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for criticizing government policy. Authorities in Congo, Niger, Zambia and elsewhere used criminal defamation laws to intimidate and muzzle critics. Trumped-up charges were brought against critics under Eswatini’s terrorism and sedition laws.
Some human rights defenders paid the ultimate price. Joannah Stutchbury, an environmental activist in Kenya, was shot dead at her home in July after receiving death threats. Two journalists were also killed in Somalia.
Laws and policies to restrict the space for NGOs were introduced or implemented in several countries. In Togo, the government suspended the granting and renewal of NGO licences. The Ugandan government ordered the immediate suspension of 54 organizations for allegedly failing to comply with NGO legislation. In Zimbabwe, NGOs were directed to submit work plans to authorities before carrying out activities in Harare, the capital. The High Court ruled that the directive was unconstitutional. Subsequently an amendment to the Private Voluntary Organizations Act regulations, allowing for the closure of organizations suspected of funding, or campaigning for, politicians during elections was gazetted.
Governments continued to curtail media freedom. In Angola, Burkina Faso, DRC, Madagascar, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo and elsewhere newspapers and radio and TV stations were suspended. In some countries, such as Ghana and Zambia, authorities stormed media houses disrupting live programmes and destroying property. In Zambia, for example, unidentified people set fire to Kalungwishi radio station in Chiengi district in June. In Nigeria, media organizations staged a campaign tagged “Information Blackout” to protest against two bills which threatened to tighten media regulation and undermine access to information.
Internet disruptions and shutdowns and suspension of social media were recorded, including in Eswatini, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia. In June, Nigerian authorities suspended Twitter after the site deleted a controversial tweet from President Buhari for violating its community rule.
Rights of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people
Conflicts that raged across the region continued to displace millions from their homes, including 1.5 million people in DRC during 2021, bringing the total number of IDPs in the country to 5 million. In Somalia, where more than 2.6 million people were internally displaced in previous years, 573,000 people fled their homes between January and August. Most of the region’s refugees were hosted by a handful of countries, including Cameroon, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Rwanda and Sudan while Uganda had the largest refugee population in Africa with over 1.5 million. Paradoxically, some host countries, such as DRC and Ethiopia, also produced large numbers of refugees.
The humanitarian and security situations in nearly all the region’s refugee and IDP camps remained precarious. Lack of adequate access to food, water, education, health and housing, sometimes because of blockades and restrictions of humanitarian access, was common. In March, the Kenyan government gave UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, a 14-day ultimatum to close the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps. The threat was later retracted, and the closure of the camps postponed to June 2022. In Niger, ISGS attacked settlements inhabited by Malian refugees in Intikane, Tahoua region, killing dozens of people. In Tanzania, the police and intelligence services, in cooperation with the Burundian intelligence services, continued to use violence, arbitrary arrests, strict encampment policies and threats of deportation to pressure Burundian refugees to leave the country.
Discrimination and marginalization
Women’s and girls’ rights
Gender discrimination and inequality remained entrenched in African countries. Major concerns documented in the region included spikes in gender-based violence, limited access to sexual and reproductive health services and information, the persistence of early and forced marriage, and the exclusion of pregnant girls from schools.
Restrictive lockdown measures enforced by governments to curb the spread of Covid-19 contributed to soaring rates of sexual and gender-based violence across the region. Gender-based violence reached crisis levels in South Africa where official crime statistics showed a 74.1% increase in all sexual offences. There were also at least 117 cases of femicide in the first half of the year.
Specific cases of gender-based violence in the region triggered public outrage and calls for action. Women in Chad protested in the streets against sexual violence and a culture of impunity for perpetrators after the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl was filmed and shared on social media. In South Africa, the killing of Nosicelo Mtebeni, a 23-year-old law student, by her boyfriend led to a public outcry. Her body was dismembered and placed in a suitcase and in plastic bags.
While gender-based violence spiked, access to protection and support services for survivors, as well as to sexual and reproductive health services and information, remained limited across the region. Early and forced marriages persisted in many countries. In Namibia, it emerged that a four-year-old’s parents had married her to a 25-year-old man when she was two. In Equatorial Guinea, a ban on pregnant girls attending school continued. In Tanzania the Ministry of Education announced in November that it would lift a similar ban.
Legislative proposals to address specific forms of gender discrimination were introduced in Côte d’Ivoire and Madagascar. In Sudan, the cabinet approved the country’s ratification of the Maputo Protocol and CEDAW. Other positive reports included a judgment in favour of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria and the presidential pardon of 10 girls and women who were released from prison for abortion-related offences in Rwanda.
Persons with albinism
In Eastern and Southern Africa, persons with albinism and their families continued to live in fear for their lives. Violent attacks against persons with albinism were recorded in Malawi where a man was killed in February and the body of another was found in August. In Zambia, two children, aged two and nine, were mutilated in separate attacks in June and July.
LGBTI people’s rights
LGBTI people continued to face harassment, arrest and prosecution for their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In Benin, three transgender women were forced to undress before being beaten and robbed by a group of men in Cotonou; the attack was filmed and shared on social media. Filmed attacks on LGBTI people were also common in Senegal, where conservative groups organized a protest calling for the criminalization of consensual same-sexual relations. In Cameroon, two transgender women accused of such acts were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment but released pending appeal. In Namibia, police accused a transgender woman of faking her identity to avoid prosecution and subjected her to transphobic harassment in custody. A new law in Taraba state, Nigeria, contained a provision for life imprisonment for transgender people.
In Kenya’s Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, LGBTI refugees were routinely harassed and attacked. Chriton Atuherwa’s death, after suffering severe burns from an arson attack in Kakuma camp, illustrated the government’s inadequate protection of LGBTI refugees from homophobic attacks.
In Cameroon, police officers raided the offices of Colibri, an HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment group in Bafoussam, West region, and arrested 13 people on charges related to consensual same-sexual conduct before releasing them days later after they were forced to undergo HIV tests and anal examinations. In Ghana, where a bill further criminalizing LGBTI people was introduced in parliament, the LGBTI+ Rights Ghana offices were searched and closed by police officers. Police also arrested 21 LGBTI activists for unlawful assembly during a training session. Charges against them were later dismissed. The Malagasy interior ministry suspended an annual LGBT event.
On a positive note, the Botswana Court of Appeal upheld a high court judgment that declared a law criminalizing consensual same-sexual relations unconstitutional; in Uganda, Cleopatra Kambugu announced that she was the first trans woman to obtain a Ugandan identification card and passport recognizing her female gender.
Climate change and environmental degradation
Several countries in the region were particularly impacted by drought aggravated by climate change. In Angola, low rainfall caused the worst drought in 40 years. Malnutrition peaked due to lack of food, safe water and adequate sanitation, with women, children and older people disproportionately affected. Southern Madagascar was affected by severe drought impacting those reliant on subsistence agriculture, livestock and fishing as their main sources of livelihood. In South Africa, a drought disaster was declared in the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Western Cape provinces in July.
Concerns relating to environmental degradation emerged in several countries, including Botswana, Congo, DRC, Ghana, Namibia and South Africa. In Botswana and Namibia, oil exploration licences continued to be granted in environmentally sensitive areas in the Okavango River basin to Canadian-based mining company ReconAfrica, despite their adverse impact on climate change and on the rights of local residents, including Indigenous peoples, a point also made by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. Extensive pollution was caused to the Tshikapa and Kasaï rivers and their tributaries in southern DRC. The government said the pollution was caused by a spillage upstream from a diamond mining and processing company based in northern Angola. The disaster led to at least 40 deaths, hundreds of cases of severe diarrhoea, and wiped-out aquatic life.
Despite some positive developments, 2021 was a difficult year for human rights in Africa. African governments and relevant non-state actors must take bold actions to address the many concerns that arose during the year, as follows:
All parties to armed conflicts must protect civilians, not least by ending targeted and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. This includes taking all steps to ensure that refugees and internally displaced people are protected and given full access to humanitarian aid, including food, water and shelter.
Governments must bolster efforts to fight impunity by undertaking thorough, independent, impartial, effective and transparent investigations into crimes under international law and by bringing suspected perpetrators to justice.
In the absence of adequate Covid-19 vaccine supplies, governments should continue to prioritize the vaccination of groups at most risk, as well as those in hard-to-reach areas. They must cooperate at regional and international levels to strengthen their national healthcare systems and provide transparent information about health budgets.
Governments must immediately take action to protect women’s and girls’ rights to equality, health, information, education, and to allow them to live free from gender-based violence and discrimination, including by ensuring that survivors of such violence, during the Covid-19 restrictions, continue to have access to police protection and justice, to shelters, helplines and community support services.
Governments must end the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and activists, drop all charges against those facing prosecution, and immediately and unconditionally release those who are arbitrarily detained or imprisoned. They must respect media freedom, including by ensuring that media outlets can operate independently.